Two Months (and 160 shows) in Tampa

Busch Gardens Food and Wine - WhiteThis year, I was invited to be the featured variety act at Busch Gardens’ Annual Food and Wine Festival in Tampa, Florida.

It’s a big event – a festival that combines not only food and wine, but also a gigantic concert series from a variety of musical genres. Lynyrd Skynyrd, The All American Rejects, and Gente de Zona were some of the bigger concerts, drawing almost 30,000 attendees each.  There’s a whole section of the park dedicated to the festival – several thousand square meters, under the shadow of Gwazi, a defunct wooden roller coaster on the Eastern corner of the park.

During the Festival – on Saturdays and Sundays – I had a stage along the event’s main walkway. A wine themed stage for a wine themed show!  This set was complete with wine barrels and tables to climb on to my heart’s content. I performed a new rendition of my mouthstick act, complete with a club juggling number, a Brunn-inspired combination trick, and a few special surprises.

…don’t just take my word for it, though.  See for yourself!

As you can see in this video, my show took place all over the park – not just on my wine stage.  Over the course of the contract, I performed 160 wine shows all across Busch Gardens.   Some of my favorite shows were in Pantopia, where I performed a comedy routine with a bowling ball, a wine bottle, and a suitcase full of juggling knives.

Pantopia is a Moroccan-inspired section of the park.  It opened in 2014, replacing the original “Timbuktu” area of the park.  Busch prides itself with elaborate backstories to its park’s hamlets – if you’re interested in reading about Pantopia’s “Key Master,” the shopkeepers, and the other characters that make up the area’s construction, I’ll let Attractions Magazine fill you in with the rest.  For our purposes, just know that there’s this lovely little street performing pitch along the walkway to the theater:

An Actor, a Juggler, and a Southern Ground Hornbill walk into a bar…

I performed five sets in the afternoons in front of the Pantopia Theater when I was assigned to that section of the park.  On those days, I shared a dressing room with the Animal Trainers from Opening Night Critters.  Critters is a wonderful farce about the opening night of a trained animal show – it’s the last rehearsal before the show opens, and none of the animals are cooperating.

You can see a clip of the show’s creation below:

Featuring “dogs, cats, rats, porcupines, and animals of every variety,” the backstage area is a labyrinth of cages, buckets of treats, and racks of costumes.

The Pantopia Theater of the park’s original show sites.  In a past life, the theater housed Busch Gardens’ trained dolphin show – a production that was a park staple for 22 years.

Of course, that was back when this area was called “Timbuktu,” and when the park was still called “Busch Gardens: the Dark Continent.

Silver the Horse patiently waits for his cue (and blocks the door to the bathroom.)

Silver the Horse patiently waits for his cue (and blocks the door to the bathroom.)

…that said, “housed” might not be the right word here! As you can see, the theater used to be open-air. It was enclosed after the dolphin show left, to accommodate an R.L. Stein-themed “4-D Movie Experience.” After that and a few other “4-D Movie Experiences,” the theater was re-re-done to make way for the animal show.

The backstage there is pretty tight, and the theater has one bathroom, hidden behind the animals’ commissarry.  Need to freshen up before your set?  You might make it there, only to discover the door is blocked by a horse, waiting for his cue to go on stage.

A fact of circus is that sometimes animals refuse to cooperate.  In one show while I was there, the southern ground hornbill simply refused to fly from one side of the stage to the other.  That calls for a show stop, which means that the audience sits patiently while the trainers coax the bird down with treats and friendly coos and calls Come down, Fester!  Do your job, Fester!  There’s a good fella.

The animals there all seemed happy and well behaved.  It was during my time there that SeaWorld (Busch Gardens’ parent company) announced the end of its Orca breeding program, though… many guests at the park wondered if the trained animal shows would be next.  Whatever your take on performing animals, we can all agree that these are heady times.

