Bigger than Broadway in South Florida: Entertaining a live audience of 100,000 a day
By ROD STAFFORD HAGWOOD | Sun Sentinel | Published: March 15, 2019
MIAMI — A South Florida studio puts on more shows each year than Broadway and London’s West End.
The Royal Caribbean Production Studio in North Miami oversees 134 stage productions for the cruise line’s fleet of 26 ships (make that 27 when the Spectrum of the Seas launches in March). On any given day there are 1,500 performers in the three-story building that sits on the edge of the Florida International University North Campus.
“This is the best-kept secret in show biz,” says Nick Weir, senior vice president of entertainment for Royal Caribbean International.
The facility includes a 300-seat theater, a 20,000 square-foot costume shop, 14 dance studios, 15 vocal rehearsal rooms, an audio recording studio, two aerial training areas, a finishing studio, a gym as well as housing for the army of singers, dancers, acrobats, aquatic athletes and choreographers.
Weir says the massiveness of the studio’s output was put into focus for him with a conversation he had a few years ago with musical theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“He was trying to judge the scale of what we do and he asked me how big the audience was and I ... said it was 94,000,” Weir recalls. “He kind of double-took because he obviously thinks he has a huge operation. And he does. If he has a couple people on tour, a couple of shows in London, he might be entertaining a few thousand. But I repeated 94,000. And he said, ‘Every night?’ And I said, ‘Yes — across our 50 theaters.’ ”
The numbers have grown since that conversation. “Every single night we’re entertaining a 100,000 people and it’s 365 a year,” Weir says. “We don’t have dark theaters. There’s no break time. There’s no bigger entertainment operation in the world than this, on land or sea. And it’s in South Florida.”
The production studio started on South Beach in the early 1990s. “We had a very small studio above a gym,” says Christi Coachman, director of entertainment for Royal Caribbean. “And at that time I think we had maybe a handful of ships.”
As Royal Caribbean added ships, the demand for more entertainment grew. Around 2000, Coachman says, they moved to a 35,000-square-foot facility in Hollywood with four studios. “Then that facility became obsolete because we continued to build ships,” she says. “But then as the ships started evolving we added ice rinks and we added aqua theaters and then we added Two70s.”
Two70s are a recent high-tech addition to some Royal Caribbean vessels. Named for the 270-degree views from the double-deck performance space, the floor-to-ceiling windows become ultra high-definition screens (almost twice the resolution of IMAX). Additionally, there are six robotic screens mixing it up onstage with singers, dancers and acrobats.
“So all these complex venues really drove us to come to realize that, again, we’re growing out of this facility, we need to start to be strategic and plan ahead,” Coachman says. “And that’s when we actually went from a 35,000 square foot facility to a 135,000 square foot facility (three years ago).”
It usually takes two to four weeks to install a show on board a ship. Performers’ contracts are usually for six to nine months, so there is a “constant revolving of talent” at the studio, Coachman says.
Weir compares it to the old Hollywood studio system.
“There’s no person I can call, no place I can go where I can say, ‘Can I have 1,500 dancers please. When? Tomorrow,’” he explains. “We had to build this community of performers up ourselves. And the only way to do that and make it consistent is to give them a career that’s worthy of their talent. And that’s working, too. We’re getting people who come here for one contract and they stay here for 10 years.”
Performers often need to have skill sets for multiple arenas of entertainment -- musical theater, ice skating, aquatic and aerial, he says. “Sometimes they need to do all four. But generally speaking they need to specialize in at least three.”
Performers come from around the world. “When people watch the Olympic games, the Winter Olympics, they’re looking at theses fabulous champions. I just look at future employees of Royal Caribbean, because they’re all medal winners. Our aqua teams are incredible. They are acrobats and divers from all over the world. Many of them are on the high-diving circuits of Mexico and Red Bull.”
The actors, he says, are not Broadway wannabes. “A lot of people say, ‘When you do a Broadway show do some of your actors end up on Broadway?’ To which I respectfully respond, ‘Often times they come from Broadway to us,’ ” he says. “Right now one of our shows, ‘Mamma Mia,’ half of the principals are from the Broadway version of the show.”
Royal Caribbean does bring in headline acts and people who have their own, small productions, such as a ventriloquist or an a cappella group. But Coachman says their customer base has let Royal Caribbean know they want original content.
“We do lot of studies and lots of surveys and what our guests are looking for,” she says. “We obviously have to make sure we hit the mark and we give a little bit of everything for everybody. We make sure our shows have a great variety. That if one show isn’t somebody’s taste that the next show will be.”
Signature productions range from a “’70s Boogie Wonderland” to “Columbus: The Musical,” about Columbus’ second cousin twice removed, Marvin. “It’s all original,” Coachman say. “There’s even some original scores.”
“We have a show called Aqua Nation, which is the best of the best — a lot of diving, a lot of trampoline work, synchronized swimming, high diving in our aqua theater productions. And ice, obviously we have different types of productions in the ice anywhere from a really contemporary pop ice show to a show written around fairy tales and things like that.”
The creative team has to also make sure the shows speak to the entire family on vacation.
“I think it helps when you haven’t fully grown up yourself,” Weir explains. “So when I create a show, I create it from my point of view and I’m still awestruck by things, like planes and ships and boats and automobiles. So for me I still see wonder in everything and I think that is translated into the shows.”
One show celebrates flight. “There’s a lot of complexity in that. But, you know, when we fly a plane out over the audience, everyone from grandfather to grandson is looking up at the sky in awe. So I think it’s very easy to entertain families as long as you have a young heart yourself.”
The creative team says today’s audiences expect very sophisticated technology, like the special effects seen on television and in movies.
“So to make shows feel like the kind of thing they’re able to consume at home, we’ve got to spend big money and we’ve got to push the boundaries,” Weir says. “We are now developing all sorts of technology in the drone section of the business. We’ve got incredibly complex drone performances with up to 60 drones. We use robotics in one of our vessel classes, the Quantum Class.”
But he also says that the performance spaces themselves have to compete with the living spaces people have in their homes.
“A lot of people (say), ‘Are you as good as Broadway? Can you keep up with Broadway?’ I can’t sit through the second act of a Broadway show because my legs don’t fit. I get hot and I’m not comfortable. So that’s a another area where we’re able to not just keep up with Broadway, but supersede because our theaters are gloriously comfortable.”
Weir sas Royal Caribbean may have already outgrown the studio in the three years since it was built. “I know there was some concern when we first built it that we would be rattling around in it and it would be a bit too big. We’re already double shifting in a lot of the studios. So trust me, I’m looking at the car park out the window wondering will there be a studio there one day. We’re growing exponentially. It’s easy to see that Royal Caribbean will become one of the biggest players in entertainment, not at sea, but in the world very shortly.”
But he is quick to add, “Sometimes I worry that I come across as overly arrogant about it and a bit strutty, but it’s not. It’s just pride. I know that I’m leading one of the most sophisticated and complex entertainment operations in the world with one of the most talented groups of people in the world. And it’s nice to go to the Grammys, as I (did) recently. Or go to the Oscars and to know I’m competing in this environment, you know, at the same level.”