Disney On Ice presents "Follow Your Heart" Behind-the-Scenes

By Terri Milner Tarquini

October 1, 2016
   In The Loop Extended Articles

There was jumping and jiving, dodging and darting, flipping, and flying - and, of course, there was Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy.
And it all took place in the rehearsal hall at the 580,000 square-foot Feld Entertainment Studios in Ellenton, Florida.

Having opened its tour the beginning of September, Disney On Ice presents “Follow Your Heart” was two weeks from its premier when the curtain was parted and a glimpse of what goes into a live ice show production was granted.

And what a spectacular behind-the-scenes look it was.

“Every day I come to work, my inner child freaks out,” said Patty Vincent, “Follow Your Heart” director. “These beloved characters are in my blood. I am so passionate about studying the interaction and movements and character traits that bring the films to life. We want people to instantly recognize these characters they know so well.”

A sneak-peek of the opening pep rally production number introduced a new character to the ice show line-up: Riley, the pre-teen girl hockey player from the movie Inside Out, who has the emotions of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust vying in her head.

“It’s so important that it’s fun,” said Vincent, who was a gold medalist in free skate, free dance, and ice dance from the Canadian Figure Skating Association and skated with Disney On Ice for nine years. “There’s audience participation and there are large production numbers and the music gets the audience going. The concepts are big, the skating is athletic and it’s as much fun as possible.”

The show utilizes Inside Out as the thread that runs through the show, allowing the emotions to inspire Riley through the telling of other beloved Disney stories, including another blockbuster newbie, Finding Dory.

“I personally love it when Dory gets emotional searching for her parents,” said Vincent, who has been with Feld Entertainment since retiring her skates in 1991. “It’s such a beautiful part of our show. There are real emotions being tapped into and the audience is right there being a part of it all.”

Along for the journey is many of the familiar faces from the cherished favorites, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Frozen, Mulan and Tangled.

“An advantage is that the big Disney productions are musicals so that translates well to the ice, but we always reference the film,” said Cindy Stuart, “Follow Your Heart” choreographer. “It is so important to stay true to the characters and the filmmaker’s vision when it’s time for us to bring the story to life on skates.”

No Disney production would be complete without uber royalty Cinderella and Prince Charming, who are being played by real-life husband and wife duo Sara Buck-Lalonde and Sacha Lalonde.

“Cinderella is so kind and gentle and refined; it’s a dream role,” said Buck-Lalonde, a former competitive singles skater with international dances under her belt, as well as three national titles with the Miami University varsity collegiate synchronized skating team. “We always push ourselves to learn new tricks and new ways to portray the characters. For this show, there is a ton of footwork and we’ve been doing a lot of training on the silks and webs.”

In the cavernous rehearsal hall next to the ice rink, the skaters playing Rapunzel and Flynn Rider were working on the “silks,” which are long strands of material suspended from the tall ceiling on a pulley-type system. Other skaters were training on the “webs,” thick ropes hanging from a similar system - both of which allow the skaters to fly through the air.

This added dimension - having the skaters swoop and soar above the ice - is all the more impressive when the addition of sharp blades and heavy skates is taken into account.

“This is an extremely athletic show,” said Lalonde, who competed as a singles skater at three Canadian nationals. “It is jam-packed with energy and a ton of high-intensity choreography. I burn over 800 calories when we run through it and we’re not even doing everything yet.”

Next to the mirrored training area, the innovative and well-crafted looks of the characters are busily taking shape, with a sea of sequined materials and colorful costumes being created and crafted, fitted and sewn.

“It’s a challenge to take an animated idea and make it into a human form,” said Ken Mooney, “Follow Your Heart” costume designer. “For example, Cinderella’s dress in the film is a plain blue dress. We have to explore ways we can embellish it and make it shine and be amazing on the ice. We take into account everything: the weight, the durability, the shine, the way it looks under lights and the likeness to the film. Disney is involved at every stage of the game making sure that we are staying ‘on model.’ It takes a lot of work and innovation so Disney gets what they want and so do we.”

Eye-catching costumes also have to allow for, say, Buzz Lightyear to do double Axels, triple toe-loops and backflips - all in a full astronaut costume.

“We always have to remember that these looks are being worn by athletes so they need to be skateable; they have to stretch in all the right places and still look like what the characters are expected to look like,” said Mooney, who started sewing at age 11, has his master’s degree in theatrical design and worked on Broadway, including “Wicked,” which won the 2004 Tony Award for best costume design. “We work very, very closely with the choreographers - even down to the amount of revolutions a princess might do in a spin and how the material will react during that amount of revolutions because, ultimately, if the costume can’t be skated in, then it just won’t work.”

