Holiday Memory: The Disneyland Candlelight Stampede of 1998

As a very regular visitor to Disneyland over the last 12 years or so, I have seen a lot of major events at the park and have been there for a few customer-relations stumbles as well.  In one case in particular, namely the poorly run ticket-distribution for the 1998 Candlelight Processional show, one of Disneyland’s less shining moments ended up being one of my personally most important and memorable experiences at the park.

The Candlelight Processional is a long running holiday tradition at Disneyland.  It is a concert program that they typically run around the first week of December, which is a musical celebration of the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday, featuring a professional orchestra and a large massed choir formed from numerous church and school choirs as well as some Disney employees.  The show also features a celebrity narrator, who tells the Biblical Christmas story in between the songs.  This show has been a favorite Christmas season tradition for me for as long as I have lived out here in Southern California.  It is something I really look forward to every year.

Traditionally, this concert is performed on a stage set up in the Town Square area of Main Street, with the Railroad Station used as the backdrop.  In most years, there are just 4 evening performances of the show, two each on Saturday and Sunday.  The majority of the Town Square area is blocked off for the stage as well as for a large seating area.  Tickets for viewing the show in the seating area are mainly distributed to Disney’s corporate partners and other VIPs while regular park guests start staking out seats early to the sides and further back in order to get even an obstructed view of the show.

This can result in a lot of logistics problems and major bottlenecks in that part of the park on those days.  Because of this, Disney a fairly short-lived (5 years) experiment starting in 1998 of moving the show to the Fantasyland Theater, an outdoor performance venue located across from "It’s a Small World".  Walt Disney World had moved their version of the show from Town Square in the Magic Kingdom to a similar theater in Epcot a few years earlier and had eventually managed to expand it multiple shows a night throughout the holiday season, with reserved seating tickets being sold through popular dining packages.  There was a lot of speculation that this experiment with a change of venue at Disneyland was also hoped to eventually lead to a similar expansion of the program, although that never materialized and the show was finally moved back to Main Street starting in 2003.

Since the vast majority of the tickets to the show were still distributed to VIPs, the move to the Fantasyland Theater had an effect of pretty substantially reducing the availability of the show to the general public.  Unlike the Main Street location, guests that were outside of the theater would not really be able to see or hear much, if any, of the show.  The only options were really to either figure out a way to obtain tickets or to wait in a stand-by line outside the theater and hope to get the opportunity to fill-in leftover space (mostly due to no-shows) available right before the show started.

A few days ahead of time, Disney publicly announced that there would be a very limited number of tickets available to the general public the morning of each of the two show days.  The announcement stated that the tickets would be available on a first-come, first-served basis at the entrance to the theater immediately after park opening and that each guest arriving would be able to request a maximum of 6 tickets.  With the expected very limited availability, it quickly became evident that they would all be distributed very quickly and that it would be necessary to rush to the theater as quickly as possible after park opening to get a chance at them. 

Back in 1998, I was a very active participant on the old alt.disney.disneyland Usenet discussion group.  The local participants on that board had established a weekly meet at the park every Sunday at noon, which I attended just about every week.  Quite a few of the regulars there were interested in seeing the show, although a lot of people didn’t have the ability to easily get down to the park right at opening on a Sunday morning.  Since I was still fairly young and unattached at the time, I decided that I did want to try for tickets and I volunteered to pick up the full 6 ticket maximum so that I could share with some of the other members of the group.

The Saturday morning ticket distribution went pretty much as everyone (except, apparently, those at Disney that came up with this plan) would probably expect.  Locals that wanted tickets arrived as early as possible and got into position as far in as possible during the pre-opening period where only Main Street is usually available.  There was a mad, not particularly safe dash from the "rope drop" location at the end of Main Street to the theater right after park opening and the available tickets were all distributed within about 10 minutes or so.  This was widely reported in the online forums available at the time (mostly the newsgroups) and the story even got picked up by the Orange County Register newspaper.  I think Disney was between a rock and a hard place for Sunday, as Saturday’s distribution had shown them the problems but they couldn’t really change the announced procedures at the last moment.

On Sunday morning, I headed down to the park as early as I could and arrived a little over an hour before the announced park opening time.  After parking and taking the tram over to the entrance area, I quickly ran into another friend from the newsgroup and joined him in line at the turnstiles.  Once the park opened, we quickly made our way to the end of Main Street and positioned ourselves right by the rope.  It was pretty obvious that just about everyone waiting right by the rope was there for Candlelight tickets. 

While we were waiting at the rope, my friend recognized the sister of one of the other regulars from the newsgroup.  I hadn’t met her before, but knew her brother fairly well.  He had even mentioned to me a few weeks before that his sister was going to be moving down from Northern California and would probably start showing up at some of the park meets.  She was there for the Candlelight tickets as well, hoping to get tickets for her and her brother.  The three of us spent some time chatting while waiting for rope drop at the park’s official opening time.

For those of us trying for tickets, rope drop was much like the start of a marathon.  As soon as the park was opened, everyone headed to the Fantasyland Theater in as fast a sprint as they could manage.  Disney did post some employees along the route to the theater who made a few futile attempts to call for people to slow down, but who were clearly really there mainly to keep the pathway open and to be ready to attend to anyone that fell or otherwise became injured.  I really hated running through the park like that, but I knew it was the only possible way to get tickets.

My friend and I managed to pretty much stick together during the run and ended up in roughly the same position in line.  There were a fair number of people that made it into line ahead of us, but we were close enough to the front to get tickets.  Unfortunately, the girl had fallen behind by quite a bit and was considerably further back in line.  They did run out before she got to the front of the line, so my friend and I each quickly gave her one of our extra tickets for her and and her brother to use. 

In order to get to the entrance faster, my friend had parked at the Millie’s Restaurant on Harbor Blvd. and walked over instead of dealing with the extra time involved with the toll booths and trams for the Disneyland parking lot.  He needed to go back over to move his car and suggested the three of us all go over and get breakfast at Millie’s.  We all agreed that was a good idea and enjoyed sitting down for a leisurely table service meal after the morning’s excitement.  It was also a nice opportunity to get to know the newcomer to our group a bit.

After breakfast, my friend headed off to move his car to the Disneyland lot while the girl and I walked back to the park.  By the time we got back, it was still an hour and a half or so until the noon meet.  While it probably would have been logical for the two of us to have spent that time riding rides together or something like that, we both were pretty introverted and shy and instead just went off our separate ways.

At this point, I’m sure that anyone that knows me and my family at all well knows where this is going, regardless of having heard this story before or not.  Over the next few weeks, I did get to know the girl, her name is Ilene, better and started spending more time hanging out with her at the Sunday meets as well as a few other group gatherings that were scheduled that month.  I even had Christmas dinner with her and her brother (as well as the other friend from the Candlelight stampede) at one of the Disney hotel restaurants.  We hung around together quite a bit on New Years Eve at the park as well.

We finally got around to exchanging email addresses and IM screennames in early January and finally went on our first official date towards the end of that month.  Ilene and I were married a little under 2 years later and recently celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary.  While that Sunday morning in early December 1998 is probably one that Disneyland would generally rather be forgotten, it is definitely one that worked out extremely well for us.  Although the logistics still sometimes can be very difficult, although not as bad as in 1998, we still look forward to seeing the show every year (sometimes in Florida, including this year) as it holds very special meaning for us.

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