Since its debut in February, the American Idol Experience at Disney’s Hollywood Studios has been wowing guests with its faithful re-creation of one of television’s most popular shows. On-stage, audience members get to sit in on several shows a day where other park guests perform live on the set patterned after the American Idol season seven finale stage. The show’s daily finale always fills to capacity as hundreds who couldn’t get in grab a nearby seat outside and watch the performances on the giant Diamond Vision screen.
For guests who opt to perform, the grueling audition process begins ‘backstage,’ in Studio 2B (essentially the on-stage and ‘backstage’ portions are treated as separate attractions, 2A and 2B on the park’s map respectively). At stake is a ‘golden ticket’ which grants the holder the ability to ‘FASTPASS’ their way through real-live auditions for the actual show (for those ineligible to use the ticket, it can be transferred once).
So one way to go ‘backstage’ at the American Idol Experience is to audition — and to make it all the way through. And as you’re about to find out, it’s easier said than done. Fortunately, there’s another way to see everything the performer gets to see and more and it’s called The Ultimate Backstage Experience.
Representing Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ first tour of its very own, the experience can currently be booked only as an add-on to a full package through the Walt Disney Travel Company (or your travel agent), which already makes the process a little more difficult. The other difficult aspect, it’s not cheap. The roughly two-hour experience rings up at $98 per guest. The good news is you can buy the experience only for those who are interested in going (age minimum of 8 ) and you walk alway with some hefty American Idol Experience-branded merchandise to go with it. Unlike other tours, as part of a package, the cost of the tour is added to your package balance, so you just need to pay it all off at the regular timeline, not necessarily when you actually book it.
As mentioned, the tour is roughly two hours and is offered only on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 1:15 pm. Because it’s not highly publicized and requires a package to book, you’re almost guaranteed a small group, if not solely your own. There was some initial confusion on where to pick up the vouchers as I was told multiple times over the phone I would get them when checking in, but no such luck. The Cast Member at check-in called Guest Relations at Disney’s Hollywood Studios who told him they understood the vouchers would be mailed to me. No worries, I paid for the experience, so I would just show up as I was directed over the phone, with or without the vouchers.
A couple of days into my trip, however, I was notified there was a letter waiting for my pick-up at the front desk. Sure enough, the vouchers had been delivered to me at my resort. There were three vouchers in all: one for the tour, one for the merchandise and one for the 8×10 photo a Disney’s PhotoPass photographer takes of you on stage.
I met my guide James at Guest Relations inside the park at around 1 pm. Not surprisingly (due to the secrecy), I was the only one on the tour. Of course this only benefited me as I could fire away question after question as I normally do in group tours and the number of people I could alienate was limited to one. Fortunately James didn’t seem to mind.
At around 1:15, we headed up along Hollywood Boulevard to the American Idol Experience where we lined up in a special area of the queue intended for friends and family members of the contestants in the 2:00 show. After some Idol (and some idle) chatter with a little bit of Disney thrown in, we went inside before the crowd and walked across the theater and took our seats. On stage were the show’s three contestants who had their first and only opportunity to perform on stage before the show began. As the contestants performed and were filled-in on last minute details, friends and family members seeped in and sat in a few rows ahead of us.
After the dry-run, the guests were ushered off stage, the attraction’s doors opened, tons of guests poured in and the show happened.
After the performance, James took me around the back of the building, onto Commissary Lane, to take me through the audition process at Studio 2B. By now, all auditions for the day have happened (the process is open from 9 am until 2 pm) and the next show is at 4 pm, so we have a bit of time (but not too much) to explore.
We enter the building which James describes as an ‘imagining’ of how the production studios would look as the real ones are not-quite-as-glamorous trailers. At a flip of a switch, Ryan Seacrest pops up on the video screen and gives me some encouragement about the auditioning process. If I ever decide to audition for real, I know who to thank for my cool nerves.
Capable of auditioning up to four hundred hopefuls per day, there’s four audition rooms (two up front and two on the opposite end of the hallway). James explains the first step in the auditioning process, going into one of these rooms and performing a song A Capella for 30 seconds. It can be any song, but it can’t be an original, so the ‘it’s supposed to sound like a cat being stepped on’ excuse doesn’t fly.
Didn’t make it through? That’s okay, you can try again tomorrow. If you’re one of the chosen who make it through this first stage, it’s over to the Coca-Cola lounge you go. Here hopefuls can pick up an iPod loaded with the songs they can choose to perform during the show, complete with lyrics. They’re advised to pick three songs and take as much time as they need with the iPod before proceeding with the auditioning process — that’s right, it’s not a done deal yet — the hard part is literally right around the corner.
