The American Idol Experience, Tips from a Mom

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During my most recent visit to Walt Disney World, my daughter Josie performed on stage at the American Idol Experience (AIE) at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). This was, as you might imagine, a fantastic experience – truly one of the most entertaining days we’ve had a Disney World, and for me that’s really saying something.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the attraction, AIE is simulation of the American Idol television program. Park guests can audition with “casting directors” and “producers” to perform on a set designed to look like the real American Idol stage, in a theater which holds about 1,000 people. Guests who pass several rounds of auditions are invited to perform in one of five or so daily shows. The winners of each of the daytime shows can compete in an evening show – the winner of which gets a “FastPass” to audition before a producer of the real American Idol TV program.

All three of my daughters take voice lessons and are members of several vocal groups, but Josie is the one with aspirations for pop solo performance. When we first visited AIE five years ago, then nine-year-old Josie immediately said, “I have to do that,” and really meant it – she counted the days until she would be old enough to be on stage at AIE.

If you’ve got a performer in your house with a yen to rock the crowd at Disney World, here are some tips you might find helpful in getting your star up on stage.

Try It Out BEFORE You’re Old Enough to Perform

We had long known that the minimum age to perform in AIE is 14 (Josie had done her research), but last year I happened to overhear my friend Wes mention that his eight-year-old daughter had auditioned. Confused, I asked him to explain and he said that while, yes, actual performers had to be 14, anyone could go through the first audition phase just for fun.

Armed with this tidbit of info, Josie insisted that we take her to try out for practice during a DHS visit when she was 13, which we did. The knowledge gained here ended up being incredibly helpful for her “real” audition a year later at age 14. Plus, just seeing the initial phase of the process made Jo much less nervous when it counted. Knowing what to expect took much of the edge off.

Confidence Plays a Big Role in Selection

Getting hints from a vocal coach before the show.

Getting hints from a vocal coach before the show.

When Josie did her trial-run audition at age 13, she sang beautifully, but was pretty nervous. The “casting director” was kind (all the cast members at AIE are), but also offered what turned out to be a key bit of constructive criticism: have confidence when you’re speaking, not just when you’re singing.

In the first audition room, prospective performers must sing a cappella 30 seconds of any song of their choice. In addition to this, the casting director will engage the applicant in brief conversation. The questions are softballs, things like, “Where are you from?” “What kind of music do you like?” “How long have you been singing?” There are no right answers, what they’re looking for is personality. Will you be engaging on stage?

During the interview part of the mock audition, Josie turned around several times, looking for encouragement or verification of information from me. The casting director told her that if she were to perform in the real show, she’d have to speak for herself in the audition room. Great advice!

Warm Up in Advance

There’s no prep area before the audition, so if you need to warm up, you’re going to have to do it on your own.

On the day of her real audition, we headed to DHS first thing in the morning. To prepare, Josie did a bunch of vocal exercises in the shower when she woke up and then did all sorts of scales and throat noises in the car on the way from Port Orleans to the park. I had not yet had any coffee and I kinda wanted to strangle her (’cause that’s the way moms of teenage girls may feel from time to time) for making so many interesting noises first thing in the morning, but she knew what she needed to do and stuck with it.

They do your hair and makeup for the stage.

They do your hair and makeup for the stage.

Get There Early

The first AIE show typically runs at about noon (times vary). This means that in the first two hours of the park being open, they’ve got to find three competent singers to perform. (It takes about an hour to prep once you’re selected.) Just running the numbers, it’s clear that you’ll have less competition for the three slots on the first show than you will for, say, the 4:00pm show, when they’ve had more like six hours to find singers.

We arrived at DHS at rope drop and proceeded directly to the audition area, located near the ABC Commissary. They took Josie in to audition almost immediately.

An Adult Needs to Be Present if a Minor Auditions

Anyone under age 18 must have a parent or guardian with them during all parts of the audition process – that’s why I was in the room with Josie while she tried out. I watched a very disappointed 17-year-old get turned away from an audition because he was there with friends, not his family. Kids who are at DHS with a school group or similar should not expect to be able to try out.

