Six Decades of School Music at Disney

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • September 15, 2015

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The Magic of Disney is at the heart of the creation and ongoing growth and management of its Disney Performing Arts programs from coast to coast.

If you have noticed a lot of attention being paid to Disney in SBO lately, well, it’s for good reason. This year, 2015, marks the 60th year that Disney has engaged an impossible-to-count number of school music programs in its parks to give students unprecedented performance opportunities in front of an equally impossible-to-count audience that must number in the hundreds of millions over six decades. Like so many millions before me, I too went to the parks with my high school music program, but this was unfortunately before so many exciting opportunities existed for students at the parks. It’s a great time to be a band student making a trip to a Disney park.

From its beginning in 1955 at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., to its spectacular, ever-expanding Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Fla., to today, the visiting school music programs experience not only public performances in front of audiences with high expectations held in amazing venues and settings, but also in-depth workshops and stellar competitions opportunities. 

For more than a quarter of a century now, Disney has offered educational workshops that over the years have expanded to include instrumental, dance, vocal and theater. They’ve even worked directly with NAfME in a partnership to insure that their programs address and meet national core arts standards.


But beyond these one-in-a-lifetime opportunities created by Disney for school music and arts educators, an annual class trip to Disney has become a rite of passage for multiple generations of students and even their band directors. Former-students-turned-band-directors across the country continue to take their students to Disney so their students can have the same experience they had as a band student. 

I’ve often hear it said from Disney-visiting band directors that their program’s annual excursions to these storied parks make great recruiting tools for students on the fence about joining band. Its no secret that some students sign up for band and choral programs, in no small part, just because they know they will get to participate in a trip to a Disney park, no doubt unaware of the amazing musical educational experience that awaits them when they arrive. 

I had the pleasure of making a couple of trips to Orlando, Fla. this year to witness both choral and band workshops put on by Disney Performing Arts, and can testify that what I witnessed were really first-class educational experiences. The Disney instructors that I saw conducting the workshops kept students so riveted with their presentations that I didn’t see anyone looking at their phones to see how long it would be until they could get out and explore the parks. No bored faces, or yawning in the workshops I observed. I viewed some stellar performances in the Main Street Parades, and witnessed the Festival Disney performance of a concert band that then received really great advice from an adjudicator that was right on their grade level of understanding, and well received by both the band and its director. 


Basically, everything Disney delivers in these workshops, performance opportunities and its festival competitions is professionally produced and up to the quality you would expect from this company. In addition to being able to take a look at the various offerings from Disney Performing Arts, perhaps the most telling part for me was meeting the team behind the programs. This is an extremely dedicated group of people whose passions are music and education and wrapping the “Disney Magic” around the two things to create an unparalleled experience for students fortunate enough to make the journey to Anaheim or Orlando with their school music program. 

I enjoyed this conversation with Betsy Ervin, Team Leader for Disney Performing Arts, and Tim Hill, the Director of Disney Youth Programs, where I would learn more about what goes on behind the scenes to manage these programs, how they provide educational components, and how their teams work with educators to make sure visiting students always have an awesome experience.

Can you talk a little bit about how performances at Disneyland and Disney World Resorts have evolved in the past 60 years? What are some of the milestones and changes that have happened over that time?

Tim Hill: From Disneyland Resort’s opening in 1955 to Walt Disney World Resort’s opening in 1971 and to the present day, Disney Performing Arts has evolved into the program that it is today by expanding to include performing groups of all genres. Additionally, Disney Performing Arts has gone through several name changes since its inception, such as the International Festival Programs, the Pageant Program and, perhaps the most well-known Disney Magic Music Days. 

Originally, the program attracted only marching bands. These bands had the opportunity to march down Main Street, U.S.A. Over time, stage groups started to reach out to us, asking about possible experiences they might be able to participate in here at Disney, and we saw a great opportunity to include more performing arts students.

Interestingly enough, as the program continued to grow, it was our guests who asked about the potential opportunity for their students to interact with and learn from professional entertainers in our parks. We got to work and began creating workshops just for them.

Performance opportunities have actually been going on since pretty much day one, right? Schools and groups have been able to bring their marching band and audition and sign up to be in the Main Street Parade since 1955 at Disneyland and since 1971 when Disney World opened, right?

Tim Hill: Guest performing groups have been a part of the Disney Parks culture since the very beginning in 1955. It is a very rich and important part of our company history. 

Mike, you talked before about your visit to Walt Disney World and how you met Cast Members who couldn’t wait to share their “I marched with my high school band here” or “I performed here with my high school choir” stories with you. It’s truly spectacular what this program does from a Cast Member recruitment standpoint. 

I was one of those students. In 1979, with my high school band, I marched on Main Street, and it was my first experience ever at a Disney Park. And look where I am now! I built my career here. But my story is not unique. You’ll hear the same story over and over again. 

