Most of the participants showed up to the Zoom as veterans, having sat through plenty of calls in the weeks they’d been cooped up at home. Like all video conference calls, there was plenty of awkwardness and some technical difficulties. One person was late, some couldn’t figure out how to see the other guests; a couple were trying to hide from the camera. But unlike most Zoom calls, these attendees were almost exclusively wearing pastel-colored, puff-sleeve dresses made of flammable fabrics. But things were going remarkably well, considering the age of the audience. They were all four.
“While we’re waiting for everyone, let’s wake up our faces, and show me how good you are at wiggling,” said Rapunzel. Slowly, a fleet of little fingers started reaching for the ceiling. By the end of the call, Rapunzel held every single kid's attention in the palm of her hand — quite literally. “If I blow you a kiss will you catch it?” Rapunzel asked, eyes earnest and twinkling. She was met with the sound of frantically scuffling chairs. One girl, hands clasped to the side of cheeks, whispered desperately: “Oh my god yes.” Rapunzel stretched out her hand and blew.
The woman behind it all is actress Ali Williams, the founder of Princess & Me Parties, a Southern California-based party entertainment business that’s become a lifeline for children — and parents — during quarantine. Founded in 2014, Princess & Me Parties grew out of Williams’ knack at both princessing and business when she realized she could do the job better than her previous employer, who was the top character-for-hire entertainment company in the region. She employed some previous performers she’d met through the theme park circuit, and was surprised when her newly launched company immediately pulled a profit. Within a year, Williams had surpassed her former employer when it came to search results. By last year, Princess & Me Parties had grown successful enough that it was able to organize a summer camp where potty-trained kids could eat ants-on-a-log made by none other than The Little Mermaid.
But, by early March, Williams was facing a slew of reschedulings and cancellations. She realized that she was going to have to make some changes. At first, she thought she could still make in-person events work by taking extra social-distancing precautions. She even tried it once: “We had a hand-wash space upon entry. We wouldn’t be touching anyone during the song or dance portions. No face-painting. Family only.” But as soon as Williams arrived, the birthday girl ran right up to her, wanting to hold her hand. “How do you tell a birthday kid no on their birthday? The grandparents wanted to stop by. There was a baby there. As much as I was in the moment and performing, my secondary brain as an owner said things need to change.”
The next week L.A. County mandated a shelter-in-place, effectively ending birthday parties as we knew them. To try and stanch the loss of revenue, Williams adapted, offering to host video call-parties instead: “I had no idea what I was doing, but I had to figure it out.”
Across the world, schools, educators, and childcare services have moved in-person classes and events to the virtual space. The challenge was daunting, and the results have been, unsurprisingly, less than impressive — especially for younger children. “When she sees too many boxes, it’s overwhelming,” says Ida Kay about her four-year-old daughter Sophia’s videoconferencing experiences, both with her preschool and her nanny. “She loses her attention. After four minutes, she wants to discuss something [with me or her dad], or get a snack.” Both Kay and her husband work full-time jobs, and the crush of remote schooling has been a challenge. “I feel guilty admitting it, but the expectation that you can honestly work from home and also chaperone video calls is absolutely unrealistic.”
So when Kay saw a friend of hers post an Instagram clip of her child absolutely enamored with a princess over Zoom, she dove into the DMs, and scheduled an appointment. “These women are legit. Their mannerisms, their voice… they have it down to a T. From the beginning, Sophia was just absolutely locked in. From showing [a princess] what she was wearing to passionately answering every question — Can we play a game? Oh, yes! Do you want to dance? Yes — she was enamored the whole time. I’ve been able to go upstairs, with the doors open, and get some rest. Mommy does not need to be there.”
The ability to foster that kind of engagement among children feels almost supernatural. On a pre-recorded call I watched, I saw half-a-dozen four-year-olds sing, dance, draw, and share — with fewer interruptions and awkward lulls than any of the work Zoom calls I’ve been on with adults. “Interaction, connection, making the kid feel special is the basis of my company,” Williams says. “Performers all know how to connect with kids by interacting. They know that it may seem silly for an adult to high-five at a screen or blow a kiss through the magic mirror, but it’s a huge deal for a kid.”
