A few weeks after Walt Disney World opened in 1971, the Electrical Water Pageant debuted on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon. It has been a fixture ever since.
How the pageant went from concept to finished product is a fascinating story, one that ultimately led to the creation of the beloved Main Street Electrical Parade.
In the weeks leading up to WDW’s opening, Disney’s higher-ups explored the possibility of adding a nighttime show to its entertainment mix.
The plan was to give guests leaving the Magic Kingdom a “kiss goodnight” in the form of a light and music show that would take place along the shores of the Polynesian and Contemporary resorts on Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. It would give guests leaving the Magic Kingdom one last taste of “Disney magic.”
Disney’s Imagineers came up with a concept for what they originally called the Electrical Pageant. It would feature thousands of twinkling lights affixed to aluminum wire mesh forms of dolphins, dragons, turtles and whales, as well as red, white and blue displays to honor America.
Generators and speakers also on board
Those wire forms would be bolted to a string of 30-foot long pontoon boats. On board the pontoons would be generators and gigantic speakers that would pump out Disney-themed music and patriotic tunes. The show would be seen from the boat docks at the Magic Kingdom, as well as from the beachfronts of the Contemporary and Polynesian resorts.
Once the concept was approved, Disney’s hierarchy went to Ted Kellogg, the man in charge of WDW’s watercraft at the time.
“They asked me if I knew anybody that could manufacture pontoons to our specifications,” Ted said.
It turns out Ted had a float boat at his house made by Harris Float Boats of Fort Wayne, Indiana, which he had used many times. “The pontoons on that boat were very sturdy and heavy duty,” he said.
His boat had a decal on its side with Harris’ phone number, so he gave the company a call and asked if it were possible for them make 30-foot long, 3-1/2-foot wide pontoon boats. “I said we’d probably need 33 of them and they assured me that they could make them for us.”
Ted then reported to his boss at the time, Bob Matheison, that Harris would be able to build the boats. They even gave him an estimate on how much each pontoon would cost.
And that was that… until one day, several weeks later, 33 pontoon boats arrived unannounced at Walt Disney World’s North Service Gate without a purchase order or without the approval of anybody at Disney. “Somebody at Harris had misunderstood what I’d said,” Ted said. Matheison scrambled to get a signed purchase order and the pontoons were eventually towed onto WDW property.
The 33 pontoons were then fitted with skeletal aluminum cages and thousands of lights. Generators also were attached to the boats. The next hurdle was figuring out a way to propel this illuminated conga line through the water. “We used two 200-horsepower Mercury outboard motors for power,” Ted said. “We had one on the first raft and the other on the last raft, for pushing and pulling.” On board would be one driver in the front and another in back.
Learning how to keep the boats in line was a huge challenge. “Even though the wind would blow through the wire, it would still knock the boats off course,” Ted said. To keep the boats in a relatively straight line, 16-foot Boston whalers with push bars were used.
Bay Lake/Seven Seas Lagoon water bridge was a problem
Maneuvering over the narrow water bridge that links Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon “was a nightmare,” according to Ted. “We ran aground on more than one occasion and had to get pulled out.”
Once all the kinks were ironed out, the show debuted on Oct. 21, 1971, and was a big hit, pleasing both guests and WDW management.
“Then someone came up with the bright idea that we ought to be able to shoot off fireworks from the pontoons,” Ted remembers.
The idea was to place mortars on the middle pontoons, a safe distance from the two drivers. Huge blocks of lightweight foam were affixed to prop up the mortars.
Ted returned from vacation the day after the fireworks were detonated from the pontoons. Everyone who had witnessed it said the display went off without a hitch. But when Ted went to inspect the boats in the canal where they are stored between the Magic Kingdom and where the Grand Floridian is today, he was aghast. “It was a mess. The barges looked like they had been to war,” he said. “The sparks from the fireworks had burned holes in the foam. It’s a wonder they hadn’t caught fire.”
Thus ended the great Electrical Water Pageant fireworks experiment.
After noting the popularity of the Electrical Water Pageant, Disney’s then-CEO Card Walker wanted to offer Disneyland guests a similar nighttime experience. Bob Jani and project director Ron Miziker came up with the concept for the Main Street Electrical Parade, which went on to become one of the most beloved, innovative shows in Disney parks history.
The Main Street Electrical Parade debuted on June 17, 1972, at the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland. It featured a string of individual parade floats, each decorated with thousands of twinkling light bulbs, all themed to a classic Disney movie, with most of the floats carrying characters from those movies.
Each float was powered by 500 nickel-cadmium batteries. In addition to the floats, which sported a total of 500,000 lights, there were dozens of costumed cast members — also bedecked in lights — walking or dancing alongside. What made the parade so innovative was a synchronized soundtrack [to the heavily synthesized song “Baroque Hoedown”] which played in conjunction with the on-board lights.
Radio-activated ‘trigger zones’ created
Key to the success of the parade was the creation of radio-activated “trigger zones.” Since the series of parade floats stretched for more than 2,000 feet, Disney’s planners devised a system where the soundtrack would be played as each float entered into a zone, enabling guests to hear music specific to the float nearest to them through the park’s audio system. The zone system allowed for each guest to experience the same show, no matter where they were stationed along Main Street.
Disneyland’s version of the Main Street Electrical Parade was so popular that a similar version debuted on June 11, 1977, at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.
Various iterations of the parade have been shown at Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disney California Adventure. Over the years, Disney switched out the Main Street Electrical Parade with SpectroMagic, a similar presentation with newer floats and a different soundtrack. It’s even been renamed, to just Disney’s Electrical Parade. In addition, there have been nighttime parades with twinkling lights, themed floats, music, and costumed characters during the Halloween and Christmas seasons, as well as versions known as Paint the Night and Light Magic.
While Disney’s electrical parades on land have come and gone over the years, the seafaring Electrical Water Pageant continues its nightly run, to the delight of countless folks who line the shores of Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon just outside the Magic Kingdom.
Do you have fond memories of the Electrical Water Pageant? Let us know in the comments below.