published Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Kidz Expo unites fans, TV stars

Ross Lynch, right, and Laura Marano, stars of the Disney TV show "Austin & Ally," talk to one another at the Kidz Expo Saturday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Ross Lynch, right, and Laura Marano, stars of the Disney TV show "Austin & Ally," talk to one another at the Kidz Expo Saturday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

After she hugged her heroes and posed for a picture Saturday, Aubrey Abbott turned around to face Laura Marano and Ross Lynch one last time.

On a stage inside the Chattanooga Convention Center, Aubrey slapped hands with Marano and wrapped her arms around Lynch's legs, her head reaching the rips above his knees in his jeans. She didn't know it, but Aubrey broke from the routine followed by the hundreds waiting to meet the stars of "Austin & Ally." It was simple: Walk on stage, greet the teen actors, grin for the camera and stroll off a changed child.

Having embraced Lynch and Marano twice already, Aubrey walked away, but then she thought better of it. She returned to the middle of the stage and waved. Already posing with new children, Lynch and Marano waved back. Finally, Aubrey left and reunited with her father, Steve Abbott.

"It was awesome because I see them on TV," she said, her voice squeaking barely above a whisper. "I watch Disney Channel all the time. They're my favorite show."

Aubrey is 5, but she will turn 6 in May. About a month ago, Her father told her he would take her to the Chattanooga Times Free Press Kidz Expo to meet Lynch and Marano.

She has been waiting ever since.

On Saturday, she woke up at 5:30 in the morning, ready to go.

More than 10,000 youngsters packed the Kidz Expo, and there were plenty of activities to keep each of them busy. They could color or eat candy or watch performances of magic and music. But more importantly, the expo introduced children to their heroes.

Across the room from Lynch and Marano, Miss Scenic City sang "You're Gonna Miss Me." Amy Flynn later asked the crowd, "How many of y'all have heard of Reba McEntire? She's the reason I sing. I saw her when I was 3 years old."

Miss Scenic City joined Miss Scenic City's Teen and Miss Capital City and Miss Tennessee Valley's Teen and other Tennessee pageant winners at the expo Saturday.

Children also met a surreal cast of fictional characters: Darth Vader, Ronald McDonald and a big, gray New Balance sneaker with shoelaces for arms and eyeballs emerging from its insole.

But Lynch and Marano, both 17, were the main attraction. They're used to it. "Austin & Ally" first appeared in 2011, and they record in front of an audience. At the end of those days, Lynch and Marano meet with the children.

Some of them get scared, the actors can tell from the fans' frozen faces. Lynch and Marano say they've learned how to handle those fears.

They ask the children questions, plugging away until the children relax, until they realize they can talk to TV stars like they talk to their friends.

Marano can relate. She grew up watching Hilary Duff and Anne Hathaway.

At the Teen Choice Awards two years ago, she met Rupert Grint and Tom Felton, the actors who played Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" films. She wanted to take a picture together, but she was too nervous. What if they thought she was a geek?

This is the hierarchy of teenage life.

There are those who seem cooler than you, and there are those who look up to you, those desperate just to be seen with you.

"It's so crazy to me," Marano said. "I'm like, 'You really want to take a picture with me? But I'm so weird.'"

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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