If your child is chosen to move forward with the process, the accompanying parent or guardian could be occupied for quite some time, so plan accordingly.

Other Family Members Are Not Allowed in the Audition Process

While one parent needs to stay with an auditioning child, other family members are not allowed to be present during the audition. (The audition rooms are fairly small.) This was a bit of an issue for us because on this trip where Josie really auditioned, the only people in our party were me, Josie, and Jo’s twin sister Louisa. Despite the fact that Louisa was also a minor, they wouldn’t let her come into the audition room with us. She was required to wait outside. This wasn’t a huge problem, Louisa was a teen who had been to Disney World numerous times. She had a cell phone and was familiar with the park. But still, it wasn’t gobs of fun for her to be left alone for an indeterminate amount of time. A family with just one adult and younger children would have a real dilemma.

Pre-show blocking instruction from the stage manager.

Pre-show blocking instruction from the stage manager.

Get Familiar with the Song List in Advance

For her a cappella song audition, Josie chose to sing Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” Your first audition song can be anything, “Happy Birthday” works as well as any pop/rock/country song at this stage of the game. “Mean” was a song she had performed at a show on stage at school, so she was fully prepped and nailed it in the audition room.

The casting director then engaged Jo in the “where are you from” chit chat. Having learned her lesson from the mock audition a year earlier, Josie looked the casting director in the eye, smiled, and answered in a loud clear voice, without seeking any support from me. This certainly played a role in the selection process. They simply can’t have shrinking violets on stage in a massive auditorium.

Right away, the casting director handed Josie a list of the approved show performance songs and asked her, “If you were to move forward, which two songs would you most like to sing from this list.” Jo had spent a looong time studying the list online and was immediately able to mention the two she had chosen in advance and practiced at home. Again, this showed her confidence and ability to think on her feet. (And honestly, Jo would be the first to admit that she is not particularly good at thinking on her feet in general, so advance preparation was key here.)

Be Aware of Age Appropriateness

The two songs from the list that Josie had practiced (over and over and over) at home were another Taylor Swift song “The Story of Us” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” “Before He Cheats” was the song that Jo had worked on most at home, but the casting director wouldn’t even let her sing it for an audition because of the age inappropriate nature of the lyrics. (What, 14-year-olds aren’t supposed to sing about drinking whiskey and getting lucky?) She chose yet another Swift song, “Our Song,” instead. She was quite familiar with this one, but hadn’t really sung it much before.

Getting introduced by the host.

Getting introduced by the host.

Be Able to Roll with the Punches

Josie did well enough at the first stage to be invited to move forward. We were shown into the “Coke Red Room” which is a lounge area stocked with iPods. The iPods are loaded with the tracks on the song list, both with vocals and the karaoke-like versions that are used during the actual show. Prospective performers can sit here and listen to the key and pacing of the AIE versions of the songs, which are not exactly like the radio versions.

At the Red Room, we quickly learned that “The Story of Us” (the second of the two pieces she had prepared at home) was included on a fairly extensive list of songs that were currently unavailable for performance. This meant that both the songs that Josie had prepared were off the table. Prospective performers are required to do two songs at the second audition round. Jo ended up working on Demi Lovato’s “This is Me” in the Red Room to get ready, as well as “Our Song” which she had selected a few minutes before. In addition to some songs randomly appearing on the in-house “no fly” list, others will be off limits because they’ve been used earlier in the day. (They do not allow the same song to be used in the show more than once in the same day). To be on the safe side, you may want to get comfortable with four or five of the approved show songs before auditioning.

In the Red Room, some prospective performers will just listen to the music while others will practice or vocalize to get a practical feel for this take on the song. There’s not a specific amount of time you’re allowed to spend here, but they do want to keep things moving. Jo spent about 20 minutes, which I think was on the long side of typical.

While Jo was rehearsing, I had to sign a bunch of waivers and legal paperwork. As bystander mom, I was a bit of a nervous mess at this point. I may have signed ownership of my house over to Disney. I really have no idea.

Carrie Underwood "talks" to Josie, encouraging her to follow her dreams.

