The Magical World of Character Entertaining

There are different names for it — character entertainment, character performance, “princessing.” Whatever the name, there’s an entire industry around it, one that many people have just happened their way into but have since made their livelihoods.

Items for sale lie in decorated baskets at a VIP Enchanted Princess and Hero Party event hosted by Enchanted Events on March 20, 2022, in Bogart, Georgia. Enchanted Events is a character entertainment company based out of Watkinsville, Georgia, owned by Nicole Sides. (Photo/Maddy Franklin)

There are different names for it — character entertainment, character performance, “princessing.” Whatever the name, an entire industry surrounds it chock-full of people who just sort of happened their way inside. 

Here, preserving a kind of magic is key, and both business owners and performers have to walk the fine line between reality and fantasy to do so. Because of this, a strange in-between place is occupied. No overhead from a multinational corporation, like Disney, exists to soften the very real impact of issues like racism, fair pay and workplace harassment, yet their work centers around people in universes where these issues aren’t even concepts. 

The notion of balancing “adult” issues in a field where small children are serviced isn’t new. Those in elementary education and caregiving know this all too well. But, this is performing — isn’t it supposed to be fun?

According to Hannah Lewallen, owner of Wardrobe of Wishes in Augusta, Georgia, the industry consists of many “mean girls.” Ones who are so concerned with maintaining park accuracy — the act of emulating Walt Disney World’s image — that they end up pulling from the theme park’s discriminatory practices as well.

The Disney dilemma

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is arguably Disney’s most lucrative and well-known theme park. Plenty has been said about the park’s lack of inclusion when it comes to hiring cast members. Natalie Boone, a performer and team lead at Enchanted Events in Watkinsville, Georgia, once had aspirations to do the Disney College Program, but that was when she said she was “super fit and skinny.”

It doesn’t take long to gather that a tenuous relationship takes shape between the character companies and Disney. Of course, this isn’t hard to imagine considering one cannot exist without the other. And careful steps have to be taken to make sure the companies stay true to the source material, but not too true.

“We’re only one state above the largest Disney park in the world. If we step on the wrong toes, we could be cease and desisted at any time,” said Lewallen. 

To avoid copyright infringement, disclaimers are given at the bottom of character company websites and the names of characters are changed. Elsa becomes the Snow Queen. Rapunzel turns into the Tower Princess. But, this still hasn’t always been enough to stop lawsuits from coming. 

In 2017, Disney sued Characters for Hire, a large entertainment company in New York City, alleging that providing customers with costumed characters “infringed their trademarks and copyrights.” However, a judge in 2018 denied Disney a summary judgment, saying customers weren’t likely to confuse Characters for Hire with having any affiliation to Disney. 

Despite this ruling, the threat of Disney continues to hang over the industry. The general consensus between company owners is that Disney will leave them alone as long as they do quality work. Venessa Lewis, owner of the Louisiana-based Petite Princess Company, said her performer’s wigs are bought from a retired Disney cosmetologist at a price of $100 each. 

“We’re not the Wish version of princesses,” said Lewis jokingly. 

Making the shoe fit

Being known for providing quality service is important in an industry with competition abound. Mary Beth Glass moved to D.C. from Louisiana about a year ago and began her company, Glass Palace Parties, in August 2021. She has been trying to establish a name for herself in the new scene but admitted it’s been difficult.

Glass was never trained on how to be a princess or a character. Before the first birthday party she attended, she was given a Party City Khaleesi costume in a Walmart bag and sent on her way. Much to her surprise, she said “the kids loved it.”  

Today, Glass puts an emphasis on training for her staff. She worked alongside Lewis for many years before moving and still relies on her for advice. 

Since taking over Petite Princess Company from its previous owner, Lewis has expanded the business tremendously — implementing events other than birthday parties and growing its digital presence. Petite Princess Company has a TikTok account with over 4,000 followers, which is completely run by the performers. Lewis said PPC is one of the first adopters of the platform in the princessing world. 

Performers are compensated for each TikTok created. Lewis doesn’t believe in not paying people for doing work. Glass said the previous owner of PPC would book events with businesses as an outreach method but not pay performers. 

At the core of any business is profitability, and character entertainment companies are no different. Many companies ask for services but aren’t willing to pay, according to Kat Caraway who owns Once Upon A Time Parties in Mobile, Alabama. Because of these requests, she had to limit the number of charity services to five a year. 

