Aaron Stratton was born to perform. (This is a fact that I've known since we attended high school together, more years ago than I care to admit.) In fact, he can’t really see himself doing anything else.
So when an opportunity to leave West Virginia and move to sunny Florida arose, he seized it. Now, after more than 20 years of making music for one of the world’s entertainment giants, The Walt Disney Company, he continues to love the journey, as he creates lifelong memories for the guests that he encounters every day.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down and chat with Aaron about his career over coffee, and to learn what it's like to create magic for a living.
B: Tell me how you got started with Disney.
A: I actually followed my wife [then girlfriend] down here. We had just started dating and she said, “Hey, I’m going to Disney for the summer on this thing called The College Program.” And I thought I could go down as well and get a seasonal job. We were both Disney fans. That was June of 1996. I’d started singing barbershop in college and I knew there was a quartet on Main Street, so I reached out to a couple of “barbershoppers” that I knew, who were able to get me in contact with the leader of the Dapper Dans. I ended up going for an interview [for a seasonal job] in April. While there, I went to Magic Kingdom, walked into the barber shop, and this guy was working. And he said, “We were just talking about you.” All summer, I would go and hang out with them. Two days before Kara and I were leaving to go back, they auditioned and hired me. So I went home for about a month and a half to tie up loose ends, and came back in October 1996.
B: What are some of the roles you’ve played during your career as a Disney performer?
A: I started out singing lead, and while I did that, I learned tenor and would sub in there as needed, then I learned bass, and eventually, baritone, and each one of those is a different part vocally, but also a different part on the chimes, and also, a different part routine-wise. After I did that, I started looking into other roles. I auditioned for Candlelight Processional, for Voices of Liberty [both at Epcot] in December 2005 and became a sub. Before that, I also auditioned for the Beauty and the Beast stage show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
B: I still think you should have been in the movie.
A: (Laughs) Whatever. That was summer 2001. I auditioned, got approved to train, and trained, but I was as green as they come with musical theater. So I started doing things outside of Disney, just to work and hone different parts of my art that I hadn’t ever expanded on.
B: Like what?
A: Mainly acting. Community theater, mostly. I learned a lot about myself as a performer doing things outside of my comfort zone. But that enabled me to go back. So in 2007, I [knew I wanted] to go in a different direction. At that time, Finding Nemo, the Musical [at Animal Kingdom] was brand new, and they decided to bring me on in that.
B: That must have been a huge learning curve, with puppets and performing and singing?
A: Huge. I thought the Dapper Dans was the hardest show on property. Well, Nemo is up there. Yeah, the first time I rode out on the Mr. Ray bike, and I was singing, and working the puppet, and visualizing where I had to go, and being in character, it was a lot. During the training, we spent SO much time on the music. I felt like I had it 3 days in, but then we spent another 3 days on it. But when I got on the bike the first time, I understood why. They wanted it to be first nature. And truthfully, the first time, I went out on the bike, and I was animating the puppet, I had no idea I was even singing. So, I made it. I got in. That was a test that I passed. And they were happy with me, and they asked if I’d be interested in doing Beauty and the Beast. And I said that I would definitely be interested. So in May 2008, I was offered a contract.
B. And now, you’re with Voices of Liberty, the fantastic a cappella group at Epcot. You interact a lot with guests in that role, just like you did with the Dapper Dans. Tell me about a time when you had a special connection with a guest, or you made a special memory for a guest.
A: Yes, and to pick just one, I don’t really know that I could. It happens daily. It really does. I love talking to people. I love making new relationships, I look forward to talking to people after every Voices of Liberty show. I walk around, and find people, ask, “Where are you from?” and based on how they respond, I may be there for the next 20 minutes. I may look at my watch, and say, “Oh my goodness, I need to find out what I’m singing in the next 3 minutes.”
B: Do you find repeat customers?
A: Yes, typically, if someone comes back regularly, we want them to feel special. We wouldn’t have the jobs we have if people didn’t come and watch us. There are lots of people—I mean, I could name 15 off the top of my head—that when they come to Disney, not just Epcot, and they spend the whole day watching Voices of Liberty. And when our shows are done, then they go to the other parks.
B. If you weren’t working as an entertainer with Disney, what would you be doing?
A: I have no idea. I can’t imagine not being a performer for a living. It’s ALWAYS what I wanted to do. [And] I found Disney. Where else can you be a full-time performer, in the same place, without having to travel? I mean, Disney has taken me lots of places. I got to train a group of Dapper Dans in Hong Kong. You know, if I wasn’t performing, I’d be cooking somewhere. I love cooking, especially pizza.
B: So how has performing for Disney impacted your family life?
A: It was enhanced my family life, big time. It’s really been my only job since I had a family, but I can’t imagine feeling any more support from an employer, as I do from Disney, to be with my family, and do whatever my family needs. They have bent over backwards, and I continue to see them bend over backwards, for a lot of cast members, to support them in what they need, whether it’s bereavement, or just needing to get away, it doesn’t matter. If you tell them you need to go be with my family, they let you go.
B: So they’ve offered work/life balance that’s practically unheard of in the area of performing.
A: They set the standard. When you say that Disney is a family-friendly operation, that is seamless over the entire operation. It’s been awesome.
B. Other than performing, what are some of your favorite parts of your job?
A: The people. Getting to interact with them. It really is one of my favorite things. Finishing the show, and then going out and finding someone I’m going to talk to, and I try to find the most interesting-looking person. That’s who I’m going for first. I want to talk to those people. I want to know their story. Also, after being a performer for 22 years, I really love getting to know new performers who are new to Disney. Pouring into them, telling them, here are some mistakes I made, here are the things that I feel like have allowed me to stay here so long. That also goes out to people I meet in the rotunda, who have kids in high school, who are looking at Disney as their dream, to sing with Voices of Liberty, and I say, Look, I was once right where you are, 18 years old, down here on my senior trip from high school, sitting on the floor, watching Voices of Liberty, thinking, omigosh, I would LOVE to do this. And, well, be careful what you wish for. You might actually get it. It might actually happen.