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Magical journey ; 'Disney on Ice' skaters take audiences from Africa to undersea and Neverland

When the skating show, "Disney On Ice presents Mickey & Minnie's Magical Journey," arrives in Buffalo next week, it will transport spectators to four separate settings worldwide, each the spot of a beloved Disney story.

But the visit will also bring a few of the skating stars, who portray everyone from Simba of "The Lion King" to "Peter Pan's" Wendy, back home.

The only Western New York native is Carl Linamen, a native of Ashville, a small town near Chautauqua Lake. But skaters from Erie, Pa., Ottawa and Cambridge, Ont., also look forward to seeing friends and family at the shows.

Linamen, 24, didn't even lace up a pair of skates until he was 11, when he says his younger sister, Maria, and an older cousin "kind of dragged me" to a bring-a-friend night at the local arena. Linamen had played baseball and wrestled, so the athletic youngster took to the ice well, with no weak ankles or balance issues. "It just took off from there," he says.

Linamen started skating competitively a year or so later, competing in Junior Nationals a few times as a pairs skater when he was a teenager. He eventually began to work with famed Jamestown coaches Kirk Wyse and Lenel van den Berg, of the Wyse and van den Berg Skating Academy.

After graduating from Panama Central High School, Linamen says, "I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so my coaches gave me the idea of show skating as a possibility. They had each skated in shows for years." He made a video and submitted it to Feld Entertainment, which organizes the "Disney on Ice" shows.

At age 19, he was hired and began the hectic life of a touring skater. In a conversation from Bridgeport, Conn., Linamen says he is enjoying everything about skating in the show, from the parts he plays during the show to the many opportunities to see the world.

An ensemble skater, Linamen appears in the show as a starfish in "The Little Mermaid" segment, a beach boy in the "Lilo & Stitch" scene, and a pirate in "Peter Pan," which might just be his favorite. "I love being a pirate," he says. "It's really cool because you get a chance to interact with the audience a little bit. There's a section that's not choreographed, so you can go out there and play with the kids, goof around with them a bit."

"I am slightly jealous of the pirates," admits Rebecca Vandenberg, 29, from North Gower, outside Ottawa, a principal skater with the show who has played the role of Wendy for six years. "I am playing Wendy at that point, and they get to capture me. It looks like they are having a lot of fun. If there was a way to play Wendy and a pirate, I would do that!"

"It's so much fun to be a pirate, interacting with the audience and the kids," says Janelle Cogley of Erie, Pa., who has skated with the show for seven years. "We have a big pirate ship that comes out -- it's really cool." A 35-foot pirate ship carries Captain Hook's crew across the ice.

The show takes viewers to the settings of four Disney tales as they accompany some familiar characters on a trip. "Mickey and Minnie, Donald and Daisy and Goofy are on vacation," says Vandenberg. "They start off in Africa, where the story is 'The Lion King,' then they go under the sea with Ariel and Sebastian in 'The Little Mermaid,' then they go to Hawaii with Lilo & Stitch and their last destination is London and then Neverland with Peter Pan."

With all the different stories and settings, "There's a little something for everybody -- boys, girls and adults," says Vandenberg, who plays one of King Triton's daughters in "The Little Mermaid" and a beach girl in "Lilo & Stitch."

As Wendy, she says, "I wear a blue dress, and it looks just like the cartoon. Disney does a really great job of making us all look quite authentic to how the cartoons look, so it's really incredible to see the transformation."

The show is set both on and above the ice. Lilo's home in Hawaii is on the ice, but the alien planet of Stitch is above it. In the "Peter Pan" segment, "We get to fly, that's for sure," says Vandenberg. "Tinkerbell helps us fly with the pixie dust and our happy thoughts, of course. It's a great feeling, and I love it."

The show's music includes familiar Disney hits and rock 'n' roll classics. Vandenberg says, "The kids and the parents get into the show and clap along, and you can see them singing along to the songs, too. We have all that famous iconic Disney music throughout the show."

"The children's faces light up when they see you," says Cogley, who appears as Atina, a sister of "The Little Mermaid," and an animal shelter staffer in "Lilo & Stitch." "They enjoy it so much when they see the characters right in front of them."

"When the kids see me, they shout out my name, 'Wendy!' It's so cute, I just love it," says Vandenberg.

Cambridge, Ont., native Chris Richardson, a principal skater with the show, plays the adult Simba in "The Lion King." His hand-painted costume includes an ornate mask and mane, as well as paws.

" 'The Lion King' is a great story," he says. On the ice, he brings a leonine grace to the role. "We have to act as lions every night, which is obviously a change from how we act every day," he says.

Richardson also hits the beach as a beach boy in the "Lilo & Stitch" segment. He loves every minute of the show. "I love the travel, and I get to do something I love for a living."

Each of the performers mentions travel -- and the opportunity to experience some incredible opportunities in their free time -- as a real perk of the road tours. "You get to see different cities every week; you never get bored," Cogley says.

"I love it," says Linamen. "I get to do so many things, stuff that people would just kill to do. I have gone snowboarding in the mountains of Sweden, skydiving in Puerto Rico, scuba diving in the Dominican Republic, just cool stuff like that."

Vandenberg says, "I've been all over the world a few times over and it's been an amazing experience. I went zip-lining off the Great Wall of China, climbed Mount Fuji, went hiking through the Pyrenees on the France and Spain border. It's been great."

Richardson has been with the show for only a few years, but so far he has been to Australia, Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, Canada and across the United States, including recent visits to California, Las Vegas and New York. "It's been quite an adventure," he says.

Linamen, the son of a machinist and a nurse in Ashville, says he expects family and friends to cheer him on during the Buffalo shows. "Oh, yeah," he says, chuckling. "It gets a little crazy sometimes."

His family is thrilled with his success, he says. "They think it's great, they are really supportive and they think it's amazing that I get to do what I get to do."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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What: "Disney on Ice presents Mickey & Minnie's Magical Journey"

When: Wednesday through Jan. 30

Where: HSBC Arena

Tickets: $12 to $60 box office, Tickets.com

For Info.: www.hsbcarena.com

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