Stephanie Fish always wanted to perform at Disneyland, but as a young Black dancer, she wasn’t sure if she would ever be cast.
“As a little kid, I would always watch the shows and parades very carefully. I remember when ‘The Lion King’ came out, I looked at all the dancers and saw a Black girl who was playing a gazelle, and I thought, ‘OK. I can do that.’”
She even wrote a letter to Walt Disney when she was 6 — not knowing he had died 30 years earlier — saying, “‘Please, please, please can you make a Black princess?’ Like every little girl, I was totally into princesses, so I was thinking, ‘If they do that, by the time I grow up, I can be her.’”
Eight years later, in 2005, Fish did get hired to dance in several Disneyland parades at the main park and California Adventure, becoming one of just a handful of Black “parade kids.” By 2008, she was ready to leave Disneyland to study abroad, but her bosses encouraged her to stay, reminding her that Princess Tiana — Disney’s first Black princess — was coming soon and that she was a serious contender.
The lure worked. Fish hung on, and in 2009, she was cast as one of the first Tianas (they always have multiples of each character so performers can take breaks). The reality didn’t sink in, however, until she was waving to the crowd as Tiana from the Mark Twain Riverboat during the finale of the Fantasmic! show.
“There I was, standing between Belle [from ‘Beauty and the Beast’] and Ariel [from ‘The Little Mermaid’], two of the biggest princesses when I was a kid, and it suddenly hit me — ‘Look where I am. Somebody pinch me.’ Thank goodness we were far from the crowd, because I had tears on my face. It really was a dream come true … but that didn’t last.”
Fish, now 35, was just 22 when she started as Tiana and discovered that greeting visitors in New Orleans Square was both exhilarating and emotionally exhausting.
“People love Tiana, they really do, and I’d see little white girls come up wearing the Tiana dress and say, ‘You’re my favorite princess.’ There were a lot of Black families too, and the kids were loving it, but the older generation would be in tears. … They’d say, ‘This is great. We never thought we’d see this,’ and that was a lot for me. A lot of emotion.”
Cast members who work as “face characters,” that is, characters whose faces aren’t covered by a mask or costume, are carefully trained to always stay in character, no matter what the question or situation. That was particularly challenging when Fish met with terminally ill children during special Make-A-Wish meet-and-greets. It wasn’t the children so much, she said, but the families and friends standing nearby.
“I had one little boy who was visibly sick, but he was so excited to meet Tiana,” she said. “We were doing fine, but behind him, his dad was trying to take photos, and he was crying so hard he couldn’t figure out that his camera was facing the wrong way. You can’t get emotional as a character. You can’t be crying as well, but that was rough. … Those are really nice memories, working with those kids, but it was also draining. Some nights after work, I’d just have to go home and lie down.”