Here we stand/Worlds apart/Hearts broken in two, two, two.
Hundreds of people crowd around a small outdoor stage in Anaheim on a surprisingly brisk and damp November night. Just the week before, Orange County had averaged in the low 90s as the third year of California's super-drought raged on, but on Nov. 30, 2014, it seemed as if the heavens themselves mirrored the misty-eyed melancholy of the audience. Through tears, their collectively occluded gaze is fixated on the six-piece band onstage, which is halfway through the thumping, heart-rending opening of Journey's overwrought ode to puppy love, "Separate Ways."
One night will remind you/How we touched and went our separate ways.
The band's two lead singers--one male, one female--belt out the lyrics with a fierce energy that drives directly into the crowd's soul, momentarily mesmerizing it to the point of silence. They occasionally glance at each other and smile as they sing about fleeting true love. Tonight, though, their attention is primarily directed at their adoring public, whose cheers grow stronger as the song wears on.
Dressed in a powder-blue high-low dress cut with countless ruffles, the woman kneels down to grip the hands of her adoring fans. The man--wearing a fluorescent-blue top hat, a shimmering jacket with oversized shoulder pads, and red-and-black-striped pants--does the same, though he remains standing. Even the platinum-haired guitarist joins in, reaching into the crowd while holding notes during his solo.
You know I still love you/Though we touched and went our separate ways.
This crowd isn't at the Honda Center; it's not watching Journey, or even a Journey cover band. It's at Disney California Adventure, in the park's Hollywood Land, and this is the final (or, at least, possibly final) performance of the Mad T Party, an Alice In Wonderland-themed, all-ages, family-friendly, alcohol-allowed rock concert/dance party/mini rave.
With "Separate Ways" finished, the band transitions into another farewell song, a mashup of the Lumineers' "Ho Hey" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." The crowd is even louder now, punctuating every few lines of "Ho Hey" with a "Hey!," "Ho!" or "Hey Ho, Let's Go!"
So show me family/All the blood that I would bleed.
As the female singer, embodying the eponymous Alice, repeats those words, she gestures a finger at the fans, prompting cheers that momentarily drown out the music. After 40 minutes and a handful more songs, the band leave the stage for what many fear will be the final time, and rain, which had threatened the night's performance, finally begins falling steadily.
I belong with you/You belong with me/You're my sweetheart.
After its debut in 2012, the Mad T Party, the Disney-produced rock concert that ended its run with a rain-threatened tribute to the Bay Area band that gave the world "Don't Stop Believin'," became a runaway hit. Over the course of two years, the event attracted fans of all kinds, from the park's famous social-club members to teenagers in heavy eyeliner, families towing children in costume, and everyone in between.
Along the way, the show gave birth to a fan community that developed its own roster of character nicknames, storylines and relationships. Many of the annual passport-holding fans attended shows multiple times a week, and by the end of its first run, the peak of the attraction's popularity, some concertgoers waited more than five hours to ensure a prime spot near the front of the stage.
That was a marked improvement in popularity over Disney's moderately successful elecTRONica (which ran from 2010 to 2012) and surprisingly successful Glow Fest (summer 2010), the two preceding, dance-party-esque attractions that served as the blueprint for the Mad T Party.
The event--which includes a live band featuring Alice In Wonderland characters (Alice and the Mad Hatter as lead vocalists, the Cheshire Cat on drums, the Caterpillar on keyboard, Dormouse on guitar, and March Hare on bass), a pair of hosts named Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (with faux English accents and their respective monikers tattooed on the backs of their heads), a DJ modeled after the White Rabbit, dancers, stilt walkers, acrobats, and various other performers--is a surreal, near dadaist experience.
Inspired by the Tim Burton version of the classic movie, Disney California Adventure's Hollywood Land is turned into a swirling mass of neon lights and swaying dancers during the shows. Stilt walkers, their towering appendages molded into thin flamingo legs, ride upon purple/pink puppets, cutting pathways through crowds. Each performance night, the house band, made up of more than two dozen performers, plays multiple sets of Top 40 songs, classic rock anthems and mashups.
The sets are interspersed with performances by dancers sourced from local crews and banter from Tweedles Dee and Dum. The show even comes with its own menu of Mad Ts, popular sweet cocktails including Long Island Iced Tea with a dusting of Wonderland. They're often served with light-up, multicolored LED ice cubes that increasingly add to the area's whimsy as the nights grow later. Fanciful nonalcoholic drinks are also available.
But despite the thought and care put into the production of the show, its following didn't develop immediately. Rather, its initial crowds were fueled by fans of elecTRONica, the attraction that it replaced. "At first, I went to the Mad T Party because I went to elecTRONica and it was in the same area and sort of the same thing," says Maria Sumpter, a 21-year-old fan from Rancho Cucamonga.
