Similar to nearly every type of show, the performance we see as the general public is only the tip of the iceberg compared to what goes on behind the scenes. Parades are no different, except for the fact that the stage is the whole park and the cast is a lot bigger.
Weeks of preparation, rehearsals, training, building and maintenance go into producing your great holiday photos and we only get to see the end product. We are going to follow a couple of the roles in the daily running of a standard theme park's parade.
How long is a piece of string?
Many people are curious to find out how long the duration of a parade is but the actual answer isn't all that simple. Depending on who you ask you may be surprised to discover their reply can range from 10 minutes to almost 3 hours. Before you try to guess - no this is not a repeat of last month's article on queue lines, and the 3 hours isn't how long you have to turn up in advance to get a good place. It is in fact the difference of watching a parade and being a part of it.
As a guest, if you exclude the time you are there in advance waiting, a standard theme park's parade will only take 10-15 minutes for you to see each float go past. If you ask a performer how long they perform for, they would say around 25 minutes even if their involvement is a lot longer. If you were to time how long it takes for the first float to enter the park and the last float to leave the park then that would be around 35 to 40 minutes.
It also makes the question 'what time does the parade start?' difficult to answer. In a moving show there is no start time unless you are stood at the start. If you are stood at the end then it starts 25 minutes later than the advertised time, it can be a little confusing. Therefore the next time you would like to ask 'what time does the parade start?' it's also best to add 'where I am standing now' onto your question.
Okay, so that is only 40 minutes but how can a Parade take almost 3 hours?
The answer… the organisation, the preparation and the post-performance tasks.
Behind the scenes
There are dozens and dozens of intricate roles in making a parade run smoothly and normally as many people behind the scenes as there are in front. The majority of these people are the ones who will say their time working on a parade takes a few hours.
Here are just a few of the different roles...
Parade Guides, Drivers, Parade leaders, Control, Technicians, Float Dispatches, Dance Captains, Juggling Captains, Costume supervisors, Make-up artists, Hairstylists, Prop-supervisors, Character Assistants, Guest Flow, Cleaners, 'the people who open the parade doors and prepare water at the end', and of course not even mentioning the people you actually see… the Performers.
Each of these roles can consist of multiple people at a time and all of them are worthy of individual articles. It is each one of their responsibilities to ensure everything goes well and a break in the chain can even stop a show.
For now, we'll take a look at a couple of them but it's worth knowing a little of the lingo first.
(The start of the parade) The area and time where floats and performers leave 'backstage' and are seen by the public for the first time.
(The end of the parade) The area and time where floats and performers return 'backstage' and 'step down' from the floats out of sight from the public.
A time and place where performers discover their roles for that day's parade, last minute changes are made and a tick goes next to their name and role. It is also used as a type of directory to see what everybody is doing.
Mise en place:
Almost word for word - 'put in place'. This is where performers are placed into dance formations, corrections are made and they have a chance to run through the choreography.
A set of performers, single float and driver.
Similar to a dance teacher, they are responsible for 'mise en place' and assigning roles to each performer.
A group of people responsible for individual 'parade unit' similar to that of an assistant stage manager.
Similar to a technical stage manager, responsible for all the Guides, floats and drivers.
In short - the yes/no man (or woman). They have overall responsibility of the parade and the ability to cancel it if they have to.
A parade performer's work starts roughly 1hr30 before step-off at sign-in. Rarely do they know themselves which role they will be doing prior to this. As with the nature of 'show business' in general, things change all the time, at any time and mostly at the last minute. Performers suffer injuries, fall ill and are even called away to perform in other shows. This means that today's performers are now more versatile and flexible than ever. They need to have the ability to jump between roles, learn many different choreographies and placements, and can normally be seen doing different things each day i.e., dancing, stilt-walking or stood waving on the floats.
Their first port of call after finding out their role is to collect their costume.
Parade costuming departments have to be run with military precision. With parades of up to 100 people collecting items at the same time, preparation is the key. Luckily the large team, who clean, fix and prepare costumes are normally spot on with providing the correct trousers, jackets, shoes and even sock sizes ready at hand.
Certain costumes can consist of 20+ individual components and are checked by the performer. Some costumes have special clips, attachments, adjustments and different weights, the extra time spent here by the performer can be vital in ensuring nothing goes wrong during the show that could injure them or affect their performance. Strange as it may sound, a simple thing such as a wrong size hat slipping and covering the eyes during a parade could be dangerous.
Next up, they head to the Cosmetology department for hair and makeup.
