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Essential Tips for Traveling with Your High School Music Ensemble

Written by Bruce Rockwell, choir director at College Park High School

I’ve been leading choir tours for a lot of years now. If you are about to go on tour, I would like to offer up my most valuable lessons and hacks. In addition to these tips which can apply to all tours, I have a number of Disney-specific hacks that are listed below these first nine.

1. The Question Pyramid. The absolute best thing! I used to get pestered constantly with annoying questions from students who didn’t read the itinerary, didn’t listen to my announcements, and were just being lazy about not checking the info I had already given them. Sound familiar? And so now I have a rule that students cannot ask me any travel-related questions for the duration of the tour. I turn off commenting in Remind, and they have to go through a chain of command in order to get information, starting with the Google doc itinerary. If they have a question that nobody else can answer, even their chaperone, then *their chaperone* can ask me the question – not them!

This one hack has done more to improve the smooth running of our tours than anything else I’ve implemented. Students are forced to be proactive, use common sense, and check the resources they are given in order to know what’s going on. And I get to enjoy my experience too. Students are allowed to approach me with performance-related questions only.

2. Selfies. Chaperones are assigned in advance, and a few days before we leave, I have the students text their chaperones with a selfie and their name. That way the chaperones are immediately in cell phone contact with all of their assigned students, and they know who is who. I put the parents at home in contact with their kid’s chaperone, and inform them that I will not generally be reachable while on tour. All parent communication needs to be with the chaperone.

3. Bunk mates. I used to let students request all of their roommates. But every year there was endless drama with that fifth student who got left out of a room of four, requesting to be swapped with so-and-so, parents emailing me after I posted the rooming list, so-and-so getting mad because she couldn’t be with her bestie, and why did these students get to be together but not us, and on and on. And occasionally we had the senior party rooms.

And so now, I only allow students to request their bunk mate – i.e. the person that they will be sharing the hotel bed with. And then I deliberately mismatch the pairs of students to break up the cliques, and to give everybody the opportunity to get to know some other students from different choirs or different friend groups. The rooming decisions are final and not up to adjustment. The students know that they get to bunk with a bestie, while the rest is up to me. It is so much easier now, and no drama! Many new friendships are formed this way, and rooming with a couple strangers really cuts down on shenanigans.

4. Curfew. This is a big, zero tolerance deal for me, and students who leave their rooms after curfew and before wake-up will be sent home the next morning at their parents’ expense. We used to do the tape on the door thing, but that is vulnerable to other student groups coming in late and messing with the tape. And so I hire a security guard (for four hours on just the first two nights) to patrol the student rooms (I tell them the guard will be there all night, it’s a white lie). The security guard adds next to nothing to the per-student cost of the trip, and all of the adults get a good night’s sleep. After the second night of the tour, there’s no security guard because the students are too tired to notice or care.

5. Battery backup. On our packing list, a cell phone battery backup is a required item – for both students and chaperones. Charges don’t last all day, and late at night at the group meet-up is the worst time to not be able to reach somebody.

6. Groups of 3 or more. Another zero tolerance rule (as in, students will immediately get sent back to their hotel room for the rest of the day) is that students need to be traveling in groups of 3 or more during their free time, if they are in a theme park or in a city neighborhood. I find that three students are a LOT less likely to lose track of time than two. It’s always the “timeless couples” that end up being late for meet-up times.

7. Dramamine. Be sure the chaperones have it in all buses, and that you get permission from parents to give it to their kid. You don’t want to find out the hard way (like I did) that car sickness can be a kind of chain reaction that moves like a wave through the entire bus. Ahem, enough said.

8. Tipping. Before the tour, I instruct students in proper tipping etiquette, and we have them each leave $5 for the hotel cleaning staff after the chaperones inspect the rooms on the last morning. Our tour provider tips our bus drivers, but before that was in place, I used to collect $10 from every student at the beginning of the trip for the driver, rather than waiting to the end when the students have spent all their money. If you have group dinners at restaurants, be sure to find out whether or not the tips are included.

9. Per diem allowance. Most music educators will give up a fair amount of weekend or vacation time so that their students can have a travel experience. It may not be possible to request an honorarium, stipend, or time-sheeted pay from a school or district, to be compensated for the many hours of work while on tour. But meals can be costly in theme parks and touristy areas, so it is appropriate to request a per-diem allowance for personal expenses, such as $50/day. This is an entirely reasonable accommodation to be requested of a booster group, or to be accounted for in the per-student cost of the trip. 

Disney Specific Travel Guide

My best Disney-specific choir student travel tips:

1. Get on the bus, Gus! If you are within a long day’s drive of the theme parks, take a bus rather than fly. You will save a ton of money, and will have your own dedicated ground transportation with you the whole time. There is a lot of fun student bonding that happens on long bus rides, that just doesn’t happen during the increasingly cramped, miserable experience of air travel.

