Author: Jennifer Garaffa
You’re going to Florida on vacation. Your family has meticulously planned to visit your favorite theme park. You’ve picked an amazing hotel to stay at, made reservations for meals and planned your days at the park. Your plans probably include the best rides, your favorite snacks, meeting some characters from your favorite movies and seeing some shows or a parade. Actually, your plans probably involve seeing me. That parade that you’ll watch or the show you’ll see- that’s my job and I love it. Did you watch a theme park parade or event on TV this year? That’s us! One day, that could be you too!
I’ve been dancing at theme parks for the past 11 years. Has every minute been perfect? Absolutely not, but there’s definitely been more good minutes than bad ones. Many years ago I saw an audition pop up on my Facebook and I decided on a whim to show up. It was the next day so I printed a headshot at the drug store and went before work. I walked into the audition and was given a number. I wasn’t actually even looked at in my audition. I did a ballet combination and they kept 3 out of the 75 people in my group (not including me!). Luckily we were notified of another audition down the hall and so I figured with nothing to lose I would give it a shot. We got to do a nice steady musical theater combination along with an exercise in storytelling. It’s amazing how much your performance value matters - we are trained to do a billion pirouettes and kick our faces and stretch those over splits. All valid but honestly, I got this job because of performance value. To this day, I am friends with the people I met in that audition. Let me just tell you, when you have to do improv exercises with complete strangers, you bond pretty quickly! I left with new friends, another job and a lot to think about. I decided to go for it - I accepted the part time performing job on top of being a full time college student and teaching at a dance studio 5 days a week. Needless to say, I learned how to juggle my schedule very fast. This particular role at one park with a castle led me to other performer roles at the other big theme park in town where I got to celebrate Mardi Gras for the first time in my life. What was an audition on a whim turned into a dream career and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
After I graduated from the University of Central Florida, I went all in as a full time performer at the biggest theme park in town. I worked anywhere from 40-60 hour work weeks regularly (more during busy seasons and holidays) and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I could tell you some of the most amazing stories- times I thought I would literally fall over but still did a full parade (and fell over after), the time we learned that we burned more calories cooling off from a show than actually performing it, when celebrities came to our show, opening days, closing days, the guests in the park that actually become friends, the time you learned that you can’t eat that thing you love before a show, staying up for overnight rehearsals, the parade/show that chewed you up and then spat you out… I could go on forever.
The beauty of dancing at a theme park is that it is what you make it. Is it a stop on your way to a different career? Is it a break to help you determine your path before you commit to a college? Is it a lifelong dream to create memories at the same place that you fell in love with as a child? These questions are answered differently by any performer in any role. I personally am a very restless human. I get to perform multiple roles in many shows and I still get to be “new” from time to time, too! It is ever evolving- shows change, people change and you are always on your toes which means it’s pretty hard to get bored with your job. The way I see it, there aren’t many places where you can be a full time professional dancer with benefits and, trust me kids, benefits (health insurance) are something you want. I am a bit of a workaholic and love to be busy, so for me I always had a second job and sometimes a third or fourth! While most of my friends were doing amazing things and performing non stop, I decided to continue teaching and do seasonal events at other parks. I also tried to pick up as many gigs as possible to keep my skills and passion fresh. While I wasn’t getting to tap dance much in the park, I was able to find a crew and gig with them on the side to keep myself doing what I loved.
So, you may be asking what it’s like? Well, it truly depends on where you are performing. What park, what show, what role, etc. For me, personally, most of my days right now look like this:
5:00 am: wake up- honestly, I usually have to set a few alarms to be sure I get up!
6:00 am: coffee made to go, dog walked and fed, work bag packed and I’m on my way!
6:30 am: check in, pull my costumes and accessories for the day, change and head into our cast warm ups.
6:40 am: Warm up for the day- strength, stretch, condition as a group with my cast.
7:00 am: Cosmetology! This includes prep time for hair and makeup - I know you didn’t think I put on makeup at 5 am! We do our own makeup and hair each day… so sometimes this is coffee time #2 and usually where I finally feel awake enough to eat some breakfast! This is also a great time to catch up with the cast, share stories,the latest viral video, etc.
8:00 am: Get dressed and run through anything you are uncertain of. You may or may not have ever danced with (or even met) your partners for the day, so it’s always helpful to do a run through just to be sure you are all on the same page.
8:20 am-12:45 pm: in this time we put out 4 shows, meet with guests in between and also build in time for cooling down and grabbing some water and a snack if we can!
12:45 pm: we turn in all of our costumes and go to our next task. For me, personally, I either eat lunch and go to a different show next (repeat that whole process again!) or I go home, grab lunch, a nap and some dog snuggles and head off to my next job, which on most days is teaching dance.
If we are being really honest, you don’t know how tough you are until you do a 25 minute nonstop show, in jeans or velvet, in the summer Central Florida heat. You learn how to be mentally strong very fast. One of my best friends taught me this lesson during a parade one day. In a parade, you dance to a loop of music- the same 3-4 minutes of music and choreography that repeats until the parade is over. I wasn’t feeling so well and we were almost done, we had about 3 more loops. I caught my friend’s eye and while passing during our choreography said, “I don’t think I’m ok,” and she looked at me and yelled (yes, yelled), “YOU CAN DO ANYTHING ONCE!” So I did. I said to myself, “You can do anything once. Just one more time Jen, just do the loop one more time!” I told myself this for 3 more loops and was able to finish the parade. Please note: I was ok! I drank a ton of water, took a walk through a sprinkler and recovered like a champ! Turns out, the way you talk to yourself is pretty powerful! You really can do just about anything one more time.
So, what is it like to work at a theme park, you ask? In my opinion, it is the hardest, most wonderful thing and I would recommend it to anyone. It is where I met my extended family. It is where I learned that sometimes people see things in you that you never thought possible. It is where the worlds of characters, stilts, stunts, dancing, singing and acting all collided and all became possibilities. It is where I met people who inspire me daily to learn, grow and share my love for performing. It is meeting people from all over the world who planned to see you do your favorite thing in the world on their vacation. It is where you get to wear the most incredible costumes, wigs, makeup and accessories that are created for you specifically- yellow high heel tap shoes anyone?! It is where you get to explore styles you never thought were possible. It is where you can travel around the world and make people smile every single day. What is it like? It is completely un-equivalent to anything- it’s harder, more fun, more aggravating, more unexpected, more amazing than anything I’ve ever encountered.
*Jennifer Garaffa is a dancer, dance teacher, and dance competition judge based out of Central Florida. Follow Jen on Instagram - @jengaraffa, and find out more about her at www.jengaraffa.com.
Photos courtesy of @kayleyjacobs and @patrickmisiciphotoswilson