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David Koenig
Why Universal Studios never has parades: Blame Barney
Among theme parks, imitation is the sincerest form of competition. Parks regularly copy each other. Universal Studios–Hollywood, since it markets to the same customers, intensely studies what works at Disneyland. Universal matches every admission price hike. It engages in similar promotions. It even hires former Imagineers to design many of its heavily themed, high-tech attractions.

But one thing Universal doesn't copy is Disney's parades.

Signature processions such as the Main Street Electrical Parade or Walt Disney World's SpectroMagic or even the standard afternoon character parades are among the Disney parks' biggest draws. Night-time parades, along with fireworks shows, also provide an added benefit: they help keep guests at the park past sunset, encouraging them to spend their dinner dollars on property.

Nonetheless, you won't see any parades at Universal—especially at night when the park often gets so chilly that no one wants to stick around. USH also has fewer attractions, all of which guests usually have enough time to see during daylight.

Parades, particularly flashy, impressive, glow-in-the-dark parades, are expensive. Expensive to design. Expensive to assemble. And very expensive to run, with actors and dancers and float drivers and crowd control personnel.

Money isn't the big reason, though, why you'll never see a parade at Universal—again. You see, they tried—once.

Back in April of 1993, USH's in-house Entertainment Department staged its only parade, which ran for less than three weeks. It starred Barney, the 6-foot-tall purple dinosaur of public television fame, and the ensuing fiasco permanently soured the park on future parades.

The parade itself was fairly simple: five vehicles plus a variety of generic costumed "fuzzy" characters strolling in between. First, Lassie and other stars from the Animal Actors stage show were driven down the route in a trio of convertible cars. Next came an old-fashioned fire truck, manned by a fireman shooting confetti into the crowd from a cannon. The finale was one of the park's special "cable car" trams carrying Barney and his sidekick Baby Bop.

The procession made a long circle, starting from behind the Miami Vice amphitheater (now the Waterworld show), trekking down the main thoroughfare, looping past what is now the Rugrats show, and turning left towards the current site of T:2.

The two performers who played Barney and the two who played Baby Bop spent two weeks prior to the parade in Plano, Texas, consulting with Barney's creators, Sheryl Leach and Kathy Parker, and learning the do's and don'ts of the characters. Apparently, the "Barney people" zealously protect their character's image and had an entire handbook on what actors could and could not do. Talking was a no-no.

In addition, Barney would be confined to the float. No strolling through the crowd. "It's not safe when you get 100 little kids trying to hug Barney at the same time," a Universal spokesman explained. "They don't want to let go."

A few months earlier, in suburban Maryland, a Barney shopping mall appearance attracted 40,000 people, nearly shutting down an expressway as cars spilled out into exit ramps in search of parking. Crowds became so unsafe that Barney was forced to abruptly cancel his entire tour of J.C. Penney stores.

So, before Universal's parade officially kicked off April 3, Barney arrived at the studio in a convertible limousine with a police escort to hold back the hundreds of cheering, weeping toddlers.

Universal Studios Hollywood, Main Gate
Universal Studios Hollywood, Main Gate

Unfortunately, Universal's ads encouraged guests "come and meet Barney," implying that children would be able get up close and personal to their idol. In fact, the costumed character did no more than wave from the trolley car, only to disappear backstage until the next performance

Guests seemed unimpressed with the alternative: posing for pictures next to cardboard cutouts of Barney or trying to spot little Barneys hidden along the back-lot tram route.

The park was flooded with complaints. "The biggest complaint was access," remembers one worker. "The print and TV advertising said you could meet and have your picture taken with Barney. This never happened — except for some VIP groups backstage. So parents were upset that their kids couldn't get Barney's autograph."

Worse, the parade was a crowd control monstrosity. For the first time, Universal had to string nylon cord all around the park, completely severing access on its narrow streets. The last thing guests without small children wanted to see was a Barney parade, yet they found themselves trapped between plastic yellow ropes in quickly congested, increasingly furious mobs. And, the park staged the parade up to six times a day, meaning guests kept running into the ropes all through the day.

Old-timers still talk about "The Parade." Employees would cringe every time "Here comes Barney!" or "Here comes Baby Bop!" echoed across the park's PA system. Imagine being forced to ride it's a small world five times a day, day after day. "It," recalls a former cast member," was a nightmare."

Ironically, money-wise, the parade was a hit, boosting average attendance by at least 5,000 visitors each day. And since the parade and its cast were so small, it wasn't that expensive to stage.

The future of parades at USH was permanently sealed a few weeks later. Universal held a weekend of bike races on its main walkways featuring the National Cycling League, which was run by former Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris. Again, crowd control chaos. So, management vowed never again to restrict foot traffic in large areas of the park at the same time.

Universal has two compact visitor areas -here's a view of the lower studio lot.
Universal has two compact visitor areas -here's a view of the lower studio lot.

Universal Studios -Florida has learned from its sister park's mistakes. Instead of a parade, celebrity lookalikes—such as Laurel and Hardy in a Model T or a few guys in a Ghostbusters vehicle—drive onstage, park, and then meet-and-greet guests. That method is now also utilized in the Hollywood park — with the Blues Brothers, or Marilyn Monroe lookalikes. Visitors can also meet a set of faux Marx Brothers and/or Spiderman walking around the main entrance gate area.

Barney also appears at the Orlando park, but in an indoor stage show. After Barney sings and cavorts with his prehistoric pals Baby Bop and B.J., attendants have children line up around the stage. Barney then reappears and, like the Pope, makes his way around the stage, acknowledging his young admirers. Very organized, and no one gets trampled.


You can write to David atthis link..

Blame Barney

The 14" Barney plush toy featured in the artwork above is available from Amazon's toy department

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); all titles published by Bonaventure Press.

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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