Monday, 30 November -0001

Backstage at the greatest ice show on earth

Disney On Ice is one of the world's most popular touring shows. But is it one big fairytale behind the scenes too? Fiona Hicks went to find out

Written by Young Ladies About Town
When I was a little girl, I used to dream of being Belle from Beauty And The Beast. As a bookish young thing, I related to the fact that Belle always had her face in a tome, and I adored her outfits. I’d swish around in my dresses pretending they were her luxurious gowns.

It’s rare to find a young girl who doesn’t aspire to be a princess, and it’s even rarer to find a child who doesn’t love a Disney film. These facts may go some way to explaining the staggering success of Disney On Ice. For the past 27 years, Disney On Ice has been touring the globe, bringing together the stories from the films and showcasing them – on skates – in front of sold-out audiences.

Earlier this year the 100-strong cast and crew descended on Birmingham for Disney On Ice Presents 100 Years Of Magic, and I went along to take a peek behind the scenes.

Now, they claim that Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, but there is nothing laid-back about the way this Disney spectacular is organised. My inner child was half expecting a raucous bunch of forest animals, a colourful Mickey Mouse in charge and perhaps a Prince Charming leaning nonchalantly against the wall. 

DisneyOnIce-Dec19-02-590Megan shows off one of the chorus outfits

The reality is starkly different, like a military operation. Backstage crew – dressed in black – usher the photographer and me through the passages of the National Indoor Arena, speaking urgently into walkie-talkies every time we approach a new area.

A selection of props is on display, but we quickly learn that they have been strategically placed for our visit. Disney is one of the strongest and most enduring global brands, and Feld Entertainment (which holds the rights to produce the Disney On Ice shows) takes image control very seriously. It simply wouldn’t do to showcase a lacklustre genie lamp.

The biggest hint of frivolity is the smell of popcorn that wafts through the corridors, but as we walk through to the stage area (heralded, of course, by a walkie-talkie) we are confronted by a majestic ice rink, with two skaters gliding around in effortless rehearsal.

DisneyOnIce-Dec19-03-590-quote

One of these is Kate, a 26-year-old former competitive skater from Calgary, Canada. With big eyes, blonde ringlets and a perfect smile, it seems she was born to play the part of Cinderella. Her story sounds like the stuff of Disney films too.

‘Where I’m from, it’s winter most of the time, so I grew up skating on a pond behind my house. When summer rolled around [and the ice melted] I was devastated, so my parents signed me up for lessons. It was just a natural progression to get into show skating.’ Kate joined the cast at 18, and planned to stay just a year. ‘I got hooked,’ she smiles. ‘This is my eighth tour. It’s an amazing company to work for.’

Yes, it sounds like a rather-too-slick promotional line, but every cast member we meet is similarly enthusiastic. In chatting to the team we learn that the production stage manager joined the show when it started, fell in love with (and subsequently married) one of the skaters, and now they tour together. Megan, a young woman in the wardrobe department, also used to be a performer, but learnt to sew so she could work backstage when she hung up her skates. In fact, during casting for this year’s tour, only five out of the 47 performers changed. In true Disney fashion, they really do seem to be one big, happy family. It’s all a bit spooky.

DisneyOnIce-Dec19-04-590Isao Matsuuura has performed with Disney On Ice for 14 years

Overseeing all is the performance director and the team’s father figure, Cory Obst. A former skater himself, he has been with this show for years, and watches every single performance during a tour to make sure it seems like ‘opening night every night’.

Ebullient yet attentive, he comes across as part Jiminy Cricket, part Baloo the Bear, with a little bit of the Fairy Godmother thrown in. The technical aspects of the show, he says, are easy to regulate, but it’s looking after the people that is the difference between success and failure.

‘We are bringing together 47 performers from over 12 different countries. With different cultures, languages, levels of training and backgrounds, having them come together as one cast, and be respectful and supportive of each other… That allows us to put on the highest level of entertainment.’

Touring around the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe, the diverse cast finds it interesting to see how the diff erent audiences respond. ‘Every culture expresses enthusiasm in their own way,’ says Adam, a skater who hails from Knoxville, Tennessee. ‘In South America, they are so passionate and will clap as soon as they see the genie. In Japan they are more reserved, and are very respectful during the performance.’

DisneyOnIce-Dec19-05-590From left: some of the props; Fiona on set; Isao Matsuura

When travelling, the cast and crew will have on average one day off a week to explore whichever city they’re in, and the rest of the time is spent on practice, practice, practice. ‘It takes a lot of eff ort to make things look eff ortless for the crowd,’ laughs Cory.

Along with the global audience who rush out to see the show every year, Cory has seen the production literally thousands of times. Does he ever tire of it?

‘Absolutely not – it’s one of the greatest jobs in the world,’ he says. ‘I get to dress up and come to work with 60 of my favourite Disney characters every day. How many people get to do that?’

For more information and to book tickets: www.disney.co.uk/disney-on-ice


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