A cartoonist looks back on 30 years of drawing at Disney World


For nearly 30 years, Keelan Parham drew faces Walt Disney World. Enough time has passed for mullets to be in fashion, fall out of favor and then come back into fashion.

Tourists and locals, even the occasional celebrity, saw the cartoons as the perfect souvenir, something hand-drawn and one-of-a-kind. Parham estimates that he illustrated at least half a million people during his career.

“I just kept doing it,” Parham said. “The reason is that every person who sits down, every face is a new challenge. … He really never gets old. … I think there’s beauty in everyone’s face.

His job is to capture it on paper.

Orlando’s theme park machinery provides economic opportunity and attracts creators, like Parham, who make Central Florida their permanent home.

Parham’s resume was colorful – model, Elvis impersonator, lifeguard – when he answered an ad in the Orlando Sentinel for a position as a Disney cartoonist in the early 1990s. He also had professional training as an artist with a degree in illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design. That’s where a kid like Parham growing up in the South, who inhaled comic books and loved to draw, went to study.

Parham landed the job at Disney. He figured he could last about a week and then give up.

“I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the possibility of rejection,” Parham said. “Sometimes people see themselves differently than everyone else sees themselves. So I had to find a style that looked like them both, but they liked it enough to buy it.

Parham didn’t give up right away. In fact, quite the opposite. Twenty-nine years later, he remains at Disney.

“I can draw in the happiest place in the world. There are very few times I draw someone who is not happy,” he said.

Parham’s work as a cartoonish artist evolved into an entrepreneur. He and his wife, Barbaricbased artistic talent group and began partnering with Disney in 1999. Today, their company hires approximately 50 artists who design at Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, multiple Disney resorts, and The art cornerwhich is their boutique in Disney Springs.

Sometimes you can spot Parham and his team of artists at Epcot festivals, like this year’s upcoming International Food and Wine Festival, where they’ll draw “corktoons” – caricatures drawn on wine corks. .

Parham’s business is also engaged in creating art for events and parties. Parham was asked to draw at a recent event hosted by Visit Orlando, a funeral convention, a birthday party for a Saudi princess, a bodybuilding contest and everything in between. Parham also drew regularly for families and patients at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital For Children.

Some of his clients have been famous, although Parham has a knack for missing out. Singer Bailiff and boxer Evander Holyfield both sat down for a cartoon portrait at the Parham stands.

“I haven’t really drawn that many famous people, to be honest with you. It always seemed like it would happen on the days I wasn’t at the helm,” Parham said. “My biggest claim to fame was drawing a monkey that was on the David Letterman Show,” he joked.

One customer was a 7-year-old boy with a wild imagination who was vacationing at Disney with his family. The boy hung his cowboy-themed cartoon on his bedroom wall in Pineville, Kentucky, and came back every year for another one.

This boy grew up to be 19 Braden Mills, which convinced Parham to hire him as an artist. On Wednesday, Mills manned the Hollywood Studios cartoon stand in front of the Tower of Terror ride.

“I never thought I’d be here,” Mills said, marveling at how he was doing what he loved: drawing at Disney.

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