As a little girl, Aurora Rose Watkins held onto a dream. She would wish upon the stars at night in hopes of becoming a mermaid.
She got her wish.
She’s been a mermaid for the past 11 years. “It is my full-time occupation, believe it or not,” said Watkins, 29, who is often in character as Laguna Mermaid or Mermaid Nellie. “ I’m a fish all the time.”
Watkins owns and operates The Storybook Forest, a company based in Overland Park specializing in event entertainment. The company provides elaborately costumed characters for children’s parties, corporate events, weddings and festivals.
“Being able to bring complete entertainment to venues and events and especially connecting with the children really is ultimately what we strive to do in every way, shape and form,” said Watkins, who started the company in 2012, just after she graduated from The Barstow School.
“I started this business by having a bunch of other jobs, cutting grass, cleaning houses, working as a bartender, just whatever I could do to scrape up cash to do this myself,” said Watkins. “I’ve never had a loan or business debt,” she said. “I had to just kind of learn everything the hard way.”
Watkins slowly built the business by using the money earned from the odd jobs buying supplies like rhinestones, fabric, a couple of wigs or some waterproof makeup sealer. Many of the costumes and accessories for characters are created by Watkins. She has scoured thrift stores for prom dresses that she said she can refashion into something like a princess gown.
“I went from mermaids and expanded into princesses and superheroes,” said Watkins. “Over the course of 11 years, I’ve built this business with no debt.”
Watkins said the company struggled to survive during the pandemic and again she worked odd jobs to keep the cash flowing and the company alive.
“The COVID virus closed our business for 12 months,” said Watkins. “It wasn’t safe to work doing the type of work we do because we do a highly contact oriented job where we are in people’s homes and visiting with children on a hand-to-hand basis. And so for an entire year, I was cutting grass, trying to keep this business alive and trying not to drown in bills and survive,” she said.
“The mermaids were our first show that we ever did,” said Watkins. “In fact, this is kind of a continuation of that in an expansion on what we have loved to do for so long,” she added. “Everything from birthday parties to large scale events, mermaids have been present, bringing the magic to those shows,” said Watkins.
Mermaids from The Storybook Forest have traveled all over the Midwest, as well as to Mexico and the Bahamas.
Mermaid popularity has been on the rise since Disney’s movie, The Little Mermaid, originally released in 1989, was re-released earlier this year in a remake starring singer and actress Halle Bailey as the lead character, Ariel. Both movies, the original animated version and the current release have helped to popularize the mermaid, a siren of the sea, among young girls and women. The movie is loosely based on the 1837 fairy tale by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen.
Taking the company to the ‘next level’
While the company has always had mermaids, Watkins is taking the mermaid concept to the next level.
“You have to be a little crazy to do this job for as long as I’ve done it,” said Watkins. “Especially somewhere so landlocked like Kansas City, but I really love doing the show and I wanted to make it as magical as possible.” Making that magic comes at a cost and Watkins said the company has really expanded and recently she added a new element of “wow” to her repertoire.
Watkins invested her life savings to purchase a 15-foot trailer equipped with an eight-foot long, swimmable mermaid tank.
The tank is from a Florida zoo and used to be an aquarium for sea turtles. Watkins had it refurbished to work for her shows. “Now it is a sea mermaid aquarium,” Watkins said.
The trailer is equipped with a water filtration system, water heater, lights and an audio system. The 3,000 gallon tank and trailer, along with the costly reconstruction set her back about $26,000.
“There is scaffolding and structure built into the frame of the trailer that supports the weight of 3,000 gallons of water,” said Watkins. The tank is towed empty, so a drive up location with a water hose is a must in order to take the tank to an event. “We fill it up on site,” she said.
“It is one thing to be able to present a mermaid in any space,” said Watkins. “That’s something that we’ve done so far, but to be able to bring the water to you is really something that ups the fantasticness of everything.”
On a balmy September day, Watkins along with her staff, donned costumes to play roles at the Boys Grow farm in South Kansas City to film a commercial for the new mermaid tank show. With Watkins mermaid character, there were three mermaids, some pirates and a couple of wenches.
Mermaid costumes, pricier than your average bathing suit
“Being a mermaid gives me and my staff the ability to really make kids feel fantastic,” said Watkins, who was in character as Mermaid Nellie, an orange-clad mermaid wearing a neoprene tail. “There’s something about having a magical creature connect to you as a child that brings out a fantastic joy, the expressions on their faces, their reactions, the way that they get to go home and remember the experience,” she said. “Those are the things that we give them.”
Outfitting a mermaid is not for the faint of pocketbook. Watkins, who provides all the costumes and props for the events, estimates that each mermaid ensemble runs about $5,500. The tails, which can be made of silicone or neoprene, are the most expensive item for a mermaid. “We order ours from artists who specialize in silicone art and it’s not a huge industry,” she said. “It’s quite niche.”
The silicon tails, which can weigh between 35 and 40 pounds, are challenging to wriggle into for a mermaid. Once the tail is on, a mermaid cannot walk.
“We have handlers and pirates who are trained in the specialty of carrying mermaids,” said Watkins. “So there’s a special way that you carry a person wearing a mermaid costume and our longest standing employee, who plays Captain Wolf, has become quite the expert over the years.”
No mermaid is complete without mermaid hair, which has to match, be long and flow well under water.
“We try to buy special wigs for this because certain wigs don’t look good when you’re swimming,” she said. “If you have a low quality wig, you can see what is called a weft underneath when the hair moves, “ she added. “And we don’t want to see that.”
Richly-colored eye makeup is applied and sprayed with a waterproof makeup setting spray, tiaras are donned and the mermaids are ready. Mermaid events are staged in home or public pools, or in a dry environment, which is creatively decorated into a photo-worthy set allowing ample photo opportunities and selfies with the mermaid.
With long flowing sky blue hair, Mermaid Bonnie, portrayed by Valery Magner, blows kisses to a young visitor as the mermaids shoot the commercial. “I’ve always loved the water and of course, every little girl imagines themselves as a mermaid,” said Magner from her perch atop of the tank. “Really just putting on the makeup and the sparkle and the colors and the hair, I feel like, it really brings out that magic and that excitement that I had as a kid, that now, I’ve kind of carried into my adulthood.”
‘They came right out of Hollywood’
In July, Sarah Sutherland booked a poolside Mermaid and Pirate Party from The Storybook Forest for her 6-year-old grandson and about 15 other young children at her home in Leawood. “The party was fantastic,” said Sutherland, who added it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“There was singing and dancing and pirates and swords,” she said. “I mean, it was amazing, it was truly amazing.”
“I had neighbors peeking over the fence just going, ‘Oh, my God, look what’s going on over there’,” she said. “It was wonderful,” said Sutherland, who said she did not have to do a thing. “I could literally sit in my lawn chair and just watch and enjoy.”
“It was super realistic, their costumes, the Pirate and the Mermaid, I mean, they came right out of Hollywood,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland has already booked a daring hero-themed party for this fall.
Watkins said The Storybook Forest is bigger than just mermaids.
“The mermaid tanks and the mermaid show is one facet of the company,” she said. “We’re also known for our princesses, superheroes, fairies and other things as well,” said Watkins, who can also supply face painters, balloon animal twisters, fortune tellers, a tooth fairy, among other characters for parties and events. “We’re sort of the everything people,” she said. “If we don’t already have it, I’ll find it. It’s one of those kind of places.”
Watkins believes it is a privilege to bring magic into the lives of children. “I get to be like the harbinger of childhood,” she said.