Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Dancing Waters

Even as Disney's California Adventure debuts its new World of Color water extravaganza this Summer, a much older water and light show across the street is about to disappear forever. The Dancing Waters show has been a fixture at the Disneyland Hotel since May of 1970, but it can actually be traced back over half a century and across the Atlantic to Germany.
After 20 years of experimentation and research by inventor Otto Przystawik, the Dancing Waters debuted at the West Berlin Industrial Exhibition in the summer of 1952. Some accounts say that parts of the mechanism were built as early as 1948. The Los Angeles Times described the show as being "Composed of several thousand feet of steel pipe, 19 electric motors, 4,000 jets, 60,000 watts of power and 38 tons of water. ...Two New York showmen who saw it promptly booked the thing for Radio City Music Hall... Contracts have been signed for shows in Atlantic City, Toronto and Dallas, following one in London at Coronation time."
Conflicting sources indicate that either Harold Steinman or Hans Hasslach was the original operator of the show in Berlin. But it was clearly Hasslach who traveled with the show for many years afterward. The show had to be "played" almost like a pipe organ. The movements of the fountains lagged behind the signals sent by the operator by a few seconds, so Hasslach had to stay a little ahead of the music and lights at all times.
After being viewed by some 1,500,000 people at Radio City Music Hall, the show traveled to the Los Angeles Home Show at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in June 1954. It was such a hit that the program was brought back year after year.
Between home shows, the Dancing Waters traveled from event to event. It was a highlight of the 1954 L.A. County Fair. In early 1955, it traveled to Las Vegas to mark the opening of the Royal Nevada Hotel. The hotel began calling itself "The Home of the Dancing Waters," but it didn't last. By 1956, it was making the circuit of small-time events like Neptune Days in Redondo Beach and the Community Fair in Ontario, California.
In 1957, a special holiday version of the show played throughout December at Pershing Square in Los Angeles. The Downtown Business Men's Association sponsored the event and offered savings bonds as prizes for the best photos of the fountains.
The Dancing Waters made their way to the Southern California Exposition at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego in 1958, and celebrated the 4th of July at Newport Dunes in 1959.
A few years later, the show ended up back in New York. Freedomland, a Disneyland knock-off, advertised the "world-famous Dancing Waters" in 1962. That year, the L.A. Home Show had to settle for a smaller "replica of the famous fountain of dancing waters."
But the Dancing Waters show really hit the big time in 1964, when it was displayed throughout the run of the New York World's Fair. It was located in the "Lake Amusement Area," inside an inflatable "bubble" building.
Almost immediately after the fair, the show returned to Southern California, where it had a one-week stay in Century City, celebrating the opening of the Century Square Shopping Center. "The New Wonder of the Entertainment World!" read the ads. "Waters that actually dance! Combining color, music effects and visual beauty you've never seen before!...The wonder of the New York World's Fair..."
By 1966, the Dancing Waters show was back at the Los Angeles Home Show, where it would return each year until it was installed at the Disneyland Hotel. Oddly enough, in 1967 the show was right across the street from its eventual permanent home when it was part of the dedication ceremonies for the Anaheim Convention Center.
In 1969, as the Disneyland Hotel was preparing a permanent place for the show, the Dancing Waters made a final visit to Las Vegas, for a special event at the Circus Circus hotel and casino.
In May 1970, the Dancing Waters debuted in its new crescent-shaped amphitheater at the Disneyland Hotel. According to Disneyland Hotel expert Don Ballard, "Mike Berkus (one of only nine people in the U.S. trained to play this show) was the Hotel's first director of the Dancing Waters.... While the program was changed frequently over the years, one selection was retained from the original presentation, 'The German Waltz.'"
The photo above comes from, and shows the Dancing Waters as they appeared in 1988.
In 1992, a few years after Disney purchased the Disneyland Hotel, the show was altered by a company called "Waltzing Waters" to become the Fantasy Waters Show. The new program included not only colored lights, water and music, but also fiberoptic displays, light panels, and other elements. The musical score took on a Disney theme.
The Fantasy Waters Show ended a couple years ago, and now even the fountain's pool and backdrop are about to disappear as part of a big makeover of the hotel. I only hope the mechanism somehow survives and reappears elsewhere to continue the story of the Dancing Waters.
The photo above shows the Dancing Waters area as it appeared last weekend.


walterworld said...

Yeah, that's a great part of the old Hotel that's about to disappear.

I watched that show many times from our Marina Tower balcony...

Good times !!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, here is a video I found on YouTube of the fountain doing part of a show at the Disneyland Hotel. Really sad to see this feature taken out.

Connie Moreno said...

Love, love, love this post! Thanks for the additional history! I did go see the show several times at the Disneyland Hotel and I recently visited the site again to take pictures before they tear everything down. I am posting photos over several days, if you're interested in checking them out.

Chris Jepsen said...

Thanks for the link, Connie. Looks like you've got an interesting blog there! I'm adding it to my "morning reads" list!

I also took a BUNCH of photos of the soon-to-be-demolished areas of the D.L. Hotel recently. I posted some of the better ones to my Flickr account:

Connie Moreno said...

Thanks for the kudos, Chris! And thanks for the Fliker link - will check those out now!

JJohnson said...

