Behind Disney on Ice: Feld Sisters’ Live-Event Empire

One of the ice skating trolls has gone down. Nicole Feld, vice president of Feld Entertainment, pops up from her seat at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, hands over her mouth. The troll was part of a choreographed pinwheel in which 32 green-costumed skaters hold hands in a line and spin during Disney on Ice Presents Frozen. Now he’s an ice rink land mine, about to take seven skaters down with him. But like a pitcher covering home plate, the skater playing Princess Anna whisks the prone troll away.

The director, in the seat behind Nicole, gives her a thumbs up, after hearing through his earpiece that everyone is fine. She sits back down and nervously eats the popcorn her family’s company also makes; it’s the food she had for dinner often while growing up. The kids in the audience hardly notice the fall. “They’re not coming to see ice skating,” she says. They want to see the characters sing the hit songs. One of her jobs is to cut dialogue as much as possible to get to the good parts. Producing a Disney on Ice show, it turns out, isn’t so different from making porn.

Feld Entertainment normally takes 18 months to create its Disney on Ice shows, but Frozen, the fifth-highest-grossing film ever, was produced in half that time so it could start touring in September for the holiday season. “John Lasseter [the head of Disney animation] was telling us for years, ‘We’re working on a movie called Frozen so, duh,’ ” Nicole says. The show has sold 2 million tickets so far—250,000 on its first day—beating all of Feld Entertainment’s other Disney (DIS) shows. Most of the girls in the audience, whose parents paid $25 to more than $100 for tickets, come to Barclays wearing Frozen princess outfits. Many more buy Frozen swag from the booths.

During the showstopping number, when the skating Princess Elsa lip-syncs to Let It Go, the kids shout each line like fans at a Springsteen concert; many venture into the aisles, dancing. “We had to get extra ushers so they didn’t rush the performers,” Nicole says. But the audience stays seated for three finales, one of which consists of Mickey and Minnie Mouse just skating around, basically telling people to go. “It’s 9 o’clock on a Wednesday night. They have school tomorrow. They should be leaving,” she adds. “This goes against everything I know about show business.”

“These women are so sane and so charming, and they grew up at the circus with elephants named after them”

Nicole is one of three sisters who run the day-to-day operations of Feld Entertainment, a third-generation family business with 3,000 employees and more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The company goes back to 1967, when her grandfather, Irvin Feld—a record store owner who booked acts such as Buddy Holly—decided to buy the struggling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from John Ringling North. Immediately, Irvin brought the circus indoors and focused on it for the next two decades. (Feld Entertainment won’t release revenue for its circuses but says they still play to more people than any other Feld franchise.)

In 1981, with some struggling ice shows of his own, Irvin persuaded Disney to license its characters to him for Disney on Ice, which has been touring ever since. Disney gets 10 percent of all ticket and concession sales. For cost reasons, it could never produce the shows on its own or sell tickets so cheaply; contracts require it to hire union stagehands and Actors’ Equity performers. Plus, unlike the Felds, Disney doesn’t own 13 ice floors, stashed in storage facilities around the world. When you run a circus, you own a lot of stuff that helps you put on giant shows. “We can bring in 250 tons of dirt for Supercross or march 10 elephants into the Staples Center for the circus. Not a lot of people can do that. If you want to break into the live space it’s hard, because you don’t have the infrastructure,” Nicole says. “The margins are not huge.” Like a Broadway play, a single show can cost millions.

Each sister has the same title: executive vice president and producer. Nicole, 36, is the bubbly one; she handles personnel and focuses on the Disney on Ice and circus tours. Alana, 34, the sleek, fashionable one, manages marketing and helps produce the circus along with Disney Live!, which is basically Disney on Ice without the ice. Juliette, 31, is the most serious, a University of Chicago alumna and Emory MBA graduate who handles business planning and runs Feld Entertainment’s Marvel Universe Live! show (it’s like Frozen, except the dads in the audience also dress up) and its motor sports events, the Monster Jam and Supercross motorcycle races.

From left: Alana, Juliette, Kenneth, and Nicole Feld, with friend.Photographer: Colby Katz for Bloomberg BusinessweekFrom left: Alana, Juliette, Kenneth, and Nicole Feld, with friend.

