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Disney's Herculean Feat: Stopping New York Traffic For Movie Premiere Parade

Mickey backers promote fete as a free party for the city; others say mayor is getting too cozy with big business

Disney has done the undoable. It's persuaded New York City, the city that never sleeps, a city whose citizens aren't known for civic cooperation, to dim its lights. Literally.

Tomorrow night, Walt Disney is taking over the Big Apple's main streets for a parade to hype its new summer movie, "Hercules." To ensure the right ambiance, the company has persuaded 4,500 businesses - including several porn shops - to turn off their lights so they don't clash with the 566,000 Christmas-tree lightbulbs on floats.

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Disney has firmly planted itself in New York City's economic and architectural landscape. It has spearheaded the heralded clean-up of Times Square and employs thousands. But the parade represents a new degree of cooperation between the city's administration and the company. To Disney backers, the spectacle is a service to the city, much like Macy's annual parade. Critics raise questions about what politicians are willing to give a private firm in return for investment.

Even by Disney standards, the effort behind the parade is Herculean. The company expects as many as 3 million people to line both 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. With the lights out, the city will provide 2,000 police to make sure the darkness doesn't bring out any Beasts along with the Beauties.

And to be sure parade-watchers are in the right mood, the company has erected 68 speaker towers along the two-mile path to pipe Disney music. According to Disney, it is the largest continuous audio system ever designed. "We want to give the public everything they would get at Disneyland," says production manager John Mensching.

But turning the city into a temporary Disneyland doesn't thrill everyone. "Ten movies open up every Friday. Why don't you shut down every avenue between Fifth and Twelfth?" asks former Mayor Ed Koch. "We should be nice to Disney but not be silly - a movie doesn't deserve this."

But Mr. Mensching argues this is not a publicity stunt. He says that Disney is providing a parade free of charge. "Otherwise a lot of people might not get to see these things."

This is not the first time Mr. Koch has chided the city over Disney. Two years ago, he and others objected to the city leasing out the Central Park's Great Lawn for the screening of "Pocahontas." "I thought it should be reserved for concerts, " says Koch. In return for the one-of-a-kind venue, Disney gave the city $1 million and enough publicity to make any politician happy.

And in this mayoral election year, no-pain all-gain publicity is exactly the kind Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would want.

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Mayor Giuliani worked hard to convince Disney that Times Square was a fitting place for company investment, and the improvements Disney's made there back the mayor's claim that he's improved quality of life.

Disney's Times Square store anchors a neighborhood redevelopment that has property values booming. The company has renovated one of the great old 42nd Street theaters, the New Amsterdam, where it will premiere "Hercules,". Disney also owns ABC, a large employer. It's not surprising that Mayor Giuliani is a big fan.

Mensching says the "Hercules" parade is "more aggressive" than the Pocahontas affair. Some 6,000 volunteers, custodians, and technicians will be needed to bring it off smoothly. Police, fire, and sanitation departments will also be present. Disney, which had donated barricades to the city after the Pocahontas fte, has brought another 2,000 steel sawhorses to this party. The total cost to the city - some $500,000 - will be paid by Disney.

To get the businesses to turn out their lights for about 35 to 40 minutes, the promoter sent out letters to every business. It then followed up with phone calls and face-to-face meetings.

Mensching discovered that the street lights are the responsibility of the building owners. To shut down the street lights, he got their approval to put toggle switches on every light so the lights can be manually turned off and on.

But one store may just keep its lights on. As the parade nears its final destination at Fifth Avenue and 66th Street, it passes the Warner Brothers store.

To encourage the competition to comply, Mensching has been playing Warner Brothers tunes on the speaker system during evening test runs. "They might just turn off their lights," he says. But accomplishing a task that daunting might be too big a job for even Hercules to handle.

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