Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration runs into 2023, but the Florida resort isn’t the only part of Disney’s theme park empire currently celebrating a half-century. On June 17, 1972—50 years ago today—the Main Street Electrical Parade premiered at Disneyland, intoxicating guests with its elaborate light show, groundbreaking electronic music, and adorable little bumblebee floats that spin around in circles getting all dizzy and tuckered out. It made such a huge impression upon guests that it remains the standard by which all Disney nighttime parades are judged—and a nostalgic favorite that never fails to attract a crowd.
The Electrical Parade recently took flight again at Disneyland for its latest revival earlier this spring, heralding the post-Covid return of live entertainment to the California theme park resort. It’s seen a few upgrades, including a new conclusion that pays tribute to both It’s a Small World and a variety of Disney movies, but at heart it remains the same beloved parade that has entertained generations at Disney parks around the globe for 50 years. It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular: it exists at the same intersection of storytelling, nostalgia, retrofuturism, and technological wizardry that defines so much of Disney’s best work.
Watching it recently, for the first time since its run at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in the ‘80s, I was struck not just by my own memories of watching this show decades ago, but also by the realization of how timeless it all is, even after 50 years. Yes, it’s not as high tech as something like Paint the Night, the newfangled nighttime parade that ran at Disneyland Resort from 2015 to 2018, and which at one point featured a remix of the Main Street Electrical Parade’s main theme, “Baroque Hoedown,” as a loving homage to its inspiration. It may not be as advanced, but the accumulated power of the parade’s hundreds of thousands of lights is still genuinely awe-inspiring, especially when it comes tumbling down an otherwise entirely darkened Main Street USA.
Although it’s always featured Disney characters and floats based on movies like Cinderella and Pinocchio, one reason Main Street Electrical Parade stands out is that it has a unique identity outside of references and nostalgia. That’s best summed up by that signature tune, “Baroque Hoedown,” an early synthesizer composition from Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley. Not only is this an original piece that was created outside the Disney canon, but the recognizable Disney songs heard throughout the show have all been arranged to fit alongside it. When you hear “Very Merry Unbirthday,” it’s not the same song from Alice in Wonderland; it’s part of a seamless medley with Perrey and Kingsley’s tune and various other Disney songs, with those warm analog synthesizers making it all sound like an old sci-fi movie. In 1972, when synthesizers were still rare in pop music, this aesthetic marked the parade, and its versions of classic Disney movies, as something startling and futuristic—like Fantasyland given a Tomorrowland makeover. These aren’t just the characters you know and love come to life, the Electrical Parade promises, but a version of them you’ve never seen or heard before.
According to Wendy Ruth, a Show Director with Disney Live Entertainment, that’s the crux of designing Disney nighttime shows: wowing audiences with new experiences while still tapping into their wellspring of nostalgia. When talking about introducing new technological innovations into the nighttime shows, Ruth admits that any changes depend “on which park you’re talking about, which audience you’re talking about, and what their tolerance or expectation is.”
“Here at Disneyland our guests don’t like to see a lot of change sometimes,” Ruth notes. “They want what they know. But then we can do something like the World of Color [a nighttime show that has run at Disney California Adventure since 2010, and which also recently relaunched after the pandemic] and surprise them and say ‘you didn’t know that you wanted this-you’re still seeing those characters you like, you’re hearing the music you love, we’re presenting it in a brand new way.’ So we’re constantly asking ourselves ‘what’s the next big thing.’”
Like the parks themselves, the Main Street Electrical Parade of 2022 isn’t exactly the way you remember it, but it still embodies the fundamental spirit that has guided the parade for 50 years, with common-sense updates for the audience of today. The most notable is a new show-closing float that pays tribute to one of Disneyland’s oldest attractions while also introducing characters from movies that hadn’t been made yet when the Main Street Electrical Parade originally premiered. Based on the art style of It’s a Small World, the new finale features a number of newer Disney favorites, including Hercules, Merida from Brave, Anna and Elsa, and characters from Encanto, Coco, and more. They all look like the figurines from It’s a Small World—small, childlike approximations of your childrens’ favorite Disney characters.
“Taking cues from Mary Blair, from It’s a Small World—it’s familiar,” Ruth says. “You know that design style. We recognize those characters as dolls. So to bring new dolls as a part of it, and the music that comes with it, that’s what’s changed.”
It might be a half-century old, but the Main Street Electrical Parade still reflects Imagineering at its best. It’s charmingly retro and yet bound to no specific time or place, amazing the children of today as much as it did their parents, and, potentially, even their grandparents. With its long history, it can unite generations of Disney fans in a way no other nighttime show can; the children who first saw that bumblebee dizzily whirl down Main Street 50 years ago could very well be taking their own grandchildren to Disneyland today. It’s that unique cross-section of the past and the future that makes Disney’s theme parks such a beloved part of American culture—and that makes the Main Street Electrical Parade an indelible part of Disney history.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.