You’d be surprised to learn that even the creative minds at Disney can be caught off-guard at times.
The first inkling I got of that phenomenon came with the unexpected success of the Turtle Talk with Crush attraction in The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion at Epcot. The Nemo-themed show, which features live interaction with lovable turtle dude named Crush, was – and still is – a big hit.
“That one caught us by surprise,” was what one member of the Walt Disney World publicity department told me.
The technology used to create the show was later replicated on the Disney Cruise Line, where diners in Animator’s Palate can interact with the Crushman during their meals.
Another “Don’t look now, but we have a big hit on our hands” moment came in the weeks after the movie Frozen was released in late 2013.
We happened to be walking through Downtown Disney in Disneyland a few days before Frozen was released when we came upon a temporary ice-skating rink set up near the Earl of Sandwich eatery. In addition to the rink, there were small huts nearby, where winter-themed snacks, beverages, and souvenirs could be purchased.
We stopped to chat with a cast member, who told us that the rink was placed there in an effort to hype Frozen, but she felt that promoting the film wasn’t necessary. “Mark my words,” she said, “this movie is going to be HUGE!”
Disney’s Planners Sent Scrambling
And huge it became. So huge, in fact, that Disney’s planners were sent scrambling to meet the demands of suddenly rabid fans of the instant classic.
“Nobody had any idea the movie would be so popular,” was how Bryant Woelk of Disney Creative Entertainment understated it.
In what turned out to be a feeble attempt to meet guests’ demands for Frozen-themed entertainment, it was decided to blend lead characters Elsa and Anna into the afternoon parades at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. But that wasn’t nearly enough.
One Friday afternoon in June of 2014, several members of Disney Creative Entertainment met in the office of George Kalogridis, the president of Walt Disney World resort, who asked them point-blank: “What are we doing for Frozen this summer?”
The answer? An uninspired “Nothing.”
“No,” Kalogridis responded sternly. “What are we DOING for Frozen this summer?”
A Monday morning meeting was called to enable the creative team to present ideas.
The first Frozen-themed show, “Frozen Summer Fun,” debuted in early July, to be followed by Frozen parades and meet-and-greets with many of the movie’s lead characters.
Finally, the Frozen Singalong debuted at the Premiere Theater in Hollywood Studios, which proved to be an instant success.
“I volunteered to do that one,” said Woelk, whose resume includes work on Pleasure Island and the Cinderella Castle projection show.
Woelk, who came up with the concept for the Singalong show in nine hours, used a rear projector, inflatable balloons to create frozen fractals and faux snow falling from above as part of his in-theater special effects.
One aspect of the show – when Elsa is revealed during the grand finale – was originally taken out during pre-production. But Woelk says he fought long and hard to have it brought back. “I take credit for that,” he said.
Frozen Sing-a-long Moved to a Permanent Home
In June of 2015, the Frozen Singalong was moved to a permanent location, the site of the former SuperStar Television and American Idol Experience shows.
According to Woelk, tearing down the American Idol set and transforming it into an Arendele snow scene “was a six-week process. One of the biggest challenges was transforming the 40-foot Idol stage into a new stage that’s 90 feet wide.”
While guests could sing along with the Frozen gang in Hollywood Studios, young princesses had the opportunity to pose with Elsa and Anna in the Princess Fairytale Hall in the Magic Kingdom [remember the insanely long lines for that meet-and-greet when it first opened?]
The final piece of the Frozen park initiative came in 2016 in Epcot, where the Norway pavilion was re-imagined into a Frozen-themed attraction. The placement of Frozen Ever After made sense, since the fictional Arendele is set in Norway.
Frozen Ever After replaced Maelstrom, which had been an Epcot fixture since 1988.
The designers kept the boat ride aspect of Maelstrom, but opted to insert new Audio-Animatronics figures of all of Frozen’s main characters along the route. In addition, the songs from the movie were re-recorded by the original cast specifically for the attraction.
The planners also created Royal Sommerhus, an authentic chateau on the Norway grounds where Elsa and Anna could greet their many fans and pose for photos.
While the park transformation was complete, Disney’s commitment to Frozen would go beyond the parks, all the way to Broadway in New York City.
Frozen, the Broadway musical, opened at the St. James Theatre in March of 2018 and has been wowing audiences of all ages ever since.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who wrote the award-winning score for the film, composed several new songs for the Broadway show … songs which only enhanced the overall production.
[Of note: Anderson-Lopez and her husband composed the songs for “Finding Nemo: The Musical” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom].
Broadway veteran Caissie Levy gives a stunning performance as Elsa, with the unquestioned highlight coming at the end of Act 1 as she offers her impassioned version of “Let It Go.” Ms. Levy, who recently headlined at Carnegie Hall, also has released a solo album, With You.
Patti Murin, another Broadway veteran, is delightful as Anna, bringing a sense of humor and charm, as well as pure talent, to the role.
Also included in the cast is Kevin Del Aguila, who plays the hilarious Oaken. Interestingly, Del Aguila was the voice of one of the Trolls in the original Frozen movie.
The special effects employed during the show enhance the performance immeasurably, from the frozen fractals that appear periodically on stage, to the stunning ice bridge where Anna and Kristof “fall” for each other, to Elsa’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it costume change from princess to ice queen in the middle of “Let It Go.”
The show also employs puppetry to bring life to both Olaf [controlled and voiced by Ryann Redmond] and Sven the reindeer [Adam Jepsen].
With the release of Frozen 2 on the horizon, it’s safe to say the Frozen phenomenon will continue.
And it’s also safe to assume that Disney’s creative staff won’t be caught off-guard should the movie prove to be a huge success.
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