I was sixteen when my life did not change at all. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school that had a highly average show choir that only achieved fame within the school walls. One day in rehearsal, our director sat us down and told us we had been presented the opportunity to perform at Disney World—not only would we be performing for thousands of people, but we also got to ride the teacups. To this day I have no idea how or why we were chosen to perform at Disney World, but my sixteen year old self really didn’t care. We rehearsed for the next few months and then finally, the day arrived when the warm, Florida sun would meet us. We boarded the plane along with a local cheerleading squad who may not have had our talents, but had better, more marketable skills. We thought our adventure was about to begin.
Well, the adventure was a bit more underwhelming than any of us had anticipated. It was maybe a high of sixty degrees everyday, so those fleeces we wore on the plane because it was taking off from the climate of a Wisconsin January so beautifully adorned every outfit we would wear that week. We spent about three days going to all the parks and riding all the rides we could, including the teacups. Then, it was the day of the performance, which met the lowest expectations possible: there were about one hundred people in the audience who all yawned and sympathetically clapped every time we hit a final pose. At least that was over. We had one more day to finish up going to all the parks and riding as many rides as possible—I was mostly excited about our trip to Disney’s Hollywood Studios where they were opening a new Toy Story ride, my childhood dream come true. It was there on the final day of our trip, the day when we would be flying back home, where things went from good to great. As we walked down the street passing the passive aggressive characters looking positively withered from their long days of smiling, we happened upon a sign that said, “Auditions Today”. Apparently this show choir of averagely talented Catholic girls had stumbled upon the opening of a new exhibit at Walt Disney World—The American Idol Experience.
The American Idol Experience exhibit was basically a smaller version of the real thing—there were judges in different rooms and each person had the opportunity to sing a verse and a chorus of a popular song; the judges would then pick a few people from the day to sing at shows with three finalists. The winners of the shows throughout the day would go on to a final show where the winner would win an opportunity to audition earlier in the day at a real live American Idol audition. This is all a long-winded way of saying they were hoping to find the best of the average tourists, meaning we were perfectly suited for this kind of exhibit.
We waited in line and all chose the songs from a pre-selected list that we would sing—I chose the stunning “Drops of Jupiter” by Train mostly because the rest of the options were equally average. I waited in line for about twenty minutes before I was finally placed in front of the room in which I would be auditioning. So many things were running through my mind—I was worried we would miss our flight for the evening, I was wondering why my mom had let me wear a Bermuda short with tennis shoes, and I was wondering why I had chosen to skip my morning make-up routine that particular morning. I stood there, with my mom right next to me since she was chaperoning the trip; she now had the opportunity to witness her teenage daughter live out her dreams of beating other tourists in a fake singing competition. I finally was able to step into the room. The judge in the room was extremely nice and asked me some questions about myself before I sang. Finally, it was my chance to sing for him. I sang “Drops of Jupiter” as best as I possibly could, which was not saying a whole lot. To my surprise, the judge said he liked me very much and he would like me to move on to the next round, which meant I would be performing on a stage in front of hundreds of people along with two others chosen. The audience would decide which of the three of us would be moving on to the final round.
I was shocked to be moving to the next round, but more than that, I realized I would not be able to make it to the new Toy Story ride before our flight that night which was the most devastating part of the whole experience. For some reason, I was the only one out of my choir to make it to the next round of the auditions which meant they could go on the ride without me, and they most definitely did—I wouldn’t have skipped it either, so I couldn’t really blame them. My mom stayed with me as I waited for the time of my big performance—I was asked to change my song because another person would be singing “Drops of Jupiter” that day and they liked to have different songs for every performance. I chose Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” because I clearly had a very firm grasp on music that was current at the time.
Each of the smaller shows had three performers and the next step for us was to get our make up done by a professional and we all had the opportunity to meet with a vocal coach. We were allotted ten minutes for each of those sessions, not exactly enough time to accomplish much of anything. Then it was time for the actual performance—my face looked a little better thanks to those ten minutes of professional artistry, but I was still wearing tennis shoes, so there was really no way to avoid everyone knowing I was a tourist from the Midwest. I went backstage and was finally able to meet the other two people with whom I would be performing—one was a girl, also sixteen, who was singing a Taylor Swift song, so we all knew how that was going to go, then there was a woman who was probably mid-forties and she was singing “Walkin’ After Midnight”, the 1950s classic; I still have so much respect for her, even today, this was probably one of the proudest moments of her life. To say we were a motley crew would be an understatement.
The performance started and it was just as I expected, we were all capable of holding a tune, not much more, perhaps a bit less. We all got feedback from three judges who were intentionally bad parodies of the actual American Idol judges—one was a stern British man, another an overly excited petite woman, and an African American man who probably had the most credibility, but we all ignored him anyway. They gave me a little feedback on my performance and I still remember telling the judges that I was there on a trip with my choir; well, being the witty gentleman he was, the British fellow told me he would probably prefer me singing in a big group, a burn that still makes me laugh because it was undeniably true at that time. It was time for the audience to vote now. I guess I had a little bit of an advantage because I came with about twenty other people while the other two only came with their suburban families. For some reason, I won, I am nearly positive that reason was that I made everyone else in the audience feel at home in their Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes.
Because I won the show in which I participated, I was able to move on to the final round which would include the best of the best. The show was to be held at seven o’clock that night. My flight was at 6:30 that night. My choir and I left the exhibit theatre and I was handed a free t-shirt that said “I won!”, even though I would never be able to actually win that day’s real competition. I was also asked to sign one of those character books every child gets—I’m pretty sure this kid’s mother thought I was legitimately a character of some kind because there was a lot of commotion around me and she didn’t want her child to leave without getting every character’s autograph. I left Orlando, Florida never knowing if I was the best of the tourists that day, and that still haunts my dreams. I still am a bit invalidated, always wondering what could have been. My life could have changed forever, but I had a flight to catch.