On August 30, 2014 The American Idol Experience took its final bow at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Since the attraction opened in February 2009, over 2,000 golden “Dream Tickets” were handed out to park guests who won the most votes for the performances. This ticket allowed them to skip the line at any American Idol television show audition and get straight to the producers since they had already proved their worth at Walt Disney World.
Several Dream Ticket holders made it into the top 12 of American Idol, including Aaron Kelly who finished fifth in the 2010 season, as well as Majesty Rose, Ben Briley and Emily Piriz, who were all finalists in Season 13 of American Idol. In addition, Nolan Sotillo, also a Dream Ticker holder, starred in Disney’s theatrical release “Prom.” From the beginning, this was a very risky, expensive and ground-breaking project between Disney and Fremantle Media, who produces American Idol. The 1,000 seat Superstar Theater, which mostly sat empty for roughly eight years before the Experience moved in, was retrofitted with one of the most expensive stages in theme park history. The building originally housed Superstar Television and Disney’s Doug Live!
In total, 76 miles of cable and over 25 miles of conduit were brought in to make the 25,000 square foot building one of the most high-tech theaters in theme park history. One hundred and thirteen video screens and over 100 speakers were installed between the pre-show, theater and backstage areas.
Part of the appeal was how it mimicked the American Idol live television show experience, complete with three camera operators: Two handheld and one Steadicam. All of this was mixed “live” via an edit bay located in the back of the theater, which is broadcast on not only two oversized screens within the theater, but a jumbo screen that simulcast many of the performances live to guests strolling through the promenade outside.
Ninety-five percent of guests never got to see how much of an operation it was to run the back of the house for the American Idol Experience. Guests above the age of 14 auditioned in three steps. The first was to sing a tune a cappella for a Disney casting director and afterwards received feedback and were told if they would move on to the next round. Round two was a little more intimidating, as the hopefuls picked a song from a pre-approved list, and after practicing a few times with an iPod which had all the music pre-loaded, performed in front of a second director, who gave them the thumbs up to perform on stage in a live show.
Once their show time was assigned, contestants would arrive to the theater about an hour before show time with two other hopefuls. Each contestant rotated into a new prep area and spent roughly 20 minutes with a vocal coach, a hair and makeup stylist and a stage manager to learn basic blocking on the 3,000 square foot stage they would perform on.
The American Idol Experience required five equity actors on stage per show to keep things rolling including: A warm-up comedian, a show host and three judges. While Disney touted that the judges brought their own advice from their careers in the music industry and Broadway, that’s only partially true. In reality, most of these talented performers called the Experience their new home after Pleasure Island closed in 2008.
Most of these actors like Lisa Glaze, Philip Nolen and Mark Daniel hailed from the former Comedy Warehouse at PI. While some resided at the Adventurer’s Club, a few more were plucked from Festival of the Lion King.
Ultimately, between all the talent on stage, as well as backstage, in addition to all the hair and makeup, vocal coaches, cameramen and tech crew, The American Idol Experience cost a pretty penny to stage up to seven times a day. No doubt, it was a huge deciding factor in extending the five-year contract between Disney and Fremantle Media. Also, at the time of the announcement in 2008, American Idol was the number one rated show in America by a huge margin. In 2014, the amount of people who watched the American Idol television finale dropped by over 4 million people than in 2013.
While the television show has been renewed by Fox for a 14th season, the amount of episodes will be trimmed from 50 hours of television down to 37. Most likely only airing once a week instead of twice. The writing seems to be on the wall for the end of the television series as well.
No matter what you thought of The American Idol Experience, I can tell you it was a labor of love for not only the people who created it, but the cast who were there every day. Most of them stayed on throughout the entire five year run. As for the guests, it gave them quite possibly a once in a lifetime experience to sing in front of over a thousand guests live on an extremely high tech stage.
While theme parks must always progress and stay current (Star Wars anyone?), The Experience did have a loyal following and will be missed by many. I recently attended one of the last finale shows and it was several Cast Member’s last day.
Very rarely in Walt Disney World do performers get to acknowledge their co-workers and all the hard work they put in, how much they enjoyed doing the show, or even use their real name when addressing the crowd. American Idol Experience, since it’s based on a reality show, gave performers a rare chance to do just that. Lots of hugs were given and even a few tears were shed. It will be missed by many.