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Idol Worship: 'Idol' Comes To Disney World

Idols It can be a surreal experience to have two separate elements of your life come together, like a surprise birthday party where a well-meaning friend has invited your family as well as your co-workers, two factions of your life that have never intersected before.

That's how I felt when I first heard that Disney had done a license deal with "American Idol" to open an attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. And that's why I had to be in Orlando to see these two worlds come together for the first time.

It was indeed surreal, from sitting in a nearly-exact replica of the stage that exists at CBS Television City in Los Angeles to the moment when, for the first time in history, all seven "American Idol" winners stood on stage at the same time.

My Disney/"American idol" adventure began on Feb. 11, when I checked into the Polynesian Hotel, one of the Orlando park's original hotels. It had been decades since I last ventured into the building -- it was the night I played ping-pong with Phyllis Diller.

OK, that requires a bit of an explanation, I know. I was an NBC publicist at the time, working with Bob Hope, and through him had arranged to see Diller, who was headlining a dinner show at the Polynesian. I was invited backstage to say hello after the show, and when I went back, Phyllis said, "Do you want to play ping pong downstairs?" Of course, I said yes.

Anyway, the hotel is a lot older now, but still well maintained. I checked into my room and high-tailed it over to one of the better Disney hotels to meet up with season three runner-up Diana DeGarmo for dinner. I suggested we go to one of my favorite restaurants, Flying Fish, on the Boardwalk. With Diana's publicist and VIP Disney Guide, we trucked on over and had a great meal.

Returning to her hotel, we took advantage of Diana's access to the concierge floor for coffee and cookies and within a few minutes were joined by a passel of Idols who were staying in the same hotel: David Archuleta, Brooke White, Kimberley Locke and later, Michael Johns and Ace Young. With a mix of finalists from different seasons, Idols were meeting Idols for the first time. The conversation went on into the wee hours, with folks dropping out as the minutes clicked away. With an early call for Thursday -- my alarm was set for 7 a.m. -- I said good night and left them to their luxurious digs as I returned to the hotel where the press was living.

When the alarm rang, I thought it was a mistake, a wake-up call somehow arriving in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, it really was 7 a.m. and I needed to leave the Polynesia by 7:45 a.m. if I was going to see David Cook perform live at Disney's Hollywood Studios for "Good Morning America."

One wrong turn on the highways of the Disneyworld megalopolis almost made me late, but even with parking and a tram ride, I managed to get to the site of "The American Idol Experience" on time for David's performance. He sounded fine to the gathered throngs, but it was only after the live performance that we learned there had been an audio problem on air. It seems no one watching him on TV heard his band's music. The segment was taped again for viewers watching in the Pacific Time Zone.

After the second performance, David headed off to do press interviews and I set out in search of the radio studio where Ryan Seacrest was doing his show live for KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. No one in the park had any idea where that might be and I was tempted to give up and go on "The Great Movie Ride." Instead I bought a scrambled egg-and-cheese bagel at the "ABC Commissary" and kept asking Disney cast members where Ryan was doing his live radio show. I finally found someone who was willing to walk me over to a building that said "Disney Hollywood Radio Studio." Yes, this had to be it.

I walked in and found David Cook's people in the lobby. David was live on the air. If I had just followed him over, I would have found the studio right away. When David left, I walked through a couple of doors and found myself inside the studio with Ryan, standing behind him. It was only then that I thought, maybe I should have knocked first? I also realized that my cellphone was on and that it could ring at any moment. I couldn't turn it off, because it makes a noise when you do that. So I stood there frozen, just managing to quietly sip the coffee I bought with my bagel, when I swallowed the wrong way and started choking while Ryan was doing a phone interview with Miss Piggy. I wasn't choking quietly. But at least the cellphone didn't ring.

After a short visit in which Ryan never mentioned my choking, I headed out into the park. My next appointment: a backstage tour of "The American Idol Experience."

A small group of print and online journalists gathered behind the giant Mickey's sorcerer cap from "Fantasia" (the movie, not the American Idol) and we were escorted through the audition area of the attraction. That's where I learned what visitors to Disney World will experience at this new addition.

Parkgoers are invited to audition for Disney's "American Idol" by singing a song a cappella for a casting director. If they're deemed good enough, they're sent on to a backstage producer, who makes a decision about whether they will sing in front of a live audience or not. The attraction is not looking for bad singers -- that might make good TV, but it's not a great idea for a theme park attraction.

