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Spellbound

As Hong Kong Disneyland turns five this year, the theme park takes the party to the air with pixie dust, fantastic floats, dancing fireworks and more. Maya Calica experiences the mystique behind the magic. Photos by Lester V Ledesma

Spellbound

"HAVE A MAGICAL DAY," the lady behind the till at Center Street Boutique on Main Street, USA tells me with a smile, handing me my purchases. It is a greeting repeated by just about every Hong Kong Disneyland (HKDL) employee or "castmember" I meet: the woman who takes my lunch order at Starliner Diner in Tomorrowland, the dry-witted Jungle River Cruise guide in Adventureland, and all the performers that interact with the audience in Festival of the Lion King.

And as HKDL kicks up its heels for the fifth anniversary themed Celebration in the Air, you can expect more enchantment courtesy of Sorcerer Mickey and Tinker Bell. "It's all about magic," says Vincent Wong, Director of Marketing at HKDL. "Sorcerer Mickey casts magic over Disneyland, while Tinker Bell makes things fly. It's a concept that comes together."

On January 21, it all came together with a massive bash that kicked off a year of merry-making on the theme park in Penny's Bay, Lantau Island. The 5,000-strong crew showed up in full force, donning their commemorative Celebration in the Air nametags. HKDL's Fab Five - Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, and of course, Goofy - stepped out to greet park guests and members of media dressed in their new costumes designed just for the anniversary festivities.

Taking flight

At the heart of Celebration in the Air is the Flight of Fantasy Parade, a stellar production that took 18 months to conceive, design, rehearse and roll out. Set to a dynamic soundtrack by a team of composers in the United States' Disney parks led by Mark Hammond, this moving showcase stars 24 Disney friends wowing audiences while perched upon seven gravity-defying floats reaching up to 40ft into the air.

Guests get to see these stunning themed floats featuring iconic Disney movies and its stars: Dumbo and his pal Timothy the mouse kick off the parade, followed by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, Pluto and Chip 'n' Dale in an amazing, eye-catching airship. Winnie the Pooh, the Disney Princesses and the cool characters from the Jungle Book, Tarzan and Lion King follow suit, with Tinker Bell and her ladybug-riding fairies not far off. Watch as Lilo and Stitch, along with their surfer dudes and wave riders in the sky, get the crowds excited. Toy Story's beloved characters Woody, Jessie, Hamm the pig, Rex the T-Rex and the parachuting Green Army men provide the amazing finale to this parade. Thirty costumes were designed by a local costuming team and award-winning designer Mirena Rada, whose film work includes being assistant costume designer on the Disney film, Enchanted. At two points during the parade, guests are invited to interact with the performers. For three minutes, you get the chance to be a part of the Flight of Fantasy yourself.

Be like a child again

The effect of the Flight of Fantasy Parade is pretty much like that of a time machine, transporting grownups back to their childhood. Today, Rika Yabe of Tokyo, Japan captures the entire parade on her video camera, trailing the floats from the Sleeping Beauty Castle all the way down to Main Street, USA. The baby-faced 34-year-old is garbed in a black polka-dot smock, leggings, Minnie Mouse silver earrings and clips on her hair - a tribute to her favorite Disney Friend. You'd think she's had her fill of Disney magic, as an employee of Tokyo Disneyland Resort. Not so. "I come to Hong Kong Disneyland from Tokyo eight times," she says. "When I am here, I go to the park every day." She taps the birthday badge over her heart. "This year, I'm celebrating here."

"It brings out the child in all of us," says Rony Fortich, the park's music director, of the Flight of Fantasy soundtrack - a mash-up of the very best Disney tunes, arranged in a fun and festive beat. Combined with the fantastic fantasy floats, the experience elicits many intense emotions from its audience. I find myself choked up, a swell of sentimentality caught in my throat, feeling tearful amid the revelry. It's a reaction, I am told, that is commonly experienced by other guests. Says Fortich, "It's amazing stuff. They have composers who really know how to capture joyful fun and the theme of the parade."

As HKDL's music director, Fortich is aware of the role of song in creating an enchanting experience. "When you enter the park you see the visuals - the castle, the jungle atmosphere in Adventureland, and the futuristic scenes in Tomorrowland. The music's role is to complete the picture."

He ought to know. During an anonymous audition last year, his composition, Celebration in the Air, was picked as the theme song for HKDL's fifth anniversary. "It's a love anthem to the park I've grown to love, of taking flight into everything wonderful," says the accountancy major from Manila, whose job involves handling the vocalists in Festival of the Lion King, Golden Mickeys and High School Musical; the musicians performing in and around the HKDL; as well as the seasonal music played in the park.

Filipinos in Disneyland

With Hong Kong less than a two-hour flight from Manila, it's no wonder that Pinoys are regular visitors to HKDL. "The Philippines is our number one international market, and we are committed to serving the Filipino guest," says Wong.

