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American Idol Experience at Disney mimics the real deal

ORLANDO — What would Uncle Walt think of this?! Long the maker of dreams, Disney World is about to become the breaker of dreams, too. Tears, tantrums, total esteem kersplat!

When WDW opens the American Idol Experience at Hollywood Studios on Saturday, the flashy new attraction will mark a first for the Mouse House: They're going to actively anger guests. Gutsy. I like it.

Two years in the making (and hopefully not two years too late), the American Idol Experience takes the essence of the Fox phenom — our love of gawking, our thirst for fame — and distills it into a dazzling, potentially soul-crushing, two-way thrill.

It's "as close to the TV show as possible," says project producer Laura Offerdahl. Indeed, it works both ways. You can watch the show, indulge in a cheesy sing-along led by Jordin Sparks, mock the worst, vote for the best.

Or, if you're 14 or older, you can try out for the show, put your fate in the hands of a sweaty family from Akron, Ohio — and maybe become the next Kelly Clarkson. (Unlike the TV show, there is no age ceiling for the AI Experience. Nor are there rules regarding citizenship. So, Norwegian Granny, warm up those pipes!)

There are six regular shows a day (with six or seven singers each), each show approximating an episode of Idol: amateur warbling, a Seacrestian host, plus three judges trying way too hard to mimic Randy, Paula and Simon. When I was there, the "Simon" was actually an insult-zinging Brit named Simon. Ack.

At the end of each day, there's a final show, with the winner earning a "Dream Ticket," an automatic audition with producers of the real Idol. (Sorry, Norwegian Granny, this is where the TV rules apply. Even if you win, it's the end of the line.)

So there will be 365 champs a year.

And a whole lot of losers.

"We figure there are two types of guests: those that want a chance at stardom, and those that want to sit back and watch," says Offerdahl, a 20-year veteran with Disney.

The AI Experience, created in tandem with Idol's Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment production companies, is housed in the old Superstar Television Theater, adjacent to the Great Movie Ride. The venue has been bedazzled and bedecked with a state-of-the-art sound system and nifty voting touch pads, plus hi-def screens and cameras. Every detail from the show has been matched, down to the Coke cups on the judges' table.

Looks like we maaade it!

The show itself is fun, slightly cheesy, but a cool way to kill a half-hour. There was even some decent talent at the sneak peak I attended. I voted for Corey Peloquin, a Tampa teacher who was at the park with colleagues. He killed with a version of Elton John's Your Song. "At first I was like, this is fun, it's an attraction. But afterward, you just kind of forgot about it. You definitely got into the mind-set . . . of a real performance."

Peloquin won the first show of the day and came in second at the finale. He's now hooked: "It would be awesome to . . . compete for the real American Idol."

Guests can register to sing at the AI Experience online (disneyworld.com/idol) or at the park, all free of charge. Once you have your audition "ticket" (you're allowed to bring one person with you), you enter a winding queue, not unlike the line for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. Double doors open, and inside is what looks like a recording studio. You're greeted by a familiar face on a video screen. (I won't spoil it, but it's a nice touch.)

You're then ushered into one of four small, stylish audition rooms, each equipped with a perky talent scout. (Well, a cast member with guest relations training, at least.) Here you can sing anything you want. If you're good, the scout sends you on. If you're not so good, you'll hear something like this: "At the American Idol Experience, we look for the best of the best. You're not right for the show today, but thanks for trying out!"

Guests can try out as many times as they want, but only once per day. And yes, there are security measures if/when people flip out and insist this whole thing is rigged and Universal Studios has better rides anyway.

As far as exploiting bad auditions, "we're not really going there," Offerdahl says. "The really, really bad train wrecks out there? We don't think that makes for a great Disney stage show." So don't look for any William Hungs on the AI Experience stage — well, unless it's a reeaally slow day at the turnstiles.

If you get past the first audition, you go to the Coke Lounge, where you can practice one of 113 songs available, all loaded onto personal iPods. Then comes a videotaped audition with show producers.

And if they like you . . . congratulations! You're in! (Just don't leave the park.) You get a "Vote for Me" lanyard and can parade around Hollywood Studios until showtime, drumming up support from strangers. Finalists meet with makeup stylists and vocal coaches before the show.

If that sounds stressful, keep in mind that the frenzied producers have to cast six shows a day. "We have minutes to put these people on the path to success; the show has weeks," producer Mark Catlett says. "It's a jigsaw puzzle."

The American Idol Experience should be a hit. Yes, Idol is in its eighth season, and viewership is down. But it remains the No. 1 show by a landslide. "It's still amazingly popular," Offerdahl says. "People love it. We're just excited to be part of the pop cultural experience."

Have fun, boys and girls. Sing loudly, proudly. And whatever you do, don't get pitchy.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

You may be good, but not this good

If you make it past the first round of auditions at Disney's American Idol Experience, you then get a chance to dazzle a producer. If they like you, you're in! There are more than 100 songs in the catalog. To help you choose wisely, here are a few you shouldn't croon:

FOOTLOOSE (Kenny Loggins): Unless you're Kevin Bacon, it's impossible to look cool or fully functional singing and dancing to this one.

ACHY BREAKY HEART (Billy Ray Cyrus): Unless you're Billy Ray Cyrus . . . wait, scratch that. NO ONE should ever sing this song.

VISION OF LOVE (Mariah Carey): If you watch Idol, you know the rule. Doing a song by an ultimate diva is never smart. This includes Whitney, Celine and Aretha.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (Queen): This could go either way. But something tells me you'll be riding Tower of Terror sooner rather than later.

PART OF YOUR WORLD (Ariel the Little Mermaid): Every single employee at Disney World is sick of this song. Trust me, princess. Do you really thinkyou're going to change their minds?

American Idol Experience at Disney mimics the real deal 02/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 1:57pm]

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