Tim Hill

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • March 20, 2017

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Few people in the history of music education can say their work has directly impacted the lives of countless music students from all over the world. For 27 years, Tim Hill worked for the Disney corporation, managing the Disney Performing Arts programs that attracted those students and their directors to participate in performances, festivals, workshops and more.

In February of 2017, Tim Hill said goodbye to the program he helped to found and to the amazing staff he assembled to run it, to relocate to his childhood home of North Carolina. I recently spoke with Tim to discuss his career at Disney, his legacy, and what the future may hold for him as he begins a new life working for The Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, NC.

Leaving Disney is a big move, but you’re going home. How did this happen?

You know, it is a big move and, it is one that I really struggled with. But in life, I look for signs to help guide me and point me in the direction that I need to be going. And there were so many signs that kept leading me back to Asheville. Last year, I built a home there that was going to be my retirement home, but for now a vacation home until I retired. Every time I would leave there, I would just say, “Gosh, I hate leaving.” And yet at the same time, I love what I’ve done here for 27 years.

Tell us about your first visit to Disney in high school as a band student.

It was in the spring of 1979 and I had never been here before. You know, I came from a very rural part of North Carolina where a Disney vacation was expensive. My family really couldn’t afford to do that. I was with Central Davidson High School; our band was selected to perform at Disney. It was a big deal for our band, for our community, and we fundraised, and did that performance.

On the wall in my office is the front page of the “Lexington Dispatch” of the Central Davidson High School Marching Band, marching down Main Street in 1979. And I’ve kept that article. About seven years ago, the marketing team finally said, “Give us that faded article with its yellowing paper, and let us turn it into something that you can be proud of for your wall.” And they presented me with a framed and matted, beautiful reproduction of that article. I’ve always kept it there since, and I look at it every day because it reminds me of what we do.

I know what it’s like to be the kid marching down Main Street or performing in one of our parks on a stage. It’s really what we do every day. And it’s the reason our teams do what they do because of what it does for that individual kid marching down Main Street. I remember that feeling. It was the biggest thing our band had ever done with thousands of people cheering as we’re doing it, and it was truly a life­-changing moment. It certainly was for me because I recognized, “Wow, I can do a lot more than, you know, be in rural North Carolina.” And ironically, I’m looking now to go back to that. But as a kid, it’s sort of neat to dream of what you can do and Disney was that push or that catalyst to allow me and probably many others in that same little group to do more.

When did you first go to work for Disney and in what capacity?

In March of 1990, I started at Disney and I came in to the company as a senior marketing representative and worked in the marketing division. And my job was promotions and marketing for “Magic Music Days” at the time. The company soon after that went through many re­organizations. I was in that role for about a year and then I took a new role for a year and a half where I worked in the convention side of our business. An opportunity came for me to make a pitch, because I saw an opportunity to bring our other youth businesses together. “Magic Music Days” is what it was called at the time, which is now Disney Performing Arts. We were dabbling in education, and grad night, and several things, but it was all over the place, scattered all over different departments. I made a pitch to my boss and asked him if he’d let me lead the charge to pull all that together and create an area called “Youth Markets.”

Thankfully, he believed in the vision and allowed me to do that. I led that as a manager, a sales director if you will, for a couple of years. In 1995, I was promoted to Director of Special Programs, which not only included all the Youth Market area that I’d kind of built but also included our weddings group, and that offsite conventions group that I’d worked in, and our military sales group. But the love of my life, and everyone that worked for me knew that was always, and my passion was the youth business. It was dynamic, it was life changing, and it was always a pleasure working on that side business.

What was the music program like when you got to Disney?

Well, you know, it’s always been a great program. It featured an opportunity for guest groups to come perform for our guests at Disney. I don’t take credit for this solely. I had an incredible team around me. We assembled a group of people passionate about what they do, and they exist today, and will exist long after I’m gone, and probably long after they’re gone. The program breeds very passionate, people who care for what they do.

