Zero to Hero in New York City

I am not the parade type. Sure, when I’m in Disney World, I faithfully wait an hour on the sidewalk for the parades, but that’s different — it’s Disney. My family doesn’t do crowds. We make fun of the people at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from our warm living room. We shudder to think what it would be like standing in the crowded hell that is Times Square every New Year’s. I once went to see the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center with a boyfriend. That tradition lasted just about as long as that relationship did. So you’ll be surprised to know how easily my mother and stepfather gave in when I asked to attend a parade on 42nd Street where every light on a 7 to 8 mile radius would be turned off.

I was 13 years old when Disney’s 35th full-length animated feature hit the movie theaters. It would be another 2 months before my family and I made our way down to Disney World, but when I heard they were bringing a little bit of Disney up north, I had to be there. The Hercules premiere weekend kicked off a series of events in the city starting at Chelsea Piers and making its way to 42nd Street. The actual movie was shown in the newly restored New Amsterdam Theatre on Saturday, June 14th and while I did not partake in that portion of the event, I definitely staked my claim on the second.

Two years before, they had successfully pulled off the largest movie premiere in history by showing Pocahontas in Central Park on the Great Lawn. While only 100,000 people with tickets got the chance to experience that event, in 1997, the Electrical Parade was open to the public. Naturally, my parents and I grabbed our spots in the early afternoon (it’s amazing how you can kill time with a few books and a little cooler) and waited with approximately 3 million people who showed up for the festivities.

Once again, Disney was bringing their A game by doing the unthinkable — convincing residents and business owners to shut off their lights for the 8-mile procession that started at 42nd Street and up Fifth Avenue to 66th Street. That in itself was a grand achievement because if anyone thinks back to what Times Square used to look like, the image that comes to mind is more XXX than family friendly. Disney (with some convincing by Mayor Giuliani) was one of the driving forces that cleaned up the area to create the bustling tourist trap that you see today. With the Hercules premiere, they wanted to create something different than their previous Central Park venture.

One huge difference as I’ve mentioned was the absence of tickets. This parade was going to be just like the one in the park. You could show up, grab your spot and wait to be wowed. The production manager, John Mensching, stressed the fact that “we wanted to give the public everything that they would get at Disneyland.” And he was true to his word. Out of the 30 floats that night, 27 were shipped cross-country on twenty-three 18-wheelers from Disneyland. Boasting over 566,000 lights, these floats even had some of the original drivers and performers from years before come out to make the parade as authentically Disney as possible. Most importantly, it was absolutely free of charge for the public. Not everyone (me included at that point) had the opportunity to travel to California or Florida, so this parade was truly something spectacular.

Of course, there are always Disney naysayers like my good pal, former mayor, Ed Koch. Once again, he was complaining about the inconvenience this parade had on the city. “Ten movies open up every Friday. Why don’t you shut down every avenue between Fifth and Twelfth? We should be nice to Disney but not be silly – a movie doesn’t deserve this.” This coming from the man who said the only way he would have agreed to allow Disney to take over Central Park two years ago was if they threatened to back out of the commitment to participate in the construction of a $300 million hotel, entertainment and retail complex at 42d Street and Eighth Avenue. Obviously, Disney was true to their word and thanks to Giuliani’s enthusiasm to cater to the company, no threats had to be dealt, but I still don’t understand this man’s position.

We should be nice to Disney? It seems to me that Disney was (once again) being nice to us. Along with bringing the parade from California, the company erected 68 speaker towers along the two-mile path to play Disney music — the largest continuous audio system ever designed. Two-thousand police officers were brought in to make sure that once the lights were out, things didn’t get too crazy. Six-thousand volunteers, custodians, and technicians were also brought in to make sure the event ran smoothly (not counting all the folks from the fire and sanitation department). As one can imagine, an event like this was not cheap; the total cost for the city ranged around $500,000. Guess who picked up that check? One hint — it wasn’t Ed Koch.

I distinctly remember the moment I saw all the white lights of Pegasus coming down the street carrying Hercules and Megara. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and in the darkness of New York, something I was definitely not used to from the city that never sleeps; I experienced my first real Disney moment and there wasn’t even a palm tree in sight. Further down the line accompanying the Alice in Wonderland float, there were smaller turtle and snail floats that moved around freely. One of the turtle floats moved right up to me and I remember leaning in and kissing it, never feeling more enchanted in my life. I waved to Cinderella from her lit up pumpkin coach and laughed at Peter Pan and Captain Hook as they fought on the Pirate ship. Of course once Mickey and Minnie showed up on the longest and last float donned up in their best red, white, and blue attire, (USA, all the way?) I was screaming and waving like a lunatic.

I can’t remember the trek home that night which is funny since I’m sure it was an adventure trying to get on the subway. I do remember humming the parade tune all week long though, getting more and more excited for my trip later that summer. It wasn’t until later that I found out that not only was this the first time the parade was performed outside Disneyland but they had actually retired it from the parks that fall and I had been one of the last people to see it. To me, it just proved who the real Disney fan of my elementary school classroom was. Take that, Kate Davidson!

Picture 1: Source / 2: (Source) / 3: (Source)

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A book publicist who loves writing about Disney and books, and sometimes Disney books.

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