Working at theme parks: should you dodgem or will it be the ride of your life?
Theme park work isn’t just sweating in a Minnie Mouse costume during a hot Paris summer, there’s a variety of diverse and interesting roles, as John Byrne finds out
In the Popeye cartoons, things rarely work out well for his nemesis Brutus. For Kester Lewis, though, playing the villain at a live attraction for Drayton Manor Theme Park in 2000 led to a much happier outcome.
That first theme park job set the actor on an 18-year career rollercoaster, playing everything from a ringmaster at a circus-themed attraction, to a costumed character in the Wicky Bear Show at Wicksteed Park and a nine-year stint as the Fat Controller for Thomas Land UK.
“For me, the best part of the job is watching the faces and seeing the excitement of the kids (and some adults) when they see you in character for the first time,” he says. “You can make them believe 100% in who you are and what you are doing. You can actually make people’s dreams come true.”
Having recently completed several contracts as a street performer at Global Village Dubai, Lewis remains as enthusiastic about theme parks and their potential for building performance careers as he was when he first started. “There is something for everyone: singers, dancers and actors,” he says.
Peter Clark, the creative director of design company, Holovis, adds technical work to that list of opportunities.
Having originally started as a performer, he now works for a company that provides audio visual effects for Merlin group – one of the world’s biggest theme park operators.
“I trained at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts on the three-year acting degree, and first started working at Alton Towers as a college student,” Clark says. “After being a performer for six years, I landed the role of creative director, looking after stage shows, street theatre, hotel entertainment and key events such as Fireworks and Scarefest. When I was 23, I produced my first outdoor spectacular show, combining narrative, pyro, bespoke composition, media and SFX, which played out to 25,000 people a night for three nights.
“I will never forget taking a moment to look around me as the event took place, at families hugging, kids captured in their imagination, friends laughing. It was one of the most significant moments in my career. Theme park work is a lot closer to theatre than many think. The process is generally the same, from pre-production, scripting, casting, costuming and scoring all the way through to operation and delivery. The only difference we have in a theme park is a requirement for dynamism. The guest is often in control of where they go and how they interact with the shows. We don’t have a captive audience and we’re competing with giant rollercoasters and rides, so we have to be doubly engaging.”
Casting director Nicci Topping recently cast characters for Disneyland Paris’ high profile Marvel Summer of Superheroes, which hosted events based on the Marvel universe, and says personality and interactive skills are key.
“Although we were looking to cast ‘superheroes’ we were still looking for that sense of everyman/woman that lurks behind those larger than life characters,” she says. “Even superheroes need to be relatable. As for any suggestion that playing a cartoon character somehow isn’t ‘real acting’, if anyone says that to me I would say: ‘Ever heard of Ian McKellen or Tom Hiddleston?’ They have no difficulty straddling both worlds and take their prep for fantasy roles very seriously and with dignity.”
Fantasy roles, and specifically scare roles, are one of the most common entry points into theme park work, whether for Halloween events such as Alton Towers’ Scarefest, or as one of the cast of scare actors who add to the atmosphere of attractions such as Alton Towers’ new Wicker Man ride or the horror-themed maze that accompanies the Saw ride at Thorpe Park.
It is not uncommon for an audition for one type of role to end up as a casting for another. Southampton Performing Arts graduate Tiffany Louise Clark attended an audition for one of Alton Towers’ scare shows and ended up with a job as a presenter and dancer in the children’s shows.
“As a theme park and rollercoaster geek, one of the things I was looking forward to was being able to go on the rides during my lunch break. I quickly discovered that was 100% against the rules, even if you had any energy left to do it. The work is fun, but the hours are long and tiring and it is certainly not a ‘day out’. The biggest achievement for me was being able to pick up the show choreography quickly in a very short rehearsal period. The shows I was involved with were open-air, which was a new experience for me – performing in the rain and freezing cold was certainly a challenge, but one I enjoyed facing.”
Working as a character performer at Chessington World of Adventures took Brighton University theatre arts graduate Lauren Douglin on a similarly challenging learning curve.
“I attended a casting at London’s Pineapple Dance Studios to be one of their singers but they offered me a comedy acting role instead as I made them laugh trying to work out how to use the CD player. You do the same show multiple times in a day and need to keep the energy up. Sometimes, you would get a family of four who were fully engaged. Other times you would have a mixed group of 20 who just wanted to run through the whole show, not fussed with the story. But I would still deliver my three-minute monologue up to 100 times in a day, giving each speech as if it was the first.”
James Pemblington, entertainment technical operation manager at Alton Towers says there are also misconceptions about the tech side of theme park operations. “There’s a perception that the work stops when the gates close,” he says. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. We have a huge number of different shows and performances during our ‘core season’, but also a lot to plan and prepare for events such as Christmas and Scarefest. Not to mention the crucial maintenance that only starts once the Christmas guests have gone home. That gives us essentially one month before the park opens again for February half-term.”
For Natalie Weetman, Alton Towers creative manager, it is the range of skills needed that makes theme park work a fertile but sometimes untapped field for aspiring performers and crew.
“The assumption is that there are just a few jobs for costume characters,” she says. “It’s so much more than that.”
“We have some cast members who’ve been working here for more than 30 years, because the role continues to change and develop. Many people join us initially on seasonal contracts or short-term work, which is great experience. It’s not just work that ‘anyone can do’. We need people who are skilled, know how to characterise and have technical ability and showmanship. The right attitude is also critically important. You have to be able to talk to families, to interact with children, to be able to get off the stage and interact with the crowd, to be flexible and use your initiative to make sure you deliver a great experience every time. That definitely takes a certain kind of person.”