Like many children exposed to Disney movies, Leah Small believed in pixie dust.

“Have a dream,” “Always believe in your dream and follow where it leads you,” “Never quit,” were just a few of the messages the films stressed.

“I never thought I’d be as affected by Disney as I was as a child,” the former Ellwood City resident said.

The 24-year-old is back in New York City, winding down from five months on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, where she sang and danced in three mini-musicals, doing 13 shows a week.

A graduate of Ellwood City’s Lincoln High School, Small studied musical theater at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio.

After graduating in 2003, she moved to New York and began auditioning every day.

If ever the Disney philosophy was needed, it was after finding herself one of sometimes hundreds of talented singers and dancers.

Small first auditioned for Disney in December 2003.

She didn’t receive the first callback from producers until May 2004. Meanwhile, she worked a series of temporary jobs. After the audition in May and another in July, she received an offer in August.

On Jan. 3, she began seven weeks in Toronto on a morning-to-night schedule learning the songs, dances, comedy and drama as well as getting measured for her costumes.

At the end of February, the cast of about three dozen headed south to Orlando, where Small was given some unexpected safety training: the wet drill.

“It was 55 degrees, cold and windy, and we had to jump off a pier into the ocean and climb on a life raft,” she said. “Everyone’s lips were blue. I just kept thinking, ‘I just want to sing.’ It was horrible.”

As a lifeboat assembly leader in charge of 150 guests, Small said she learned, “stuff I never thought I could do. It was much more than performing.”

She also faced the Disney Tradition, an intensive indoctrination in the policies and procedures, the Disney dress code (no hoop earrings, no open toed or open heeled shoes, no short shorts or skirts), the safety drill, room inspection, personal behavior.

With more than 900 crew members on board, serious consequences awaited those who did not comply. After three rule infractions, the performer or crew member was dismissed, no matter how talented.

Among the inner circle of friends Small said she continues to contact is Pasquale John “P.J.” Baccari of New Jersey, who played leading roles in the shows, including young Hercules.

He made “amazing friendships.

“You really learn to bond with people and learn the good and the bad confined in a small place,” he noted.

“Eight months on a ship is a little too long,” Baccari added, “it’s a whole different way of living.”

Along with performing in the shows, Small worked as a character escort for Goofy, Mickey and other characters during the day, taking photographs of guests with the characters and making sure the interactions went well.

One of the unique aspects of performing on a Disney ship, Baccari pointed out, involves mingling after the shows with children in the audience as the characters the actors played.

“It’s one thing to stay in character on stage,” he said. “You learn that in acting classes, but this is a whole different experience off-stage where they can ask you any questions.”

Small finds it difficult to imagine any other job “that will make me feel as good about what I did, to be as moved and give so much satisfaction, seeing little kids’ faces light up. I felt I really made a difference for some people.”

Roles show age, Pain, courage

Former Ellwood City resident Leah Small had three roles while working for Disney.

The Lincoln High graduate performed in 13 shows a week during the five months she cruised the Caribbean.

The shortest role was the hardest for her, she said, because she had to transform herself into a 70-year-old friend of the fairy godmother in “Disney Dreams.”

“Hercules, the Muse-ical” was the most fun but also the most terrifying.

“I didn’t know if I had any comic ability.”

Small played Pain, half of the comedy duo, Pain and Panic, the henchmen of Hades, god of the underworld. She and Panic were allowed to improvise and grew as performers.

Parents told them their comedy made the cruise for them.

In “The Golden Mickeys,” Small played Ensen Bensen, a stage manager whose dream is to perform but she doesn’t have the courage.

She realizes her dream when she’s forced to go on when the captain doesn’t show up and she receives her own Golden Mickey from Minnie Mouse.

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