By Saundra Amrhein

The ceiling spotlights circled the room. On stage, a giant screen flashed a replica of the Cinderella Castle. And the speakers thumped with a bassed-up version of the song, “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

“Preparadas?” the emcee called into the microphone.

Behind a curtain inside the cavernous World Showplace pavilion at Walt Disney World’s Epcot, about 700 teenage girls screamed and whistled in reply. They were ready.

In fact, many of them had spent a year or more preparing for this moment – when each was about to celebrate her princess themed Disney quinceañera, the coming-of-age party and tradition among U.S. Hispanic and Latin American families marking a girl’s 15th birthday and passage into young adulthood.

But instead of being surrounded by parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, these girls – all from Argentina – were thousands of miles from home and family.

group of girls celebrating their quinceanera at Disney

Argentinian teenagers dressed to celebrate their Quinceañera make a grand entrance into the World Pavilion Showplace at Disney World's Epcot Center.

- Willie Allen Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA

group of girls dancing at their quinceanera party in Disney World

Brightly colored spotlights, driving bass and the latest dance moves were all the rage at the Quinceañera celebration at Disney World's Epcot Center.

- Willie Allen Jr.

In a different take on the coming-of-age tradition – one growing in popularity the past two decades – tour groups and travel agencies in South America and the United States coordinate the trips to Orlando and Disney World for the girls. They make the journey with their friends and classmates also reaching 15, accompanied by dozens of adult chaperones and professional tour guides.

“You get a party in your country, or you get a trip,” said Claudia Menezes explaining the choice many of the girls are given. Menezes is the vice president of Pegasus Transportation, the Florida-based agency coordinating with Fifteens, the Argentine tour group for this particular Disney quinceañera tour.

Other tour groups also book families. Countless families also celebrate the tradition with a trip to Disney that they organize on their own.

For the teen-group packages, Pegasus alone books about five tours in the winter months and about 10 during the summer, with anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people on each tour, Menezes said. Almost all are girls, though some of their brothers and male cousins attend, too. The top countries where tours originate are Argentina, Colombia and Brazil (which has its own name for the celebration and ways to celebrate it).

Birthday packages can run between $6,000 and $7,000 per girl, said Martin De Luca of Fifteens. That includes all local and international transport, tickets, hotel stays, meals, gift bags and more. 

The Disney World birthday packages vary, but the one on this evening included a 12-night stay at Disney and visits to all its four parks – with the highlight, of course, being the big Disney quinceañera party.

group of girls taking pictures with Disney characters at their quinceanera party

Disney characters and Argentinian teenagers wave at the camera during a group portrait during the teens' Quinceañera celebration.

- Willie Allen Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA

teenager girls dancing at their quinceanera party in Disney World

The excitement was too much to contain and the young Quinceañera revelers danced until well after midnight.

- Willie Allen Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA

The girls spent the afternoon at their hotel racing between friends’ rooms, borrowing make-up and straightening irons, helping with dresses and accessories.

The dinner buffets were in place, the catering chaffers steaming with pasta primavera, and herb and garlic roasted chicken.

Later that night there would be waltzes, the cake, and official photographs – with a formally dressed Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters standing in for family members. 

Then came the moment for the grand entrance, when girls often arrive in lavish ball gowns.

“Bienvenido, el grupo naranja!” the emcee called, welcoming members of the tour, organized by sub-group from various regions, towns and schools throughout Argentina.

As each sub-group was called, the tour guides led the way, followed by the girls in pairs.

They strode in, not in buffeted ball gowns, but many in sequined short night club dresses, befitting the dance parties that sometimes follow the formal banquets. Some marched in confidently, others more precariously, on huge platform shoes or in tall high heels, smiling for the cameras that would stream their images to parents watching online back home.

Sol Malocu, 14, said she planned to keep wearing the peach heels that went with her silver-spangled dress all night, right through the dancing. The night was a memorable event with her friends, she said, something she had anticipated for a long time.

“I’d been to Disney before with my family, but with my friends it’s much more exciting,” Sol said as groups of girls took turns at the buffet line. While the tour guides provided adult supervision, the girls were learning independence away from their families, and deepening their friendship bonds.

“We go everywhere together in a group,” Sol said.

“This was my first choice,” said Rocío Piovano, 15. From a small town near Cordoba, she was most nervous about her first airplane voyage. Since arriving, she loved riding Disney’s big roller coasters.

“The parks are so beautiful,” she said, twirling locks of her long blond hair between her fingers. She had always dreamed of traveling, hearing different languages, visiting different countries. The trip deepened that desire, Rocío said.

“This is the trip of my life.”

Walt Disney World Resort is full of princess-themed experiences which are sure to delight any little girl looking to celebrate her birthday and vacation like a princess.