Before we move on to the next phase in the auditioning process, James points out an LCD monitor hanging in the lounge which lists several songs that cannot be chosen. It’s the person the contestant sees next that makes the decision as to what songs become blacklisted. The songs are a combination of songs that have won in prior shows and will be performed again at the day’s finale and songs that the Producer feels would conflict with the overall tempo of the show.
Yes, the Producer. The final stop in the auditioning process. Visiting the Producer means a full audition and interview and hoping the Producer still has a spot available for you in one of the day’s remaining shows. The Producer is charged with making sure the right contestants perform the right songs in the right shows. The contestant is told on the spot if they make it into the show (or if they are an alternate) and when to return. If you’ve seen the show before, you’ll know that the second performer has a video package played prior to the performance. That means seven times a day, an American Idol Experience film crew is producing a unique film package for one contestant in each show. Even if you haven’t seen the show, you may have seen the crew out in the park filming one of the segments. James confides in me that the whole process is so streamlined that if the Producer knows s/he found someone s/he wants for the video package, there’s a button right on his/her laptop that immediately summons the videographer.
The next stop on tour, even the contestants don’t get to see. We really go backstage inside the American Idol Experience and so I can’t show you any photos of what was going on there (actually, because it was between shows, nothing was going on at the time). We literally stepped inside the control room which also houses a full editing bay for those video packages I mentioned earlier. The American Idol Experience is essentially a full high-definition television facility and from the looks of it, it’s obvious Disney spared no expense here. James informs me it’s the largest facility of its kind on property and even lets me in on a couple of other bits of trivia that took even him by surprise (me too!).
Now it’s back to the contestant’s life. Contestants who do appear on stage are asked to show up 70 minutes prior to showtime and we’re approaching just that so we need to get a move on.
James takes me into the ‘green room’ which is where the contestants get to relax a bit before the real fun begins. There are a couple of iPods at the ready just in case the contestants need to freshen up. Here I briefly meet with the Backstage Manager who interfaces with the contestants and really makes the show work.
From this point, the contestants have about half an hour to make it through hair & makeup and meeting with the vocal coaches to make last minute tweaks before the show begins.
As our tour slowly begins to wind down, we move on to ourfinal stop: the stage. It’s here that a Disney’s PhotoPass photographer takes a photo of the individuals taking the tour, center stage, complete with prop mic.
We have just a bit of time so I wander the stage a bit, checking it all out. Immediately I spot one of two Hidden Mickeys that I knew about in the stage decor — the easy one, of course. James helps point out where the other one is, which becomes more obvious when you can identify the lights it’s between. As James points out some of the features of the set (including how it differs from the real thing), he’s reminded of a third Hidden Mickey. A third? Yes, a third. This one however requires that you be all the way to the side of the stage to find it. It is visible from the audience, but it’s tricky. For all we know, there’s probably more. Before long, the PhotoPass folks return with my 8×10 photo — that’s service!
As the contestants for the 4:00 show make their way to the stage to prepare, we’ve come full circle and the tour officially ends. I walk with James back to Guest Relations where I had stored away some things and we part ways.
Right outside the American Idol Experience is the gift shop (who could imagineer something like that?) and this is where I can redeem my third voucher and pick up some merchandise. The package includes: one of a selection of short-sleeved tees, a choice of one of three American Idol awards and a specific American Idol Experience badge/lanyard. It becomes obvious that the merchandise costs Disney a heck of a lot less than they charge for it, so this is really a perception of value issue. And that’s assuming you’d actually buy any of this stuff.
The ‘award’ which retails for almost $15 is plastic and isn’t something I’d personally ever consider buying, nor would I the ID badge (even if I could get my name on it) which they sell for $9. I won’t argue on the t-shirt though.
Merchandise aside, the tour is a really good way for a stage-shy American Idol fan or someone interested in how Disney puts attractions together to see some of the work and detail that goes into pulling off such a big production several times a day, almost back-to-back. The price tag still seems a bit high even with the cost of the t-shirt considered, but I’d be sure I’ve paid more for less before.
If the whole backstage thing isn’t within in your budget, Disney also offers a merchandise-only package titled The Ultimate Fan Experience at half the cost, for $49 per guest. In addition to the merchandise, each paying guest also gets preferred seating to a show of their choice (other than the finale I’d assume).
You can read more about both experiences on the official Walt Disney World website.