The Candlelight Processional is an annual event at Walt Disney World that runs from the day after Thanksgiving through December 30th. Each day a celebrity narrator tells the story of Christmas, which is enhanced by music sung by the Voices of Liberty (Disney’s professional a cappella singing group), WDW Cast Members (That’s Disneyspeak for “employees” – everything at Disney is based on “putting on a show” so there’s cast members, backstage, on stage, etc.), and a 200-250ish voice mass choir comprised of several invited guest choirs from all across the country (and occasionally from outside the U.S.), along with live music played by a 50-piece orchestra. The approximately 45-minute show is run three times per night (5pm, 6:45pm and 8:15pm) at the American Gardens Theater at Epcot. Here’s what the event is like from the perspective of a member of one of the guest choirs.
The guest choirs are generally high school, college, church and community choirs who have been chosen via an audition process. Disney tells the interested choirs which of the Candlelight Processional song(s) to audition with (prior to 2018, it was two songs but it’s since changed to just one song) and each choir’s respective videotaped auditions are sent to Disney in September. They’re told in October if they got in or not and, if they did, are also told the date(s) and time(s) they are assigned to sing (generally speaking, each choir sings in either the first show, or the second and third show). The choirs don’t have to pay to sing at Candlelight Processional and each participant is given two “one-day, one-park” WDW park passes that are good for a year (members of choirs chosen to sing on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are given four tickets per participant).
Choirs who pass their auditions get all the materials they need to rehearse – a list of the 14 Candlelight songs in the order they’ll be sung, full sheet music, audio of each singing part so each 1st and 2nd soprano, 1st and 2nd alto, 1st and 2nd tenor, baritone and bass singer can hear what his/her part is supposed to sound like in relation to everyone else’s part, notations of special ways Disney wants the choirs to sing specific words, phrases or notes of songs, as well as a list of what to expect, dos and don’ts, information about arrival at WDW, expected dress, and information about chaperones (choirs can bring one chaperone for every five singers), among other things.
From the time they find out they got in until the day of their performance(s), the choirs rehearse with their respective music directors on their own. There’s no standardized amount of time to rehearse; some put in hours upon hours of rehearsals, others only a non-mandatory hour or two…it all depends on the choir, its abilities and, to some extent, if they’ve sung in Candlelight Processional before (if they have, it’s expected they would need less time to rehearse because they’re already familiar with the music). As long as each choir maintains, at the very least, a certain level of quality, “it’s all good.”
On singing day, the choirs, chaperones and music directors (or, in his/her absence, someone who has been named “in charge” of the group) arrive in groups to the “backstage” (Disneyspeak for “behind the scenes”) area of Epcot’s World Showplace. They’re requested to arrive a few hours before their performance time. Choirs generally arrive in a group via buses (or a smaller vehicle if the group can fit into, for example, a multi-person van).
Upon entering the backstage area, each person’s belongings are checked by a WDW Cast Member (the same as if they were entering the park), and, after being counted as they leave the bus, they’re then led to the “lunch tent” (a big, white covered tent, roughly 75′ or 100′ feet square). The tent is filled with a few dozen picnic tables that are numbered and labeled; each choir is assigned one or more tables (depending on the size of the choir) so they can sit, leave their belongings, etc.
Through 2016, a light lunch had been provided, and choir members were invited to take their choice a turkey, ham or peanut butter & jelly sandwich, as well as a bag of chips, small package of cookies, and a drink (usually a Powerade sort of thing). As of 2017, they’re offered a snack bag that includes a granola bar, cookies, mixed nuts, chips and cheese/crackers (same drink as previous years). There are also large containers of water and paper cups that are readily available. Special meals (i.e. gluten free) are also available via special request prior to singing day.
Around the time of the choirs’ lunch, the chaperones are requested to gather in a building across the way to learn more about their responsibilities and to decide what their choice of assignments will be. Some will need to stay in the lunch tent to watch over their singers’ belonging. A few will need to accompany the singers to their rehearsal (I’ll talk about that next), in case they’re needed for a singer falling ill or not behaving appropriately (remember, a lot of these choirs are high school groups). A couple of chaperones will need to stay behind the risers where the singers stand during the show (again, should a singer become ill during the performance), and the rest will be allowed to sit in the audience to watch the show. Chaperones also get two “one-day, one-park” park passes for their participation.
Meanwhile, each music director (or representative) is led individually to a small room nearby to go over some paperwork, confirm the number of singers they have and receive the choir’s allotment of park passes for later distribution. Music directors also receive two “one-day, one-park” park passes for their participation.
