The Candlelight Processional
Just a few weeks ago Carol and I enjoyed the Candlelight Processional at Walt Disney World and once again it was every bit as inspiring as the first time we saw it thirteen years ago. We were instantly mesmerized back in 2002 when a herald of trumpets focused our attention on the orchestra which played as the massed choirs marched into the America Gardens Theatre singing Christmas carols.
We were captivated by the time the choirs had settled on their risers. In fact, the Candlelight Processional has become an important part of our Christmas tradition. When we visit Walt Disney World in December we never miss this stirring portrayal of the nativity story.
The Candlelight Processional tells the story of Jesus’ birth in both music and word. That magnificent fifty piece orchestra supplies the music and the singing voices are provided by Disney’s professional a cappella group, The Voices of Liberty, together with a choir comprised of Disney cast members in green gowns and several guest choirs in golden gowns. There are hundreds of voices in the massed choir!
Between musical numbers a guest narrator relates the story of the birth of Jesus. Over the years we have heard the story told by John Tesh (2002), Eartha Kitt (2004), Cicely Tyson (2005), Mario Lopez (2006), Chita Rivera (2007), Neil Patrick Harris (2008 and 2013), Geena Davis (2011), Dick Van Dyke (2012 at Disneyland) and Whoopi Goldberg just a few weeks ago in 2015.
As we sat through the stirring Christmas spectacle on December 5th (for the 10th time in 13 years) I wondered how this magnificent show got its start. When we got home I did a little digging online and here’s what I found.
The first year Disneyland opened, in December 1955, a group of 12 singers from University of Southern California were hired to perform as the Dickens Carollers. They dressed in period costumes and roamed the park singing classic Christmas songs for a week. In a special one-day event, to kick off the holiday season in December 1955 the Dickens Carollers were joined by several guest choirs who joined in a massed choir and sang from the steps of the Main Street train station with accompanying music from several school bands.
Dickens Carollers and the massed choir - December 15, 1956
Disney lore suggests that one day in 1958 Walt Disney was chatting with his friend Dr. Charles Hirt, Music Director at University of Southern California, and Walt said something like, “We need more than just Christmas carollers at Disneyland. Why can’t we have a big choir assemble at the hub of Main Street by the Railroad Station in Town Square? Let’s have them sing to the guests there, and I can listen from my office over the Fire Hall.” And so the processional was born.
On December 20, 1958 that first Candlelight Processional was made up of sixteen choirs massed together, they sang as they moved down Main Street and ringed the flagpole in Town Square. They were accompanied by the Dickens Carollers who sang from the balcony at Sleeping Beauty Castle.
The Candlelight Processional has been a Disney tradition since 1958, but it has changed and grown over the years. The first change happened almost immediately; guests could not see the singers when they stood in a circle around the flagpole with Dr. Hirt conducting from the center. When the program was repeated in 1959 the choristers performed from bleachers or risers beside the train station where the singers could face guests.
Information about those early years is pretty sketchy but it sounds like the processional was only held twice a year.
Guest narrators were added in 1961 and actor Dennis Morgan was the first to appear. As you might expect, the list of narrators who have appeared at Disneyland in the intervening years reads like a ‘who’s who’ of show business. Names like Morgan Freeman, Gary Sinise, James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr., Marie Osmond, Jane Seymour, Tom Skerritt, John Stamos, Gregory Peck, Olympia Dukakis, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Pat and Shirley Boone, Buddy Ebsen, Howard Keel, John Forsythe, Michael Landon, Rock Hudson, Ed Asner, Kurt Russell, Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips, Dick Van Dyke, Marcia Gay Harden, Patricia Heaton, Molly Ringwald and many, many more have presented that magical nativity story.
The Candlelight Processional continues to be offered at Disneyland two nights each year, generally the first weekend in December, in Town Square. There is one performance each night, so plan to arrive early!
Naturally when Walt Disney World opened in 1971 the processional was introduced there as well. Like at Disneyland, the choirs sang from bleachers in Town Square. The first guest narrator was Rock Hudson and he was followed by celebrities like Cary Grant, Dean Jones, Joseph Campanella, Ross Martin, Perry Como, James Hampton and Darrin McGavin, Pat and Shirley Boone, Howard Keel, Walter Cronkite, George Kennedy, Paula Zahn and a host of others. Like the California version, there were only two performances each year.
By 1993 guests in Florida were demanding more opportunities to see the spectacular show so in 1994 it was moved to the America Gardens Theatre at EPCOT with two shows a night spread over 15 nights. It was so popular that first year that the following year’s schedule had 60 showings, 2 each night over 30 nights. In recent years there have been about 100 shows each year, three shows per night over 30 or more nights, from late November to December 30th. By the time the 2015 series wraps up there will have been 108 performances!
The performance is offered free of charge, and each show is jam packed! The theatre seats over 1,000 people and those who cannot get a seat stand, several rows deep, across the back of the theatre to enjoy the spectacle.
The music is simply superb. The job of directing the performance is split between Rick Mizell, Music Director at Walt Disney World and Dr. John Sinclair of Rollins College As the director leads both the choir and the orchestra the songs you hear are: Shout for Joy, O Come All Ye Faithful, Il Est Ne (He Is Born – a traditional French carol), O Holy Night, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Rejoice with Exceeding Great Joy, We Three Kings, What Child is There, Do You Hear What I Hear, Silent Night, Joy to the World, The Hallelujah Chorus and Let There Be Peace on Earth.
This year Carol and I had a chance to talk with a Disney employee who performs in the volunteer cast member choir. She described the rigorous audition process they go through before they’re accepted. She told us that they try to have four school choirs together with one church or community choir in each show. If you would like to perform in the processional with your choir you can start the ball rolling by sending in an audition recording. Details about the application process can be found by clicking on the appropriate link on the right: Disneyland Walt Disney World
If you are going to be at Walt Disney World in late November or December I highly recommend the show. People begin lining up at least an hour before each performance, so plan to arrive early. One of the easiest ways to ensure that you have a seat for the show is to book a “dining package” at one of the participating restaurants. You can read all the details about the packages here: Dining Packages
I’ll wrap up this blog by telling you about a magical moment that happened in California on December 12, 2012. Carol and I were fortunate to be at Disneyland at just the right time to see the Candlelight Processional – and as an added bonus, the narrator was Dick Van Dyke.
After just a few songs and a few short narratives from Mr. Van Dyke it started to rain very lightly. The microphone on the podium went silent and the PA announcer advised that the show would be paused for a few minutes for the safety of the performers. It wasn’t long before a stage hand walked out from backstage and handed Dick Van Dyke an open umbrella.
He looked around at the assembled crowd, smiled and said something like, “Don’t worry, I won’t fly away. Only Mary Poppins can do that!” A roar of laughter and applause cascaded all around Town Square.
The weather cleared and the show resumed after just a short pause, but that brief rain shower gave Carol and I a memory we’ll never forget!