More Central Florida visitors experience the efforts of local artists inside a theme park during a single day than will step inside any of Orlando's museums over the course an entire year. From a lone parade float to an entire themed land, there are countless designers, painters and sculptors laboring behind the scenes of every attraction, usually in anonymity. Now, a Loch Haven arts institution is finally paying proper attention to one of those unsung talents, thanks to the new exhibit You Mean Sort of Like This? The Entertainment Design World (or Process) of Cindy White, which debuts Thursday, May 2, at the Orlando Repertory Theatre.
You may not recognize her name, but if you've been entertained by a Walt Disney World parade, explored Pantopia at Busch Gardens Tampa or visited the brand-new Sesame Street expansion at SeaWorld, you've sampled some of the magical projects freelance designer Cindy White has had a hand in dreaming up during her four decades working in the attractions industry. But even though her concepts have been turned into creations that entertain thousands around the world, White doesn't consider what she does to be "art," as she emphatically insists almost as soon as we begin our interview inside the boldly painted living room of her cozy downtown home. "The drawings don't mean anything. The art is the thing that we build, or the show that we make, or the attraction we open ... that's the art. I just never thought of myself as an artist."
A native of Fort Pierce, White grew up in Tampa and became active in theater during high school. "I had pretty much always been drawing my whole life from toddlerhood on, and everyone assumed I would be an artist, but I always enjoyed drawings that were about things that were going to get made. I liked to pretend to be an architect or car designer," she says. White studied costuming and lighting at the University of South Florida, graduated in three years, and got a job at Walt Disney World back when there were only 52 stage technicians (including six women). At age 21, she was hired by WED Enterprises (now known as Imagineering) to design for the resort's live entertainment department. She remained with Disney for more than a decade before leaving the Mouse to establish Cindy White Art in 1995.
"Going freelance from a salaried position at a company like Disney in the mid-'90s meant you were giving up health insurance that paid 90 percent, dental insurance that was excellent ... it was like living in Canada." But despite the risks, White says, "it took me about five minutes to decide to quit." She adds, "I know I got held back at Disney because I was female. That was definitely a good reason to quit there, but once I went freelance everything took off."
I was surprised to learn that White, who has contributed to nearly every known type of amusement contraption (except a carousel) and is currently working on top-secret projects for Universal and Herschend parks, has zero personal interest in attending the attractions she helps create.
"If I want to stay true to what I do, you look at the real stuff," she states. "I go visit places, cities, buildings, architecture. I go to art museums. As fun as it is, you don't become a better designer by looking at the other designers, or your own designs. Why do I want to go see my own parade again? It's just not that interesting for me to see once it's open; I just move on."
The gallery of White's work, which will remain on display through Oct. 2, includes selections from both her theme park projects and theatrical sets she's designed for the Rep and Mad Cow. Part of her intention in putting together the exhibit was to encourage young designers by emphasizing the vast volume of work that is available. For example, she shows a sample of her renderings for the Dreamlights parade at Tokyo Disneyland. White says, "That parade has 30 floats, and every float is probably 50-100 drawings of various types. So you're seeing a handful of thousands of documents that it takes to create a parade like that, and maybe 200 from me. It's a massive amount of work and time and people involved in these types of projects."
Over the past quarter-century, "there have been lean years and crazy-huge years," but White remains an enthusiastic supporter of the freelancing lifestyle, serving on the board of the SLICE Creative Network founded by Melody Matheny.
"There's more work than there are people right now," White says. "I know a lot of the talk is about STEM, but the professionals in our industry make those same salaries, and there's more attractions and parks than there have ever been before. We need to get our industry in the forefront, because we're the future of Florida."