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The Ride of a Lifetime

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You probably know Wayne Brady from his improvisational songs and sketches on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, or his Emmy-winning work on The Wayne Brady Show, or maybe even his hilariously foulmouthed, jaw-dropping guest appearance on Chappelle's Show. But you may not know that the multitalented performer has also played a Ghostbuster, a doo-wopper, and Cab Calloway. That's because all of these roles took place on an unlikely stage: a theme park. Before hitting it big, Brady worked at such parks as Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Six Flags in St. Louis, Mo., finally ending up at Universal Studios Hollywood, where he worked until 1999.

"I've been in the business for about 17 years, and I've never waited tables a day in my life, and I've never been unemployed. And I have theme parks to thank for that," he says.

Brady isn't the only big name who got his start entertaining thrill-seeking tourists: Soap star Jack Wagner did a stint as a Universal Studios Hollywood tour guide, and Steve Martin worked at the Bird Cage Theater at Knott's Berry Farm and the magic shop at Disneyland. It was at these parks that Martin developed some of his initial talents. "That's when he started juggling, that's when he started playing the banjo, and he did a lot of his magic stuff, which kind of became the cornerstone of his standup," says actor David Cooper, whose first professional performing gig was at Six Flags New England. "He's someone that I learned a lot about when I was [working at theme parks]."

The many theme parks in Southern California provide a multitude of opportunities—some seasonal, some year-round—for all kinds of performers: actors, dancers, singers, stunt workers, and skaters, for starters. From character work to live shows to improv, there's a lot of variety out there. As a starting point for your career, this kind of work can simultaneously hone your skills and help pay your bills.

A Starting Point

While some actors may have instant horrific visions of donning a 50-pound fuzzy animal costume and being kicked repeatedly by ice cream-wielding children, just remember: Not all gigs pay you to perform every day. "There aren't that many jobs for someone whose résumé just reads, 'Hi, my name is Bill. I'm an actor,'" says Brady. "You end up waiting tables, and there's nothing wrong with waiting tables, but the way that I see it, if you can make a living working at a theme park, you're still in the entertainment business and you're still validating yourself and you're still getting better, and you're making your living in the field that you chose instead of giving Table 6 their spinach dip."

Sue Carpenter, public relations manager of Six Flags California, points out that this kind of work can be good for gauging how much you enjoy performing in the first place. "I think it's a great launching pad just to see if you even like it," she says. "It's a great experience, because if you can do it for three, four months over the summer every single day—three, four, five shows a day—then that is what you want to make your career out of. And also working with the public and stuff like that, either you have it or you don't, it's in your gut or it's not, and it's a great learning tool for a lot of people to see if they really want to stick with it or maybe it's just not for them."

"[Working in a theme park] taught me that entertaining was a profession; it was something you got paid to do," says Cooper. "You kind of start learning the business…. As long as you're around other people who are doing professional entertaining, it's a great place to cut your teeth."

It also gives actors that often elusive but invaluable learning tool: an audience. "It's that one-on-one contact with park guests, that kind of instant feedback, that's so valuable to actors," says John Murdy, creative director at Universal Studios Hollywood. "A lot of times in the movie business you never get that feedback. It's being able to affect somebody directly that is a great learning tool. When [it's] a busy summer day and it's really crowded, you better be really good at that. So it teaches you a lot of skills. Doing a show like [Universal Studios live show] Fear Factor, where you have such a large audience and you have to command that audience, that teaches you great presence onstage, and being able to handle a large audience is a skill that a lot of actors need."

As far as other skills that will help in your career, the one that gets mentioned the most is simple: repetition. You might do the same show several times a day, and you have to make it fresh every time. "Coming from the world of theatre, I'm used to having to do the same show eight times a week, but coming from the world of theme parks, I'm used to doing the same show five to eight times a day," says Brady. "[And] you really want to put forth a great show and the same energy…no matter how tired you are, no matter how drunk you got the night before, no matter if you got in a fight with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you have to show up, and there are couple thousand people at each show waiting for you to entertain them. They have been outside in the blistering heat; maybe they don't speak English. They come with so much audience baggage that it just teaches you to be able to deal with anything."

Adds Charles Bradshaw, director of entertainment at Knott's Berry Farm, "Performers never have enough opportunity to perform. And what we give them is an opportunity—some would say it's a drudgery—to perform four, five, six shows a day, five [or] six days a week for months. It's really crafting their skills and honing their skills to be able to sell it to someone else."