With 230 outfits in the “Follow Your Heart” show and over 1,000 pieces of costuming total, every accessory and article of clothing is meant to capture the imagination of those who come to see their favorite characters come to life.

“You always have to remember that you’re really designing for a six-year-old,” Mooney said. “It needs to have energy and be bright and cheerful. It needs to make their eyes get big and have them asking their moms where they can get a costume like Woody from Toy Story.”

Beyond the costume shop is the prop department, where the worlds of Ariel, Nemo, Queen Elsa and others are built. This is where the surroundings are conjured up that will carry young and old alike from the depths of the ocean to an ice-covered kingdom and a lot of enchanted places in between.

“This is all Disney magic,” said Amber Talley, “Follow Your Heart” project manager, standing in front of a large piece of glow-in-the-dark coral from Finding Dory, an intricate Chinese dragon from Mulan and a fruit cart from the land of Arendelle in Frozen. “We take the audience right into the different films everyone knows and loves.”

With nine complete scene changes and hundreds of props, the task of creating and building realistic, visually-stimulating and movable-yet-durable items is a big one - and sometimes needs a little extra fix-it power.

“Every Disney problem has a different Disney magic fix,” said Talley, who previously worked in various theatre companies in New York and Arizona. “When it comes to fixing stage pieces or props, personally, I’m a fan of a little super glue and a little bit of Tinkerbell’s glitter.”

The sneak-peek of the opening production number brought into vivid focus all of the diverse talents that must come together to pull off a live entertainment ice show when two dozen skaters wearing stunning costumes swarmed the ice performing heart-pumping choreography, with the stage-setting props moving fluidly in and out.

The backdrop, an opaque metallic wall before the show fired up, became an entity all its own when lights and visual images were projected on it.

“It doesn’t look like much when nothing is going on,” Vincent said. “But it sure comes to life before your eyes when all of the parts get going. There are elevators that move the characters and different levels and landings for the skaters. The audience will be transported to many different places.”

The Disney On Ice rehearsal space is part of the 580,000 square-foot facility owned by Feld Entertainment Studio, a family-run enterprise now in its third generation of leadership.

A $50 million facility when first built in 1984, the 46-acre property the studio is on had changed hands a few times when Feld Entertainment bought it in 2012 and began moving its various locations across the United States to Ellenton, Florida, about 40 miles south of Tampa, in February 2013. Once future relocations are complete, there will be over 700 employees and over 1,000 workers total under one roof, including the independent contractors. The facility itself is three-and-a-half football fields from front to back door.

“Every step of production from concept to finish is right here under one roof, said Karen Beck, manager of administrative operations. “There is not one aspect of live family touring that is not touched upon at this facility.”

Feld Entertainment is, indeed, in the thick of live entertainment with Disney On Ice; Disney Live!, a character-driven stage show; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus; Monster Jam, the largest touring monster truck show; Monster Energy Supercross, Amsoil Arenacross and Nuclear Cowboyz, all various motorcycle racing and motocross series - all of which were on display in the facility tour.

There were immense circus props for “the greatest show on earth;” intricate, small-scale replicas of events and shows; five-foot-tall tires on masterfully-painted monster trucks and there were costumes.

Man, were there ever costumes.

“We have 10,000 costumes,” Beck said. “Plus, 1,000 animal costumes and 100 elephant blankets, which can weigh up to 250 pounds and can cost up to $40,000 for each blanket.”

A performer’s dream, the humongous room was packed from floor to vaulted ceiling with rows upon rainbow-colored rows of sequins and ruffles and feathers.

“What’s great about having the costumes right here on hand is, if you have a concept, you can see what we have and use it or modify it,” Beck said. “These costumes have to be extremely durable. Parts of the Snow White show were in the recent Wonderful World of Disney On Ice and some of the ice show costumes are used in the Ringling Bros Out of this World circus. We have costumes here from the ’60s. They have to last for a very long time and still look good.”

From the look behind-the-scenes and from the front row of rehearsal, Disney On Ice presents “Follow Your Heart” promises to capture and captivate the hearts and minds of all.

“It’s a big job and it takes a lot of people to make it all happen,” Vincent said. “What we put out there can really touch people.”