"It was the same for me," says Melissa Prado, a 28-year-old fan and photographer from Lake Forest. She runs MadTPartying, a popular fan Instagram account with more than a thousand followers. It shares her own and others' photography, as well as videos from the event.
The show quickly won new fans, and two months in, it had supplanted other attractions as people's favorite thing to do at the parks. Initially spurred by word of mouth, the fan community began to outgrow face-to-face interaction, taking to Instagram through the service's hashtags, soon growing to Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook and more.
It was on social media that the fan culture really began to develop and mature. To differentiate between the dozens of performers, fans began giving them nicknames, chosen by discussion and popular consensus. Specific performers became "friends" of the canon characters, with names such as JaggerHare, Pixie Alice, MarchKit and El Dormouse, based on the specific performer's appearance and mannerisms.
On Tumblr especially, the community's most talented fans began producing art and fiction based on these characters. Popular pairings include the Mad Hatter with Alice and the Dormouse with the March Hare, and artists would draw scenes of the couples together or comics of them interacting. Thus, thanks to the show, hundreds of people gathered around a unifying, if somewhat ineffable subcultural thread. Deep friendships were made online and cemented during live performances. Fans posted accounts of personal and relationship developments and wrote to performers, eager to communicate how much the show meant to them, how much it had changed their lives.
"I hadn't been to Disneyland in almost 20 years when I found out about the Mad T Party," wrote a fan to one of the show's DJs. "My very first time attending, you were the White Rabbit DJ for the night, and you were just incandescent. You played brilliant music, and there was just this perfect moment for me, rediscovering my Disney magic."
"I just saw a girl at school with a Mad T hoodie," another posted on Twitter. "I wanted to stop and hug her."
The Mad T community was not without its bumpy moments, however. As with most communities that grow larger than their means, the Mad T Party's online fandom developed its own Eternal September as people joined the community faster than the existing fans could educate new members. Disagreements would bristle both online and in person over things such as photo crediting, friendships with performers, character integrity and actual places to stand.
"I've had people go through my entire Instagram feed commenting," says Iris Davis, a 16-year-old fan from Northern California who visits the parks and the show often. "I eventually just went back and deleted a bunch of the posts."
"I've gotten into arguments with people who tell me I'm standing in their spot," adds Sumpter. "But there's more good people in the community than bad."
The show's fan base refused to plateau, growing throughout Mad T Party's initial two-year run, but before it became large enough to take over the entire park, Disney made an announcement: The company would be putting the show on hiatus while it transformed Hollywood Land into Freeze the Night, a Frozen-themed musical event for winter 2014.
Neither the fans nor the performers knew if they were actually coming back once the holidays were over.
That announcement sent waves through both the fans and the greater Disneyland-going community. Mad T Party fans were upset that their favorite attraction was disappearing, and many regular Disney-goers were sick of how many Frozen-themed additions were being made to the parks.
"Bittersweet, but necessary," wrote one regular Disneyland-goer on a message board. "Hopefully, they don't turn it into 'Frozen Land.'"
"Sadly, I'm pretty sure that's what they had planned," another replied.
Mad T Party fans began posting in an attempt to see their favorite attraction return and making plans to go to the final shows.
"Going to try to get my son there before it ends because that's how he wants to celebrate his 12th birthday," one fan posted on a photo on Prado's account. "We all loved the show, got goosebumps on the vocals, amazing dancers and acrobats. . . . Cheers and kudos to all the talent and to kind audience members who gently encouraged my awkward but extroverted child who just wants to have friends. You let him dance with you, cheered him on and made him feel accepted."
Audiences swelled to include not only hardcore, regular fans, but also visitors who wanted to see the show before it ended. Despite bad weather, the Mad T Party's final event attracted a capacity crowd. "There were so many people there," Prado says. "I didn't recognize a lot of them, but everyone was in a sad-happy mood. We were sad the show was going, but happy we were there."
(We approached Disney, asking the company to partipate in this story; the request was declined. Band members spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, so as to not upset the Mouse.)
For the performers, seeing the show end after such successful years was a disappointment. "The whole cast was bummed-out," says a cast member who asked to remain anonymous. "We all loved it and being together so much. It was like when you're going to a camp and you have to leave. Everyone was just sad."
Prior to the show, few of the performers had worked together, and musicians and production staff had spent two years developing chemistry, a relationship with the audience, and an identity for a show that didn't really have one to start. "We didn't know what the show was going to be like," says the performer. "Everybody involved, they had an idea that it'd be some kind of epic rock band, but as musicians, we didn't know if we were just going to get up there and stand around and play. For the first six months, the whole team was getting used to it."
As the performers got more comfortable with one another, they also got more comfortable with their fans, both those who would go just once and those who would attend dozens of times. "We do this show to cater to everyone--to make it special for people who've never seen it before," the performer continues. "But from the very beginning, there were some annual passport holders who were already waiting for the show when we started. We could really run around and give the characters our own twists, and I think that's what made those pass holders come back--because the show was never the exact same show. You never know what's going to happen or how people are going to interact."