I grew up in a rural part of North Carolina, where my family didn’t have the funds to vacation here. But we sure sold a lot of candles and cheese, set up car washes and did everything we could to get the band here. About 75 percent of our band members had never been to Walt Disney World when we marched that first time. 

We know this is true for many of our groups today. So many of these performers have never had the opportunity to travel beyond their city limits, and when they arrive here, it is an awe-inspiring experience. Beyond what they will learn through their performance, workshop or festival experience, they learn a lot about becoming an independent adult just by taking the trip. 

So how have genre changes in school music affected any of your performance opportunities? Fifty years ago, there wasn’t really a jazz band program in high schools.

Tim Hill: Many genres are changing these days but marching band parade performances has stayed very true to their roots. This kind of performance is an iconic art form that works well in any decade and gives our guests a wholesome hometown feel. I think this is one of the reasons marching band performances in our parades work so well with the entertainment in our parks. 

Betsy Ervin: Our stage groups are definitely evolving with the changing culture of the arts in schools today. We are seeing more multicultural ensembles like steel drum bands or mariachi groups. Many schools are also offering classes that incorporate guitar ensembles, a cappella groups, and rock bands, and we’re starting to see more of those groups in our workshops and on our stages. 

NAfME is an endorser of your program. Did you work with them to address core standards? 

Tim Hill: Our team has done an incredible job of putting together a document detailing the new National Core Arts Standards and how they align with our program. It is an amazing body of work that has taken countless hours to put together, and I think it will be really well received by teachers. We are doing everything we can to help them meet their daily classroom goals by using the Disney Parks as an interactive classroom. 

Tell me about the overall approach that Disney takes to education with its youth programs. 

Tim Hill: Groups love visiting Disney Parks and teachers love using our environment for learning. However, we recognize that travel is becoming increasingly scrutinized by school administrators and school boards as they examine how or why a student should be released from school for a fieldtrip. With that said, we work to help teachers justify trips with Disney Performing Arts.

To do this, we’ve partnered with great organizations that can help us better understand how we fulfill the commitment to education. But like everything we do at Disney, we want to make the experiences fun and enriching. The guiding principle we use for every element of the program is to create an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world – an experience that is uniquely Disney. 

Let’s talk about the performing arts program. I was really blown away by everything I saw, from the competition and festivals, to workshops and performances. The Teaching Artists with both workshops I saw were fabulous. They kept the students on the edge of their seats. How does Disney find these amazing Teaching Artists?

Betsy Ervin: The Teaching Artists you’ve seen are absolutely representative of the quality of all of our Teaching Artists. The first things we look for in a Teaching Artist are strong musical skills in their genre. We look for great musicians or great performers but most importantly, we look for great teachers. We look for professionals with diverse backgrounds and experiences they can share with the students. We want to ensure that each Teaching Artist can provide a quality, educational experience while bringing that special Disney energy and quality entertainment to the workshop.

Tim Hill: We are very keen on guest satisfaction here at Disney. We really want to know what our guests think about their experiences here. We survey every group that participates in our program. We review their feedback and use it as an opportunity to continue to improve each aspect of Disney Performing Arts.

The surveys also give us an opportunity to benchmark the experiences that make the biggest impact on our guests. Overwhelmingly, guest directors express that the Teaching Artists’ passion, spirit and enthusiasm are the greatest impacts on their groups. Workshops are the fastest growing segment with Disney Performing Arts on both coasts. When I look back to even 10 years ago, I’m amazed at how much the workshops have developed and evolved. 

Is there an opportunity for the band director to request different workshop pieces or cartoons or things to score? Or is it typically left to chance what the director decides with the teacher what they’re going to do?

Betsy Ervin: It’s a little bit of both. For our “You’re Instrumental!” workshop, we do have a lot of animated scenes to choose from, but not all pieces are appropriate for all groups. We take into consideration the ability level and the instrumentation of the group. 

Ultimately, we choose a piece that’s going to challenge the students while making them feel successful when it is played back to them. And most importantly, we want them to leave with a final product that they are proud to take home and show to their administration and their parents. 

A lot of our groups come back, and we pride ourselves on having a wealth of Disney content from which to choose, assuring they have a unique experience each time. 

On the day I visited one of the Disney Performing Arts workshops and watched the group warm up, the Disney instructor really didn’t know for sure what piece he was going to have the group do until he saw them play? 

Betsy Ervin: Yes, that is correct. The first half of the session is when the Teaching Artists assess the groups’ strengths.

I don’t think they had a clue they were being assessed in that capacity. I think that’s actually genius! They just slid right into the second half of it and got to work on scoring it. I thought it was spectacular. You have middle school bands up to college bands coming in for the workshops?

Betsy Ervin: We can customize the experience for bands and orchestras from middle school to college.

