If there’s one thing we know about the Disney Channel, it’s that it has the ability to turn unknown young actors into household names. The Mouse House has turned the likes of Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato into young women with life-long fan bases thanks to tween programming that allowed their audience to grow up with them.
The Disney Channel is also known for casting a lot of the same actors across shows and original movies on its network - but it doesn’t always place the same Disney actors in multiple parts. Just like any other network, the Disney Channel holds auditions and has actors from outside the network come in to get a fresh shot, especially in the case of developing new programing.
There are plenty of up and coming actors who came up just short of becoming leads in Disney Channel series. The most well known at this point is probably Taylor Momsen, who was up for the role of Hannah Montana against Miley Cyrus. She isn’t the only one who almost wound up as a featured performer on the network though. We’ve got 16 Actors Who Were Almost Disney Channel Stars.
16 Lindsay Lohan
Before Hilary Duff became Lizzie McGuire, there were several actresses up for the part. One of them happened to be Lindsay Lohan - and this was long before the rumored feud between the two when they both dated Aaron Carter.
Lohan had already starred in The Parent Trap remake and was on Disney’s radar for other projects at the time the network was casting Lizzie McGuire. Lohan was one of the top picks for the part, but she was passed over in favor of Duff, who had a little bit less experience.
Of course, Lohan still had plenty of chances to work with Disney. She also did the movies Life Size and Get a Clue for the network before moving on to teen comedies.
15 Sara Paxton
Lohan wasn't the only top contender that just missed out on being the Lizzie McGuire lead. Sara Paxton, who was also an up-and-comer at the time, was actually one of the top choices for the part.
Paxton ended up pursuing another project instead of Lizzie McGuire, but even she wasn’t done with the Disney Channel. She came back to the show as a guest star in a later episode as a classmate who ran for student body president. She was also the network’s pick when they recast their lead in the fourth Halloweentown movie.
Paxton went back and forth between TV and film just like Duff did in the early days of her career, though her biggest moment in the tween set was in Aquamarine as a mermaid, which she got to film in Australia, so she didn’t miss out much when it came to Disney Channel stardom.
14 Haylie Duff
Rumor has it that there was another young actress who was this close to getting the part of Lizzie McGuire, but her age played a factor in the casting decision.
While it’s never been officially confirmed by anyone connected to the Duff family or Disney, Hilary’s big sister Haylie has long been rumored to have been up for the role of Lizzie as well. The younger Duff got into the business after watching her big sister go on auditions and wanting to try as well, and it was Hilary who ended up landing the big role.
Haylie Duff, like Paxton, did return to to the series, though. She played the older cousin of Lizzie’s one-time best friend Kate in a handful of episodes. Since then, she’s appeared in a few projects with her real life sister, and you’ve probably seen Haylie Duff in several made for TV movies on Hallmark, where she’s become a frequent player, just like Candace Cameron Bure.
13 Ariel Winter
She’s one of the stars of Modern Family now, but several years ago, she could have been a major player on the Disney Channel instead.
When Disney was developing the series Sonny With a Chance, the initial ideas for the show were very different than what it ultimately became. Sonny, the part that eventually went to Demi Lovato, for example, went through a few name changes, as well as a few familial changes. In one version of the script, she had a brother and a sister who made the move to Hollywood with her. Ariel Winter was initially cast as the younger sister. When the character was scrapped, she was let go from her contract, freeing her up to become Alex Dunphy on Modern Family.
Since Sonny With A Chance only lasted two seasons before the show was restructured following Lovato’s departure to get treatment for an eating disorder, and Modern Family is still going strong, Winter might have wound up in exactly the right place.
Better known as Joanna Levesque when she’s acting instead of singing, JoJo has dabbled in front of the camera on a few projects, though her heart is in music. A role like that of Hannah Montana would have been pretty perfect for the performer then, wouldn’t it?
Interestingly, JoJo was actually Disney Channel’s first choice for the role. The network wanted an up and coming singer who could sell both the acting and musical side of the character. JoJo wasn’t willing to commit to a series that would lock her into a contract with Disney, though, and she turned down the part.
The singer, who went on to star in Aquamarine with Sara Paxton in her breakout movie role, doesn’t regret the choice she made at all.
