Smile, this ice is warmed by happiness: Jim White experiences the high-voltage, feel-good world of Walt Disney

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The Independent Culture
The important thing for cast members of Walt Disney's World On Ice to remember is that they are not skaters. Nor are they actors. They are not even entertainers. They are, as their show's producer, Kenneth Feld, relentlessly informs them, 'memory makers'.

In the show's thick and glossy Official Program And Activity Book, Mr Feld sets his row of perfect teeth in a sincere gleam and delivers the news that memories are made by smiles. Described as 'family entertainment's up-to-the-minute man', Mr Feld continues: 'My greatest satisfaction is to sit in an audience surrounded by happy children and their smiling parents. When everybody is really enjoying the show, I feel wonderful.'

Close inspection of the Official Program And Activity Book reveals that Mr Feld is not the only Disney employee smiling. There's a picture of a memory maker wearing a massive Mickey Mouse mask, a big smile creasing its polysterene features; there's the bloke who designs the light show grinning from ear to ear; there's the Big Bad Wolf smiling like the Little Pigs' benevolent uncle as he hovers behind the threesome, who themselves grin toothsomely. In fact there is not a snap, of chorus line or technician, of principal or choreographer, in which anyone is doing anything other than stretching their cheek muscles to breaking point.

And the odd thing was, at the rehearsals for tonight's opening show of the spectacular's British tour, as the memory makers swept across the ice learning their paces, as they jumped and pirouetted and sweated, the smiles remained absolutely, totally and unswervingly in place. Those grins, they are not put on at curtain up.

'This is a great show to work on,' smiles J Vaught (that's how his name appears in the programme), the 'Men's Line Captain', as he comes off the ice after perfecting a frightening-looking stunt - performed with a cheery grin. 'The travel is great, the people you work with are great, the performance is great and the reponse you get from audiences is so great.'

'You know what,' smiled Patricia Vincent, the Performance Director, purring in behind him. 'This is just a great thing to be involved with. I said when I joined the company that I would do it for a year. Hey, that was 12 years ago]'

Few of today's parents would disagree with this notion: Disney delivers. In cinemas across the country children are being transfixed by The Lion King; in video stores shelves groaning with copies of Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin empty with a speed that can only be dreamt of by The Lovers' Guide; by the time Walt Disney's World On Ice ends its run in Aberdeen in December, more than 1.million Britons will have left auditoria, burdened by memorabilia and merchandise, and planning their next trip to Planet Disney.

Mickey's Magic Tales, the show being prepared for British consumption, is one of four Worlds On Ice presently circulating the globe (the others - Beauty And The Beast for instance, which was in Britain last autumn - are straightforward ice re-tellings of the films; Mickey's Magic Tales is a variety show based around Mickey Mouse ('The Universal Ambassador of Friendship and Joy'). These things get everywhere, to Brazil, Australia, Singapore, places where the only other substantial body of ice is floating around in drinks. Everywhere gets the same show. Though it would be unfair to say there is no reflection of local culture: the tapes carrying the vocal track change language accordingly.

Whatever the secret is, whatever enables the corporation that began when Walt Disney sketched a couple of ears on a notepad in the Twenties to continue to corner the world market in throats made hoarse with childish laughter, they are not letting on. The behind-the-scenes activity at Disney's World On Ice, for instance, is guarded with all the diligence of a Coca-Cola executive keeping his recipe book close to his chest.

Earlier this week, in the Docklands Arena, the often empty husk on the Isle of Dogs, the cast had frozen up their rink and were preparing. There are 45 memory makers in the show, a polyglot of nationalities dominated by Canadians. All have high cheekbones, bobby-blonde hair, teeth that betray years of adolescent misery, the apex of North American healthy good looks. They all have calf muscles the size of small footballs and, judging by the complex warm-ups each one went through, they all have the ability to place the sole of their left foot on the top of their head. And they all act as cheery public relations ambassadors for Walt Disney World On Ice.

'I used to be a competitive skater,' smiles Nadine Allan, 26, from Southampton. 'I got burnt out, so I did an audition for this at the Richmond Ice Rink. Goodness, that was six years ago, but it seems like six months. I thought this would be just a job, but it's just great fun. You get to see so many places and meet so many great people.'

Doesn't she ever get sick of the sight of ice?

'No, well, you do this for 10 months and then have two months off,' she smiles. 'But to be honest, at the end of the holiday you just can't wait to get back on the ice and entertain all those people.'

And what does she plan to do when she has finished with the show? After all, the average age of the memory team is 24.

'I know, I haven't thought,' she smiles. 'What I'd really like to do is what Patty, our Performance Director, does. She was once a chorus member like me and worked her way through. But only so many can do that, so I guess I'll have to really work for that.'

It was possible to talk to Nadine because she was a member of the chorus line. But Disney rules forbid discovering how the memory makers who will don 50lbs of latex, rubber and fur and play the cartoon characters maintain their centre of gravity on the ice.

'No, sorry,' said Sally Griffiths, the smiling public relations person. 'It would spoil the magic if it was revealed who plays Mickey.'

But you can see her out on the rehearsal ice; that girl waving her arms around and shaking her head at silly angles.

'Yes, but characters cannot be interviewed.'

Not even . . . . .

'Not even.'

Nor can they be photographed. As he wandered through the back stage area, our photographer spied the costumes hanging on rails and innocently tried to take a picture. He was chased out. Could he take a snap of Mickey sitting around off-duty in costume having a cup of coffee then?

'Not possible I'm afraid,' smiled Ms Griffiths. 'Rules. The magic, it has to be preserved. We don't want the world thinking Mickey sits around drinking coffee.' Me? I don't care if they are moonies, madmen or simply purveyors of McDonald's-style mundanity to millions. On Thursday night I'll be there. Two hours guaranteed to keep the children quiet is worth pounds 20 of anyone's money.

'Walt Disney's World On Ice' is at Wembley Arena (081-900 1234) 14-30 October; National Indoor Arena, Birmingham (021-200 2222) 2-13 November; Sheffield Arena 15-20 November; Glasgow SEC 22-27 November; Aberdeen Exhibition Centre 29 November-4 December.

(Photograph omitted)

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