Jobs that make dreams come true at Disneyland Paris
There is no question who are the stars of the show. As children and parents jostle for position, as music blasts from speakers on lamp posts, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, Eeyore, Piglet, Minnie and Mickey wobble on to the outdoor stage. Cue cheers and squeals and the highlight of many a trip to Disneyland Paris, that celebration of old-fashioned American kitsch on the outskirts of the French capital.
For Simon Opie, however, this is a serious business. As product integration vice-president at the resort, “I have responsibility for developing the entertainment programme — and that extends to the accompanying food offers and character dining experiences we’ll be putting together, as well as the relevant merchandise”. An enormous brief, in fact, that includes managing 450 product development staff.A far cry, too, from his humble beginnings in an entertainment career as the production manager of the Oxford Playhouse, a job opportunity so attractive that he left Oxford University, where he had been reading English, before graduating to take it up. “The theatre was always my passion and it was a great opportunity which I knew I had to grab.“Back then I had a budget of a few thousand pounds to juggle, whereas now I’m responsible for the opening of a €70 million [£60 million] attraction — Toy Story Playland.”Mr Opie went on to work as a production manager in the West End before taking a senior management position with the Tussauds Group. He joined Disneyland Paris three years ago. Now 52, he says that his “focus, first and foremost, is on providing visitors with a first-class experience”. That, and “providing a style of leadership that encourages, rather than stifles, the park’s creative talent, who are so essential to our success.“The great thing about this business is that there’s always something new to do or create, and that’s a great stimulus. But cheesy as it might sound, the thing that still gives me most satisfaction is being able to walk out into the park and see people having a good time and know that I’ve contributed to them having a good time.”One of his biggest challenges on joining Disneyland was learning the language. “Like every other British employee, I’ve had to work at my French, because you need a command of the language to work here.”Katy Harris, the resort’s show director and a fellow Briton, argues that being a child at heart has helped her to achieve her Disneyland career. “You have to be able to dream big dreams and, despite my age, I’ve never really grown up,” she says (she is 41). “I still have the spirit of a kid, and I’m able to see things through a child’s eyes, and that helps me when it comes to creating a kids’ show.“It’s a big challenge coming up with new shows and parades, but being able to take part in the whole creative process, from the writing to the directing, is tremendously satisfying.”At the moment she is incorporating the heroine of The Princess and the Frog, the new Disney film, into the resort’s Once Upon a Dream Parade. Creating a parade is a big challenge: they can consist of 150 or more performers. Each float in a parade is a moving theatre with its own sound and light system. “You’re never quite sure if everything’s going to be working 100 per cent until the parade takes place.”After making her stage debut aged 14 in a panto, Ms Harris studied musical theatre at the Arts Educational School in London before going on to appear as a dancer in West End productions. She joined Disneyland Paris initially as a performer. “Having some performance experience really helps you understand what your performers are capable of delivering,” she said. “You also need to be able to keep the organisational side of things together because you have to remember that we put on most of our shows five times a day and everything has to work like clockwork.”Inevitably, things will go wrong. Sue LeCash, show costume designer/head of creative costume, will never forget the day that she was working on a television show when the studio audience got to see more than planned of an actress. “We had to unroll someone off camera on to the stage — but quite a lot more of her clothes than expected came off so she ended up on stage in nothing but her underwear.”Ms LeCash, 67, has worked in the entertainment industry for 40 years but says that she still relishes arriving at Disneyland Paris each day for work. “It’s a fascinating job because, as a costume designer, I’m integral to the creative process and work closely with the show director and the set designer. We make thousands of costumes every year because we need about six to ten costumes per performer to cater for their different sizes.“Another big challenge here at Disneyland is creating costumes that can be worn outside all year round so we’ve had to create undergarments that performers can wear to keep themselves warm.”After studying dress design at St Martin’s College of Art in London in the early 1960s, she got a job in the costume workroom of ATV, the television company, at Elstree Studios. She won an Emmy award for the costumes on the 1975 television series, Edward the Seventh in a career that has included working with big names from Tom Jones to Kermit the Frog — to, of course, Mickey.She joined Disneyland Paris in 1992 as designer and manager of creative costuming for animations and entertainment. Since then she’s created hundreds of costumes for the resort’s parades, shows and characters and done everything from dress stilt-walkers to create walking carpets for the Aladdin parade.Costume design is a specialised career and Ms LeCash advises those wanting to follow in her footsteps to enrol in a costume design course. “A broad knowledge of costume — anything from period costume down to the latest entertainment shows — is essential. You also need to have an eye for modern fashion. What’s more, you need to know how a costume needs to be cut, because you have to calculate the amount of fabric you’re going to need and know how the fabric is going to react … It’s incredibly interesting for someone like me who’s into costumes.”