the insider

Being Patrick

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 10, 2005

It is summer at Paramount's Kings Dominion theme park near Richmond. And as Patrick the Starfish, SpongeBob SquarePants' best cartoon friend, I am the goofy hero of the afternoon.

Kids are lining up to shake my pink fleece flippers and -- hey, watch out there -- one keeps snapping the stretchy fabric of my Nickelodeon pantaloons.

I'm not allowed to talk in here, so I can't tell this 6-year-old to lay off. I scan around for help, but inside my suit it's dark and hot. I check my key-chain thermometer: 102 degrees. My plastic starfish eyes are fogged.

The author, dressed as SpongeBob's starfish sidekick Patrick, poses with Autumn, left, and Havilyn Bryant of Houston, at Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond.
The author, dressed as SpongeBob's starfish sidekick Patrick, poses with Autumn, left, and Havilyn Bryant of Houston, at Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond.
Suddenly, I feel lightheaded. It feels as if someone -- maybe SpongeBob, who is gyrating next to me -- has sucked the oxygen out of my suit.

Stand back, I think. I am going down.

My day as SpongeBob's TV series sidekick, Patrick the Starfish, gets started because I am nosy. I'm one of those who can't just relax and enjoy the magic of theme parks. I need to know what is really going on. How do the rides work? What's behind the fences and landscaped sets? And, in particular, what's it feel like to be one of those friendly, furry characters who hug everyone and dance around? Is it fun inside the suits, or a nightmare of bad jokes, pushy parents and screaming kids?

One way to find out is to see if someone will let me be one. After I'm turned down by a string of parks, Kings Dominion, which is owned by Paramount and features Nickelodeon characters, comes through.

When I suit up, I'll be joining a small but important part of the amusement park industry. According to Sarah Lovejoy, Kings Dominion's manager of public relations operations, the park's costumed characters can end up hugging and high-fiving as many as 7,500 park visitors on an average summer day. Multiply that by 137 (the number of days the park is open this season) and you're talking more than 1 million guest contacts per summer.

Pay varies depending on experience, but starts at $7 an hour. "Entertainment associates" must be at least 16. No worries there: I have just turned 48.

At 5 feet 10 inches and 170 pounds, I'm too big to try out for SpongeBob, who's such a squat character that he demands an actor of about five feet. But if I agree to go through training and follow "character integrity" guidelines, I can spend one day in the role of SpongeBob's relaxed-fit companion. Patrick is big and dorky, and even though I don't have kids, I've seen his mug on coloring books and lunchboxes. Blundering along with Bob in series after series of deep-sea adventures, he is co-star of what Nickelodeon says is the most popular show in its history.

10:15 a.m. I report for duty. "Character actors punch a time clock," Lovejoy tells me sternly -- I am 15 minutes late -- "and then head on to one of the costume areas to suit up."

10:42 a.m. Lovejoy gives me a tour of the park. Highlights include the two areas for kids -- Nickelodeon Central and Kidzville -- where actors gear up daily for four to six half-hour-long "meet and greets" or "walks" in their suits.


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