OK, you’re not going to believe this, but before last Thursday, I had never seen Candlelight Processional at Disneyland, despite the fact that they’ve been doing it every year since 1958! Legend has it that the tradition started when Walt decided he wanted carolers on Main Street, and that eventually grew into an entire concert and retelling of the Christmas story on two nights each December. You can read more about the history over on Mouseplanet.
Historically, only community leaders, Club 33 members, and others invited by Disney have had seating at Candlelight Processional, with park guests forced to camp out all day in hopes of getting a good spot in the standing-room sections or maybe even an unfilled seat at the last minute. This, plus the crowds attracted to Main Street by the show, has always sounded like a nightmare to me, so I assiduously avoided Candlelight weekend at Disneyland. (I should note that there also used to be pricey dinner packages that would guarantee you a seat at Candlelight, but I suspect the online-ticketing fiascos of the past few years are what caused them to dump those entirely this year.)
This year Disney expanded Candlelight Processional to 20 nights and opened up space for Annual Passholders to win seats via a lottery. Even with 2 performances per night, our chances of actually winning a lottery with 900,000+ potential entrants were not high. So when we found out that Disney was doing a special version of its Holiday Time at Disneyland tour on Dec. 1 and 2 that included seats for Candlelight Processional, we almost didn’t flinch as we plunked down $150 each for the privilege. (I did a separate review of the tour, but suffice it to say there is no way I’d ever have taken it if not for the Candlelight seats).
On the night of our tour, we found our Candlelight seats in the Town Square equivalent of the nosebleed section (and right next to some D23 staffers!) and settled in.
We caught only fleeting glimpses of the actual candlelight processional down Main Street—maybe we should go back just to get a spot along the route and watch that part. Finally, every last person was onstage and ready to perform.
But three sentences into the Christmas story, narrator Dennis Haysbert was cut off and the show was canceled due to the threat of a drizzle. (One good thing about the charmless America Gardens Theater, where Candlelight is performed at Epcot, is that the performers are covered so the show can go on rain or shine… not that it’s any fun to watch in the rain.)
“And the Angel Gabriel said… Aw, NUTS!”
I was the only person in the crowd who was ecstatic—this meant we could reschedule for one of the nights we’d really wanted to see, a night that Dick Van Dyke was narrating! I grabbed Patrick and we dashed over to the Tour Garden to change our tickets.
We picked December 13, the second of two nights that Dick Van Dyke was scheduled to narrate Candlelight. When we asked to have our tickets moved to that date, the tour guide wrote our names on a list and told us to present our original tickets. Of course, when we actually got to Disneyland that night, NOBODY had any idea what to do with us. Our tickets had a color on them that wasn’t among the colors for that night, and every cast member we talked to gave us a different answer (classic Disney). We finally decided to split up and see which of us got the best answer.
When you have a ticket for seating at Candlelight, you enter a roped-off area just inside the turnstiles and go to the right or the left, depending on your ticket color. Except that if you get there before Disney thinks you should, there are no ropes and people are spontaneously forming lines right and left—despite the sole cast member’s halfhearted announcements that no lines may be formed and there will only be one line when one does form. Then when the ropes do go up, one side begins shouting at the other “WE were here FIRST!” (Seriously. This happened.)
While you wait for the second show, you can see the herald trumpeters standing on the train station roof occasionally during the first one
We were told to go to the right and ended up standing off to the side of the stage as the first show ended. After the closing number, it was a treat to hear the orchestra spontaneously strike up “Happy Birthday” for Dick Van Dyke, who was turning 87 that day.
View from the waiting room
Reverse Candlelight Processional after the first show
When the cast member who’d said he’d help me started leading everyone BUT us to seats, I marched off to find another and Patrick went to City Hall. My strategy got us dumped in a section even farther from the stage than last time, while Patrick found someone who took pity on us (apparently we were supposed to have been issued new tickets and only being on the list saved us from getting booted). She lead us to the third row, right in front of the narrator’s stand!
Not too shabby!
These may be considered the best seats in the house, but it was pretty awesome to be right in front of Dick Van Dyke the whole time!
Not only that, but our seats were directly in front of those reserved for Van Dyke’s family and friends. Not too shabby at all!
I always wonder if it’s really scary or really cool to be the guy standing at the top of the tree…
First, the orchestra comes out and plays the prelude (forgive my terminology, music teachers, if this is technically not an orchestra but actually a band or a symphony or a jamboree or something).
Next the choir (chorus? chorale? jamboree?) files down Main Street, U.S.A. singing Christmas carols and holding nifty flameless candles. If you are sitting in the third row and you don’t have a fancy camera, it looks like… not much…
Super-cool or super-scary—you decide!
(I hope you’re humming Christmas carols to yourself during this part.)
(Yes, there will be a photo of EVERY single lighting scheme…)
After the introduction, Van Dyke stood up and began reading the Christmas story. The format is just like at Epcot’s Candlelight—read a bit, sing a bit.
I asked Patrick to video some of the segments. This is when Van Dyke first took the stage, as the crowd settled down and people called out “Happy Birthday!”
It was such a treat to see Dick Van Dyke narrating Candlelight Processional. He’s done it multiple times over the years but not for a while, and I was always kind of disappointed that I’d never had a chance to see one of his shows. If this does turn out to be the last year that Candlelight will be held in its gorgeous setting on Main Street, U.S.A., then this performance will be even more significant.
What I love is the gravitas he brings to the performance, the way he imbues each line with its full meaning but also warmth and authenticity. This isn’t a bored-sounding Abigail Breslin vocal-frying her way through the Christmas story. Here’s another narration segment followed by a clip of the song it lead into.
It seemed to me that soloists from the West Coast version of Voices of Liberty were not used as much as their East Coast counterparts are at Epcot, but maybe I’m misremembering.
There was a really nice version of “Silent Night” sung in Spanish and accompanied by Spanish-style guitar. The soloist lead the crowd in singing a few of the verses in English too.
The soloist—all the soloists, really—was fantastic. The orchestra, too, sounded tighter than the ones I’ve heard at Epcot. There’s really more of a polished, professional feel to Disneyland’s Candlelight Processional, vs. the folksy, community choir feel to Epcot’s production. Both have merit, of course—it’s just a matter of which you prefer.
My favorite part is always getting to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus”—and not just because you get better photos when you stand up to sing it! It’s truly a thrill to be able to say you sang on Main Street, U.S.A.
Dick Van Dyke seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the show himself. He stood up and sang the “Hallelujah Chorus” with as much enthusiasm as any of us, and he clapped and cheered for the musicians at the end of the show.
I also really enjoyed his extemporaneous remarks to close the show. What a wonderful performer and an all-around classy guy!
I love commercialized Christmas as much as the next guy, but each year I try to do at least one thing that reminds me of the reason for the season, as they say. This production filled the bill. Disney bandies the term about, but even this sometimes cynical fan felt that night’s performance of Candlelight Processional was truly magical. The combination of a gorgeous Main Street setting, outstanding musicianship, and Dick Van Dyke’s superlative narration led me to finally understand why the tradition is so beloved. Merry Christmas!