The First Disneyland Christmas Paradesby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
For the first time in decades, neither Disneyland nor Walt Disney World produced a Christmas parade for the holidays because of the restrictions due to the pandemic.
Parades have been a part of Disney theme parks since Disneyland opened in 1955 with one going up Main Street U.S.A. and circling the different lands at the Hub.
It seemed appropriate for a small-town Main Street to host a parade for special occasions. Of course, at a Disney theme park, every day is some type of special occasion so a parade is appropriate. Originally, the idea of a parade was to provide a free entertainment experience for a large number of guests without needing a stage facility. The first parades were simple often make-shift affairs, but they grew more elaborate by 1961 when Walt Disney himself became directly involved in suggesting the designs of the costumes and floats.
Walt was influenced by spectacular annual parades like the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade (which sometimes had Disney floats) and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (which sometimes had Disney contributions as well).
The Disneyland parades became so popular that multiple performances were scheduled during peak holiday seasons and more money began to be dedicated to them. During the day, the parades were scheduled for times when there was peak attendance or as a way of leading guests out of the park.
The Disneyland Christmas Parades evolved naturally from Walt Disney's love of the holiday, so there was even one at his park in December 1955. In 1957, "Christmas in Many Lands Parade" debuted. The name changed in 1961 to "Parade of Toys and Parade of all Nations," but then switched back to "Christmas in Many Lands Parade",
In 1964 it became the more elaborate "Fantasy on Parade" and that was a name that stuck for several years. In 1977, the park debuted a new parade called "A Very Merry Christmas Parade" and finally in 1995 "A Christmas Fantasy Parade" made its way down Main Street U.S.A. with new characters of skating snow flakes and dancing gingerbread men.
The very first Christmas parade down Main Street was actually to promote the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. It was supposed to lead guests to one of the largest circus tents in the world where the show was performed. The Mickey Mouse Club Circus opened at Disneyland near the area where the Matterhorn is today on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1955, giving three 75-minute performances every weekday (the longest live action show in Disneyland history to this day) and four on the weekends, including Christmas Day and New Year's Day for roughly the next six weeks. The circus was considered part of the 1955 "Christmas Festival at Disneyland". It included a real circus parade down Main Street with live animals and authentic wagons that Walt had purchased. In keeping with the Christmas theme it included holiday touches like the three wise men and their camels. The show closed January 8, 1956 for a number of reasons including poor attendance, the expense and the fact that guests did not come to Disneyland to see a circus that required a separate admission.
For the Grand Finale of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus show, ringmaster Jimmie Dodd (the host of the MMC television program) proclaimed: "It is a time when even the toys seem to come to life. Walt Disney, from his realm of fantasy, presents the March of the Toys."
Billed in the program book as the Santa Claus Parade, Mouseketeers dressed up as toys, animals and characters from nursery rhymes marched to the music of Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland mixed with some Disney cartoon characters using costumes from the Ice Capades. Annette Funicello was dressed as Snow White. Other Mouseketeers moved robotically as toy soldiers. After that parade, the music changed to When You Wish Upon A Star as "The Magic Christmas Tree! 40 feet in 10 seconds -- most spectacular and mystifying circus finale in the history of the Big Top" took place. A white fabric tree rose up from the ground to a shining star at the top of the tent. This was followed by Jimmie Dodd and the Mouseketeers ringing bells and leading the crowd in a rendition of the song Jingle Bells as Santa Claus in his sleigh arrived to the delight of everyone in the audience.
The Christmas in Many Lands Parade premiered at Disneyland in 1957 and ran for the two weeks of Christmas vacation. Because money was still tight and any that could be found was being invested in new attractions and upgrades, the parade was more of a makeshift affair with the Disney characters scattered among some homemade community floats and local cultural groups dressed in native costumes. It was Walt's philosophy that Disneyland was "dedicated to all the people of all the nations of the world" and it was not unusual to invite clubs, historical societies, and other such groups to participate in Disneyland events like parades.
The Christmas parade was meant to be an extension of Walt's commitment to the "People to People" initiative to enhance international understanding and appreciation of other cultures. At the time, Walt was also producing a short documentary series titled People and Places for the same purpose.
The group from Holland would have a small float pulled by hand that featured a tiny windmill and some children dressed appropriately. Representatives from the United Kingdom would dress in medieval garb and drag a Yule log down Main Street. Mexican participants were not just colorfully costumed, but would do impromptu dancing while other members carried colorful piñatas high in the air.
However, these were all organizations who were volunteering their time to promote their club and culture so sometimes a half a dozen might show up while on other days over two dozen might participate.
Walt started a life-long tradition as being the Grand Marshal for the first Christmas parade of each season usually accompanied by his young grandchildren who didn't enjoy all the attention. Walt was oblivious to how shy and self-conscious they were.
