Disney is an extraordinary company, and its reach is global. But more than that, it delivers magic to millions of homes, and its stories and characters are an integral part of childhood for generations of people. It’s no wonder that it is the dream of many to be on Disney Channel.

It’s fascinating to me how many kids want to “be on Disney” who don’t really aspire to be actors otherwise. I think that says a lot about how powerful The Channel really is. However, it is a big red flag if your child wants only to be on the Disney Channel, but does not dream of being an actor otherwise. If this is your situation, I would not pursue that particular dream. Disney wants professional kids who are actually experienced performers with track records. When you consider how much they invest in creating and producing a show, this makes sense. From a business standpoint—and despite the magic, Disney is ultimately a business—why would you bet on someone with no previous experience?

Even most of the kids who are supposedly “unknowns” have actually been paying their dues for years before Disney picked them up:

  • Miley Cyrus was born into a showbiz family, and appeared at the age of nine in three episodes of the TV series Doc, as well as the movie Big Fish, before being cast in Hannah Montana at the age of thirteen.
  • Demi Lovato began as a series regular on Barney and Friends at the age of ten, followed by a number of TV guest star appearances before getting cast in Disney’s As The Bell Rings at the age of fifteen, followed by Camp Rock and other Disney projects.
  • Selena Gomez also began as a series regular on Barney and Friends, at the age of nine. She then went on to have two small film roles and several guest star appearances before Disney picked her up for guest star roles on Suite Life and Hannah Montana. She starred in two different Disney pilots that were not picked up to go forward before Wizards was written for her.
  • Debbie Ryan began her career in film at fourteen, and appeared in several films and national TV commercials before landing her role at sixteen in Disney’s Suite Life on Deck, and then her own Disney series, Jessie, when she was nineteen.
  • China Ann McClain appeared in her first film at the age of six, and was cast in a handful of films and shorts before Disney cast her at nine as a guest star in Hannah Montana and then Ant Farm at age eleven.
  • Bridgit Mendler began acting at the age of eight, began guest starring in TV shows at the age of thirteen, and had numerous TV shows and animated features under her belt before Disney cast her as a major recurring character in Wizards of Waverly Place at seventeen, and then Good Luck Charlie at eighteen.
  • Zendaya began as a model and dancer, and performed in a local Shakespeare theatre where her mother was House Manager before Disney cast her at fourteen in Shake It Up.
  • Bella Thorne appeared in many guest star roles and short films starting at the age of nine before Disney cast her in Shake It Up at thirteen.
  • Ross Lynch was originally a musician and dancer, playing guitar and singing lead vocals in the band R5; he was cast as a guest star on a TV series as well as two short films before Disney picked him up at the age of sixteen for Austin and Ally, and later, Teen Beach Movie.
  • Laura Marano began acting in local theatre at the age of five; she continued on to MANY television roles as well as national commercials before Disney cast her in Austin and Ally at sixteen.
  • Maia Mitchell was cast at the age of twelve as the lead in her native Australia’s television show Mortified, then another Australian TV series Trapped, at the age of fifteen, and did other work before being cast as a lead in Teen Beach Movie at nineteen.
  • Olivia Holt began singing and acting onstage at the age of three, appeared in local theatre productions and national TV commercials and an indie film before Disney cast her at fourteen in Kickin’ It, followed by Girl vs. Monster, and I Didn’t Do It.
  • Luke Benward appeared at the age of five with Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers, and then continued to film an average of one TV or film project a year. He was also cast in a number of national commercials, and starred in two different Disney pilots that were not picked up before his regular guest star appearances in Good Luck Charlie, and lead role in Cloud 9, at seventeen.
  • Dove Cameron (my daughter) began steadily performing in local theatre at the age of eight, and had two guest star appearances on Showtime’s Shameless before Disney cast her in Bits and Pieces at the age of sixteen. That pilot was eventually reworked to become Liv and Maddie. She then guest starred as Simon Baker’s daughter in The Mentalist before Disney cast her in Cloud 9, and filmed a full season of Liv and Maddie before they cast her as Mal in Descendants. She was actually one of the least experienced of any kids cast as a lead in a Disney show or movie.

I researched and shared this list to demonstrate that the kids that Disney bets on are not “discovered” and brought into that dreamed-of world out of nowhere. These kids worked for years at their craft and did projects—stage, film, television, commercials, music—in many different arenas before they landed in the casting room at the 21st floor of the Disney Channel building in Burbank. And for every role they were cast in, they auditioned for many more with no results.

NEXT: Getting on a Disney Show: Part 2 of 2

My book, The Hollywood Parents Guide, available on Amazon contains everything I wish I’d known when Dove and I started this journey, and will save you untold amounts of time, money, and stress. Full of information you MUST know, it also features stories from parents of other kids who’ve made it!

Or book an hour consulting with me to come up with an individualized plan that takes your own unique needs into account. For about the cost of an hour with a professional acting coach, you can get your questions answered and a road map to help you move forward toward your dream.

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