11 Cassie Scerbo
Like JoJo, Cassie Scerbo was also one of the many actresses up for the role of Hannah Montana. Before the casting directors decided to choose between Cyrus and Taylor Momsen for the network’s next big star, they considered making the character a high school student instead of a seventh grader. Starting the character off older would have meant the show could tackle more mature storylines out of the gate, but network executives wanted to make sure they got the tween audience they’d captured once with Lizzie McGuire, and the idea was scrapped.
Scerbo didn’t wholly lose out, though. She ended up working on another Disney owned network instead - ABC Family (now known as Freeform) - where she played a gymnast vying for her chance at the Olympics in Make It Or Break It. She even did made-for-TV movies for the network before moving on to other projects like SyFy's Sharknado movies when the show wound down.
10 Sammi Hanratty
Sammi Hanratty made her first appearance on the Disney Channel in an episode of That’s So Raven back in 2006, but she didn’t stop there. She snagged a recurring role on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody next, then returned to the network six years later to appear in an episode of Shake It Up. She was a hopeful for another role as well, though.
When she was 14, Hanratty auditioned for a new role on the Disney Channel, that of the oldest daughter in the Duncan household, Teddy, in Good Luck Charlie. Hanratty was a few years younger than Bridgit Mendler, which might have played into the network’s decision to cast the latter.
Hanratty has been all over TV and film screens since, including in the series Salem and The Vampire Diaries, so she hasn’t done too bad for herself without a starring role in a Disney series.
9 Teo Halm
When Girl Meets World was getting ready to film its first season in 2013, the casting lineup was a little different than when the show ended its run in January 2017. The Matthews family was actually supposed to be a bit bigger, in fact.
Teo Halm, whom movie audiences might know from Bukowski or Earth to Echo, was cast as the oldest child of Cory and Topanga, whose relationship began in the ABC series Boy Meets World back in the '90s. Halm would have been the first of their three kids, but Disney nixed the idea because he was a little too old to fit into the timeline of the show. The Matthews family was downsized to just two kids instead.
Halm himself broke the news on twitter when it happened, and his TV mom, Danielle Fishel, told him he was still welcome to call her mom, even if he didn’t get to play the part of her son on the small screen.
8 Taylor Lautner
When he was auditioning to be a werewolf in one of the most popular love triangles in young adult literature and cinema (Twilight), Taylor Lautner was also auditioning for parts on the Disney Channel, though you might be surprised to find out which one.
Lautner, who had already done family friendly movies like The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, went out for the role of Shane in Camp Rock, according to Meaghan Martin, who met him during the audition process. The role, along with the roles of Shane’s bandmates, went to a Jonas brother instead, specifically Joe Jonas.
The role of Shane wasn’t dance heavy for the Disney musical, but it was pretty singing-intensive. We all remember the big duet in the end, right? So now, the question we all have is just how good of a singer is Taylor Lautner? We may never know.
7 Dallas Lovato
If Dallas Lovato is a name that sounds familiar, it should. She’s the big sister of Demi Lovato, and like her younger sis, she also broke into the acting world. In fact, if the series Wizards of Waverly Place had gone a different route, she would have been on the Disney Channel before Demi.
David Henrie shared the pilot script for Wizards of Waverly Place - back when it was still called The Amazing O’Malley’s - on his instagram in 2014 and even showed fans a few pages of it. In the pilot, Dallas Lovato had been cast as a character named Rachel who would have gone on to become a series regular if there hadn’t been some story shuffling before the series entered production.
Also in that original pilot were Brandon Mychal Smith and Chelsea Staub (now Kane), who went on to appear in Sonny With A Chance and Jonas, respectively. Lovato did end up appearing as an extra in an episode before getting her career rolling in the voiceover world.
6 Noah Cyrus
Noah Cyrus had a bit of an in at the Disney Channel thanks to her big sister having a starring role on a television series. In fact, Cyrus even appeared in big sister Miley’s series a few times as a background actor. She wanted to make a name for herself outside of the family, though, and she went on a few auditions during the show’s run.
During the height of Wizards of Waverly Place popularity, Cyrus was spotted by fans attending an audition for the network's other massively popular series. It’s not clear which role she went out for, but since this happened in 2010, it would have been for the third or fourth season of the show. Cyrus didn’t end up snagging the part, though she did appear in one more episode of Hannah Montana.
Cyrus has since started to pursue a music career. She even has a song on the Rough Night soundtrack.
