It’s not uncommon for young people to have big ideas about what they want to be when they grow up – they want to be a movie star, a professional baseball player, an Olympian or an astronaut.
And while all four vocations are certainly plausible, they are, more often than not, unlikely, and with age usually comes more realistic career paths.
For Natalie Cawkell, however, the reverse was true.
A former competitive skater who joined a Disney on Ice production of Finding Nemo right out of high school, Cawkell travelled the globe – crisscrossing the United States twice, in addition to tours of Europe and South America – while performing in front of thousands of spectators nightly.
But what she really wanted was a job in accounting.
“When I joined Disney, I didn’t know what the timeline would be or how long it would last for, but I always knew I wanted to go to school and become an accountant,” said Cawkell, a South Surrey resident whose mother is an accountant.
Her love for numbers was evident even during her memorable Disney on Ice run – a 2010 story in Ohio’s Toledo Blade, meant to promote the skating exhibition, leads with the line: “Lovable, ditzy Dory of Finding Nemo fame has a little secret: She thinks she’d like to become an accountant.”
Cawkell laughs when she recalls the interview now.
“That was my plan all along, yep. I remember that interview – we used to do a lot of them. People have brought that story up to me before – it seems to be the one that always comes up.”
Now 29, Cawkell is, indeed, an accountant, and the former member of North Delta’s Sungod Skating Club still has fond memories of her time with Disney.
After high school, Cawkell sent an audition tape to the popular touring company, and was soon hired from that tape to play Dory in the Finding Nemo production. She spent three years as Dory, travelling for as many as 10 months out of the year.
“It was incredible. It’s a fast-paced life, that’s for sure – you’re living out of a suitcase, flying or busing to new cities every single week. It’s really ‘go, go, go’ but I had so much fun,” she said.
Her transformation into the character of a cartoon fish – voiced by Ellen Degeneres in the film version – was eye-opening, Cawkell recalled, simply because of the attention to detail Disney demanded of those in key roles.
“It was definitely a transition for me, because Disney goes all-out. You have to be so ‘in character.’ You have weeks of training… we were trained how to be fish – how to react, how to interact with the crowd,” she said.
“They really bring your personality out of you. It forces you to open up and it gives you so much confidence. I had so much fun doing it, and I’d say that it was performing for Disney that helped me come out of my shell.”
Cawkell, who was raised in North Delta, grew up on the ice, and says she learned to skate “probably not long after I learned to walk.” She competed across the Lower Mainland throughout high school, before moving to Disney on Ice.
The differences between the two skating disciplines were noticeable immediately, she said, and moving from a competitive environment ,where winning is the priority, to another in which entertainment is paramount, was an adjustment. The adrenaline rush was still there, however.
“When I was younger, it was more of a competitive thrill, and with Disney, it’s all about the thrill of performing,” she explained. “Disney was a whole new level for crowds for me… having all the people in the crowd react to your performance, it was pretty amazing.”
In fact, while Cawkell said pinpointing a favourite memory from her Disney career “is so hard to pick” she did single out, as favourities, large cities that had the largest, most enthusiastic crowds.
“New York or London, those kind of places really stand out in my mind just because of the sheer volume of people. It was neat to be in front of them.”
The tour can be a grind both emotionally and physically, however. For starters, you are away from family and friends for large chunks of the year – though Cawkell said her parents and two siblings would visit her as often as they could – while doing multiple shows each week, with limited time off, can often lead to injuries.
Save for one nagging neck problem – which didn’t cause her to miss any shows – Cawkell escaped injury-free, however.
“It’s very physically demanding, and because of the number of shows you’re doing, there are definitely people who get injured,” she said. “But Disney keeps you pretty fit, and they’ve always got physio ready in each city you visit. It just took a lot of maintenance to stay healthy, but there are aches and pains.”
Though she’s now eight years removed from the show, she still has close connections to the production; her younger sister, Mariah, now skates on Disney on Ice’s Frozen production, and Cawkell said she never misses an opportunity to see a show when one comes through Vancouver.
“I miss it, always, definitely. The thrill of performing is hard to find anywhere else and is hard to replace, but I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to do it,” she said.