What is your high season for the workshop programs? And does it differ from competitions, festivals and performance? 

Betsy Ervin: March and April are the months of our high season.

Tim Hill: That is the busiest time for both coasts at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort. 

Is there any difference in what’s offered at Disneyland versus Disney World? 

Tim Hill: The concepts we are teaching are the same on both coasts. Wherever they are, we want the experience to be entertaining, educational and inspiring for the students. We often hear from the group leaders that what the Teaching Artists teach reinforces the same concepts being taught in the classroom every day but it resonates better when they’re in a Disney environment and they’re hearing it from a different voice. The students go back to school valuing what they have learned from that teacher even more.

There are a few programs we offer on both coasts that are unique. For example, at Disneyland Resort, we have a puppet workshop that teaches the basics of puppetry and team-building. 
I’ve seen your facilities in Orlando. What’s different physically about the location in Anaheim?

Tim Hill: We pride ourselves in having great facilities on both coasts. 

Tell me about Festival Disney.

Tim Hill: Festival Disney is a competitive festival, although groups can choose to come and play non-competitively, too. The guiding principle behind Festival Disney is to offer a unique experience that differentiates itself from other competitions around the country. We keep the program fresh with handpicked, carefully selected adjudicators. Not only are the visiting groups getting adjudicated, but at the end of their performance, one of the adjudicators will go on-stage and offer personal feedback. These are very unique moments for the students to interact with a college-level band director or choir director. We want this to be a very positive experience for all. 

What is the Disney life cycle of an adjudicator?

Tim Hill: The adjudicators sign up for a year, but there are many we invite back. We believe we have some of the best adjudicators in the nation. 

Is your selection process for adjudicators then as stringent as it is for your instructors at your workshops?

Tim Hill: Absolutely! We want the best. We also know this is a big opportunity for those adjudicators. They’re representing their college music programs and they use these opportunities to recruit. 

Where will the festival be held next year at Walt Disney World?

Tim Hill: We will be using a variety of venues for the 2016 season including the Ballroom of the Americas at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Saratoga Springs Performance Hall, and Atlantic Dance Hall at Disney’s BoardWalk. We try to keep everything we can on property or in very close proximity to Disney property. We don’t want groups to have to travel all over Orlando or Orange County to perform. This expedites their ability to get back into our theme parks quicker and gives them a more complete experience. They are not just in a school auditorium. These are unique and special Disney venues that they wouldn’t have back home or at other festivals.

What does the season for Festival Disney look like?

Tim Hill: The Festival Disney season usually lasts eight to ten weekends. It usually depends when Easter falls that particular year. 

So … prime season for workshops is generally the prime season for those competitions also? Do you find they typically bundle one or all three? 

Tim Hill: Many groups will bundle but we work with groups to make sure they don’t take on too much. Participating in a Disney Performing Arts performance, a workshop and Festival Disney (which automatically comes with a special Festival Disney Awards Ceremony) may be too much for a three- or four-day trip. We talk with the visiting directors and ask them if they are leaving enough time to enjoy our world class theme parks. The exposure in our theme parks to professional entertainment is just as valuable as experiencing workshops and performances. When a choral group sees The Voices of Liberty at the Magic Kingdom, they are seeing one of the best choral groups in the country. A band in the Magic Kingdom can see the Main Street Philharmonic. The students are seeing some of the best musicians in the country. We have incredibly talented people. Many of the performers in these talented groups end up being our Teaching Artists in front of the students. 

If you’ve got an overambitious band director who has never been to Disney before and wants to sign up for all three opportunities, you’re going to try to make sure the experiences are right. That might mean saying, “Hey, maybe don’t try to do all three of these things.” This isn’t about revenue for Disney. It’s about the best experience.

Tim Hill: Absolutely. We recognize the value of this program far exceeds the revenue it drives. It truly inspires students and musical educators. Group leaders tell us the reason they still have a band program is because of the Disney experiences. Planning a trip to Disney can help with recruiting and retention in many performing arts programs. We don’t take that responsibility lightly. For us, it really is about providing an incredible, well-rounded educational experience. 

I tried to put myself in the place of a choral director or band director on each of my visits to the workshops. I can’t imagine bringing a band there without doing some reconnaissance work. Do you have any programs or offer opportunities for band directors to come and get a look before they leap into the programs?

Tim Hill: Many directors actually come here on their own to see what our programs offer. Additionally, many of our youth tour operators will bring new band directors or choir directors on a site visit to give them a little snippet of what our workshops or performances look like. They also help them understand what Festival Disney is all about. We’ll walk them through the process and show them our facilities. They go back to the school with an understanding of what we offer.

Do you recruit heavily from music educators or majors? Is everybody you’re hiring for planning and development and implementation all coming from an educational background with music?

