The Main Street Electric Parade premiered at Disneyland on June 17, 1972. It was inspired in part by Walt Disney World’s Electric Water Pageant, a parade that debuted as part of the opening ceremony of Walt Disney World, and was so popular that it still floats across the Seven Seas Lagoon today. An instant sensation, the Main Street Electric Parade utilized the same aesthetic of the Electric Water Pageant but healthily embellished it: Light-covered floats would go down Main Street, dazzling guests with imaginative characters, ingenious technology, and a retro-futuristic synthesizer soundtrack (anchored by “Baroque Hoedown,” an experimental electronic track produced in 1967). The parade ran in Disneyland and Walt Disney World (and for a single summer, Disney California Adventure), and floats appeared during the halftime show of the 1977 Orange Bowl. Similar shows inspired by the original Main Street Electrical Parade have opened in Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.
On one hot summer night in 1997, the Main Street Electrical Parade rolled through Times Square. But this time it was dubbed the Hercules Electrical Parade and pulling it off was certainly a heroic feat.
Let’s pause for a moment and go back to the beginning. In 1992, an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey was developed at Walt Disney Animation Studios. While the story didn’t work exactly, the idea of doing an animated feature based on Greek mythology persisted. It was suggested that the studio attempt Hercules instead; it, unlike The Odyssey, had a strong central character that audiences could root for. And, following the oversized success of both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, directors Ron Clements and John Musker were chosen to helm Hercules.
The filmmakers were comic book fans and saw it as their opportunity to make a “superhero” movie. As production progressed they incorporated elements inspired by Preston Sturges comedies, old monster movies, and the current, highly-narcissistic climate of sports and celebrity culture. As for the look of the film, Clements and Musker called upon British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who had illustrated a cover of Time magazine that featured the Beatles. Scarfe would ultimately serve as production designer and his stylistic fingerprints are all over Hercules. (Animation titans like Eric Goldberg and Andreas Deja handled character animation duties.) Tonally, the film was looser and wackier than most Disney animated musicals.
At the time, the Walt Disney Animation Studios was in the middle of the “Disney Renaissance,” which began at the tail end of the 1980’s (ignited, at least by our reasoning, by Clements and Musker’s The Great Mouse Detective) and continued through the 1990’s. This period included masterpieces like Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and The Lion King (and Clements and Musker’s own Aladdin and The Little Mermaid), with each film connecting with audiences and critics in ways that hadn’t been commonplace since the heyday of Walt Disney himself.
So the pressure was really on for Hercules, and heroic expectations were quickly placed on the film. A robust marketing campaign was mapped out and implemented early, starting with a mall tour that began in February of that year.
The “Hercules Mega Mall Tour,” as Variety reported at the time, was a “20-city traveling show set to start at Atlanta’s Lenox Square.” The tour featured “a stage show; a miniature carousel themed to one of the film’s main characters, Baby Pegasus; a carnival with Hercules-themed game booths and an animation workshop where visitors will try their hand at drawing the mythic figure.” Also, those who visited one of these mall shows would have been treated to an early version of the “Zero to Hero” musical number, where Hercules flew through the sky, past constellations that depicted The Little Mermaid characters Ariel and Sebastian. (I talked to someone who attended the show at the South Shore Mall in Massachusetts and he still remembers the sequence.)
But none of that compared to the Hercules World Premiere Weekend in New York, as it was dubbed, which overtook much of Manhattan from June 13–15, 1997.
What makes the Hercules World Premiere Weekend so interesting is that it came at a crucial time in the rebranding of New York City and specifically, the theater district centered around Times Square. For years the area had grown seedy and unsafe. But in 1994 Mayor Rudy Giuliani had vowed to clean it up. And a big part of that effort was wooing Disney. This included new Broadway productions (the first of which, Beauty and the Beast, had launched before the Hercules premiere), renovations of older theaters, a larger imprint for the Disney Store retail spaces (there were four by the time Hercules premiered, including a gorgeous flagship World of Disney store on Fifth Avenue, down the street from FAO Schwarz), and special events like the Pocahontas premiere, held two years earlier, that took over a large swath of Central Park. In the Variety write-up at the premiere they note that several theaters adjacent to the New Amsterdam, the New Victory and the Ford Center for Performing Arts, probably wouldn’t have been built without Disney’s involvement in the area.
