What to know before you go
by Debbie Werbrouck
Your kids are happy with the performing opportunities you provide: an annual recital, maybe a spring show or competition season, appearances at community events. But what if your students could perform in the Happiest Place on Earth?
The Disney Performing Arts Program provides in-park educational workshops, mock auditions, behind-the-scenes sneak peeks, and performance opportunities for student dancers, musicians, actors, and singers. The dance-based program at both Disneyland Resort in California and Walt Disney World in Florida has options for elementary, middle, junior high, high school, and college students.
I’ve taken students from my Indiana-based school, Debbie Werbrouck’s School of Dance and Music, on performance trips to Disney World in Florida twice and once overseas to Disneyland Paris. The experience—performing “on the road” rather than in our home environment, dealing with technical issues—gave my dancers a taste of what it takes to be a professional dancer.
You can ease your families’ minds—and your own—by fully preparing dancers both for their performance and for any emergencies or problems that might arise. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Other studio owners speak of a myriad of benefits: dancers who bonded and grew in self-confidence through extra hours of rehearsals, preparations, and performance; studio families who enjoyed the experience and were eager to repeat it; recognition from communities that added to the studio’s reputation.
Whether your studio is located close to or far from a Disney park, a Disney performance trip is a big trip that requires planning and organization. Here’s some advice from studio owners on things to think about before you head out to visit to the House of Mouse.
The first issue to decide is who will be invited on the trip. Will this experience be open to your full student body, or limited to competition team or performance company members? Will it be students only with teachers providing 24/7 supervision, or will students’ family members be invited along?
The answer is up to you. Yvonne Groves of Center Stage Dance Studio in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, has taken students to Disney six times, most recently in 2015, with 53 performers and 110 parents. (She has another Disney trip planned for summer 2018.) Suzanne Swanson Wagner of Marilyn School of Dance in Tomah, Wisconsin, took 16 students and 27 parents along on a 2014 Disney trip.
In 2013, four studio staffers from Debra Collier’s School of Dance in Warsaw, Indiana, accompanied 13 dancers and 52 family members on the studio’s most recent Disney World experience.
Know that while families—and random park guests!—are welcome to view performances, only teachers can accompany students during official Disney activities such as workshops, classes, rehearsals, and mock auditions. During this scheduled activity time, parents, siblings, and extended family members are free to enjoy everything the park or hotel/resort area has to offer. Studio owners let parents know that they will take responsibility for students during activities, and will designate a pick-up place and time.
Who’s doing the booking?
The number of trip participants might factor into important decisions, such as whether you want to handle bookings for hotels and bus transportation yourself, or use a travel company. Companies such as Dance the Magic and Dance the World/World Class Vacations specialize in performance trips for dance students, and will arrange details such as hotel accommodations, park passes, and in-park transportation needs.
Terri Sinani, director of Next Step Dance Studio in Franklin, Wisconsin, engaged Dance the World to help her organize details for the 45 dancers and 75 family members who attended a 2017 Disney competition experience. “They made the trip easy,” she says of the travel company. “They provided an itinerary that included everything but airfare.”
All the studio owners interviewed for this article allowed students’ parents to handle travel arrangements individually. This allows the option of traveling earlier or leaving later for families who might want an extended vacation, or who wish to visit relatives in the area. It’s a good idea to require that families arrive at the park at least one or two days before any scheduled activities.
My studio’s students traveled together on our Disneyland Paris performance trip, which included additional performances out of the park. An agency in Amsterdam booked the travel, hotels, and tour guides; I handled details for our performances at Disneyland and in Italy.
Where are we staying?
Here’s another decision: would you like trip participants to stay together in a hotel or Disney resort of your choosing, or will you allow families to make their own hotel accommodations? While onsite accommodations at Disneyland are limited, Disney World offers a wide selection of resort options that vary in price, amenities, and luxury.
Studio owners in this article required trip participants to stay as a group in a chosen resort. Tammy Seibold, director of Debra Collier’s School of Dance performance company, Class Act Dance Troup Inc., chose Disney’s All-Star Music Resort, an affordable option, because “participants don’t spend much time in the rooms.”
Not only does this make it easier for you to keep an eye on your families, but it’s easier (and more fun) for students and families to spend time together as a group in the pool area, at dinner, or during free-time excursions into the parks.
How do we get around?
For some performances or workshops, especially those that require students and faculty to travel to a “backstage” location not accessible to park visitors, the studio is responsible for booking a motor coach. Dance the World provided a private motor coach for Sinani’s students; the cost was included in the total trip package. In other cases, students, families, and faculty can use the Disney park transportation system to get where they need to go.
Requiring students to travel to activities in a group, such as via a motor coach, assures that all students and faculty will arrive at the activity or performance on time. Usually. When students from Debra Collier’s School of Dance were heading to a Disney performance during one of their trips, teachers confirmed that all students were on the bus, and OKed the driver to head out. Unfortunately, the head count didn’t include owner Deb Collier, who missed the bus and had to get to the venue on her own.
What does Disney need?
In keeping with Disney’s legendary quality control, Performing Arts program participants must follow strict requirements. Studio owners or the team director must provide the program with information about their dancers’ performance, including details or samples of music, choreography, and costumes.
Many times, studios’ performances will consist of dances previously choreographed for recitals and competitions—perhaps restaged to adjust to the physical size of the Disney stage, or cut to fit the program’s allotted time limits.
Performance venues change often at Disney, and have ranged from an outdoor stage at a busy Downtown Disney intersection to an enclosed proscenium theater tucked away down a side street at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM Studios). The actual performance at Disney is very much like a performance anywhere—sometimes things go smoothly, sometimes they don’t. Groves’ students had to cool their heels until a summer thunderstorm passed before they could perform in an outdoor theater space.
We did our technical run-through at Disneyland Paris with no problem, but when my dancers took the stage for the performance, the sound system didn’t work. As trained, my dancers held their poses until the curtain closed and the problem was solved. My dancers received compliments from Disney staffers for dealing with the delay like pros.
Are we in?
A Disney performance tour might sound complicated, but both Disney and the specialized travel companies are good about providing information and guidance. For a first-time attendee, working with a travel company may be the way to go.
You can ease your families’ minds—and your own—by fully preparing dancers both for their performance and for any emergencies or problems that might arise. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Then get ready for a fun-filled, memorable experience.
Debbie Werbrouck owns Debbie Werbrouck’s School of Dance and Music and is the founder/director of Patchwork Dance Company. She is a past president of CNADM and current co-chair of UNITY.