I moved to Orlando in 2010 to attend the University of Central Florida. I didn’t think I was going to pursue dance professionally. I was working on my dance minor but other than that, I figured I’d do something else as a career.
But I quickly learned that sitting at a desk every day wasn’t for me. So I started working at theme parks full time and I am beyond grateful for my experiences.
I gained so much confidence and realized, wow, I really can do this for a living. Here's why I'm so thankful for my time dancing professionally in Central Florida.
Sesame Street Shows at SeaWorld
People are sometimes surprised to know that I ever did shows as a costume character. It’s silly and unfortunate that it’s seen as “below” other dancer roles. But I actually became a better dancer because of my experience with it.
I was studying movement at its core.
I did shows with some of the most beloved characters from Sesame Street: Count Von Count, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert. All male, mind you. I had to learn to walk, stand, and present myself like it wasn’t a girl in a costume. It’s all about movement (and stillness).
These characters are so highly developed from the TV show. They have certain ways they move and stand and wave and speak, and it was an amazing experience to study movement so deeply.
I learned how to move like an old man, like a dessert-crazed monster, like a bouncy and highly energetic boy/super hero, and like a pigeon-loving, up-tight friend in a sweater.
And I got to dance like them too.
In my two years with Sesame I performed in four twenty-minute stage shows, full out with choreography, blocking, and scripts and it was my first taste of a professional rehearsal process. It helped me learn how to memorize lines too, something I used for Murder Mystery on the ship.
And what's even more, Sesame Workshop is amazing (hello Jim Henson) and all the costumes I worked with are puppets. I learned about an amazing art form that I might have never been exposed to otherwise. As a lover of both movement and human (er, creature?) behavior, puppeteering was amazing. So much respect for those who do it well.
I became a better dancer too. Because without being able to emote with facial expressions, I found ways to show emotion with my whole body. And when I would perform without a character costume on, I not only was able to perform with my face, I could perform as a whole.
Parades, Outdoor Shows, and Dance Captain at Universal
Universal became my home as a professional dancer in Orlando. Specifically, the Hop Unit at the Superstar Parade. RIP.
One huge lesson I took from theme parks is learning multiple tracks in the same show.
In the Candy Dancer role, there are five tracks and if you were full time, you were expected to know all of them and be able to jump around on any given day. We’re basically all swings and it makes daily operation so much smoother. But it's definitely a challenge.
If something happened mid-show, re-blocks were a breeze because everyone knew the shows inside and out. We knew where the missing person was meant to be and could fill the holes with ease.
I'm so used to this and it's proving mighty helpful on my current replacement contract as I'm having to do different tracks of the same show.
We had at least ten contingency shows too. Rain shows, drizzle shows, heat travel loop, no float contingencies, no lollipops, 5-girl, 4-girl, 3-girl. The list goes on. I swear, we never did the same show twice in a row. The joys of outdoor shows with moving floats.
And beyond that, so many of us where cross-trained into multiple units in the parade. Talk about being mind-fucked. One day you’re a Candy Dancer and the next you’re a Minion Recruit. The challenge is, during the parade we do a show-stop. Same music, similar choreography at times (but just different enough to mess you up). I was only a Minion for three shifts or something but I spent the whole day trying not to have identity crisis. So hard.
I was a dance captain for my last two years with Universal and this was a huge step out of my comfort zone. But ultimately the highlight of my career at Universal. Thanks to the amazing managers and an incredibly supportive cast.
I learned that giving notes is much harder than receiving them. I learned to be patient and helpful and I became a better teacher. I learned that there’s so much happening behind the scenes to make these shows happen and that management isn’t trying to make life more difficult for the performers (as we sometimes might think). And I learned that respect is earned.
Wow, feeling really grateful as I’m writing this. Thank you to everyone who showed me so much love and respect as a captain. You know who you are. (Why do I do this to myself? Making me so emotional.)
I was also lucky enough to be part of the opening cast of Marilyn Monroe and the Diamond Bellas at Universal.
We were building the contingencies as we went. Figuring out what worked and what didn't. Dealing with a broken down Cadillac, light bulbs busting, jacket hems causing spectacularly, slow-motion falls. Anyone who's opened a show knows that it takes a while for everything to get smoothed out and was a huge team-effort to bring this show to life.
I really enjoyed observing the process of having our director, choreographers, and managers finding solutions to unforeseen issues and truly making this show a success for the park.
I left for the ship soon after the show opened, so I only got a short time with the bombshell, but being part of an opening cast for the first time was so exciting and seeing everything it takes to build a show, even just a small one, was a great experience.
Stage Shows at Busch Gardens
I started making the trek over to the West coast to perform for Busch Gardens for the last year that I lived in Central Florida and I learned loads.
My first show was Fiends, the raunchy Halloween show featuring classic monsters. Narada and I were hired after rehearsals had already begun and we learned the entire show, just us and the choreographer, in one day. Hopped right into dress rehearsals soon afterward.
Obviously, this lends to a lot of lessons learned: picking up choreography and blocking quickly will always come in handy.
Then a few months later I started working at Motor City Groove. RIP. This is where I met Jarvis and literally some of the most talented humans I’ve ever had the honor of sharing the stage with. In Tampa, Florida…
This was the first show I’ve ever done with live singers and a live band (so much better). It was nice to have some experience with singers and live music before joining ships because it really does change your show from day to day, versus dancing to a track.
It was also my first taste of mid-show costume changes.
Here on the ship we have VERY quick changes and while Motor City didn’t have super fast changes, it taught me a lot and I’m glad I was able to ease into the madness.
And finally Kinetix.
Kinetix is a huge, summer show on a massive stage with pyro and a live band and live singers and acrobats and Ericka’s insanely intricate dance moves and I loved every single second of it.
This was a challenging rehearsal process for me as well because between my two shows at Universal, my job at Treasure Tavern, working at Motor City during the day, and the hour and half commute to Tampa, scheduling was hard.
And when I tell you that Ericka started rehearsal with, “Ok so we have one-ee-and-uh-two-ee-and-uh-three-bah-bah”, I think all our brains actually melted.
Plus, most of the show is VERY commercial. Which is out of my comfort zone but something I improved so much in because of Kinetix.
We had an amazing cast and we were all just trying to out-do each other (doing THE MOST). We did rain shows where we stomped down that ramp feeling like Beyonce and got smoke in our eyes from the pyro. And it was great! It relit my fire.
Final Thoughts on Dancing in Theme Parks
I won’t lie and say I didn’t have my frustrations while working in theme parks. Being contracted at Universal was great for consistent work, but limited me in building my resume in other shows around the park, causing me to go elsewhere (hence Treasure Tavern and Busch Gardens and workaholism).
Unfortunately, theme parks are looked down upon in comparison to some other venues but I am so grateful for my time there. (P.S. Dancers: why are we are so egotistical about this? If someone is getting paid to dance and it works for them, then that is success. There is no greater than, less than. End rant.)
Yes, I was ready to get out and move on. But that was my own path. I’m not better than theme park work, I just wanted something new. And so now I’m on ships, and I’m so much more well-equipped for this job because I’ve what I learned in Orlando.
A resounding thank you, always.
Check out some of my theme park dancing here.