"Disney cares about the family like we care about the family," says Brandon Heath, one of the Christian artists who performed this weekend at Walt Disney World's 30th annual Night of Joy. "It's a common goal that we have to enrich families. They can come enjoy the rides and attractions, and they can enjoy great music."
Third Day, Chris Tomlin, Casting Crowns, Francesca Battistelli, MercyMe, Chris August, Royal Tailor, Red, Disciple, Thousand Foot Crutch, NEEDTOBREATHE, Lecrae, Kutless, Dara Maclean and Yolanda Adams were among the acts performing at three different stages Friday and Saturday nights (Sept. 7-8) at Disney' Magic Kingdom.
"This is my third time to play Night of Joy. Disney has always been such a great host to us in the Christian music family," says Heath, who previewed new music from his Oct. 9 album, "Blue Mountain," during his Friday night set on the Galaxy stage.
It's been three decades since Disney launched the first Night of Joy with a line up that included Scott Wesley Brown, David Meece, Shirley Caesar, Leon Patillo, Benny Hester, Petra, Phil Keaggy and Sheila Walsh. Since then the festival has become one of Christian music's premiere events drawing fans from all over the world with an audience heavily populated by church youth groups. During the event, Disney hosts a special lounge for youth pastors where they can interact with artists. Casting Crowns held a Q&A on Friday and Third Day did an autograph/photo session.
Night of Joy has also become an annual mecca for record company reps showcasing acts and celebrating milestones. Prior to the first of Battistelli's two sets on the Galaxy stage, Word Entertainment president/CEO Rod Riley and Word Entertainment senior VP A&R Josh Bailey presented surprised the singer/songwriter with a gold record for her debut album, "My Paper Heart." "We love you and are so proud of you. This has been an amazing journey and we know this is the beginning," Riley told Battistelli as the crowd cheered. The songstress look genuinely surprised as she gushed to the crowd, "Wow! Thank you guys for being here. This would not have happened without you because you bought the record."
Despite threatening weather, thousands poured into the area in front of Cinderella's Castle when NEEDTOBREATHE took the stage Friday night.. Even though rain delayed Tomlin's performance that night, the crowd stayed and sang along as the Atlanta-based worship leader delivered such modern classics as "How Great is Our God" and "Indescribable."
Casting Crowns closed out the night on the Cinderella's Castle stage. "It's a great partnership," Casting Crowns frontman Mark Hall told Billboard, praising Disney's support of faith-based music for three decades. "Disney is still recognizing the church. We're a viable market. Believers buy groceries, which is something that's good for the business world to see. They are endorsing people of faith by letting us be part of what they do. It's been pretty great for us."
Earlier during the evening at a special dinner hosted by Disney and Provident Label Group, Sony's Christian division, Hall and fellow Casting Crowns members Juan DeVevo and Hector Cervantes were surprised with a huge Stars Wars cake recognizing their birthdays. Third Day's Mark Lee and Mac Powell, Moriah Peters, and members of Red and Royal Tailor were on hand to sing and celebrate.
Hall, who has long been known as a big Star Wars fan, recently auctioned off his collection to benefit charity. "We raised about $20,000 selling my collection," he told Billboard. "We sold the Han Solo desk, the emperor's chair, helmets and paintings and all sort of stuff I accumulated over the years. My son and I started a collection several years back. I'm trying to teach my son: 'Stuff is cool, but ultimately people are more important than stuff.' To prove that to him I said, 'hey man, I really felt like God is wanting us to do this.' So it was something we did together and he got to see that you can have your hobbies, but it needs to lead to something bigger. The money went to World Vision and we supported water efforts in Rwanda."
Casting Crowns has topped Billboard's year end list of top-selling Christian acts each year since 2007. Their 2011 album, "Come to the Well," bowed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The group is currently working on an acoustic album due this fall. "We're revisiting some of the favorites over the years and a few new songs as well," says Hall. "It's very intimate, sort of living room versions of some of the songs people know from us. When you hear a song stripped down that way, you rediscover the lyrics. The song 'If We Are the Body' was the first song people heard from us. We are doing it as a piano/vocal ballad."
Among the acts making their inaugural performance at Night of Joy was Royal Tailor who delivered a high energy set Friday night at the Rockettower Stage that included "Control," "Death of Me" and "Love is Here" from the group's debut album as well as a spirited cover of Earth, Wind & Fire's "September." "We are so excited. We love Disney," lead vocalist Tauren Wells told Billboard. "My wife and I came down this summer and got to hang out and go on all the rides. It's always a blast, so being able to play and be a part of the magic is really cool."
Getting the chance to play both on stage and at the world's most popular theme park is alluring to such Night of Joy regulars as Third Day. "It's the happiest place on earth," lead vocalist Mac Powell shared before the band's Saturday night set in front of Cinderella's Castle. "For us in Third Day, we have a lot of kids. We have big families so it's so great to bring our families here to enjoy the parks with them and also be able to do our band thing and play music. To combine those things together is a lot of fun for us."
In addition to such fan favorites as "God of Wonders," "Revelation," "Children of God," "Cry Out to Jesus," and "Make Your Move," Third Day also previewed music from their Nov. 6 release "Miracle," produced by Brendan O'Brien, well known for his work with Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, The Killers.
"As former children who grew up going to Disney World a lot, there's an iconic thing about playing in front of Cinderella's Castle," guitarist Mark Lee said before their Saturday night set. "The very first time we played we weren't in front of the Castle. We were on a side stage, but [we thought] 'One day we're going to be able to play there!' For us it's a big honor to be a part of the event and to be able to play at Disney World in front of Cinderella's Castle. For us, as parents, it's kind of hard to explain to the kids what we do, but I think our kids are able to understand the scope of it when they see us play in front of Cinderella's Castle with a big crowd."