Carrie Underwood “talks” to Josie, encouraging her to follow her dreams.

You Have to Be Able to Sing Without Hearing Yourself

The second audition is with a “producer” in what surely must have been a soundproof room. The producer asked Josie to sing her two songs into a microphone along with the show’s instrumental backing. Makes sense, right? OK, but the music is turned up to some ungodly decibel level such that when I was sitting literally four feet away from Josie, I could not hear that she was speaking. If I hadn’t seen her mouth move, I would have had no idea she had even started. The producer must have been able to hear her through the mike via the headphones he was wearing.

I later asked Josie if she had been able to hear herself at that point and she said, “No way.”

If this is something that will disorient you, you may want to practice at home singing with no auditory feedback. Perhaps record yourself singing while blasting music through noise-cancelling headphones and see what happens.

When Josie finished singing, the producer’s face was inscrutable, but after a moment he said, “Someone has a message for you,” and a video of Ryan Seacrest appeared saying, “Congratulations, you’re going to be on the show.” The producer told her that she sounded better on “Our Song” and that’s what she would be singing in the song. They choose, not you.

Practice Self Care

It was now just after 10:00 a.m. and Josie was told that she would be performing on the 12:15 show. We would have to be back at the theater at 11:05 for preparation and on-stage rehearsal. They really only wanted Josie and me to come back at 11:05 and I had to beg to get Louisa included in our “backstage pass.” She had already been left alone in the park for an hour and I didn’t want her to have to spend her entire morning by herself.

Josie had about an hour to kill, which I made her use to eat something, drink some warm tea, and take a lap around the park to shake off some nerves. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself and your family at this point. Depending on your audition time and your show placement, you may have anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to wait. Some performers may even choose to go back to the room and take a nap.

Singing her heart out under the bright lights.

Singing her heart out under the bright lights.

Do Some Marketing

While Josie was sipping her tea, I tweeted some “vote for Jo” messages and emailed a few acquaintances we knew who were also vacationing at Disney World. Because there was a relatively short time before her performance, our friends couldn’t make it from the Magic Kingdom to DHS in time for the show, but performers in later shows may be able to rally a larger cheering section. You never know who will know someone touring the parks, so tell everyone and see what happens. A few votes may make a big difference.

Be Willing to Scrap Your Plans for the Rest of the Day

Not knowing whether Josie would actually pass the audition phase, I had made several FastPass+ ride reservations for the morning. While Josie was eating, I was able to use the My Disney Experience app on my iPhone to change some of these to afternoon slots.

If you are chosen to perform, you’re not going to have much say in the schedule. I was lucky to be able to switch our Toy Story FP+ time so there was no real impact, but if you’ve got something else you must do (dinner at the Royal Table, for example), you may want to audition on a different day.

Things Move Fast

When we returned to the AIE studio at 11:05, Josie had about an hour to meet with a vocal/movement coach for performance tips, get hair and makeup done, rehearse on stage, get blocking instructions from the stage manager, get wired to an electronic tracking device (for the spotlight), and generally become familiar with the staging process. The Disney cast members are extremely nice, but there’s not a lot of time for questions. You have to be on your game.

Post-show bonding with the judges.

Post-show bonding with the judges.

Family Members Need to Give the Performer Some Space

I’m a mom, so it’s my usually job to give my kids lots of random advice. (They’ll likely ignore me, but it’s my job to advise.) AIE is a situation where Mom advice cannot possibly help. Josie was already bombarded with information and new stimuli, clearly my typical mom intervention was going to do more harm than good. I had to bite my lip to stop from saying things like, “Sit up straighter on the stool,” and “Smile more, sweetie.” Doing so might have pushed her over the edge into deer-in-the-headlights territory. Let the professionals do their job.

Video Recording is Not Allowed

While AIE audience members are allowed to take as many non-flash photos as they like, video recording is prohibited. Especially since Josie’s dad and older sister were not with us on this trip, I really wanted to capture her performance on video. Despite admonitions, I attempted to record video of Jo’s on-stage rehearsal (I’m such a rebel) and was shot down big time by an audience police cast member. In retrospect, I now know that they watch the performers’ family members pretty carefully (they’re seated together in a special section of the audience), but they don’t really keep an eye on the camera behaviors of anyone else. If we’re ever in this situation again, I’ll have a conspirator sit elsewhere in the audience to try to get some covert film. Shhhh, don’t tell.