Despite their relationship with their audience, it wasn't until a year into the show that the performers learned about the fandom that had grown around them on the Internet. "We really didn't know how big the show was actually hitting until we saw what was going on online. Once we started seeing the photos people took and the art and the fiction and the people watching videos of the performance from all over the world, that kind of shocked everybody," the performer says.
Around the same time, fans began increasingly bringing gifts, from simple tokens such as candy and food to more personal drawings, dolls, bracelets and letters. Some of the performers launched Kickstarter campaigns to produce their own music, all of which were funded well past their goals. "One time, someone left $40 on the stage just under a microphone," the aforementioned performer says. "There were these huge fans that just wanted to give. There would be people from different countries who would make friends with people here and send them letters to give to us."
Many of the performers' most prized possessions became the personal letters and stories from fans who had used the Mad T Party to get through difficult times. "There's a lot of stories about these teenagers who are having a hard time in life, and the Mad T Party would give them an anchor," the performer explains. "You get the first letter, and you read it: 'This show saved my life.' And then you get so many more. People make positive life changes: Girls look up to Alice, people who wanted to learn how to play the guitar or sing start taking lessons."
"You go to the Mad T Party, and you always have a good time and smile," says Krystal Mendoza, a 23-year-old LA resident who became friends with Prado over Instagram. "People really fall down the Rabbit Hole."
Despite the hiatus, the performers and the fans managed to stay in touch. Fans who had been able to suss out the real identities of the people behind the characters would show up to outside performances completely unexpected. Approximately 500 people attended an EP-release party at the House of Blues for one of the vocalists; that was double what was expected. An artist who played a regular night at the Auld Dubliner in Long Beach saw his audience gradually grow.
Three months into the hiatus, many of the artists decided to hold a concert together, announcing the performance through a series of cryptic clues and videos posted on their social media pages. The show filled the House of Blues in Downtown Disney to uncomfortable levels--on a Monday night. Some fans made 10-hour trips to see it.
And as if a gift from Walt himself, 10 days before the show's February performance and about a month after the original hiatus announcement was made, a post appeared on Disney's official DisneyParks blog.
"Mad T Party Returns to Disney California Adventure Park as Part of Disneyland Resort Diamond Celebration Beginning May 22."
Fans were ecstatic.
It's May 22, and Southern California, still gripped in a drought, is going through its first reverse spring in more than a century. In Anaheim, traffic around the Disneyland resort is horrendous, as tens of thousands of fans descend upon the parks for another one of its famous 24-hour days--this one to celebrate the beginning of Disneyland's 60-year Diamond anniversary celebration.
At the front gates, long lines have formed as people wait for other park-goers to leave Disneyland, which hit capacity in the early afternoon. Disney California Adventure is also crowded, but not to the point that entry is closed. People will enter and exit that park until later in the evening.
It's two hours before show time for the Diamond Mad T Party, and Hollywood Land is already crowded with people waiting for the show. The fans closest to the stage have already been waiting for a few hours.
The area around the stage is slightly different now. Gone is the dance stage, opening up more standing room. Fans wait hungrily for the show, cheering even as un-costumed staffers go through soundcheck with as little emotion as possible.
Fast forward a few hours and Hollywood Land is more crowded than even some parts of the at-capacity Disneyland. Smoke machines turn on, and what is probably more than a thousand fans cheer. The four tall screens behind the main stage transition from a pattern of cascading diamonds to a spiraling fall down the infamous rabbit hole, Disney paraphernalia passing the camera along the way. The audience reaches a door, and a key, which had been falling with the fans, opens the door to reveal . . . some sushi.
The mystical backing music transitions into the bass line from "Uptown Funk," Mark Ronson's hit featuring Bruno Mars. The Cheshire Cat appears from behind the fog, and the crowd cheers. He begins drumming.
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The camera goes through another door, and the screens are filled with mushrooms. The Caterpillar walks through the fog to more cheers. He plays a riff on his keyboard. Another door, and there's cheese. The Dormouse appears, strumming his guitar. Another door: carrots. The March Hare appears on his bass.
Two more doors, and soon both Alice and the Mad Hatter are onstage, trying to perform over the cheers of hundreds of fans who thought they might not see their favorite artists again. "There were so many people. All of the regular annual pass holder fans came back," the performer says. "They actually all liked the show more, and I think that was the goal. If the T Party was going to come back, it was going to be an improved show. The Diamond Mad T Party--they all love it."
The band grinds through the first two-thirds of their first set in front of perpetually smiling and cheering fans. They finish their rendition of "Uptown Funk," and then they play a mashup of Blink-182's "All The Small Things" and Pharrell's "Happy." They play One Republic's "Counting Stars" and Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen." Then they return to Journey's "Separate Ways":
One night will remind you/How we touched and went our separate ways.