There are anywhere from five to seven shows per day, with three park visitors chosen to sing in each show. They're given a chance to hear their songs -- with or without vocals -- on iPods in a "Coca-Cola red room" replica. When they're ready, they're scheduled into one of the day's shows.

There's a warm-up person, a show host, and three judges. The judges comment but have no say in the decision process; the studio audience, also made up of parkgoers, votes via armchair touchpads. Pressing the number "1" registers a vote for the first contestant, and so on. Results are announced, a winner is crowned, and that person is invited back to perform in the last show of the day -- the "finale."

The "finale" winner receives a golden "Dream Ticket," good for admission to any audition for the real "American Idol" in any city without waiting in line.
My backstage tour complete, it was time to get ready for the "Cavalcade of Cars," a parade of Pontiac convertibles with one "Idol" per automobile riding down "Hollywood Boulevard," waving to the gathered throngs and being interviewed by Kimberley Locke for "Entertainment Tonight."

The Idols on parade include Justin Guarini, Chris Sligh, Fantasia, Bucky Covington, LaKisha Jones, Phil Stacey, Sanjaya Malakar, Jason Castro, Syesha Mercado, Carrie Underwood, Carly Smithson, Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, Josh Gracin, Jordin Sparks, Melinda Doolittle, Mandisa, Bo Bice, and Cook, DeGarmo, White, Johns, Archuleta and Young, as well as Ryan Seacrest and Paula Abdul.

During her interviews, Locke asks Hicks about his return to the Billboard charts with his new single, "What's Right Is Right," debuting on the Adult Contemporary tally, and asks Doolittle how she feels about her new album debuting at No. 3 on one Billboard chart. Melinda is visibly stunned and speechless -- she hadn't heard the news yet. She looks around for someone who could confirm this startling news -- maybe her manager or publicist -- and catches my eye. Realizing she has found the one person who could confirm a Billboard chart position, she gives me a look that clearly says, "Is it true?" I nod affirmatively and then she allows a huge smile and tells Locke that she feels great about it.

The parade ends and now its time for the official press premiere of "The American Idol Experience." Five contestants who have qualified during the day's soft opening are competing in the finale. These five parkgoers are going to experience the attraction in a way no one else ever will. Ryan joins the Disney cast host onstage and invites Paula Abdul out to give some advice. But the biggest moment comes as Ryan reveals the winner of the finale's dream ticket. Following a duet performance by Cook and Underwood on Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," Ryan calls to the stage Studdard, Barrino, Hicks and Sparks. With six Idols standing on stage, Seacrest then dramatically introduces one more Idol -- Kelly Clarkson, making her first appearance of the day and thus completing the set.

Simon Fuller, creator of "American Idol," then presented the seven Idols with a newly commissioned trophy in the shape of a microphone. Seacrest explained that from now on, "Idol" winners will receive the same trophy as they are crowned at their finales.

Then, for the grand climax, with seven Idols standing behind him holding their trophies, park visitor Mark Ellis, a lighting system designer from Pensacola, Fla., wins the Dream Ticket.

It might be Mark or it might be someone else, but eventually, someone who wins the Disney version is going to make it on to "American Idol." And also eventually, a Disney winner is going to be in the top 12. And some day, a Disney winner may actually be named the American Idol.

As that realization settles in, the Idols gather in front of the theater for one giant class photo. Then it's time to party on "Sunset Boulevard." There's plenty of food and plenty of Idols, and the Tower of Terror and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster are open for business. It's "American Idol," but it's also Disney World, two worlds coming together as one.       -- Fred Bronson

February 16, 2009 in American Idol | Permalink


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I'm not sure if this will help their career or box them into a corner and make it harder for them to be seen as real recording artists.

Posted by: S. Jones | Feb 18, 2009 2:33:59 PM

I use to think that Idol was 'just' a talent show; but after multiple Idols appeared on Broadway and have won prestigious awards (Golden Globes, Oscar, Grammies) I have to concede that Idol is another legitimate route to a successful singing career. If the Disney connection proves nothing else it proves that being an Idol Top 12-er opens a door; but it is still up to the artist to make the most of it. ;-)

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Posted by: Albafannnz | Jun 12, 2009 3:58:07 AM

There are no idols in disney.

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