Dazzled by Disney

As some of the world's best-known animated characters strap on their ice-skates and head to a venue near you, Disney lover Georgina Stylianou finds out more about what goes on when the skates are off.

A s the lights dim and mothers hush children in their seats, I feel a familiar wash of excitement.

The first time I saw Disney On Ice I was young, my family and I still lived in Britain and all I wanted was for my favourite songs from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid to be in the show. I can't remember whether I dressed up or what overpriced souvenir I forced my parents to buy me, but I remember feeling dizzy with Disney joy.

Disney was a huge part of my childhood. The films were my favourites, but I loved the read-along cassettes and picture books too. My dad gave me a video of The Fox and The Hound the week after I split my head open in the school playground. It was supposed to be a Christmas present, but I was allowed to have it early because, he said, Disney made me happy.

At Melbourne's Hisense Arena, where I'm getting a sneak peek of Disney On Ice presents Treasure Trove before it heads to New Zealand later this month, my adult self has watched a little Snow White stick her tongue out at her brother as she ate her $16 slushy. Young boys dressed as Woody or Buzz from Toy Story run around in circles, seemingly hyped up on sugar. They look out of place at Disney On Ice, until I remember that Disney bought Pixar in 2006. Mothers, laden with backpacks, oversized programmes and light-up souvenirs, hurry their children along with the promise that the show is about to start. "And remember sweetheart, it's not just princesses, it's lots of other Disney characters," one says. Her daughter does not look impressed.

Then the lights dim and the magic of Disney returns.

Treasure Trove serves up all the favourite characters and tunes and ensures no fan goes home disappointed. The visual impact of the production is stunning and it's impossible not to get wrapped up in it. The charm of Disney is as inevitable as the pull of gravity.

As a child, I didn't really care about the performers. They weren't people, they were my favourite characters and I was finally seeing them in the flesh. As an adult, I am far more interested in these talented skaters who brave arenas full of demanding Disney-loving children all over the world.

I chuckle as I realise the skaters are lip-syncing to a pre-recorded voiceover. Humans can't zip around an ice rink defying physics while delivering lines in the too-authentic-to-be-fake voices of Disney characters . . . how had this not occurred to me as a child?

Other things hadn't occurred to me either, such as how many costumes a production of this scale would require and the sheer logistics of choreographing routines for about 30 people on the ice.

Backstage, it quickly becomes clear that the people behind this production are an organised army, driven by a passion for skating and travel and the love of "The Show".

Production stage manager Mark Kelly can be found in a dull function room littered with tables, chairs and crates housing office supplies. Kelly has worked with Feld Entertainment for more than 10 years, starting off as a stagehand then becoming an electrician. He was head rigger for six years before moving into his latest role.

"It's a high-stress job, sure. But we call it organised chaos," he says. "The biggest part of this whole operation is getting the show in, getting the show out and then moving to the next city." The 32-year-old from Florida describes the cast and crew as one big family. "We live together, we work together, we travel together . . . you have to make the best of it."

Kelly says each show will tour for between five and 10 months before "we get some time off, then start all over again". But being away for so long isn't always easy: "You miss family events or your friends getting married and having kids, and you sometimes wish you weren't always on the road. You just have to remember that we chose this job and we do it because we love it."

Tour co-ordinator Joy Newlon, who is clearly the show's matriarch, lists the nationalities in the cast: Japanese, Swedish, Australian, British, Ukrainian, French, Finnish, Romanian, Italian, South African, American, Portuguese, Czech.

Disney On Ice, and the relationships it forges, really does span the globe, she says. "We've got three couples who are due to be married, and so many couples have met touring together."

Ryan Coombs is a bright-eyed 24-year-old who can't imagine doing anything else with her life right now. "I get to do something I love while travelling the world."

For Coombs, bringing Disney to life for thousands of children is what keeps her touring year after year. "You just see their faces light up and it's all worth it."

She met her Russian boyfriend on the road and they have now been together for four years. "It quickly becomes a 24/7 relationship and you are together the whole time . . . but you get to go to all these amazing places together."

I ask what her favourite Disney film is and, after intense deliberation, she chooses The Little Mermaid. "Disney was my childhood. I grew up with Disney princesses and all the songs, so it's a lot more meaningful to be doing what I do now."

The long corridor backstage is buzzing with skaters, since changed out of their intricate costumes and into their tour-branded T-shirts. A few doors down, Sofie Roberg, is in a downward dog position on a yoga mat. The Swedish 27-year-old has been skating for 20 years and joined Feld in 2009.

A few moments into our conversation, I conclude that Roberg is superhuman. She runs, does yoga daily, eats well, sleeps well, drinks a lot of water, loves photography and travel, and swears that maintaining a routine is the key to staying sane on the road. "You have to find your balance and be in control of your body," she says mid-stretch.

She emanates a sense of wholesome contentment and tells me that her boyfriend is also her skating partner in the show. She plays Rapunzel from the 2010 film Tangled, while he is the mischievous Flynn Rider.

A lot of the cast have a similar story - they started skating as children and somehow found their way to Disney On Ice. They take life a year at a time and agree that when the cons outweigh the pros, it'll be time to move on.

But Tara Patterson, like cast-mother Newlon, strikes me as a potential lifer. She's a third generation skater. Her grandparents were in the Ice Capades, as were her aunts and sister. "I'm pretty sure I was skating before I could walk."

The Canadian skater performed in her first Disney On Ice at the age of 18. Fast forward 14 years and Patterson is now the performance director, her first behind-the-scenes role. "It's nice to be able to see it from the audience's point of view for a change and see how appreciative of the show they really are."

Patterson tells me, almost predictably by now, that her husband is the production's head carpenter. They met when Patterson was 18 and have been together ever since. "I can't imagine not doing this with my husband," she says.

For Patterson, Disney was a building block of her childhood, and Beauty and the Beast was always her favourite film. As a performer she donned the famous yellow ball gown and skated as Belle.

"Doing what we do is like an amazing transition from those childhood characters into real life, as much as real life that this can be."

South Africans Yolande Lombaard and Konrad Giering have had the unenviable task of organising a wedding while touring.

"It's a couples show, definitely," Lombaard says.

"But it works well," her fiance adds.

The pair joined the Disney On Ice family in 2009.

"I couldn't do it without him. It would be too hard to travel and see this amazing stuff and not be able to share it," the bride-to-be says.

The pair joke about honeymooning in Antarctica because it's the only continent they haven't visited. Two days after they exchange vows, they will be back on the road for a five-month tour of the United States. "But, to be honest, life is a bit of a honeymoon at the moment," Lombaard says.

One of the last numbers of the show sees Disney's most famous couples swirling around the ice to Someday My Prince Will Come, the romantic ballad from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The deliciously antiquated lyrics made me smile, but they mean even more when you know about all the backstage love. There's Disney in the water.


■ It took more than 1100 metres of fabric to make the show's 300 costumes.

■ The set weighs 6.5 tonnes. ■ The show uses 900 amplifiers and more than 8km of cable.

■ Disney On Ice tours in 60 countries.

■ It takes about 425 man-hours to install, maintain and then break down the ice floor.

- Disney On Ice presents Treasure Trove is on at Hamilton's Claudelands Arena, July 24-27; Wellington's TSB Arena, July 30-August 3; Auckland's Vector Arena, August 8-10; and Christchurch's CBS Arena, August 16-17. Tickets from Ticketmaster or Ticketek.

The Dominion Post