Like many kids, my niece Gigi dreams of becoming an actor. At 11 years old, she's laying the groundwork—winning dance competitions, scholarships, and leading roles in local theater. When Gigi traveled to Walt Disney World from Rhode Island, she wasn't just another kid on family vacation. She was a Disney "cast member" for a day through the Disney Performing Arts youth program, performing with her dance team for hundreds of guests.
Phil Hospod Rosemary's School of Dance Education performs at Walt Disney World
"Performing makes me feel powerful," says Gigi. "But I've never performed in another place that's really far away from my home before, so to be here is really different and exciting."
Disney is touted as the largest entertainment employer in the world with artists in movies, television, theme parks, cruise ships, and more. Disney Performing Arts youth program leverages that footprint to let kids shine in performances, workshops, and competitions at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California. At Walt Disney World alone, the program has nearly three million alumni since 1985 with kids participating in more than 3,500 events annually. It's part of Disney Youth Programs, which mixes vacation and education in the arts, sciences, and humanities through the magical lens of Disney—with discounts on park tickets and hotel rooms, too.
Putting Kids Center Stage
From Mouseketeers to Descendants, Disney is known for turning kids into stars. And for dreamers like Gigi, performing at Walt Disney World is a taste of life as a pro. Student marching bands parade down Magic Kingdom's Main Street U.S.A. Select choirs perform in Epcot's Candlelight Processional during the holidays alongside a professional orchestra and celebrity narrators like Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, or Ming-Na Wen, the voice of Mulan. Orchestras, choirs, dance troupes, and other ensembles perform at the bustling outdoor Marketplace Stage in Disney Springs, Walt Disney World's shopping, dining, and entertainment hub.
"I could see the whole audience," Gigi says of her own experience dancing. "But you're not really focusing on the crowd. You're focusing on yourself and the steps and what you're doing."
Phil Hospod The author's niece, Gigi Grace, 11, performs at Walt Disney World.
Raye Lynn Mercer, director of the Franklin School for the Performing Arts in Massachusetts, has been bringing students—including her own daughter—to Walt Disney World for 25 years. She says performing for Disney guests is always a highlight of the trip.
"They love the excitement of the shows for sure, and the opportunity to get in front of a big crowd at night at the Marketplace is fantastic for them," says Mercer. "I think that they get a professional perspective. They certainly get a wonderful introduction to what it would be like to work for Disney. Disney does a great job of making that part of the educational process."
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Each year, Mercer's 45-student troupe performs in four different ensembles and participates in about three workshops. Some of her alumni have gone on to work as Disney entertainers. "The Disney Performing Arts program has been a phenomenal complement to our curriculum," says Mercer. "I think any parent can be confident that the experience is going to enhance what they have invested in performing arts training."
Learning from Disney Professionals
Many groups take one of more than 15 workshops in music, dance, and theater while at Disney parks, says Betsy Ervin, manager of Disney Performing Arts at Walt Disney World. Classes drill down on technique, offer recording sessions, go behind the scenes with Disney staff, and more.
With more than 70 percent of groups returning, Disney updates the content of each workshop every three to four years. Disney clinicians also tailor content to match each group's skill level. Even repeat attendees will find the curricula fresh, says Mercer. Most of her students attend every year for five years between the ages of 13 and 18.
"We hear a lot about how personal it is," says Ervin. "The programs are very customizable, so the Disney artist is going to talk with the group's teacher: 'What are you working on? What are you trying to drive home right now with your students? How can we build up your programs, your students, and you as a part of this?'"
At the Disney Dancin' workshop, Gigi and her teammates learned two routines from theme park shows as part of a mock audition. They then combined them into a simulated performance.
"It was really, really fun. I liked the choreography," says Gigi. "It was different from what we would normally do. More of a stage performance."
Karla Bruning Disney teaching artist Audrey Harden leads the Disney Dancin' workshop.
"It's not just about the choreography," Disney teaching artist Audrey Harden told Gigi's team. She's a cast member of Finding Nemo—The Musical at Disney's Animal Kingdom. "Here at Disney, we look for you to tell a story. Let us see the picture of what you're doing. We want people to be moved."
Only current or former Disney entertainers teach the sessions, adding insights about what it's like to be a pro for the Mouse House. "Theme park work is different than other places," says Ervin. "We love when teaching artists share personal stories about rehearsals, shows, auditions. So we choose only people who have had that Walt Disney World entertainment experience."
Harden talked about rehearsing in front of the Cinderella Castle overnight when Magic Kingdom is closed, some of the roles she currently performs in Finding Nemo, and headshot and resume pointers. She shared audition anecdotes and how Disney casting directors work to find the right fit for each role—all while teaching a combination.
"What I hear most often from parents and students is the individual impact that it's able to have," says Ervin. Before joining Disney's staff, she was a high school choir director who brought her students to participate in the program. "They might have been dancing for a year. They may have been dancing for 10 years, and those two performers could be in the same workshop but have different experiences and growth."
In session, Harden drilled that message with Gigi's team. "Be uniquely you," she told them. "Show that from the inside, out in your dancing."
How Parents Can Sign Up Their Kids
So what does it take to sign up? All Disney Youth Programs are for groups only. Walt Disney World requires at least 10 students to participate. Kids should be at least 6 years old to do a workshop, 7 to perform on stage, and 10 to march in a parade. (Disneyland's program differs slightly in a few respects.) Festival Disney—an adjudicated competition series for choirs, bands, and orchestras—is for middle and high school students only. To perform or participate in a workshop, groups must apply up to one year in advance.
What if your child's not a performer? They can still participate in the Disney Youth Education Series, which turns Disney's theme parks into classrooms for groups of 10 or more, ages 8 and older. With subjects ranging from sciences to humanities, students can study the physics of popular Disney attractions, learn about zoological careers at Disney's Animal Kingdom, or try their hand at animation. Schools, scouts, camps, and clubs are welcome.
Every student needs a Disney Performing Arts Ticket Package, which includes specially priced theme park tickets and your performance or workshops. And groups must provide their own buses to and from program events. Beyond that, groups are free to add-on as much or as little as they choose, including hotel rooms, meal plans, extra days, multi-park tickets, and other options. Packages for 2020 start at $190 for two-day, single-park tickets and a performance. Regular-priced rates for the same ticket hover between $213 and $310 depending on the date.
Hotel pricing is more variable. Gigi's group's rates at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort were about 40 percent lower than published rack rates. But discounts fluctuate seasonally based on property and demand, so your savings could be much lower. To qualify, you need to book at least 10 rooms. Disney can help navigate choices on a property, but not outside travel or transportation. So groups can book travel on their own or with an outside agent. Some groups encourage families to tag along—friends and family members can snag the same discount tickets—and others rely on chaperones to accompany kids. Walt Disney World requires one chaperone per every five students.
And, of course, not everyone within a group has to do the same thing. One family might choose to stay off-property, while another stays on the resort. Same goes for ticket options, meal plans, and the like. Each family can craft their own vacation package. However, your child's school or organization might have its own requirements for the trip.
Whether performing or learning, the experience leaves a lasting impression. "The kids go home absolutely inspired and excited," says Mercer. "The feedback we get from parents is that they knew the kids were going to have a good time; they knew they were going to enjoy the performance, but they didn't have any idea how on fire they'd be when they came home. It never fails to exceed their expectations."