My "American Idol Experience" Experience

So as some of you may know, there’s a new attraction coming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios — “The American Idol Experience”. It’s scheduled for a grand opening of 2/14/09, but of course, they need to run it with audiences and contestants and such before that happens, to work out all the bugs. As such, the past three days have been “cast member preview” days, where cast members can audition, participate, and watch the shows. I had today off, so I figured I’d head over and audition.

I rolled into the park around 9:30am or so. Auditions were scheduled to start at 9, but I didn’t think they’d be very busy. The shows happen in the old ABC Theater, but the audition queue is around the back of the building, across from the Sci-Fi Dine-In theater/restaurant. I got in the very short line. A dude with a microphone and another dude with a video camera came out and interviewed some of us in line, letting us know that some of the interview footage might be used in shows if we made it through.

We went into the audition building (ah, sweet air conditioning) three at a time. They only had two audition rooms open (there are four of them total), but I got in pretty fast. The initial audition was 30 seconds or so of a song, a capella, in front of one guy with a computer in a room the size of a walk-in closet. I chose to do a classic — the chorus from Duran Duran’s “Rio”. Figured they hadn’t heard that yet. The guy liked my peppy attitude, and sent me on to the next level — choosing a song and singing it for a producer.

I went down the hall to a Coca-Cola themed room — all red and white and black all over. There were a bunch of chairs, and next to each, an iPod (inside some awesome locking mechanism to avoid any getting stolen) with really nice headphones. I got a list of songs, a release to sign, and a number to pin to my shirt. We all had to pick two songs for the producer. It was a tough list — lots of stuff I didn’t know (country, recent pop) and stuff I didn’t want to do (anything Disney). My first choice, “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”, proved popular and was removed from the running (in other words, some other chick who made it into the show had it as her first choice, so nobody else could use it).

The decision process was a toughie — many of the songs were in a tough key, or just weren’t rocking my world, or I didn’t know them well. I finally settled on “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” and “You Really Got Me”. Neither of which I’d ever sung before, but the key seemed OK, and I was familiar with both. I went into the producer’s room (a slightly larger walk-in closet) and she let me try out the first bit of each song, to see which one I wanted as my primary choice. I got a microphone, the karaoke track, and even the lyrics shown on a flat-screen behind the producer. I settled on “Natural Woman” and ran through the whole thing.

The producer clicked a couple of keys on her computer, then told me that there was going to be a message on the TV behind her head. Up popped Ryan Seacrest (looking really tired), with a prerecorded bit about how most people who auditioned for the real Idol wanted to hear the words, “You’re going to Hollywood.” Well, I wouldn’t get to hear those words, but he did have five words for me: “You’re going to the show.” Hooray!

The producer scheduled me for the 4pm show, and as an alternate for the 1pm show. There were only three shows — 11am and 1pm were 3-person shows, and the 4pm show was a 7-person “finale” show. When the attraction is up and running, there will be 7 regular 3-person shows, with the winner from each one competing in the finale. But since this was a shortened day, I got sent right to the finale. No pressure there, right? I was given a yellow card on a lanyard to wear around the park, with “VOTE FOR ME!” on it, and told when to return to the backstage door.

I had a little time to wander, so I went and got some peanuts for a snack. Then I made it back to the theater a little over an hour before the 1pm show. The three people scheduled for that show were all there, but I still got to stick around in case one of them chickened out or broke a limb or something. They all got to rotate through hair/makeup, vocal coaching, and time to sit with yet another iPod. Then we all went out onstage (and it’s a beautiful stage) and they walked through where to stand and where to go. Then the show commenced, and I watched it from backstage. The winner for the show was a guy from guest show (custodial) who did an awesome job with “Superstition”. Since I knew he’d be coming back for the finale show, I actually felt less nervous, because he was a shoo-in to win the whole thing.

I went off to the cafeteria to have lunch with some of my former co-workers who now work at Idol. The salad bar at the Studios is actually quite a bit better than the salad bar at Epcot. Just sayin’. Then it was just about time to head back to the theater to get ready for the finale show. I managed to meet up with Scott and give him the VIP ticket they’d given me, so he could get a premium seat (he’d had an appointment earlier in the day).

In we went, now seven of us. We rehearsed where to stand, when to leave, what to do. We all got fitted with a little device that clips on your shoulder — the spotlights are hooked into this doodad, so that no matter where you go on stage, the spots follow you beautifully. Awesome! We all got to sound-check our songs, and they had a great amount of reverb and echo and other tricks that made everyone sound really good. Then it was back to hair/makeup (of which I had little done) and a few minutes with a vocal coach.

And suddenly, showtime! We filed backstage and sat on the couches back there, watching the show on another flat screen TV (they have a TON of really nice HDTVs everywhere). The host introduced us, we all filed out in a line, then we all went backstage again. The judges were introduced (three types — hip, sympathetic, and caustic [but “Disney” caustic, mind you]) and then the show was on. The first two guys went up, then it was my turn.

I sang my song (which is, oddly, much easier in front of a huge audience than in front of one person in a walk-in closet), got some good comments and a nice response from the audience, and headed backstage. The best comment was from the caustic judge: he likened me to a flatulent elephant. Because he didn’t envy anyone who had to follow me. Nice!

I finally got my first chance to relax all day, after stressing out about the whole darn thing. The last four singers went, with the custodial guy totally rocking the house in the headliner position. Then we all headed out and took our seats on the side of the stage. We got to sit on the same stools they use on the show, and I have to say — not particularly comfortable. I felt like I was going to slide off the entire time.

The host read off three names; those contestants stepped forward, and were sent back to the stools. Then two more; one of them was safe, one of them got the boot. Then it was me and custodial guy. I got sent back to the stools, so it was down to custodial guy and a nice boy who looked like Buddy Holly who’d done a delightfully schmoozy job with “Sway”. Of course, custodial dude won. Cue the confetti cannons! We all got to go onstage, and the judges joined us.

Then we went backstage, and all of the judges came back and shook our hands. I knew two of them already; the third, oddly enough, was the host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Play It! when I made the hot seat three years ago, on our anniversary trip. Small world!

All in all, it was a fantastic experience. I don’t care that I didn’t win — I didn’t expect to win. Heck, I didn’t really expect that I’d make it into a show, but I had to try while I had the chance (once it’s open to guests, we cast members can’t even audition). Scott didn’t get to take any pictures of me onstage — not only are they big on all of the “no photography” signs and speeches, but one of his former co-workers who now works at Idol sat right next to him. Sad, but oh well. I still had a great damn time.