As a rule of thumb, the easiest way to have a unit of performers looking unified is to give them all wigs. One of the great advantages of this is that the Cosmetology team is able to prepare them in advance and it doesn't matter if someone has decided to shave their head. Wigs are washed, cut, coloured and styled hours before the performers arrive. Wearing a wig isn't as simple as placing on a hat, hair needs to be plaited, tired-up, and then a wig-cap (a bonnet resembling a pair of tights) is placed over any visible hair. If the performer has very short hair a bandage is wrapped around the hairline. The bandage and wig-cap hides any of the performer’s natural hair and gives a sturdy base to pin the wig on. Performers can then cartwheel and jump about without the risk of losing their wig.
Normally, after they have their wig-cap on, but before the actual wig is attached, performers will apply makeup. Makeup is sometimes overlooked in outdoor shows but if applied correctly it can make all the difference, even if it is very subtle.
The majority of performers will apply makeup themselves but in certain roles this needs to be done by a professional. If the role requires prosthetic features such as noses or chins, or even a complex makeup design like a lion for example, this can take an hour or more to do. Some performers literally have seconds before having their final touches of makeup finished before running to step-off in time to start the parade.
The most important part of the preparation period for the performers is 'mise en place'. Sometimes working in several dance studios at the same time, dance captains (and other speciality captains such as juggling coaches) work with units one by one. This process normally takes the most amount of time as each unit will have roughly 10 minutes allocated studio time and it is the place where last minute changes are fixed. Each section of performers are called into one of the studios (regardless if makeup and costumes are ready or not) and are placed into the formations they will take in the parade, sometimes for the very first time.
At the end of “mise en place”, hopefully with everyone happy and comfortable, the performers will finish their preparations or go directly to step-off.
When the parade doors open and smiles appear, the performers take the stage. Parades are extremely physical and hard work. Unlike many stage productions where dancers come on stage, dance the opening number then take a few minutes break before reappearing, a parade performer has to do it non-stop. They have a solid workout, have to keep their smiles, pay attention to keeping the right speed, look out of one eye when the sweat makes the makeup run into the other eye and try not to faint (which can happen a lot).
Parade Guides are the backbone of each parade and are only seen if you look out for them. Who are they? Well, the next time you watch a parade, look for the person walking backwards at the size of the road with a radio/earpiece and one of those flashlights/lamps with a cone stuck-on-the-end-of-it you see people using to land planes...
Their work starts roughly the same time as the performers at a meeting with Parade 1 and Dispatch. Together Parade 1 and Dispatch inform them of previous parade observations, potential issues of the day, the latest weather conditions and distribute units to each Guide.
Hoping that the actual parade go smoothly, the hour prior to step-off is probably the most difficult and stressful part for them. Each Guide has a tick list of tasks they need to achieve before step-off but have the additional distraction of also supervising their individual unit's performers.
In short: the performer has a problem with their costume... The Guide has to sort it; the performer is needed in 'Mise en place'... The Guide needs to find them; if the performers prop is broken... The Guide needs to replace it; the performer isn't ready on time to start the parade... Yes, you've guessed it... It's the Guide's fault.
While they have the responsibility of the performers on one hand, another of the Guides’, responsibility is to prepare their floats.
A couple of the Guides will work with Dispatch and the Drivers to exit the floats from the garage or 'high bay'. A float driver tends to have very little vision, if any, and needs as much help as possible to steer the gigantic floats. Contrary to popular belief, parades do not tend to have radio-commanded floats or runs on rails. This means that with the Guide's help, the Driver is limited to sometimes only a couple of tiny spying holes and/or small camera monitors to see where they are going.
Once the floats are out of the high-bay, they are lined up and ready to receive any performers who need to be attached to them before the start. Many parades require a logistics team to operate industrial standard cherry-pickers to raise performers high enough to be harnessed on to the floats.
While a couple of Guides support 'mise en place' making sure the performers are there in time, a separate group of Guides set up roadblocks backstage to stop traffic as the floats are moved to step-off.
As the music starts dispatch is at step-off. Timing is a crucial element of a parade so one by one he/she will lead each float onto the parade route making sure they are an equal distance apart and are moving at the correct speed. From then on each Guide will take over their unit and supervise the safety of their float, performers, guests watching and stay in radio contact with the other guides. They use their lamps to help steer the drivers around tight corners and give signals as to when to speed up or slow down.
If the parade goes without a problem, the actual show part of the parade is the least stressful part of a guide's responsibilities. Their work was to get the float and performers out.
At step-down many of the guides duties are reversed. They make sure each performer is well, brought down from the floats, provided with water and a towel, set up road blocks to return the floats to the high bay. 30 minutes or so later they hand back their radios and lamps giving a report to Dispatch and Parade 1.
"Don't rain on my Parade…"
Come sun, wind, rain, snow or ice, parades are at the heart of many theme parks these days and are view by tens of thousands of people each time they cross the park.
Guests love seeing them, and park staff love doing them. The performers are there to make it all look like a piece of cake and there are just as many people backstage helping them make it look that easy too.