The Disney live-action musical Babes in Toyland was released to theaters December 14, 1961. It was showcased as the Christmas attraction at Radio City Music Hall in New York and, over the decades, has been closely associated with the yuletide season. As film historian Leonard Maltin wrote, "Oddly enough, even though this was Disney's Christmas release and well promoted…it did not do all that well at the box office. Considering its cost and potential, it grossed just $4.6 million in domestic release or a little more than half what The Shaggy Dog pulled in."
Walt opened a Babes in Toyland exhibit in the Opera House on Disneyland's Main Street on December 17, 1961, containing some of the sets and props from the film, hoping it would generate interest in the just released movie. However, one of the biggest promotional gimmicks became one of Disney's most enduring and beloved traditions: The Christmas Parade with the giant wooden toy soldiers and silly marching reindeer. Originally, the parade was called The Parade of Toys and Parade of All Nations.
Imagineer Bill Justice shared with me in March 1997 over lunch the following story of the origin of the parade:
"X [Imagineer X. Atencio] and I along with Ward Kimball built all the toys and everything for the film. I think it was around late August , the picture was to be released in the fall and Walt came down and said, 'I think we ought to have a giant toy parade at Disneyland.'
"Up until that time, they'd always had a Christmas Parade at Disneyland almost from the very beginning. The parade was primarily composed of volunteer groups of people from different countries. They would make a little float or a little cart of some kind.
"Maybe they would put their type of Christmas tree and the way it might be decorated in Norway, Sweden, Germany or whatever. They'd dress in their native costumes and they would get together a little group of people who would represent their country.
"The problem was that it was all volunteer stuff and a lot of them worked during the week so we never knew how many would show up. Sometimes there'd be only three or four groups and other times there'd be twenty-five.
"Walt felt we needed publicity for Babes in Toyland and, believe me, it needed publicity because it didn't turn out the way it should have. Anyway, X and I were proud of the toys and the stop-motion stuff that we did for the picture.
"Walt said, 'Why don't…since we need to get control of the parade anyway….why don't we make a giant toy parade?' He told me that I was to take charge and to supervise the building of all the toys and the floats and the costumes and so forth.
"As you might suspect, Walt had very specific ideas about how he wanted the parade to look. He said, 'Bill, we are not in competition with the Rose Parade.' He didn't want the floats too big or out of scale. He didn't want little kids to have to lean backward and look up high to try and see.
"I had no experience in any of that but you never said 'no' to Walt when he told you to do something. He thought you could do it so you did it and usually it turned out surprisingly well. I guess he picked me because it was going to be a toy parade and X and I had designed all the toys in the picture and he wanted the same type of toys.
"It was tough. We had to take the soldiers we designed down there and put somebody in them to wear. So we had to make compromises. They needed to look exactly like our toy soldiers in the film but real people had to move in them. They're still using those soldiers today in the parade, although they have had to occasionally rebuild them.
"They're still using the reindeer that X designed that were the funny looking reindeer with tongues hanging out. They still use the glockenspiel girls and a lot of other stuff we originally did. We had toy cannons. We had the big clowns and the little carolers and things that were toys that we had done in miniature for the movie.
"They were only about so big and the toy soldiers were about twelve inches tall. But now, we were designing these things that were like six foot tall soldiers and toys that were giant toys. We did a whole parade of those things. Later on, I did the snowmen and snow women and the dancing Christmas trees that twirled around and were costumes and so forth.
"So this toy parade came out the same time as the movie. Really a bad movie inspired a good parade. We usually started the Christmas Parade as soon as school gets out, which is usually the second weekend. We would run the Christmas Parade twice a day or once in the afternoon and once in the evening until New Year's.
"The person who was in charge of Entertainment in those early days was Tommy Walker. He was wonderful and one time he came up with a great gag for the parade for the Preview Night. Each year we would have a preview night of the parade for the press, studio management, invited dignitaries and more. Walt would be there to welcome everyone. He'd be sitting at the top of the bleachers in front of the train station with his wife.
"Tommy had my wife, Marie, sitting across the street from the reviewing stand so she could be seen clearly. She had a little boy that everyone assumed was her son. It was actually Roy's son, Roy E. Disney. He would run out into the street every now and then to attract attention. A balloon vendor came down the street and approached Marie and her 'son.'
"The balloon vendor was actually Wally Boag, who was the entertainer at the Golden Horseshoe Revue and a very funny guy. He gave the balloons to the little boy and he rose straight up into the air holding onto the balloons. Marie started running after him and shouting.
"The audience gasped but we finally let them in on the gag. Marie had switched her live 'son' with an identically costumed doll. We had quite a time making it light enough to be lifted by the balloons. We had a note on it saying that anyone who found the doll to bring it back for a free Disneyland pass but it was never returned.