David Bowman, park show supervisor at Knott's Berry Farm, concurs. Bowman started out as a train bandit at the park and still performs occasionally. "We do two to three stunt shows a day, and then we do these things called street shows," he says. "They're anywhere between seven and 10 minutes long, so you really are honing your acting, and you do it every day. You're really building a good consistency, you really work on the volume of your voice, and you're able to change characters quite a bit. So one time you'll play a bad guy, sometimes you'll play a funny character. You're going to be able to play the gamut of different characters."

What's Right for You?

What kind of work is out there? To find job opportunities, check trade publications such as Back Stage West, which will often run ads for theme-park work. You can also look up the various park websites, some of which list available jobs.

You may need to narrow your search to specific opportunities based on which way you want to go with your career. For example, Knott's Berry Farm has a year-round stunt show that serves as something of a training ground for those hoping to work as stunt performers in Hollywood. "We hire a lot of young stunt players into [the show], and they hone their skills here and become a better stunt player, and then they go out and find jobs in the industry," says Bradshaw. "It's fortunate for us that we're close to L.A. and the industry so that we can attract and hold on to some pretty good performers, and they use us as a training ground and a performance outlet and then audition all the time in the business." One of the park's stunt performers, says Bradshaw, later worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger—in the governor's pre-politician days of course.

Working as one of Universal Studios' tour guides is a popular option. "I always think of the studio tour as the modern-day equivalent to working in the mailroom, because it's intended to be a launching pad for people trying to get into the business to get some experience working in a movie studio, performing, and moving on to bigger and better things," says Murdy, who used to be a tour guide. The list of tour guide alums is impressive: Wagner, actor Michael Hitchcock (Best in Show), and film director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) have done time on the tram.

The park offers several programs to help its tour guides launch their careers. "One thing we do with the studio tour specifically, since so many of them are actors, is, we have an acting showcase every year where tons of major casting directors and other industry professionals are invited. It's basically scene study," says Murdy. "They work with a professional casting director through the process, bring their scenes together, they do a performance every year, and a lot of them get work in television, movies, commercials that comes directly out of that."

What Can You Offer?

What are theme parks looking for when they cast performers? It often depends on the specific show or part being cast. "You're looking for all the things that, a lot of times, you're looking for in commercials or television or film," says Murdy. "You're looking for enthusiasm, energy; do they fit a particular part? If it's something that's music-dependent, then you're looking at their vocal ability."

"The biggest thing I know that we look for when we're casting characters is personality and really good interaction with guests: Because you are inside of a costume, you have to be very animated with your hands," says Carpenter.

For more specialized work, find out if there are certain skills required. When you audition for the Six Flags' Batman Begins show, for example, you will be asked to perform certain stunts. The Knott's Berry Farm stunt show is a bit different, as it also serves as a training ground, but you still need to be able to demonstrate basic ability. "We look for people who have a lot of tumbling and physical abilities, not necessarily stunt experience, because it's something that then we will train [them] in," says Bradshaw. "We get a lot of experienced stunt people, but, for the most part, we really do look for those basic skills of tumbling and physical dexterity—and then, of course, acting ability. Our stunt players have to be funny, they have to be able to perform a script; they also have to look like cowboys. The basics of the stunt performer is always their physical ability, but their acting is what will get them the role."

Even something as seemingly basic as a live hosting gig might require a specific ability or quality. Universal Studios Hollywood's Fear Factor show has two hosts—one male and one female—and calls for a distinct style. "It's a little bit more casual, it's a little bit more hip, so you're looking for a performer that has those kinds of qualities—and someone who can hold a 2,000-seat audience," says Murdy.

Closing Time at the Park

Theme park work may earn you a paycheck, but don't lose sight of your original goal. "I don't think you're going to be discovered, per se, in a theme park," says Bowman. "The only downfall is, I think you can be lulled into complacency sometimes. [You have to] motivate yourself to [be], like, 'Okay, I'm working five days a week; [I've] got to take those other two days and go on auditions.'"

And as with any day job, you'll have to determine when the time is right to give it up. "I stopped in '99," remembers Brady. "I'd already been on TV for a year and a half—but, in my mind, because nothing is guaranteed, and I'd already had a show on VH1 that went eight episodes and really didn't go any further, I'd already been on a show on NBC late-night that really didn't do a whole lot—so when this [Whose Line Is It Anyway?] thing happened, in my head, it was, like, 'You know what? I'm not quitting my job.' I was still on the full-time roster, and I just gave away my shifts for a year and a half. But I was damned if I was going to give up my job, because as far as I knew, this was gonna go away immediately, and I'd [still] be able to show up and do my job."

Who knows? With the skills and experience you gain performing at a theme park, maybe someday you'll end up like Brady, who recently returned to Disney World to film a holiday special. Things are a little different now, though. Observes Brady, "This time, I don't have to go back to my dressing room and wait for my character lead to come back and yell at me." BSW

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