Of the 5,000 castmembers working in the park, about 150 are Filipino, lending their inherent flair for song and dance to roles that range from Tigger Girls, Bee Aerialists to Bungee Monkeys in Flight of Fantasy; gazelles, zebras and tribeswomen in Festival of the Lion King; to the talented performers that star in Golden Mickeys.

The Pinoy performers may make their job look easy, but it isn't. Training is tough. Ren Ren Galarroza, 33, who alternates between being a surfer dude on the ground and a wave rider in the sky on the Lilo and Stitch float in the Flight of Fantasy Parade, says that, "For the auditions, we were required to do pull-ups and to ride a lift to see if we had a fear of heights." Daily rehearsals for the parade begin at 9am and finish at 1pm to ensure that every performance is flawless by 3.30pm.

Since the performance is very physical, castmembers are put through vigorous training that involves jogging, push-ups and gym work to condition them for their roles.

"They just want to make sure we are safe," says Ela Lisondra, 23, a chorus girl in Festival of the Lion King, a 30-minute extravaganza that retells the story of Simba. "If they know that your role will be tough, like you have to carry heavy props, they have you do back training to strengthen your body."

In today's show, Lisondra plays a gazelle, gracefully gliding, leaping and prancing on the moving stage with the rest of the cast. In addition to the Broadway-style song and dance numbers, the production boasts cutting- edge animatronics and pyrotechnics on a high-tech stage that rises, falls, rotates and unleashes fire from its belly.

"It's been a magical ride," she twinkles. She says that word again, but she can't help it. In the five years she's been working in HKDL, many of her dreams have come true, including a brief stint in Disneyland Paris. Today, the girl who fell in love with The Lion King at eight is living every child's fantasy, doing four shows of Festival of the Lion King daily. To date, she has played the part of a tribeswoman, Timone and even the acrobatic Spirit Bird that flies around the stage - a role she wasn't sure she could pull off "because I wasn't trained by Ballet Philippines," she says. "But when I got the job, they trained me so I could be my very best."

A gaggle of Japanese ladies gush, "sugoi!" ("great!") when the firedancers come out, twirling blazing sticks, and then again when fire shoots up from the stage. As members of the cast walk towards the audience, giving high-fives and smiles, the girls lean forward, eager to interact with the stars.

Lisondra truly relishes these personal encounters with guests. During today's performance, I notice her make a beeline for a woman in a wheelchair. Another time, she picked out an elderly American couple in the bleachers. "I shook their hands and they told me 'we love you, we support Disney'. They watched the show almost every day. Sometimes it makes me want to cry. When I'm tired, and guests support us, it energizes me."

While doing High School Musical, Galarroza relates how a Japanese lady and her two daughters came regularly to see the show. They have since purchased the HKDL annual pass, so that they are able to visit the park regularly. "When guests come here everyday just to see us, it makes us feel like 'wow, this is amazing,'" he says. And thanks to the wonders of digital cameras, e-mail and Facebook, the friendships forged in the park live on long after the guests have left HKDL.

The amazing connection between guests and castmembers is one of the things that keep people coming back.

But during this fifth anniversary, Wong says that, "The park's five seasonal events - Chinese New Year, Star Guest Program, Summer, Halloween and Christmas - will be made even better," adding to HKDL's appeal. And with Toy Story Land to be completed in the latter part of 2011, the park's clout as a premiere Hong Kong tourist destination is expected to grow even more.

Just add pixie dust

For Celebration in the Air, Tinker Bell also makes her debut in HKDL, enchanting kids and adults in her little garden, Pixie Hollow. But as dusk falls, Peter Pan's mischievous sidekick flaps her wings and takes off, sprinkling pixie dust over the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Every night at 7pm, park guests get to watch the amazing transformation of the castle under Tinker Bell's magic spell, as she illuminates it in a myriad of colors to the tune of a grand musical score. The scene is breathtaking, one that builds up the excitement for the finale - the Disney in the Stars fireworks showcase at 8pm.

As the fireworks shoot above the park, two castmembers stop sweeping the entrance to watch. It's as if constellations of stars have come out to play. One of them tells me he has been working in HKDL for three years, but never tires of watching the awesome display of light and music. "It's great," he grins. Not everyone can boast of a job perk as this.

For Lisondra, apart from getting to ride Space Mountain when she's not working, her biggest job perk is making guests happy. With four shows daily, and rehearsals in between, hers is a physically demanding job. But she keeps her performance fresh by giving her heart in every show.

"You'll know if you didn't because you'll feel you weren't being real," she smiles. "If you give your heart, they will feel it and will appreciate the show. And they will appreciate your job because they know you're touching lives."

As for Fortich, he enjoys witnessing life's joyful moments and helping make them happen through the Star Guest Program. "Once, I got the 15-piece Disneyland band to help a guy propose marriage." He set it up so the couple was there, and after a particular song, there was a drum roll, and the guy popped the question. "The band played a love song just for them. The girl had no idea!" he shares. "That was an amazing thing to see because it was real life." Ultimately, that's what they do best in Disneyland. They make magic real.

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