In the early days of Disneyland, though popular and immediately renowned, the park wasn’t turning a profit. In fact, Jack Lindquist, the first president of Disneyland once stated that for the first two and half years in operation they ran 34 weeks of the year in the red and just 18 in the black.
Disneyland in its very early days operated mostly as a daytime park usually closing at 6pm during the fall, winter, and spring months and remaining open until 8pm during the summer. As Jack Lindquist put it they “had a physical area capable of attracting, entertaining, and feeding thousands of guests, but it was just sitting there idle.”
Disneyland was seen as a family attraction and not only were they not making money during those extra evening hours beyond 6 or 8pm, but they weren’t servicing an entire market of customers – young dating couples without their families.
In late spring and summer of 1957 Disneyland announced that starting in May the park would operate until 10pm daily and beginning in June, the park would remain open further until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights for a new feature, Date Nite at Disneyland.
Once announced the Disneyland team selected the Carnation Plaza Gardens as the area that would host Date Nite as it had room for a bandstand, dancing, and plenty of tables and chairs around the perimeter. It was also well positioned next to plenty food and drink.
The Disneyland Entertainment department signed a local 14 piece big band orchestra called the Elliott Brothers Orchestra to be the regular “house” entertainment.
The Elliott Brothers became very popular with the Disneyland date nite crowds and eventually even released an album called Date Nite at Disneyland that featured a track appropriately titled, “Let’s Dance at Disneyland.”
To attract a young dating audience, Disneyland offered a special date nite ticket book that included two park admissions and 10 attractions for the bargain price of $6.50. But that wasn’t all, a fireworks show called Fantasy in the Sky was created and debuted in the 1958 season of Date Nite. The original Fantasy in the Sky was performed manually with cast members manually lighting and launching fireworks into the sky over the castle to a soundtrack that included tracks from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, “The Mickey Mouse March,” and “You Can Fly” from Peter Pan.
After the fireworks went off at 9pm the crowds would gather around the stage at the Carnation Gardens and the Elliot Brothers, Lloyd and Bill, would usually tell some corny jokes, update the crowds on current football or baseball scores from around the country, and then begin the music usually with one of the crowd’s favorite numbers, “La Raspa.”
Date Nite was an immediate hit and following the initial popularity, Disneyland announced that the park would extend its hours even further in July and August to 1am while also extended the park’s operating hours to midnight the rest of the week in those months.
But it wasn’t just the operating hours that extended. The event itself was no longer confined to just the Carnation Gardens, but musical acts were added to other venues around the park such as the Golden Horseshoe, The Tahitian Terrace, the Tomorrowland Stage, and New Orleans Square.
To fill these venues Disneyland began attracting names of increasing notoriety throughout the 50s and 60s such as Glen Campbell, The Carpenters, Lulu, and Jazz artist Lionel Hampton. Date Nite at Disneyland also played host to the very first performance of the Osmond Brothers outside of their native Utah.
According to Lloyd Elliott’s daughter Holly, the first gig that legendary film composer John Williams had when he came to town was playing piano with the Elliott Brothers Date Niters. John Williams is now famous for having since composed the soundtracks to such Hollywood blockbusters as Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, and Superman among countless others.
By the close of the 1960s, Date Nite at Disneyland was past its prime and was discontinued. But Date Nite at Disneyland is credited as being a proof of concept for future disneyland hard ticket events that we continue to enjoy today like the Christmas and Halloween parties. Jack Lindquist wrote in his book In Service to the Mouse, “the summer of 1957 set the stage for all the nighttime magical innovations from Kids of the Kingdom to Fantasmic, to Hoop-Dee-Do Musical Revue among others that have evolved with the added bling and pizzaz into the ‘High School Musicals’ of today.”
But perhaps even now the final chapter of Date Nite at Disneyland hasn’t yet been written. On Nov 13, 2017 the Disney Parks Blog announced a new series of evening events coming to Disneyland called Disneyland After Dark which will kick off on January 18th with Throwback night.
According to the Disney Parks Blog borrowing heavily from the Elliott Brother famed lyrics, “Come dressed in your best to enjoy the Happiest Place on Earth under a million twinkling lights, swinging to the tune of the bands and enjoying your favorite rides in the cool moonlight ‘till the clock strikes 1 a.m.!”