We said, “There are other opportunities as well so why don’t we look at more festival events?” And right upfront I thought there was a big opportunity in the cheer­leading place. And I knew of few folks at the Varsity Brands group out of Memphis. I placed a call to the Varsity folks and said, “Hey, listen, we’d love to talk to you about doing some cheer­ leading events at Disney. We think we have some good venues that you could use.” That initial dialogue was kind of met with laughter and they said, “You know what, we’ve been at Sea World for 15 years, I can’t imagine leaving Sea World.” And I said, “You know what, why don’t you give us a chance and let me talk to you?” I convinced them to come talk to me, and we brought them over to Disney, and the rest is history. We’ve had a 23­year relationship with the Varsity organization. This past year, we signed a new deal with them that’ll take them through 2037 with our company, another 20­year deal. As a part of that, we’re building right now an 8,000­seat arena on our property and expanding our portfolio of venues at the ESPN Wide World of Sports here at Walt Disney World. That venue will open at the end of this year and we’ll be ready for all the big cheer­leading events and other sporting events beginning the spring of 2018.

The event side of our business kind of started taking off. We had cheer­leading. There were other events. I had cultivated a relationship with Contests of Champions, which was owned by Four Season Tours, who happens to be a big tour operator in the music business. Music Fest Orlando was a music festival at the time that both Bryan Cole from Super Holiday Tours, and Tim Dye from Four Seasons Tours owned. I brought them to our property for their award ceremonies. That organization decided to go a different direction, Tim and Bryan decided they wanted something different than what they were doing at Disney. It was then that we formed Festival Disney. As opposed to going after another third party, we thought, “You know, we can do this.” And we formed Festival Disney, you know, which has become the largest, single­ site music festival in this country and remains that way.

That taught us that, “Hey, you know what, we can do music festivals and do events.” And right before we did Festival Disney, we did the Disney Honors for a couple of years. Which really will go in my history book as probably the coolest event I’ve ever been associated with, because what it did for kids, for directors, and music education is unbelievable.

We kept our performing programs intact. We created more workshops and grew our workshop business. Once I got the Disneyland organization under me as well, we worked with them to grow the business at Disneyland. We now have groups coming not just from southern California and regionally but nationally to Disneyland. I would say that the biggest changes have been our workshops, and our third­-party festival events, and the festival events that we’ve created.

What part of your job was the most fun?

The fun part of my job was the creative side. I loved doing that. Sitting around in a room with an incredibly­ talented team, thinking about what more we could do. Those were the fun things. That is how the Disney Honors and Festival Disney were born. Some of those early champions just sat there with me and brainstormed that. We did the Disney Jazz Celebration for a couple years and that was a great program too.

What is your proudest accomplishment at Disney for the music program?

Well, you know, maybe a couple, as I think back. We found ourselves in our theme parks constantly. We were always fighting for stage space with our professional talent. And in the early days, we had groups performing at America Gardens Theater, or we had groups performing at Fantasy­land Theater, or we had groups performing at the Tomorrow­ land Stage at the Magic Kingdom. But anytime you’d get a seasonal show that would go on, on that stage or during the holidays, it was always difficult to manage and keep our guest groups there. Let’s face it, most of our guests are coming to a theme park environment for something other than the marching bands. Our guests are coming to enjoy what Disney has and the Disney portfolio. They’re not as interested in that high school choir or high school orchestra. And, therefore, in a theme park environment, you might have smaller audiences than certainly what you would for a Disney show.

When we had the opportunity to rethink that, a proud moment came when we justified building the Waterside Stage at Disney Springs. Any group requiring a stage is front and center at Disney Springs. And the great thing about Disney Springs is it’s a free shopping, dining, and entertainment complex on our property. It just enjoyed a new grand reopening and a re­visioning of that product. It’s almost doubled in size. We have standing ­room only crowds there for those visiting groups.

Before then, we could never say, “you’re guaranteed an audience.” We would never say that in one of our theme parks. At Disney Springs, you’re guaranteed an audience. I’ve never been out there when a group is performing that they don’t have folks standing all around watching them perform. What we’ve done with that is we’ve heightened the awareness, the importance of music education through that venue like we can never have done in a theme park. I’m very proud of that, I’m very proud we’ve built that stage.

