Dreaming with Disney

Disney's private island — Castaway Cay— features a private beach for its cruise ship employees.

Back when she was a young girl, Jess Alvis of Gypsum didn’t want to dress up as a Disney princess at Halloween as many of her friend did.

Instead Alvis went for a more individual and theatrical style. Turns out those early costuming decisions were both ironic and prophetic.

Anyone who has ever visited a Disney theme park or enjoyed a Disney cruise may well have wondered who is responsible for making sure that Mickey Mouse always looks his dapper best. When Belle steps out to share a waltz with Beast, she literally sparkles as she glides across the floor. Someone has to help out these beloved characters as they prepare to meet their junior and adult fans each and every day. On board the Disney Dream cruise ship, that person is Alvis.

The Gypsum native has actually landed back in the valley for a few weeks but she will be returning to the ship Jan. 19 for a second four-month cruise as a costume technician. She is part of a four-person team that oversees all costuming for the characters who roam the ship and for the characters that perform in nightly shows.

“We have been told we have more quick changes in our shows than most Broadway shows,” said Alvis.

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Further complicating the sheer number of costumes is the fact that for the stage shows, there are a lot of different costumes, but there is only one version of each of them. That means if an actor splits his pants doing an on-stage dance move, the costume technicians can’t pull out another outfit. Instead they have to repair what they have to make sure it meets with Disney’s exacting standards.

Its a big job with high expectations. That’s why Alvis loves it.

Sew What

Before she started her work for Disney, Alvis graduated from Colorado State University with dual degrees in fashion merchandising and theatrical costume design. But way before that, she was a member of the local 4-H Sew What club.

Alvis credited her parents for urging her to try lots of different clubs and sports and one of those activities was the sewing club.

“I have had my own sewing machine since I was about seven years old,” she said. Her early years at the pedal proved invaluable, not only in her current job, but also when she went off to college.

“I use the techniques I learned (in 4-H) every day,” said Alvis. “If I could ever offer advice to young people it would be learn whatever you can because you never know what you are going to do in life.”

In her case, Alvis said she loved studies involved in her “artsy/craftsy” degree but when she was nearing graduation, she wasn’t quite sure where it would take her. Then she learned about the Disney in College program.

Through Disney in College, Alvis traveled to Florida where she worked in the merchandising tract — selling Disney products at Epcot Center for a year, while living in a dorm-like complex managed by the company. The longer she worked for the company, the more she liked it and she put her efforts in finding a costuming gig with the company. Eventually that lead her to the Disney Dream.

Dreaming at sea

The Disney Dream offers three- and four-day cruises and departs from Port Canaveral and sails to Nassau, Bahamas and the Disney-owned private island Castaway Cay. For staff, there are no days off during a four-month stint, but they do get large periods of time off during each day.

Alvis, her supervisor and two other technicians are responsible for costuming 27 main stage actors and 20 character actors every day. While at sea, the crew stages three different hourlong main theater shows — “Golden Mickeys,” “Villains Tonight” and “Believe” with two performances every evening. Additionally, there are several 20- to 45-minute character shows performed daily.

“I really love the “Believe” show. It showcases the princesses,” said Alvis. The storyline is a daughter’s efforts to help her dad discover a love of fantasy. The show is performed on the final night of a cruise.

As for special show moments, Alvis said when Ariel, the Little Mermaid, makes her first appearance, the kids in the audience usually go nuts.

While at sea, Alvis begins work at 9 a.m. with laundry and costume maintenance chores until noon. That’s when they deal with “poppers” — snap closures that just won’t stay closed or seam rips. Sometimes the challenges are bigger, such as fixing a broken zipper on a leather boot. But no matter what the issue, the technicians have to fix it because there is no other alternative.

“Our storage space for costumes is very limited. Even if they offered to give us second costumes we would have to turn them down because we don’t have the space,” said Alvis.

After repairs and laundry is done, the costume techs enjoy some free time until 4 p.m. when they return to the theater to prepare for that evening’s performances. The first show is performed at 6:30 p.m. and the second at 8:30 p.m. By 10:30 the costume techs are usually done for the night, after gathering up the performers clothes, checking them for damage and sorting them for the next day’s laundry.

Free at sea

Alvis notes that Disney understands that a happy ship depends on happy workers. That’s why the company plans special weekly activities for crew members, operates a crew-only bar on board and has developed a private crew beach at Castaway Cay.

“It is the most relaxing place you can imagine,” said Alvis. She noted there is no internet service and it is a great locale for crew members to chill out from their hectic work schedule.

“Disney does a ton of stuff for us,” said Alvis. “They do movie showings of their new releases right after their premiers, so I got to see ‘Big Hero 6’ right after it opened.”

While working on the ship is not the same as enjoying a cruise vacation, Alvis said some of that energy always finds its way to the crew. She noted that Captain Mickey Mouse is there to greet visitors the minute they arrive and she takes a lot of pride in the fact that he looks perfect every time.

“Character integrity is what Disney does,” said Alvis. “I take a lot of pride in making sure every character is show ready. I am the last person to look at them and decide if they are.”

Those exacting standards mean not only must the costumes be perfect, but the people who wear them must maintain their appearance. That means no gaining weight or growing beards or even changing skin tone for Disney actors.

“I could never be a Disney princess. I like to tan too much,” said Alvis with a laugh.

While she is enjoying her break and she has plans to visit former cast members in New York, Alvis said she can’t wait to return to the ship Jan. 19.

“I have always loved Disney, but then it really grew when I started working for Disney,” Alvis said. “Everything Disney does is about creativity. That’s what I love the most.”

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