In 1971, as part of the Dedication Day that helped launch Walt Disney World, a dozen hastily constructed floats, basically made up of wood, chicken wire, and Christmas lights, were paraded across Bay Lake. The parade was set to an experimental electronic pop song from 1967 called “Baroque Hoedown” and filmed for an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney (airing then as part of NBC’s Friday night line-up) trumpeting the opening of Walt Disney World. The Electrical Water Pageant, as it was known, was meant to run specifically for the opening of Walt Disney World, but it can still be seen there nightly, and what’s more, it’s been the inspiration for a longstanding Disney tradition of nighttime electrical parades, the latest of which, Disney Paint the Night Parade, just premiered at Disneyland as part of the 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration. Like all great Disney electrical parades (or pageants) it’s a kaleidoscopic blast. And yes, “Baroque Hoedown” is present and accounted for.
That original Electrical Water Pageant gave way to Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, which debuted the following year in Anaheim. With its pulsating lights, whirling illuminated floats, and intricate costumes, set to that chirpy electronic score, the Main Street Electrical Parade would be the nighttime parade that all others would be inspired by and judged against. In the years following its debut at Disneyland, versions of the parade would appear at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando (where it returned in 2010 and is still running today), Disneyland Paris, Disney California Adventure, and Tokyo Disneyland (where it includes the nifty DreamLights title). That meant Paint the Night had to be really special to compare. Thankfully, it is.
Originally developed last fall for Hong Kong Disneyland, Paint the Night was created by the wizardly Steve Davison, who is also responsible for the two other nighttime spectaculars during the 60th (the World of Color – Celebrate! water show at DCA and the Disneyland Forever fireworks show). The parade is similar to the Main Street Electrical Parade (and the many parades that followed, most notably the enchanting SpectroMagic that ran for a decade at Walt Disney World), in that there are various light-up floats, themed to different Disney properties, and characters who are also outfitted in illuminated costumes and interact with guests. Also musical staple “Baroque Hoedown” is a part of the soundtrack, although this time it’s nestled deep in the energetic accompaniment music. (Get ready to have Owl City’s “When Will I See You Again?” from Wreck-It Ralph stuck in your head for weeks.) Paint the Night is essentially the same “story” as it was when those rickety floats glided across Bay Lake 44 years ago.
But where things really differ is in the technology. Paint the Night is the first fully LED parade, which is great for the guest since the lights are brighter and sharper and even better for the environment (these lights are more energy-efficient). The Paint the Night lights strobe and dance and if you’re wearing the appropriate merchandise (either the glow-with-the-show Mickey ears, Minnie bow, or gloves), those will dance and strobe along with the floats and characters. (A truly amazing feature of the Hong Kong show, which had guests “painting” the floats and characters’ costumes when directing their light-up paintbrush, is not a part of this initial experience but could be folded in later.) It’s hard to fully articulate, but everything in Paint the Night is lit up: costumes feature light-up piping, floats seem to glide on cushions of neon, and everything feels vibrant and alive. What’s more is how everything is so properly themed; it never feels like classic Disney characters have suddenly stumbled into the world of Tron or something (although, come to think of it, that would be pretty cool). The Frozen float (newly created for this incarnation of the parade), for example, is entirely cast in a wintery hue befitting Elsa’s ice palace, complete with a fractal-inspired chandelier, while Tangled‘s Rapunzel (another addition) has a string of long, flowing hair that glows like the magical rays in the movie. The Cars floats, most notably one modeled after big rig Mack, are particularly well suited for Paint the Night. Our favorite float was probably the final one. It (spoiler alert) features Sorcerer Mickey, his wand raised high, and a kind of twirling, whirling living sculpture behind him that simulates a magical vortex of some kind that exemplifies the kind of hard-to-figure-out mixture of technological prowess and genuine illusions.
Paint the Night really is electrifying, in the fact that it’s a bold nighttime spectacular that pays homage to Disneyland’s history in a different way than the other new shows do. With Paint the Night, Disney has chosen to focus on a specific part of its cultural heritage, the light-up nighttime parade, instead of the broader strokes of the company’s history or Walt Disney’s legacy. In that specificity, too, they’ve pushed technological innovation to the forefront and married it with untold amounts of whimsy and heart. It’s a rare feat: something that reminds you of the classic Disney nighttime parades you’ve seen in the past, while simultaneously being unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.