Number two is Festival Disney. When we had the chance to invent our own music festival, we did it in a very uniquely Disney way. The fact that we use Disney venues where the groups are competing, is unconventional. Ours are contained on property, which is kind of unique, like the performance hall at Saratoga Springs, which is an acoustically­ perfect theater that we inherited from the Disney Institute. That is a wild theater for our choral groups for Festival Disney. Our college adjudicators all say, “Man, if I could have this on our campus…” We have great facilities to showcase these kids.

Any ideas about what you may do for music in your new role at The Biltmore Estate?

Let me get there and understand what we are doing. I’ve walked around there and thought, “Man, we could do some incredible chamber music festivals,” and things like that. I think that property has a lot to offer but yeah. So, don’t be surprised if one day the name from the past says, “Hey, come over to Biltmore for a visit for the weekend.” Because I do think there’s some opportunity there.

What do you see the Disney Performing Arts team doing when you’re gone?

The great thing about Disney is the culture of continuous improvement. We never rest on our laurels. We never take for granted that what we do today will be cutting­ edge tomorrow. We are constantly looking at how do we re­invent it; how do we improve it. I’m sure that when I look back, I’ll be very proud of what the company continues to do in this arena. It’s an important business for our company and I do say business because, you know, it is a money­making venture for Disney. But at the same time, what it does to promote music education in our schools. You know, I’ve stood in tradeshows, for example, at Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, and I’ve had directors walk up to me and say, “I have a program because of Disney. It’s that Disney trip that gets our kids interested and keeps them interested. We have a music program in our schools because of Disney,” and that is a big deal to me.

I want to see it continue to grow. I think the biggest opportunities remain in the workshops. At Disneyland for example, the number of workshop groups have exceeded the number of performing groups. At Walt Disney World, we see about half and half now. About half the groups that come through the program perform, about half are doing workshops. And then there’s a big number that overlap between the two, they’ll do a performance and they’ll also do a workshop. We believe those workshops are the future to Disney Performing Arts. I mean, it’s one thing to be able to showcase what you do to all the guests that are here at Disney, but another thing to be able to go into a room and learn from a Disney professional.

Was managing the program for Disneyland different than managing the one for the Magic Kingdom?

If you think about it, at Disneyland, there’s two parks and at the point that some of those facilities were built, there was only one park. There could only be so many performances in each day. Disneyland recognized early on to grow the performing arts business, if we didn’t have workshop space, then the business would stagnate. There would only so many stage opportunities in each day. The workshops really were their opportunity to grow and that’s how they grew.

At Walt Disney World, we had the luxury of one theme park, then two theme parks, three, and then four, almost a limitless opportunity for performances. If we don’t have enough room in the parade at the Magic Kingdom in the two parades that we may run that day, there’s Epcot and you can do a “Future World March.” The workshop piece here took a little longer to catch on for all of us to say, “You know what, this deal is our future.” Even though we are going to eventually run out of performance opportunities or they’re going to be more limited, it just took us longer to catch on to what Disneyland really recognized earlier on, I think. The workshops are really the key to their long­term success, and I think a unique differentiator too.

There’s nothing like marching down Main Street at the Magic Kingdom. Many directors have told us, “Hey it’s Macy’s, the Tournament of Roses, and performing at Disney.” And we recognize that and we don’t take that lightly. That always will be a big, big deal for a lot of groups. And it’s also a big deal for a lot of groups that aren’t ever going to get to do Macy’s or won’t ever get to do Tournament of Roses. We’re not that selective on our criteria. We’re selective but, you know, it’s not going to be the bands that you always see at Macy’s and Tournament of Roses. We get those too, and they do perform with us. I always say we’re about the elite average bands of America that come here. It’s much more the average high school band. That’s sort of what we’re founded on.

How would you like to be remembered for your time at Disney?

You know, really as a champion. Hopefully, someone that made a difference, that championed and cared about kids and music education. Someone that hopefully helped the company, elevated the company in the eyes of kids that are in music and you know? I don’t know if that’s a roundabout answer but it’s about being a good advocate and a champion. And, as a great leader. You know, we all strive for that. I hope I made an impact on people. There have been a lot of folks that I’ve met in my 27 years who have come through the program. And I hope wherever they are, they look back and go, “Wow, Tim was a great leader.” And, you know, if you can do that and people remember you for your leadership, advice, and being a champion for what you love and it’s in your heart then you’ve made a difference.

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