Long before there was Disney on Ice, there was Disney on Parade.
No, not the afternoon parade in Hong Kong. And not America on Parade during the Bicentennial. And truth be told, Disney characters in ice skating shows go back much, much further. But Disney on Parade is the story of a unique arena show filled with music, dance, and plenty of Disney. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Disney on Parade, a show that traveled the world and made millions of dollars for what was then, Walt Disney Productions.
Disney on Parade play the entire United States and would eventually go world-wide, hosting four "units," or four separate shows. The first of these was the Alice Unit, named for Alice in Wonderland. Imagine Alice performing ballet against a drop of dancing flowers, or dozens of playing cards marching to the demands of the Queen of Hearts. But that was just one major show number in this pageant. Imagine a psychedelic jungle scene set to go-go music for The Jungle Book. In another production, Cinderella appears along with the stepsisters for the ball. And in Dumbo's circus, you can find an entire three ring circus with Dumbo flying overhead.
It set the precedent of the shows that followed. Namely, large production numbers centered on great Disney films, with small cameo acts in between. The show was sandwiched with a big opening and closing number that featured a huge array of Disney characters, often upwards to 40 to 50 Disney characters appearing at one time on stage. The stage itself was similar to ice shows you see today. There was a backdrop curtain from which characters and sets emerged. Above it was a screen showing snippets from classic Disney movies. And above it was some array of aerial support that enabled characters like Dumbo and Tinkerbell to fly. It was pageantry. It was spectacular, Disney style.
Disney on Parade introduced the Snow Unit the following year. Obviously it included the story of Snow White. But it also included big production numbers around Fantasia, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket amid a street carnival, as well as a groovy musical number known as the Barnyard Bash. Not familiar with this one? Yes, this was Clara Cluck's big 15 minutes of fame. But the star of the show was not Clara, but a hot sensation known as Herbie the Love Bug. He and Goofy did a comedy act together. And all of this was set in against a new stylized Small World backdrop that also introduced the show's new finale, one that would continue for the shows to follow—a round of verses to "it's a small world."
By the way, did you know there are at least five verses to "it's a small world"? Only the first two versus are sung in the attraction.The first to send me all five will get an autographed copy of my new book, The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney.
Next year came the Sleeping Beauty unit. This starred big production numbers with Sleeping Beauty and perhaps Maleficent's first stage appearance. Winnie the Pooh celebrated his birthday with a host of Heffalumps and Woozles. The Aristovats take on the swinging life of Paris; and Donald, Panchito, and Jose Carioca bring together a fast moving fiesta in The Three Caballeros. Oh, and Herbie cameback along with his wife and son! You didn't know that Herbie had a wife and son? Mrs. Love Bug was a smaller pink VW named Gloria. And junior was simply titled, Junior.
The final Disney on Parade unit was Poppins. Mary Poppins was the finale of that show, with the "it's a small world." theme showcasing performers in Pearly Band outfits. Her harness rig which allowed Mary to fly over the entire stage cost more than $135,000 to create. Preceding that was the Further Adventures of Pinocchio, this time at Pleasure Island where mischievous boys literally turn into donkeys on stage. Also included was a Roarin' '20s undersea briny ballroom bash of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, plus the Country Bear Jamboree. And Herbie? On the wire. Yes, Herbie rode a wire across the very top of the arena chasing Goofy.
There is little left in terms of memoirs of that show whose icon was Mickey Mouse in a hot air balloon. You can find some of the programs or merchandise on ebay, and even two GAF Viewmaster sets showing the Alice and Poppins unit. A few cast members and techs allude to it on the Web. And there was a Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney show featuring the first and second units that was shown a few times on Vault Disney. This is probably the most complete discussion that has yet to occur on the Internet.
Next time we will feature the executive producer and director of the show, Michael Grilikhes. We'll talk about how the show started, why it's named Disney on Parade and stories about why this show was so special to its cast.
As for me, a late baby boomer, it's difficult to put a finger on what made these shows so special. Perhaps it was the fact that unless you went to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, there was no way to see Disney, except when a movie came out or on Sunday nights. This was pure Disney spectacular. One of the only places outside the parks where you could see costumed Disney characters and get an autograph. In fact, there were more Disney characters in the show then you typically found in the parks. Filled with music, costumes, special effects, and a wonderfully energetic cast. You couldn't help but feel the magic. I know I did, and I salute on this 40th anniversary all who made the magic come alive.