While some in the industry have other jobs or careers to supplement themselves — Caraway is a photographer, Lewis is a graphic designer — others depend solely on the money made from performing or owning a character business. When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, Boone found herself having to perform as her only source of income. 

Natalie Boone poses for a portrait at a “VIP Enchanted Princess and Hero Party” hosted by Enchanted Events on March 20, 2022, in Bogart, Georgia. Boone has been performing at Enchanted Events since 2019. (Photo/Maddy Franklin)

Chloe Campbell is a sophomore at Oglethorpe University and performs at Helen Medlin Princess Parties. Campbell also teaches at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, where she was making $100 a week when she started performing. She said she was looking for another way to make money while doing something she was interested in. She never settles for a job. 

Playing the part

At HMPP, Campbell portrays a multitude of characters, but her favorites to play are Tiana and Moana. She said she gets booked less often than the company’s performers who aren’t people of color. This was something she both expected yet didn’t expect, especially because the company serves the Atlanta area. 

Transcendent casting. This is what Helen Medlin, the owner of HMPP, subscribes to and it means that performers of color on her staff can portray any character, while her white performers cannot. She cares little for park accuracy because she said, in her mind, she can do it better. 

“If it does deter certain clients or certain performers then those aren’t really the people that I want around my business anyway,” said Medlin. 

Both performers and business owners agree that casting is the biggest challenge to face in the industry. The Disney devouts are highly selective and particular with casting. While other companies write and abide by their own rules. 

Caraway said she goes off her morals when it comes to casting. At Enchanted Events, owner Nicole Sides said anyone is welcome to join. Lewallen acknowledges that image is central to the industry and takes appearance into account. 

“If you can’t embody the look, you can’t embody the personality,” said Lewallen.

Lewallen fulfills requests for any character to be performed by someone of a specific race but advertises lookalikes for characters online. Caraway said no matter what you do, some people in the industry will disagree. Facebook groups with owners become places of heated discussion and few conclusions are reached. 

Medlin said she tries to steer clear of the groups after seeing what conversations are bred. Lewallen discourages her performers from getting involved with the industry on social media because she doesn’t want them to have to witness the negativity. 

“There’s a lot of underbelly that’s not as sparkly and pretty as what you’d think,” said Medlin.

Performers remove their wigs after the conclusion of a “VIP Enchanted Princess and Hero Party” hosted by Enchanted Events on March 20, 2022, in Bogart, Georgia. Character entertainers say performing can affect them physically and mentally, but also offer an escape. (Photo/Maddy Franklin)

For the most part, performers Campbell and Boone aren’t connected to the industry outside of their respective companies. Campbell said she will hear about larger, industry-wide issues through Medlin. Despite being more removed from the conversations, Boone said she believes character performers have a voice and can express their concerns.  

Igniting a spark

From the business perspective, owners believe the noise of the industry online can detract from what’s most important about the field of work — the kids. For people who stepped into the industry with little to no experience performing like Glass and Boone, they’ve found interest in it largely because of the service they provide for children. 

“It’s also really nice to know that you’ve been able to do that for a family, like, maybe they couldn’t make it to a theme park or they didn’t have the means to travel … it makes a huge difference,” said Glass. 

Beyond this, character performing provides a means of escape. Putting on the costume and wig serves as a mechanism to cross the threshold of reality and fantasy. A new identity is assumed and the troubles associated with oneself can be separated. 

Caraway has experienced two miscarriages and said performing, though it was hard, was something she really needed at that time. It was able to provide comfort during a dark period of her life. 

Assuming the role of a beloved character is hard. The work can be physically draining and mentally taxing. It’s more than makeup and wig caps and pretty dresses. When performers sign up to take it on, they agree to forgo part of themselves and their life for the benefit of someone else. Caraway likened it to the candle from “Encanto.” 

“I feel like I have the original little spark and I just share my spark with others,” said Caraway.

Bekah Lee speaks to children before the end of a “VIP Enchanted Princess and Hero Party” hosted by Enchanted Events on March 20, 2022, in Bogart, Georgia. Lee was dressed as the Snow Queen and sang “Let it Go” at the event. (Photo/Maddy Franklin)

There is no one route into the industry, and everyone has a different story. Here is Kaitlin Van Wie’s story and more on Enchanted Events’ general operations.