“… and I hope you have a magical day.” Ryan Rhodes can’t begin to count the number of times he uttered those words. Tens of thousands? Easily. During a decade-long run as a member of the premier vocal group at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Rhodes, now a security systems salesman in Omaha, greeted people from around the world and welcomed them to the Magic Kingdom.
“I sang bass with the Voices of Liberty at Epcot,” says Rhodes, 44, clearly proud of his vocal past. “They’re a world-renowned eight-part a cappella group.”
Anyone who has visited Epcot since it opened in 1982 has probably seen the Voices of Liberty. The singers perform about seven shows a day in the gracious rotunda of the American Adventure pavilion near the back of the theme park. Dressed in 19th century period costumes, the group presents pure Americana in all its beauty.
“We did patriotic songs, folk, gospel, show tunes and jazz,” explains Rhodes, who anchored the octet from 1997-2007. “We would sing every 45 minutes, from about 12:30 to 5:00. We liked to change things up. Before each set we’d decide which genre we would sing.”
Mornings were spent rehearsing some of the literally hundreds of songs in their repertoire. The eight-part vocal orchestration with tight harmonies enabled Disney’s vocal ambassadors to give even the most iconic anthem like “The Star Spangled Banner” a more contemporary sound without losing any of its raw, emotional power. They put on quite a show.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic was Ronald Reagan’s favorite,” recalls Rhodes, who has sung before five presidents. “We also sang it for “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve. His wife, Dana, wheeled him into the rotunda. It was after his accident. He thanked us. I’ll never forget that moment.”
In addition to singing live at Epcot, Rhodes and the Voices of Liberty could be heard throughout the Magic Kingdom. Their music tracks were piped in along Main Street, in all the shops and throughout the glitzy holiday parade routes. Rhodes’s speaking voice also reached millions of visitors.
“I was able to do a lot of freelance voice work outside of Disney,” says Rhodes, who chuckles when he adds, “I think you can still hear me saying, ‘Moving walkway, moving walkway. Please watch your step’ at Universal Studios.”
Listening to Rhodes as he relaxes in his favorite Omaha coffee shop, it’s easy to understand why the Disney philosophy of giving people “magical moments” would resonate with him. He is, in the Disney jargon, “assertively friendly,” meaning he goes out of his way to engage people. He is quick-witted, genuinely caring, kind and not ashamed to show emotion.
“Disney was perfect for Ryan,” laughs his wife, Omaha native Jana Belitz Rhodes. “He could just be himself.” Jana has been sharing her husband’s musical theater adventures ever since they met while attending different colleges in Rhodes’s home state of Oklahoma. They married three months before winning the Disney auditions.
“I started at Disney as a dancer at (what was then) the MGM Studios,” says Jana. Her dancing was so strong that Disney offered her a chance to teach dance routines to the other performers, thus beginning a career as a behind-the-scenes staging specialist. “Ryan was the one in front of the tourists all day long. He loved it.”
Though scoring a job at Disney World is a dream for any musical theater major, she really wanted to be a mom. And when the couple’s son, Aidan, came along in 2003, their priorities changed.
“You have to differentiate between what you love to do and who you love,” muses Rhodes. “And I knew Jana wanted our (three) kids to grow up with their cousins in Omaha.” Rhodes realizes the outside world can’t replicate the nurturing he and Jana received from the Disney cocoon. But he can—and does—take interest in everyone he meets. And if (as his sales colleagues like to kid) he is prone to sprinkling pixie dust, then so be it. Ryan Rhodes will always wish you a magical day.