Words by: Ellen Manning
The crunch of blades cutting through ice, audacious Torvill and Dean-style tricks and the unmistakable sounds of Disney’s most popular tunes. It’s the stuff of dreams for children and can only mean one thing – Disney on Ice.
From the first production in 1981, Disney on Ice has become a family favourite. No wonder really. Take the magic of Disney movies – fairytale stories, adventure, fantasy, comedy and characters who enchant children the world over, from The Lion King’s Simba to Elsa from Frozen. Bring all that out of the TV or the cinema screen and to life right there on the ice in front of children, complete with sparkling costumes, huge vivid sets and daring tricks, and you’ve got all the joy of Disney combined with the age-old interactive family fun of the panto.
Managed and produced by Feld Entertainment, also behind productions like Disney Live! and Monster Jam, two shows tour the globe twice a year, visiting everywhere from Manchester to Mexico. The latest is Passport to Adventure, a journey through Disney classics The Lion King, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid and Frozen. Watching a few hours of rehearsal, it’s clear why these shows are so popular, especially at Christmas. Sparkling costumes, impressive props and daring tricks on the ice all create a vivid fantasy world that’s just one step away from Santa and his elves.
For such a big show it’s a relatively small cast – plus support staff – that creates the magic. Aged between 18 and 47 and hailing from across the world, many are former competitive skaters. Kim Becker, 27, started skating when she was nine, competing until age 16 when she discovered a passion for show skating. Kim, who plays Peter Pan’s Mrs Darling, signed up to Disney on Ice for one year. That was 10 years ago.
Getting hooked on the sheer adrenaline of ice performance isn’t uncommon, says 47-year-old Eddy Zeidler, the skater who portrays John Darling this year. “Everyone says they’re only going to do one year. Only two people I have ever known did that.” Maybe it’s because, in Kim’s words, this is the “go big or go home” of the show world. That explains why after 20 years, Eddy still gets “butterflies in my stomach”.
Watching them practise, there are no nerves in sight. The spins, jumps and tricks are mesmerising – and daring. They’re also the product of ours of hard work. At the start of the tour the cast has just two weeks to practice the moves and get into character before hitting the road, says performance director Mark Lauzon.
The fundamental switch from the discipline of competitive to show skating can be tough, requiring more than technical expertise. It means theatre. And complex costumes. Passport to Adventure uses more than 1,000 different pieces, plus props like evil Ursula’s shell to Rafiki’s stick. Picking up one of the costumes, its sheer weight explains why it’s hung on two hangers. “When you first put them on you think ‘wow’,” admits Kim. “But it helps you get into character.”
Heavy costumes aside, it’s a demanding job physically and mentally. To keep on top of it, as well as skating every day, the cast works out, eats healthily and has a pre-show warm-up.
“When you have so many shows in a short period of time you can feel it,” says Matt Grimsted. But an audience of enraptured children can bring a boost. In his 14th year with the show, the 31-year-old from Blackpool admits he cried the first time he got on the ice at the age of five. “I was petrified. But the next day I came downstairs and said to Mum: ‘When are we going skating?’”
On top of long days on the ice, the company’s size means skaters have behind-the-scenes roles too, like French-born Florin Valera, who sharpens everyone’s skates as well as playing Peter Pan, or Italian Diana Gerosa, who helps with their make-up. Given the gruelling nature of the job, why do they stay so long?
“It’s the people you meet and the friends you make,” says Kim. “It’s your second family.”
That family supports each other through highs and lows, says Matt. “We are here to lift each other up, care for each other when things are hard and celebrate when things are good,” he says.
But support isn’t always enough, says tour coordinator Natalie Boisvert, who has seen skaters come and go within 24 hours. Living out of suitcases, moving from place to place, can take its toll. But for many skaters it’s worth it. Seeing children’s faces as they perform is “one of the most amazing feelings” for Kim, and “the best high” for Matt. And at Christmas time that excitement is heightened, says Eddy. “Kids know something special is coming up. They get to dress in costumes, they might have had the tickets as a gift, so it’s all even more exciting.”
After the music dies, the last spin is spun and the final trick is nailed, what are they hoping children will take away with them? For Mark, it’s an experience they’ll never forget. Eddy wants to see them dancing and singing as if they were still in the arena. And for Kim, it’s an escape. “I want them to feel like they have just spent two hours outside their own reality and can let go of their troubles.”
But after all the toil, what if it doesn’t work and the magic isn’t there? “It’s a Disney show,” Matt laughs. “They’ll get magic, without a doubt!”
ICE COLD FACTS
- It takes 10–14 hours to set up each production
- 15 trucks are needed to transport the show
- There is an average of 400 miles between the cities on the tour
- 1,200 hours of rehearsal are needed for the show
- 1,000 people in total worked on the costumes and 1,300 yards of fabric were used to make them
- The set weighs eight tons
Disney On Ice presents Passport to Adventure is playing Sheffield Arena, 15–19 November and The O2, London, 20–30 December. disneyonice.co.uk