5 Cassie Steele
Canadian TV audiences know Cassie Steele well thanks to her role in the long-running Degrassi: The Next Generation. Not only did she star in the series for eight years, but she also appeared in three of its movies and in digital shorts!
A few years into her time on Degrassi, Steele auditioned for, and won a role in, the Disney Channel Original Movie Full Court Miracle, one of the few DCOMs to feature a Jewish main character, and the only one to focus on Hanukkah. Because of how much producers liked her in the role of the best friend, Steele was invited to audition for High School Musical just a few years later.
Interestingly, Steele actually won the part of Gabriella Montez, but she couldn’t take the role. The filming schedule for High School Musical in Utah conflicted with the fifth season schedule of Degrassi in Toronto. Instead, Steele went on to appear in Instant Star, My Babysitter's a Vampire, and more in between seasons.
You can catch her next in Mississippi River Sharks, SyFy’s latest made for TV horror movie.
4 Matthew Underwood
Like Cassie Steele, Matthew Underwood is known for another show that doesn’t belong to Disney, though his was on Nickelodeon. Underwood starred as Logan in Zoey 101 for the entirety of the show’s run.
Also like Steele, Underwood auditioned for a lead role in High School Musical, and Disney was all set to give him the role. He would have been Troy Bolton, denying Zac Efron his star-making role, save for one tiny problem: his contract with Nickelodeon for Zoey 101 prevented him from accepting the part.
Underwood hasn’t been seen on screen in a few years, but he has been helping other up-and-comers as an acting teacher. He is also a local hero in his homestate of Florida. In April, he was responsible for pulling a four month old baby from a car crash while her parents were unconscious after using heroin while driving!
3 Naya Rivera
Audiences today know Naya Rivera primarily for her work as Santana Lopez on Glee, but she’s been in the business a lot longer than that. She got her start in the '90s on shows like Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but she also could have been a Disney star in the '00s.
Rivera appeared as a classmate of Shia Labeouf’s character in an episode of Even Stevens in 2002, and she continued to pursue roles on the Disney Channel. First up for the actress was an audition for a role in Cheetah Girls. She went in for one of the four leads, but was passed over. A few years later, she tried her luck again when she auditioned for the role of Gabriella in High School Musical, but again, the role went to another up and coming actress (this time, Vanessa Hudgens).
Rivera did end up on the hugely popular Glee, though, which spawned a concert tour that was filmed and run in theaters, so skipping over the Disney stardom might have been good for her. She’s also written a book and will be starring in the upcoming Step Up series on Youtube Red.
2 Neil Patrick Harris
No, the How I Met Your Mother Star wasn’t out for a role in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody or any other live action Disney Channel series. Instead, he completed a voice audition for the network.
For someone like Harris, who was a child actor, a sitcom star, and has a great singing voice, a voice audition for an animated role should have been a snap. Something about his portrayal must not have been quite what casting directors were looking for, however, because Harris lost the role of Kim Possible’s sidekick Ron Stoppable to Will Friedle.
Friedle, who played Eric on Boy Meets World in the '90s, has become a staple in the animated genre, lending his voice to DC comic book characters, Marvel comic book characters, and even Transformers. Harris has been splitting his time between the big and small screens with the likes of Gone Girl and A Series of Unfortunate Events, so this one worked out for everyone in the end.
1 John Cena
Rumor has it that before John Cena decided to pursue a professional wrestling career, he was considering a full time dive into the acting world instead. The audition that helped him make up his mind? One for the Disney Channel.
Like Harris, Cena also went out for a voice audition for Disney. In fact, it was for the very same role! At the time, Cena had done a handful of on-camera appearances that weren’t wrestling related, and he continued to do so even after losing out on the animated part.
Though Cena’s known as one of the most entertaining wrestlers these days, he hasn’t completely turned his back on acting either. You might have caught him as Juliet’s brother in Psych, Fred’s dad in the Fred movies, or even as a dad in Daddy’s Home, a role he’s reprising in the sequel.
We can’t help but wonder what Kim Possible would have been like if John Cena’s voice came booming through every time the teenage spy’s sidekick spoke.
Did any of these almost-Disney-stars surprise you? Are you longing for that alternate universe where one of the iconic Disney roles was played by someone on this list instead? Let us know in the comments!