Personality REALLY Matters

Josie did a wonderful job on stage, but did not end up winning her show. The competitor who won was fairly pitchy (my toooootally unbiased opinion), but had an incredible personality. He performed a One Direction song in which added a rap and rewrote lyrics to be about visiting Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He was animated and energetic and worked the audience within an inch of his life. He was just fun to watch. Here, as in many performing venues, interesting and engaging are as equally important, if not more important, than good.

A photo with her adoring fans :-)

A photo with her adoring fans :-)

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again

The gentleman who won Josie’s show told us that he had auditioned several times before making it on stage, and had performed twice before he actually won. After performing and losing, he figured out just how much he need to amp up his performance style to win. We heard a similar story from an audience member who spoke to Josie after the show. She found this all extremely encouraging and will certainly use this information to give it another shot when she’s back down at Disney World in a few months.

Disney People are Nice People

Without fail, every person we encountered during this experience was friendly, kind, and enthusiastic (well, maybe not the video police guy, but I’m giving him a pass). This includes the “casting director” and “producer,” the vocal coach, the cosmetologist, the host, the judges (even the faux “Simon” judge), the other contestants, and the audience.

As a parent, you’re always worried about your child getting embarrassed or having her heart broken. And I confess that at a few points during the audition phase, my stomach was churning more watching her and waiting than it would have been if I had been auditioning myself. But at each step, I truly felt like everyone present wanted her to succeed as much as she, and I, did.

For Josie, I think her favorite part was after the show, when we were walking out of the theater. A group of girls stopped her on the “street” to gush about her performance. “You were so great!” “You should have won!” “We voted for you!” “Can we get a photo with you!” Jo was completely tickled by all the attention. It was a real star moment for a regular girl, one that I know she’ll look back on fondly for quite some time.

I’m sure you can tell that I’m pretty proud of my kid for having the guts to get up on stage in front of all those strangers. More importantly, I was proud of her motivation to set a goal and then research and practice enough to achieve it.

I have a lot of fantastic Disney memories. This one has taken place at the top of the list.

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Posted on March 7, 2014

9 Responses to “The American Idol Experience, Tips from a Mom”

  • Way to go, Josie! I hope to get to see you perform on stage one of these days! Thanks for sharing this experience, Erin. Great post!

  • Josie rocks! I’m so proud of her determination and confidence…the pressure must be very heavy! That young lady is definitely going to be successful in anything she does. Wish I could have seen her performance:)

  • “(What, 14-year-olds aren’t supposed to sing about drinking whiskey and getting lucky?)”

    I applaud this attraction’s Cast Members for their sense of decency and respect for youth and their insistence on starry-eyed parents not being able to bend said rules.

  • I normally skim the TP blog in my daily reader but I read through this entirely. Thanks for sharing, cool experience. I have always skipped AIE and was kinda starting to wonder what I’ve been missing. Cool stuff, congrats to your daughter.

  • This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing your/Josie’s experience! I have never been to an AIE show before, and probably never will unless I know someone performing. What a great experience for Josie, definitely a confidence builder!

  • GREAT article, Erin. I know you could not be more proud of Josie. As always, I just loved reading every word of your experience. Here’s to Josie’s next audition!

  • Thanks for the fabulous article, Erin. My 14-year-old daughter has had aspirations for the AIE as well, but was always too young in our previous visits. It will finally be her time to try when our family is there in November! We’ll be armed with the insider’s take, thanks to you! And congrats to your daughter! =)

  • Thanks Erin! I’ve done this twice and both times got to the stage but didn’t win my round. It was great fun though and, as you say, everyone is really encouraging. I think the hardest part was the bright lights in my eyes! You do have to be prepared to give up a good part of your day in the park, but I’ve never considered HS a full day park, so that wasn’t a big deal for me.