Kind and Interesting People

One Saturday, I was visited by Marge, a octogenarian who insisted she come to the park with her family so she could “see that wonderful juggler a second time.” (Her family was coming to the park to see Meatloaf perform in the concert series, and were surprised she would be willing to sit through I would do anything for love…)  She was just one of many repeat visitors – as I understand it, Busch has a special pass for Florida residents, so many people make a habit of coming to the park several times a month.

Another day, a family came up to me after the show insisting that they’d seen me somewhere before.  Turns out, they came to the St Louis Renaissance Faire in 2012, when I had a little show on one of their smaller stages.  A small world (and a pretty incredible memory!)  That Faire was my first eight-week-long contract where I performed four or five shows a day.  A lot has changed since then!

Over the two months I was there, I was delighted to discover how many different countries tourists come to the park.  In the end, I performed my juggling show in English, Spanish, and German (shout out to all of the language professors from my past academic life!)  Turns out even Germans get a laugh out of clever offhand remarks like Die Messer… in der Weichteile!  (The knives… are in my crotch!)

One day, a gentleman came up and introduced himself as one of the Wimbledon Brothers. The Wimbledon Brothers took the gold medal at the International Jugglers’ Association Team Championships in 1979, beating out the Flying Karamazov Brothers.  You can see a video of these guys here –

The Rehearsal Hall - NECCA - Brattleboro, VT

Rehearsing “The Vino Show” at NECCA (Brattleboro, VT.)

Not everything you prepare makes it into the final cut – that’s a fact of the business.  You have to modify material to account for circumstances beyond your control. For example: heat!

Tampa in March is hot, guys.  Like, really hot.  The finale of my wine show is a classic – balancing a candelabra on a balloon on the sharp of a knife held in the teeth.  Pop the balloon, catch the candelabra in a balance.  Simple, right?  …not so much in the heat!  — I usually stage the trick with the balloon hidden under the table during the act.  Reach under the tablecloth, produce a balloon quickly, and carry on with the trick!  It became apparent that this staging wouldn’t work outside in Florida…  Even in the shade of the table, the heat would make the balloon  burst every time.  The heat also melted the candles in the candelabra, and even caused a few of my acrylic wine glasses to wilt.  All of these problems were overcome by some reblocking and modifying of props… but if you’d asked me before the contract if the Florida sun was going to be bright enough to literally melt parts of the show?  Not on your life.

I also had to cut a few new tricks that’ll make appearances in future versions of The Vino Show – some extreme wine glass holding, novel tablecloth pulls, and a few other bits and pieces.  Just you wait and see!

A closing note about intention: after a show one afternoon, a man came up to me and reported: When I saw you come out with your box full of props, I couldn’t look away.  I knew that you were just setting up – and would be for fifteen minutes – but I couldn’t help but watch.  The way you treated each glass… I wanted to what you were going to do.  Whatever you do, do it with intention.  The difference between placing a glass on a table and placing a glass lovingly on a table might seem small, but it can be the difference between someone staying or leaving.

Next show signs - wine show - wine festival entertainment

New signs!

Another one for the “crowd management” file: On the Thursday and Friday shows – when I worked on the crowd’s level – I experimented doing shows with and without a rope.  As some of you are surely aware, it’s a tradition for street performers to use a rope that outlines their “pitch” or performing area.  Was it necessary, though, or would people naturally form an orderly audience without this artificial line?  I wanted to find out for myself.  The result?  With a rope, folks come right up to see what’s going on.  Without a rope, folks stay a ways away from the knife juggler.  There’s some psychology for you!

Also: signs.  You need ’em for walk-by shows.  Without a name and a time, you’ll have a hard time gathering a crowd at a theme park.

What’s next?

…so what’s next for me?

I’m in Tokyo through the beginning of September, working with Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem.” It’s good to be back!

After that, I’m looking forward to a 2017 that’s full of Food and Wine Festivals, just like the run at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.  (Booking entertainment for your festival?  Let’s make something incredible happen!)

Thom Wall - Cirque du Soleil - Totem - Juggler
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