By Natalie Gillespie
Faith, fun and rock 'n' roll among the roller coasters return to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and to Universal Orlando this weekend as the annual Night of Joy and Rock the Universe concert events attract tens of thousands of Christian music fans.
Disney started the tradition in 1983, booking top contemporary Christian music acts to perform on stages throughout the Magic Kingdom so that families could go on rides and see their favorite Christian acts all in one place. Universal jumped into the action in 1998, and both events now draw families and church groups from all over the South. Night of Joy has become such a tradition, in fact, that parents who attended the shows as teens now bring their own kids and youth groups.
"I remember loading up a car full of us when we were kids and going to Night of Joy," said Andrew Hobbs, 41, father of four and pastor of students and young adults at Pathways Community Church in Largo. "Good memories. Now I love taking my youth group, especially the community kids who don't usually go to church. It's the best of both worlds. They get to go to Disney or Universal at a special price, and they get exposed to the music and the good news."
When Disney debuted Night of Joy, "contemporary" Christian music was almost an oxymoron. The early years included a mix of styles from gospel songstress Shirley Caesar to emerging rock bands like Petra and the Rez Band. Singer-songwriters were a popular choice, including Amy Grant, who first took the stage at NOJ in 1984, seven years before her first big mainstream hit Baby, Baby.
Since then, contemporary Christian music has grown in style and popularity, and today many Christian artists — from Skillet to Switchfoot to Jars of Clay — enjoy success as top-ranking Billboard acts and on mainstream and Christian radio stations. Night of Joy has evolved along with Christian music to incorporate gospel, rock, punk, adult contemporary and other genres.
Universal Orlando tailors its Rock the Universe more to teens and youth groups, with top youth speakers sandwiched between primarily rock and hip-hop acts. Universal also offers a Sunday morning worship service.
Here are four can't-miss bands from the two events. For full schedules, go to nightofjoy.com and rocktheuniverse.com.
• 9:45 p.m. Friday
This group of youth pastors by day, award-winning performers by night has been Billboard's top-selling Christian music act since 2007. Known for hits like If We Are the Body, Praise You in the Storm, Lifesong and East to West, Casting Crowns appeals to adults and kids alike. Expect to be among the first to hear songs from the band's Aug. 31 release Until the Whole World Hears . . . Live (a CD/DVD combo that includes lead singer Mark Hall's story of his family's May 2010 adoption of daughter Hope Meeka from China).
Download this: If We Ever Needed You
• 9:45 p.m. Saturday
The Atlanta rockers hit the stage with new music from the band's upcoming album Move, scheduled to release Oct. 19. Lead singer Mac Powell's distinctive vocals and the band's classic Southern style have made these guys a crowd favorite since their first appearance at NOJ back in 1998.
Download this: Lift Up Your Face (featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama)
• 8:30 p.m. Saturday
TobyMac has been a regular at both events since 1991, part of the time as a member of dcTalk, which broke up in 2000. The father of five loves to mix rock and rap with a little bit of funk for a high-energy hip-hop show. This year he celebrates his 2010 album Tonight. (Note: TobyMac's former dcTalk bandmate and good friend Michael Tait, new lead singer of the veteran act Newsboys, will perform at Rock the Universe on Friday night.)
Download this: Start Somewhere
Jars of Clay
• 8:30 p.m. Friday
Friends Dan Haseltine (lead singer), Stephen Mason, Matt Odmark and Charlie Lowell hit it big on mainstream rock radio in 1996 with the single Flood from the group's debut album. Since then Jars of Clay has racked up Grammy Awards and numerous No. 1 radio hits. Expect to hear new tunes from Jars of Clay Presents The Shelter, which releases Oct. 5.
Download this: Out of My Hands (featuring Tenth Avenue North's Mike Donehey)