Following in the footsteps of their very successful screenings of “Pocahontas” in Central Park in 1995, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in New Orleans in 1996, on June 14, 1997 (20 years ago today! It’s not just for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), the Walt Disney Company, well-known for orchestrating large-scale special events both in and outside theme parks, took on the streets of New York City by bringing its world famous Main Street Electrical Parade to the Big Apple for a one-night-only ride up 5th Avenue. Part of a “Hercules World Premiere Weekend in New York,” the 3-day weekend of events that included a mini-amusement park at Chelsea Piers, it was all a promotion for its upcoming 35th full-length animated feature, “Hercules.” This all came on the heels of the Walt Disney Company doing their part to “clean up” the Times Square area with its purchase and renovation of the historic New Amsterdam Theater for its upcoming theatrical releases (the New Amsterdam had officially re-opened just 2-1/2 months earlier).
- 2,000 extra police officers and 100 sanitation workers were assigned to work the event
- The parade route began in front of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, moved east on 42nd to 5th Avenue, and then north to 66th Street and Central Park (for a total of 1.8 miles or 24 blocks)
- 67 sound towers were built along the parade route
- 130 street lights were shut off as the parade passed, and about 5000 businesses along 42nd Street and 5th Avenue were asked by Disney to dim their lights so those along the parade route would be able to see the floats better (it’s amusing to note the flagship Warner Brothers store, which, at the time, was WB’s answer to The Disney Store, then at the corner of 57th and 5th, did not dim their lights).
- 8 miles of police barricades were erected to hold back the crowds
- According to differing reports, Disney paid NYC about $250,000 to $500,00 for all of the above, which is on top of what they spent to make the parade happen in Manhattan
Cast Members from the local Disney Stores had been invited several months earlier to audition to take part in the parade and although I worked at one of the local Disney Stores at the time (Store #535, Staten Island NY, represent!), was not able to audition. However I have friends who did, and some who were even invited to participate in the parade, so not only was I going to see this historic event, I was going to see some of my friends in it!
As big Disney fans, Joe and I (we were close friends at that time, but not married. We weren’t even dating yet), as well as some other friends and family were, of course, going to go see this event and because we wanted a good viewing spot, we got there EARLY on June 14th, and parked ourselves directly in front of what was then the flagship Disney Store, which was on the corner of 5th Avenue and 55th Street. There were lots of places to get food, and I particularly remember that the Cast Members at the flagship store were super nice about our using their public rest rooms throughout the day.
It was, needless to say, a LONG day while we waited for the parade to begin. 5th Avenue had been closed to car/bus traffic (which did not bode well for NYC traffic in general) and there were many, many hours of sitting, standing and waiting. A non-Disney parade rolled through 5th Avenue in the afternoon; I believe it was sponsored by the Hare Krishnas and I remember that parade participants gave out bags of homemade cookies. I got a bag but (no surprise here) didn’t eat them.
As the afternoon turned into early evening, local marching bands entertained guests by performing up the parade route. Curtis High School, from Staten Island (yay Staten Island!) was one of the bands so I got some video footage of them. And then finally, the parade began!
The parade’s starting point was down by the New Amsterdam and we were about 13 blocks north of that, so it took at least 30-45 minutes for the floats to get from there to our location. The first float was specially made for Hercules and was in the shape of a Greek temple. It had several Olympic athletes on it and instead of playing the MSEP’s famous “Baroque Hoedown” song, it had an announcement of all the Olympians on the float.
Following the Olympian float, the familiar MSEP music started and the parade began in earnest. The first few floats were also Hercules-themed:
- A mechanical Pegasus float with a live Hercules sitting on its back
- Another Greek temple float that had Megara/Meg on the front, and Phil in the rear
- A Hades float with Pain & Panic in the front, which included real fire in Hades’ hands
To my knowledge, this event was the only time those 4 Hercules-themed floats were ever used.
The rest of the parade was the regular Main Street Electrical Parade floats of the time, i.e. Pinocchio/Pleasure Island, Cinderella, Dumbo’s Circus, Dwarf Mine, the snail, the turtle, To Honor America, etc. Joe recalls that the parade floats looked very small to him, in comparison to the huge buildings of Manhattan. With the smaller buildings in the Disney parks, the forced perspective made the floats look larger there.
Unfortunately, several of the floats had little to no lighting by the time they got to us. We heard stories that varied from “their batteries ran out” to “there were shorts in the electrical system because of all the bouncing from the potholes,” but whatever the case, it was a little disappointing, especially after standing there all day.
E! Entertainment Television provided a feed of the parade, live from 42nd Street, and the Disney Channel later had a special about it too. Even the local news affiliates, such as Eyewitness News Channel 7 (WABC-TV) had reports about it. It was a big deal!
Here’s my footage, about 36 minutes in all, which includes less than a minute of Curtis High School’s marching band, followed by all the floats. The video is, of course, 20 years old so I apologize for the tracking issue on the bottom and the lack of HD visuals and 3D sound.
Despite the long wait, and even despite some of the floats not being super bright (or having any lighting at all), it was still a really fun day and we’re glad we got to see it. If they ever did such a thing again, and if we lived where it was being done, we would definitely do it again!
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