Williams asks parents to sign up for the Zoom sessions with their child’s name, instead of their own; when a princess calls a child by her own name, it makes it clear that she’s being listened to, is important, and is seen. Centering the child sometimes means pretending grown-ups aren’t there. On the group call I watched, a princess asked one shy girl what she did that day. “Tell her we got new floors put in,” a grown-up voice shouted from off-camera. The kid shrunk into her chair. The princess flashed a smile and ignored the prompt. “Tell me about your long braid,” she pivoted. “It’s just like mine.”
Flexibility and working in small chunks of time are also key. “A lot of teachers tend to want to stick to their schedule,” says Williams. “That’s admirable but hasn’t worked for me. I like to switch back and forth between sitting and listen and getting up and moving.”
Of course, there are technical difficulties. There’s no avoiding hiccups — “I’ve had kids on playtime calls who’ve figured out how to unmute themselves. It’s like, ‘Oh hello, how did you find that button?’” — but as characters, there’s only one way to deal with it: pure delight. “Getting upset is not an option. It’s always fun and exciting, never an inconvenience.”
The fact that Williams and her team have a surplus of energy means parents get a break. She’s actually noticed a few falling asleep in the background of the call. “It’s not a surprise that parents need relief right now,” she laughs. But, the kids do, too. “It’s clear that many of these kids want time for conversation. A lot of them want a connection with someone who’s not their parent. A favorite character can make them feel safe, and help them cope.” One girl told Williams about how sad she was that her hamster had just passed away. In another group conference, one girl told Williams that she walks to her best friend’s house every day to wave through the window. Her friend has leukemia, she said, so they have to be extra careful.
There’s another benefit, too, one that wouldn’t have existed at pre-quarantine Princess & Me Parties: the opportunity to communicate customized messages into the conversation. The princesses are not obvious authority figures to their audience, but they’re still able to effectively tell these kids things like: Stop kicking your brother. It’s fun to try new foods. Or, in Sophia’s case, listen to your parents. “In quarantine, we were figuring out how to give each space, and manage her fear and frustration, but we saw an uptick in acting out and not listening,” recalls Kay. The “Snow Queen” (Sophia called her Elsa, but Princess & Me can’t legally refer to her as such because of trademark issues) led Sophia through a game of “Princess Says” and stressed that listening is a great way to tell your parents you love them. “I’ve been able to reference that a lot. Remember what Elsa said? It works.”
Recently, competitors have sprung up, including Ever After and FairyTaled, but Williams is confident that her characters' convincing charm and professionalism give her company an edge. But while Zoom has been a success, business hasn’t exactly been booming. “We’re making about a fifth of what we’re usually pulling in,” admits Williams. “My performers were working other jobs as receptionists or teachers. They’re not working now.” But Williams is committed to keeping costs low — just $15 for one group session. She also hosts free storytimes, which has given many more families access to her professional services. “We’re a luxury expense. We’re not groceries. We have clients now who would never do in-person parties before. They’re in Hong Kong, and England, and New York. Now, we can reach all kinds of kids. It’s been really amazing.”
For Sophia, life is entirely different — not exactly worse, but not exactly better, either. During one of her Zoom calls, Rapunzel led the girls in a song, eerily appropriate for our times: “And so I’ll read a book or maybe two or three. Then after lunch, it’s puzzles and darts and baking. Then I’ll stretch, maybe sketch, take a climb, sew a dress. Stuck in the same place I’ve always been.”
It stands to reason that princesses’ lives are different, too. I ask Sophia what she thinks princesses do when they aren’t talking to her. “FaceTiming other kids,” she shoots back. “But do you know what? I really want to FaceTime Ariel.”
Kay answers in the background: “Well I’ll have to check to see if Ariel emailed me or not, but if she’s having a party, I’ll make sure to RSVP you.”
“It means that you’re coming! That you’ll be there. Should I RSVP you?”
“Yes, Mommy. YES.”