The women have been training for these jobs since they were toddlers in suburban Maryland, where they had elephants at their birthday parties. Their dad, Kenneth, would use them as a focus group to decide which trends he should borrow for concession toys and clothes. “I learned everything I know from my dad and everything I didn’t know from my daughters,” says Kenneth, who is chief executive officer.

Before the sisters could join the business, their dad insisted they work at least two years somewhere else: Nicole was a photo editor at People magazine; Alana got a job at an advertising agency; Juliette worked in public relations. “I wanted to make sure that, if they did come into the business, they understood what it was like to work in a company with other people,” Kenneth says. “I had never had a job, and I came into the company as the boss’s son, and there’s a lot that goes with that.” The sisters report not to their dad, but to Chief Operating Officer Mike Shannon, who determines their salaries. But their father made them articulate what areas they wanted to focus on, and he lets them make their own mistakes, avoiding conflict resolution, because they’ll have to learn to do that without him someday. “I went through this whole thing a little insecure, because I was in the shadow of my father, who was a dynamic entrepreneur and a legend in the entertainment business,” Kenneth says. “Then suddenly he passes away at 66. I’m 35 and going, like, ‘Whoa, what am I going to do?’ ”

The company outsources almost nothing. Feld Entertainment shows up at an arena with its own employees to sell popcorn, cotton candy, snow cones, lemonade, and those $20 spinning light-up flashing toys, all of which it makes itself. It rebuilds its own monster trucks. It converts old rail cars into the mile-long trains that carry three circuses from town to town. There are stock cars for the animals and a restaurant called the Pie Car that’s open whenever the train is moving.

A performance of <em>Frozen</em> in Raleigh.Photographer: Colby Katz for Bloomberg BusinessweekA performance of Frozen in Raleigh.

In 2012 the company bought the second-biggest building in Florida—an old Siemens factory on 47 acres near Tampa. There it can rehearse two circuses at once, hold ice skating practices, house tigers, and store all the elephant blankets it wants. It’s also where the company shows ideas to Disney execs. “To see an ice show pitched is so charming. It’s a 20-foot-long table with little 9-inch paper cut-out dolls of each character and people with a bunch of croupier sticks pushing them around,” says Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group. When Lasseter saw a Frozen rehearsal, he suggested giving Olaf the snowman a piña colada when he sings about summer; the skating seagulls wear a replica of one of Lasseter’s loud Hawaiian shirts. “There are nine companies of Disney on Ice out right now, in 21 languages,” Schumacher says. “It’s very important to me that we’re in sync on how we represent our characters.”

Schumacher has known the Feld sisters for 25 years. “These women are so sane and so charming, and they grew up at the circus with elephants named after them,” he says. After spending much of their childhood being babysat by clowns, the sisters now manage them. To them the circus isn’t weird; they’ve now named elephants after their own kids.

A performance of <em>Frozen</em> in Raleigh.Photographer: Colby Katz for Bloomberg BusinessweekA performance of Frozen in Raleigh.

Still, they know their lives are unusual. “In high school, we’d get picked on,” says Alana, sitting in her New York office on the 51st floor of the Empire State Building. Its walls are painted with purple circus tent stripes, and P.T. Barnum’s autobiography sits on a shelf near a photo of the three sisters in full clown makeup as kids doing a circus routine. “I’d walk into parties, and a group of people would sing, ‘Doo doo doodoo dooda doo doo doodoo,’ like that was my theme song,” she says, referring to traditional circus entry music. When Nicole tried to make the circus more hip in 2006, replacing the trapeze, tigers, and cannon (which scared her as a kid) with wall-to-wall screens and a constant blaring soundtrack, it faltered. Feld Entertainment is not about cool.

It’s hard to imagine entertainment this wholesome and corny still exists, stuck in a time before the winking self-awareness of movies like Frozen. Feld Entertainment’s shows ignore Aristotelian dramatic rules; they jump from happy event to happy event, the villains muted, the conflicts less overcome than ignored. Stunts lean way further toward defying than death. The sisters’ response to the reality that kids are exposed to so much more entertainment these days isn’t to change their shows, but to make more—they keep thinking about Star Wars—and to go farther overseas: There are currently Feld Entertainment events in 72 countries.

Back in Brooklyn, as Nicole walks to her seat at Frozen, she spots a girl watching intently. “They used to come to Disney on Ice until they were 11. Now they come until they’re 9,” Nicole says. “The nice thing is, people keep having babies.”

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18 December 2014 | 1:59 pm – Source:


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