Tim Hill: Everyone has a passion for the arts and teaching our students. Betsy’s team is unbelievable. They are a roomful of truly dedicated and enthusiastic people. This company believes in the program and what it does for music education and the arts. 

My concierge at the Grand Floridian Hotel came here with his marching band. I talked to people at every level – from custodial to front desk to restaurant who first came here with a music program, and saw a whole big, new world outside of the town they lived. I think it’s interesting to see how Disney has recruited from the educational community. Betsy was sharing with me that she first came down as a choral director, and here she is now with the Disney Performing Arts program.

Tim Hill: We get a lot of directors who inquire with us when they’re nearing the point in their career when they must decide to retire or continue to teach. They talk to us about the opportunities that exist at Disney with this program. I, myself, was a Music Education major but I never taught. 

When you think about the number of students that we’ve had the ability to impact over the years, it’s daunting. We’ve reached more students at Disney than one could have ever reach in a lifetime of teaching. 

Betsy Ervin: Reaching these students is exactly why I love to work here at Disney Performing Arts.

SBO salutes Disney for its six decades of commitment to school music education and its continuing mission to expand educational offerings at its parks. 

Milestones in Music Education at Disney 

  • July 17, 1955: Disneyland Park opens in Anaheim, Calif. Guest talent groups such as the United States Marine Band and the Boy Scouts of America welcome the crowds with performances in the first-ever Disney Parks parade. 
  • October 1, 1971: Walt Disney World Resort opens in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Central Florida high school marching bands combine to form a 1,076-piece band and welcome Disney World Resort’s first guests. 
  • 1975: Disneyland Music Festival debuts as Disney’s first formal performance program. The program was originally created out of necessity to feature a daily marching band in Disney’s United States Bicentennial celebration: America on Parade. After the parade’s run in 1975 and 1976, the program continued on both coasts.
  • 1987: Disney Magic Music Days launches at Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort to offer school and community groups the opportunity to contribute to Disney Parks’ world-class entertainment. 
  • 1989: Disney Magic Music Days launches its first workshop, “Symphony Soundtracks.” Today, workshops have expanded across four disciplines: instrumental, dance, vocal and theater. 
  • October 1, 1996: The 1,076-piece marching band’s performance from 1971 is recreated in celebration of Walt Disney World Resort’s 25th anniversary. 
  • 2004: Festival Disney launches at Walt Disney World and goes on to become one of the nation’s leading music festivals. 
  • 2005: Yamaha becomes the Official Supplier of Musical Instruments to the Disneyland Resort.
  • 2006: Conn-Selmer becomes the Official Instruments of Disney Magic Music Days at Walt Disney World Resort. 
  • 2008: Disney Magic Music Days honors its 2 millionth performer with a celebration on Main Street, U.S.A. and a Cinderella Castle Suite stay at Walt Disney World for her and her family.
  • 2009: In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Disney Magic Music Days, Disney Youth Programs and Walt Disney Animation Studios partnered with Conn-Selmer to create one-of-a-kind, hand-painted string basses for auction. The Disney Art for Music proceeds were donated to the GRAMMY Foundation in support of music education. 
  • 2009: Steinway & Sons becomes the Official Pianos of the Walt Disney World Resort Performing Arts.
  • 2010: Disney Magic Music Days is renamed Disney Performing Arts in an effort to include theatre groups.
  • 2011: Wenger Corporation becomes the Official Acoustical and Performance Equipment for Disney Performing Arts.
  • 2013: The GRAMMY Foundation officially endorses Disney Performing Arts.
  • 2014: Along with the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), and Big Machine Label Group, Disney Performing Arts launches the Music In Our Schools Tour with a cross-country bus tour to promote music education.

“Did You Know?”
Disney Meets National Core Arts Standards
Launched in 2014 by a coalition of educators and arts organizations, including the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), the National Core Arts Standards were designed to support artistic literacy and help improve the quality of an American arts education for students in grades Pre-K through 12.  

From lesson plans to fieldtrips and performances, teachers can use these standards to maintain and expand the arts within their schools.
Since the launch of the new standards, which were last updated in 1994, Disney Performing Arts program coordinators and content experts from all disciplines have worked to examine how OnStage Performances, Workshops and Festival Disney events meet these standards. Following this study, documents were created to illustrate which standards are met in each program.

These interactive tools include enduring understandings and essential questions related to the standards to further demonstrate how Disney can provide a first-class educational experience. Teachers planning fieldtrips and accompanying lesson plans can use these resources to initiate, validate and support exciting and meaningful trips with Disney Performing Arts. 

“Disney Performing Arts programs are the only programs to have earned NAfME endorsement. The content is aligned with standard-based music education, which makes these experiences even more valuable for directors and students,” said Jane Mell Balek, Assistant Executive Director of the National Association for Music Education.

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