If you want to see Disney magic on stage, you can walk to the box office to buy your tickets. But if you want to learn the real secrets of Disney on Broadway, you need to walk with Walks of New York. The tour company has teamed up with the Disney Theatrical Group to offer the first-ever public peak behind the curtain.
Secrets of Disney on Broadway
We met up with our tour guide, Broadway “Insider,” Jeff Dobbins (a former Broadway actor and House Manager at the Duke Theater) in front of the George M. Cohan Statue for a sneak peak of the latest tour from Walks of New York. The co-founders of Walks of New York, Jason Spiehler and Stephen Oddo (who are also behind the successful Walks of Italy and have created more than 100 tours in 15 cities around the world) were there as well, handing us headphones, explaining that it was a necessary accessory with the boisterous crowds of New York’s Times Square surrounding us during a good portion of the tour.
Standing under the statue with a plaque bearing the classic song/lyric “Give My Regards to Broadway,” (and turning aside from the bus tour group that had pulled up and was signing their own rendition of the song) our guide launched into a history of Broadway, the “uniquely singular art form.” From reminding us about some of the greatest songs and moments that have come from Broadway, to seeing where shows have debuted, to learning a bit about how it all works, he told tales of Broadway and its theaters, dating back to the oldest to the current 40 Broadway theaters in the district today.
“We want people to have even more context to understand the rich history and importance of Broadway and further connect to it,” Spiehler said.
Additionally and importantly, Spiehler and Oddo want their tours to afford the clients something they wouldn’t have access to on their own.
Name & Place Dropping
Winding through the city streets, we were told how in 1904 the first illuminated “spectacular” went up. As others followed, the area earned the nickname the “Great White Way,” due to all the lights at night. It was a bit sad to discover that the first theater built in 1895 was torn down. The site is now the home of the Times Square Toys R Us. As we walked, and he talked, every so often we’d pause to hear a relevant audio clip with a famous Broadway show song or moment from a famous speech.
Tour guides on the walks all come from the world of Broadway. The actors, directors, managers and others bring with them their insider stories of things that have happened behind the Broadway scenes. Because of that, each tour is unique depending on your guide.
For example, did you know an actor died during a performance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Or that people have seen Olive Thomas, the ghost of the New Amsterdam theater? Our guide also offered tidbits about the many greats who influenced the Broadway scene including (but in no way limited to) Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter.
Along the way, we learned about the “dark days” of Broadway. That was when many of the theaters were turned into movie houses, often with XXX marquis titles that were not repeatable in mixed company.
The New Amsterdam Theater & The Follies
As we arrived at Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater, one of the oldest theaters remaining and now home to Disney’s Aladdin, Jeff introduced us to Kimberly. She’s an expert on the theater who took us straight past the crowds in line outside for tickets and upstairs to some of the “best seats in the house.”
As we sat there in the empty theater, she asked us to look around at the amazing Art Nouveau architecture and design heavily based in nature, birds, flora, fauna and women. She told the fascinating stories behind the theater’s construction and disrepair, including a tree that had taken root in the orchestra pit and major holes that let the rain come in through the roof. We saw unbelievable photos of what had been done to save this beautiful theater from complete destruction.
She also recounted some rather scandalous accounts of the Ziegfeld Follies, to which the New Amsterdam was home—in the rooftop theater! As she talked on, it was hard not to imagine what the roaring 20s must have been like at the Follies, with its glass runway for the performers, and launching careers of the likes of W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor.
Playing Dress Up
Then we were taken into what’s known as the “Archives Room.” Surrounded by props, costumes and set mock-ups of the many Disney shows that have been performed, it was hard not to feel a bit like a child in a candy store. Among the treasures:
- The original rose from Beauty and the Beast
- Mary Poppins’ hat, suits, chimney brooms and umbrella
- Headdresses from Elton John’s Aida
- Vines and mocketts from Tarzan
- The Little Mermaid’s costume, giant clamshells, Prince Eric’s bathtub, King Tritan’s throne, masks, costumes
- Puppets, masks and costumes from The Lion King (including a life-size giraffe)
- The desk and newsprint props from Newsies
Kimberly showed us some of the “smoke and mirror” tricks and then came the best part of all: We were allowed to try on the gorgeous costumes and have photos taken! I did try on Mary Poppins’ hat–how could I not? But her familiar jackets were approximately a Size 0–which I am not. These were the actual items used in Broadway productions. Seeing them, feeling them, holding them, even trying them on, gave us a completely new understanding of the complexities of putting on a Disney show on Broadway.
Bryan Docket, the VP of Sales & Partnerships for the Disney Theatrical Group, summed up the tours by saying, “For those who love theater and those who love Disney, this is the best of both. “
The tours, which run $72 for adults and $65 for children 12 and under, are now officially underway. My 10-year-old was not with me for this tour, but if she had been, she would have been fascinated. They are open to children over 4 and infants are free. If you’ve got a younger child, know that this walking tour lasts 2.5 hours and you’ll be walking from Times Square all through the Broadway District. The tours, which go rain or shine, are fully handicapped accessible. As Jeff told us, Broadway is a “host of attractions,” and indeed, it made for a wonderful host on this walk of New York.