"Those were the first character costumes I ever designed and Walt liked them so much that I found myself doing costume designing for the characters in the park. I worked with Bob Phelps who came from Western Costume, as well as Tom Pierce and Jack Muse who had also worked there.
"It was Bob who came up with the posts with the padded tops for the character heads. The kids would take off the heads and practically throw them on to the ground. We spent a lot of money of these things but the kids would be so exhausted they would put them on the ground.
"Walt was very interested in character costumes. At one time in a meeting, they were kind of 'pooh-poohing' the costumes as not being important and wanted to move to another subject.
"Walt stopped them. 'Wait a minute,' he said. 'Our character costumes are the most important thing we have in the park. They are so popular that you watch families come in and if Mickey Mouse comes out or Pluto or Goofy or any of them come out, the first thing they do, the child runs to the character and they've got to get their picture taken with Mickey or whoever it is. Other parks can have their thrill rides. They can have their bands. They can have pigeons with ribbons on them and then they can have sorts of other things but they can't have our characters. They are very important to us.'
"He also mentioned that they delivered tremendous good will. That when you send them out to events off property, people are just so excited to have their pictures taken with them. Adults love them, too.
"When I was doing those first costumes, Walt said, 'Bill, always remember. We don't want to torture the people who are wearing them. Keep in mind that they've got to be as comfortable as possible.' It was that important to him."
Fortunately, for Disney fans, there exists film documentation of this first true Disneyland Christmas parade on the weekly Disney television episode entitled Holiday Time at Disneyland which originally aired December 23, 1962.
The emphasis really is on giant toys whereas later versions of the parade became more focused on Disney characters like the short-lived three person Reluctant Dragon costumed suit that emitted smoke from its nostrils but upset children. The television episode even recreates Tommy Walker's gag of the little boy flying away holding on balloons.
"I worked on the Christmas parade from 1961 until I retired in 1979 and it was always tough to add different floats, costumes and generally improve the parade," Justice remembered. "One time we had a Peter Pan float and the Darling children were bouncing on this huge bed which was really a trampoline. We filled the pillows with colored feathers and they would be having a pillow fight and sometimes the pillow would break and feathers would float down the parade route."
In the television show, it is apparent that there was still a section devoted to "Christmas Around the World" and some countries had a member attired as their version of Santa Claus. For instance, the Norway version was accompanied by his traditional goat.
The March of the Wooden Soldiers didn't just have performing musicians in the costumes playing drums and trumpets but also costumed soldiers who did precision marching routines at various stops along the parade route. Variations of the soldiers were on some of the toys as well like two dimensional ones that would pop up and down on wooden horses that were pulled along and others marching wearing baskets attached to hot air balloons.
While there were a handful of well-known Disney characters who appeared, there were many non-Disney characters that were rented like a huge two person black Scottie dog and a brown poodle who could twirl the poof on the top of his head. In later parades there was a two-person camel whose two humps could rise and fall independently and twirl.
Of course, the end of the parade featured Santa in a huge sleigh. Costumed Raggedy Ann and Andy characters were in his bag in the back of the sleigh and they would toss out small stuffed toys to children along the parade route.
The end of the parade in Town Square was the release of colorful balloons to fill the skies. Later versions of the parade would have these balloons released from the cars of a massive toy train that were shaped like colorful boxes of presents.
Ron Logan, former executive vice president of Disney Entertainment said:
"As the new parade was developed, Walt wanted to improve the character costumes to be more 'on model' with the animated characters they depicted. Height ranges had not been established so sometimes Mickey and Minnie were six feet tall. At first, only males were hired as costumed characters, a practice that would generally continue with few exceptions until 1973.
"At Walt's request, a new Mickey Mouse costume was designed by John Hench. Walt wanted to cast a smaller performer for the Mickey role and standardize the performer's height in the costume. Paul Castle was personally selected by Walt to perform as the new, smaller Mickey for Fantasy on Parade where he beat on a massive rolling drum.
"The first Disneyland parades consisted of the Disneyland Band and a few atmosphere groups that would march down Main Street. The parade was a way of performing for thousands of guests without a stage facility. The Disneyland parades began with Main Street and Frontierland vehicles then evolved into seasonal parades with special floats including Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, etc.
"The parades became a popular 'draw' that could be advertised. The parade times were generally scheduled when the lines might be the longest for the attractions of when you might want to lead guests down Main Street and out of the park. Signature parades were something that could be scheduled closer to closing and become a major event to keep guests in the park until then as well."
However for the first time in 65 years, no official Christmas parade travels along Main Street U.S.A. at the Happiest Place on Earth this holiday season and I think it makes me feel a lot less festive.