This is very sad. My family used to go see Dancing Waters in the 1970's for a cheap night out. Another fixture of my OC childhood bites the dust. Great info in this blog!

Michael Przystawik said...


My grandfather Otto Przystawik actually built the first musical dancing fountain in Ballhaus Resi in 1928.

Harold Steinman stumbled upon the Przystawik show at the Berlin Industrial Exhibit in 1951. He made a deal to use Przystawik shows under the Dancing Waters name in the western hemisphere. Later touring was also done in Europe under Hasslach on behalf of Dancing Waters USA.

The European shows were all set up and operated my Przystawik staff. In the US, my father Gunter toured with the Dancing Waters and during that time did his best to train the show operators in Przystawiks art of water show choreography.

Neither Steinman nor Hasslach operated the show in Europe as you suggest.

My company Waltzing Waters Inc swapped out my grandfathers old show at the Disneyland Hotel in 1991. The show that we provided kept the venue alive for many years.

We still manufacture our water light and music productions and they have come to be know as Liquid Fireworks.

I also own Dancing Waters Entertainment where we rent show systems for events. The Dancing Waters moniker was obtained from Caryl Steinman, Haralds wife and partner.

Michael Przystawik President
Waltzing Waters Inc

My company Waltzing Waters Inc re

Lee said...

As a college kid, I worked at the NY Worlds Fair in 1964-65 for the Walter's Wax Museum and the Kroft Brothers' Le Puppet d' Paris Puppet Show in the Lake Amusement Area. The Steinman's Dancing Waters was a neightbor of ours in the Lake Amsuement area next to the Log Flume Ride. Harold and Carol Steinman were truly wonderful folks and friends of my uncle, Lou Walter, who owned the wax museum and also was a partner with the legendary Sid and Marty Kroft with the puppet show. What a great experience that was!
Lee Raskin,JD; Baltimore Maryland, Amusement and Attraction Developer

Ken Austen said...

My name is ken Austen from the UK now living in Merthyr Tydfil Wales. I remember Dancing waters from my teen age days back in the 60,s in South East England at the Winter Gardens Theatre in Margate, a small sea side town in the county of Kent 80miles east of london and very close to Dover . My Father was the chief Electrician and was involved with the setup of Dancing waters providing the electrical power to drive it. I must have been about 16 years old, but well remember the wonderful show and my late Father also Ken Austen raving about the wonderful plumbing and technology. I also remember meeting just the one Man who installed and played the key board. The name I have never forgotten was Otto from Germany, so very pleased to see the original dancing waters still going. I would love to see it again one day . Yes it was certainly invented in Germany.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Dancing Waters that played in central Kansas in the early 1950's?


Johnny said...

My father Johnny van Broekhoven from the Netherlands played the waterorgan in Margate Canada and all over in Europe.The organiser was
Wolfgang Wilk from Germany.
The music was Dichter and Bauer kind of light classic music.My father was
the one who played and installed
the installation.

With regards Johnny jr.

CJMoore_CT said...

In the 70's I worked for Carol and worked the Liberace show, Radio City Music Hall, Bond disco, and the Texas state Fair.
What fun. A lot of work and travel...all worth it to see the smiles on faces.

kenneth austen said...

Hello Johnny jun.
Thanks for the comments, Looks like I met your father, I did wonder if the name i mentioned was correct. My Late Father Ken Austen took me to see the construction of the dancing waters followed by viewing the show on the following day. I remember in detail quite clearly after all these years. My father sadly passed away 4 years ago at 86, 2 years after my mother had passed on. Was very sad, a bright intelligent man, he had a good interesting life and career.
Nice to hear from you Johnny. I am now 65, a retired electrician now living in South Wales UK.
From Ken Austen Junior.

Jonas Clark said...

I was going to add more detail, but Mr. Michael Przystawik, who knows these fountains best, said it better than I, as just a fan of the shows, ever could.

I can still say a few things. The show at Disneyland - the original 1970s one - was not THE Dancing Waters, per se. Otto Przystawik built a number of the touring shows, and these went on tour all over the US and Europe; a number of firms in Europe then built imitations of them. But it WAS one of the Otto-built shows. And it had some added effects at the lip of the upper pool, and also in the lower pool (the latter, but not the former, were re-used in the Waltzing Waters refit, along with the fiber-optic wall).

Otto's shows were comprised of some really astounding engineering feats. The shows were played live from a large control panel by an operator, and this took a lot of practice, since you had to play the water ahead of the beat with one hand (the pumps take a few moments to respond, though both in those and in the new shows, they do respond relatively quickly) while playing the lights with the other hand on the beat. Songs had to be practiced months in advance-- and there were only so many "group formation" patches, so you'd have to be setting up the next series of effects using any random spare instants during the performance, thinking many steps ahead while still focusing on the current moment.

WoC is an incredible fountain show, and what it's doing now is unquestionably not its full capability; effects like the Dancers, the rotating fans, the Transformers and the water butterflies, as well as a moving mist screen, are barely used so far. But I think Disney would be well-advised to re-install a "Fantasy Waters" show, using new top-of-the-line Waltzing Waters equipment and choreography. I've studied fountain shows from the past and present and from all over the world, and theirs have the most consistent 'wow factor,' not to mention mechanics that fascinate anyone who looks at them. Besides that, Fantasy Waters was a big deal to so many people, a free little end-of-day bit of magic.

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