After they’re done with lunch, the singers are told to go to the “Rehearsal Tent,” which is next to the lunch tent. The choirs are loaded in by voice part so 200+ people don’t all come in at the same time. Each choir’s music director (or representative) and assigned chaperone(s) accompany them. Once the choirs are on the risers according to their voice parts, they, as a mass choir, begin a short rehearsal with a pianist and the person who will be the conductor that night. The conductor reviews the parts of the songs that most choirs tend to have more difficulty with, and may go into further depth of nuance as ability and time allows. The Voices of Liberty then enter and rehearse specific parts of a few songs with the mass choir. Finally, when available, the celebrity narrator enters the rehearsal tent to say hi to everyone (no personal meetings, handshakes or autographs are allowed – it’s truly is just an opportunity to say hi and perhaps say a few words to the group). After this, the mass choir is dismissed back to the lunch tent to wait to be called to pick up their costumes.
All mass choir members are required to abide by the dress code set by Disney: solid white shirt (long or short sleeve are OK), black trousers, solid black, closed heel/toe shoes and solid black socks/hosiery. Hair must be one solid, natural-looking color, jewelry must be kept to a strict minimum (i.e. small earrings and 1 ring per hand [although a wedding set is OK]) and makeup must be modest. Appropriate undergarments must be worn (yup, it’s written in the rules!) and there are several types of black shoes that are not allowed (Disney sends a list, with photos. Examples are sandals, flip flops, shoes with any areas that are not black [i.e. logo, midsole, outsole, laces, etc.], very high heels, etc). White shirts can’t have a high collar (read: no turtlenecks) and must have no writing on them. Following dismissal from the rehearsal tent, the choirs are invited, one by one, to Costuming in a building across the way. Each singer is issued a gold robe and collar, which they wear over their black and white street clothes.
Once everyone is wearing his/her robes, choir members are told to line up in size order according to voice parts. They’re then led back to the rehearsal tent, still in size order, to determine where their respective spots on stage will be (tallest in the back, shortest in the front of each voice part section), and to learn the process of the Processional from the backstage area to the theater (and back again) – I won’t go into the nuances of it all, but it’s essentially “following the leader” with a few tricks of the trade to ensure that the singers all go where they’re supposed to. Finally, as all the singers leave the tent in that same “following the leader” style, they’re issued a candle for them to hold during the show (instructions about the candle, such as don’t touch the tip or it might break, where to hold the candle against your body [just above your belly button], don’t move the candle because it sticks out like a sore thumb when the lights are low, etc., are also given during this period of pre-performance).
At this point, it’s show time! Line leaders lead the mass choir from backstage to onstage at Epcot. They enter the park between the United States and Italy pavilions and enter the theater and go onto the risers based on voice part (i.e.: sopranos enter from behind the audience, go down the center aisle, make a right just before they get to the stage, make a left to go up a few stairs, walk to the risers and stand at their assigned spots).
Here’s one of the shows from 2016. It’s complete, from introduction music to after the performers have left the stage. The celebrity narrator was Jodi Benson (she was the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid). Full Disclosure: I do not own this video; I just searched for what I thought was the best sounding recent Candlelight Processional video on YouTube. As per the owner, “My camera had some trouble focusing during Jodi’s first speaking part, but I has able to correct it after that. I normally don’t share videos that are are out of focus, but her beautiful words and the amazing music more than make up for it.”
When the show is over, the mass choir is led backstage, where two cast members takes the singers’ candles as they enter the backstage area. If the choir is finished singing for the day, there are bins provided for the collars and robes, so they can be cleaned. If they’re singing in two shows and still have one show to go, they get to keep wearing their robes and collars until the second show is over. If they indeed have another show to do, the singers have a few minutes to rest, then they line up in size order and do it all over again!
After singing their last show and giving back their costumes, the choirs are dismissed. Some go back on their buses to exit, whereas others go out to experience Epcot (it’s allowed and, especially if you’re only singing in the first show, is a great way to walk around Epcot for free – their buses pick them up later at the regular bus pickup area). The free park passes are distributed by the music directors or whoever has been deemed “in charge” of each group, as per the protocol of the respective choirs.
Joe and I have participated in Candlelight Processional for about 9 of the last 10 years and, depending on the year, have been mass choir members or occasionally have acted as chaperones, and I’ve even been the “person in charge in lieu of the music director” once or twice (oh, the POWER!!! LOLOL!). It’s a really fun experience and a cool way to see the backstage workings of what goes into putting on a show at WDW. If you ever get the opportunity to sing in the Candlelight Processional, do it! If not, at least go see the show – it’s lovely! You can find out more about Candlelight Processional on this page of Disney’s website.
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