2. Concert attire in garment bags. When students show up at the bus departure time on day one, they bring their concert attire (including shoes) in a garment bag that is labeled clearly across the front with their name. The attire gets inspected by their chaperone, and gets stowed flat in a luggage bay under the bus. On performance day, the bus meets up with the students in a backlot area of the theme park, and students change into their concert attire then. After the performance, students change back into their normal clothes, and their garment bags go back under the bus. Leaving the concert attire under the bus for the duration of the trip eliminates several problems that often occur when students pack their concert attire in their luggage, and stow them in their hotel rooms – wrinkles, forgotten uniforms, etc.

3. Soundstage Workshops. A lot of groups combine a performance in a theme park one day with a Disney Imagination Campus soundstage workshop on another day. When bringing multiple ensembles to perform individually, consider combining them for the soundstage workshop. Combining everybody into one will give you a bigger sound in the studio, the final recorded product is better, and you are left with more free time to enjoy the park. Check with your Disney production specialist for soundstage maximum capacities.

4. Meet-up time. Don’t push your final meet-up time too late. High school students always think that they want to close the parks down, but in reality they get cold, tired, and miserable pretty quickly at night. We meet at 10pm at the latest, and then each chaperone takes their group on the shuttles to the bus. Every time I give into their pleas to push the meetup time later, I regret it, and the students do too. Stick to your guns: 10pm is after the fireworks, and it’s plenty late.

5. Park days. Never spend more than two days in the Disneyland parks while on tour (maybe 3 days for Disney World). More than that amount is just too much Disney. And if you have more days available, there are better ways to spend them – a beach day, college visits, group dinners, clinics, other theme parks, musical theater performances, school exchanges, etc.

6. Perform Disney music! Your students will love performing the songs that they grew up on, while on a Disney theme park stage. This is honestly not a good venue for your serious, refined festival music. If you do your festival rep on a Disney theme park stage, all of your hard work and attention to detail will end up fairly lost in a rather noisy outdoor venue, and you will end up performing to a small audience of parents who came along with the tour. There’s almost a century of great Disney music out there – so many excellent arrangements to choose from! Your performance of Disney favorites will attract an appreciative crowd of families, who will dance and sing along with their children.

7. Use professional accompaniment tracks for choirs. In any other scenario with my choirs, I wouldn’t choose to perform with recorded accompaniments. But in a Disney theme park, it actually is the right aesthetic, and very practical. The recorded accompaniments make us sound professional and very “Disney,” they enhance a sense of fun, and they make our set list bullet-proof, with no unpleasant surprises on stage. Also, we don’t have to fund an accompanist for the tour.

8. Hotel choice. Find a hotel that includes a breakfast buffet, and isn’t too far of a drive away. In order to eliminate the temptation to sneak back into the parks late at night, it probably shouldn’t be within easy walking distance, either.

9. Lockers.  For spring travel, it gets surprisingly cold and windy at Disneyland after the sun goes down. Include a hoodie as a required item on your packing list, and encourage students to share a locker for their layers (lockers are located outside the main gate, and just inside both parks).

10. Disneyland app. The Disney parks are becoming an increasingly app-driven experience. Learning how to navigate the Disneyland app (or My Disney Experience for Disney World) can take a frustrating amount of time while you’re trying to enjoy the theme parks. So during your last rehearsal before the tour, have the students download the app onto their phones, and walk them through its basic features ahead of time.

11. Use a tour provider. The total amount of money that you can save by organizing your own tours might seem considerable at first glance, vs. going through a tour provider or agent. But when divided up into the per-student cost, you will typically see modest savings at most – especially considering that a tour provider will usually be able to secure better pricing with hotels, bus companies, etc. Any potential cost savings probably won’t be enough, at any rate, to change the economics of who can and can’t afford the trip.

For me, there are two considerations that are more important than shaving a little off of the tour price: my time, and my peace of mind. I’m going to let our agent (Eric Spidell of make all the arrangements. I have a choir program to run! And when I am hundreds of miles away from home with busloads full of students and chaperones, and something goes wrong – a bus doesn’t show up, a planned outdoor meal gets rained on unseasonably, etc – I want to be able to call Eric, and know that he will take care of everything.

Be sure to use a tour provider or travel agent with a lot of experience with student group travel, and a strong relationship with the Disney Imagination Campus Performing Arts programs.

12. Grand Californian. When I’m off duty, I love to beat the heat, the noise and the crowds, and kick up my heels in the cool, quiet, comfy lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel. Aaahh.

Bruce Rockwell is the choir director at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill, California. He has taught choir, piano and guitar at College Park for 15 years. Mr. Rockwell received his MM in Composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and his BA in Music from the University of California at Santa Cruz.




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