As such, the Hercules premiere was on a positively Olympian level.
Earlier on Saturday, dancers, jugglers, and other entertainers amassed outside of the New Amsterdam Theater, a space that in later years would become the premiere Disney Theatrical venue (it’s where Aladdin is playing now), for the Heroes from Around the World ceremony. Then-Disney chief Michael Eisner was there, as was Giuliani, Robin Roberts of ABC Sports, and a group of “world-class athletes known for their Herculean efforts.”
The actual premiere was held later that night at the New Amsterdam theater; some 1,800 special guests were invited, including Eisner, Giuliani, Harvey Keitel, Andy Garcia, Barbara Walters, Marilu Henner, and several Olympic athletes who later rode on one of the electrical floats. (One of those Olympians was Bruce Jenner, which makes you wonder if a 16-year-old Kim Kardashian were also in attendance.) After the block-long red carpet was removed, a giant thunderbolt was revealed on the sidewalk. When the screening was over, the guests sat in specially designed bleachers, waiting for the parade to begin.
Variety detailed the complexity of the event: “Some 30 Manhattan blocks were closed off, tying traffic in a knot for hours, though the din of honking horns from the thousands of gridlocked motorists was cheerfully muffled by 68 speaker towers playing Disney music.” But that isn’t all. The 1.8 mile parade route was fairly bright, so Disney and the city convinced 5,000 business along 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue to dim their shop lights. Streetlights were also dimmed “to allow parade goers to get a clear view of the lead characters.” Variety reported that more than a million people waited to watch the parade, along the 24-block path. 103 marchers on 27 floats (with an additional 500,000 new bulbs) waltzed through midtown. E! covered the parade live.
“It amounted to an effective demonstration of Disney’s knack for orchestrating special events,” The New York Times succinctly noted. ”This shows New York is willing to let down its hair on a Saturday night,” Eisner told the paper. ”We are a silly company. When they think of us they smile.” And the smiles extended throughout the night.
After the parade, there was a party held at the Chelsea Piers complex, where Greek delicacies were served and Hercules-themed games were played. Chelsea Piers had been the spot of The Hercules Forum of Fun at Chelsea Piers (sponsored by Chevrolet). According to Janet Wasko’s book Understanding Disney, the Forum included Baby Pegasus Playland, Titan’s Tattoo Parlor, and Hercules’ Arcade, where guests could preview the forthcoming Hercules video game. Afterwards, on a soundstage behind the Hudson River, Hercules star Susan Egan (she played Megara) performed songs from the film’s soundtrack. The finale of the night was a 10-minute fireworks display over the Hudson River.
For the more VIP crowd, a party was held at Windows on the World, which was at the top of the North tower at the old World Trade Center. Animator Dorse Lanpher, in his memoir Flyin’ Chunks and Other Things to Duck, remembers the voice of Hercules, Tate Donovan, bringing his then-girlfriend Jennifer Aniston to the ritzy event on the 106th floor, and convincing her to take a photo with him. Lanpher said that the party was so over-the-top decadent that they served guests champagne while they waited for the elevator. The guests at the World Trade Center could also see the firework display, as glittered over the Hudson.
But the weekend wasn’t even over. On Sunday, there was the Hercules Breakfast with the Champions, a news conference held by Roberts at New York’s Essex House Hotel. The Olympians were back, this time to, as Wasko said, “receive hero proclamation certificates from the City of New York.” And the grand finale was The Hercules Summer Spectacular at the New Amsterdam Theatre, an exclusive 12-day New York engagement of the film before its release, “including a live stage show featuring a full orchestra and a cast of Disney characters.”
Afterwards, an hour-long television special, Hercules Strikes Manhattan, was produced. It acted as sort of hour-long commercial for the film, a look behind-the-scenes at its production, and, of course, a document of the Hercules Weekend in New York. “This is the first time the Main Street Electrical Parade has been performed outside of Disneyland,” the smiley host announced, erroneously. “It took seven weeks to disassemble the 27 parade floats and get them onto 26 tractor trailers, and took seven days to get to New York City.” As the twinkly floats glided past, it was easy to see why so many had turned up to watch the parade: for one summery weekend Hercules had made the city that never sleeps even more magical.