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Disney On Ice: there's nothing Elsa I'd rather do

Ralph McLean meets... Disney On Ice

Picture: Simon Hadley Photography
Picture: Simon Hadley Photography

By Ralph McLean

For heartwarming family entertainment it's hard to beat the Disney On Ice experience.

There's just something magical about watching Mickey and Minnie introduce those timeless animated classics in the live arena that touches the hearts of audiences young and old.

Add some state-of-the-art skating, dazzling stage costumes and, of course, those unforgettable songs and it's easy to see why it's an entertainment franchise that's been touring to packed houses all over the world for more than 30 years now.

The latest show, The Wonderful World Of Disney, brings together some of the all-time fan favourites from Toy Story to The Lion King and as it prepares to glide effortlessly into the SSE Arena in Belfast next month, I visited the team on tour in Birmingham to go behind-the-scenes and find out what really makes Disney On Ice so special.

It's mid-morning and I'm standing beside the ice in the cavernous NEC Arena. The hall is empty save for a flurry of skaters who zip past me and spin like whirling dervishes tackling every move and perfectly executed routine with a level of skill that's frankly breathtaking. The sheer level of dedication and hard work required of all concerned is astonishing. Ensemble skater Laura Hudson gives me an idea of the talent required.

"It's one of the hardest sports we have," she tells me as busy skaters spray ice effortlessly behind me. "We have 18 boys and 26 girl skaters and 15 different nationalities in this show. Everyone's working every day together, we're training together and we're all in it to win it."

For Laura though, all that hard work pays off when the curtain opens and the show starts every night.

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Ralph Meets Disney On Ice Performance Director Shelley Bindon
Ralph Meets Disney On Ice Performance Director Shelley Bindon

"We're doing what we love," she says smiling broadly. "I get to go into work and bring joy to other people, which is pretty cool."

Down in the busy wardrobe department among the glittering Aladdin gowns with their twinkling sequins and the fishy Finding Dory costumes, I chat with performance director Shelley Bindon, a woman who knows what the public want from a Disney On Ice show and is entrusted with delivering the goods night after night. With 49 cast members to look after, that's easier said than done.

"It's live entertainment," she says, as I take the opportunity to run my hands through some of the surprisingly sturdy stage costumes.

"Someone can get injured or sick during a show and you have to make a quick decision so it's knowing how to react quickly to those situations so the audience doesn't know there's an issue.

"But we've got understudies who can get thrown in at any moment so we really have a great cast that back each other up so the audience would never know."

For Shelley there's something unique about the Disney On Ice experience that's always kept her coming back for more in the full decade she's worked for the House of Mouse. "I think it's seeing the kids' reactions," she says, beaming with the pleasure of someone who clearly loves their job.

"Seeing them so in awe is so special. It's that Disney thing that affects us all. It's something that reminds you of good times."

I inquire about which of the many set-pieces she loves most and she struggles to pick one the way a proud mother would struggle to pick out a single child.

"The Wonderful World Of Disney really is Disney's greatest hits," she answers diplomatically. "We've got Snow White, the first full length Disney film, then we've got the 50th with Tangled and everything in between. It really is a celebration."

Ralph Meets Disney On Ice skater Laura Hudson
Ralph Meets Disney On Ice skater Laura Hudson

When I ask her about the segments that get the biggest audience reactions, however, she doesn't have to think twice.

"Frozen," she says firmly, "Olaf the snowman always gets a big reaction. He's a huge crowd favourite."

With Frozen getting the biggest reaction most nights, there's a very special welcome reserved for Princess Elsa.

When the much-loved character hits the ice the crowd go crazy. For the last couple of years it's a role that's been taken on by Colleen Clancy, an American skater with strong Irish roots whose family originates from Kilkenny.

For someone who first skated at the age of five and until recently was competing at the very highest level of the sport, it's no easy task taking on the role of a much-loved Disney favourite but it's a job she clearly loves.

"The biggest challenge is becoming the character," she says of playing Elsa. "I get goose bumps every time. When audiences are interactive it makes every performer so excited to bring those roles to life for kids and adults."

Ralph Meets Disney on Ice Colleen Clancy the skater who portrays Elsa from Frozen
Ralph Meets Disney on Ice Colleen Clancy the skater who portrays Elsa from Frozen

For the cast and crew it's clearly a magical feeling that nobody ever tires of.

"It's incredible," she says, slipping on her skates for a final practice before showtime.

"I step on the ice and see all the little kids dressed up in costumes. I hear them singing along with Let It Go.

"For them it's Elsa looking out at them - it's one of my favourite things. Every single time it's the same feeling but it never gets old."

The Wonderful World Of Disney On Ice is at the SSE Arena, Belfast, from Friday, May 3 to Sunday, May 5. Tickets are available from the SSE Box Office at www.ssearenabelfast.com or www.ticketmaster.co.uk

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