By Alice E. Gerard
Janie Ochitwa discovered her passion as a small child when she saw a performance of Mary Poppins in an ice show. At the age of 6, she began taking lessons in figure skating, and the skater who played the role of Mary Poppins became her coach.
Today, Ochitwa, a native of Denver, Colorado, who has won a number of championships, including the U.S. Figure Skating Association as a double gold medalist in moves in the field and free skate, is living her dream, performing as an ensemble cast member in “Disney on Ice Let’s Celebrate.” This show, which presents more than 50 Disney characters from the early days of Disney to the present, will be in the KeyBank Center in Buffalo from Jan. 27-30.
Ochitwa said she is very enthusiastic about this show, which features 14 classic and modern Disney stories, including “Beauty and the Beast,” Frozen” and “Aladdin.”
“What makes me the most excited about this show is that we have the most Disney characters of any ‘Disney on Ice’ show,” Ochitwa said. “You get to see characters from the very beginning of Disney, like Snow White and Pinocchio, and some newer favorites, like the ‘Frozen’ characters and ‘Finding Dory’ characters and ‘Toy Story 4’ characters. It’s really just something for everybody in this show.”
A fan of Disney movies, Ochitwa said she knows the words to almost every Disney song.
“I think that what makes me the most excited is that I was raised as a Disney fan, so I have loved these characters for my entire life,” she said. “Getting to combine two things that I love is just kind of the perfect job for me to be doing, and I get so much joy every single day of my life. I couldn’t be happier.”
Ochitwa’s route to “Disney on Ice” was full of practice and hard work and determination.
“Skating was a part of growing up because, whatever I was going through, skating was always there,” she said. “No matter what I was feeling off the ice, I was able to get on the ice and turn my mind off and experience the joy of being on the ice and being able to move my body and learn. You learn life skills growing up in a sport. You learn perseverance, and you learn how to work hard. You learn how to give your entire self to something. I feel like it does translate to regular life, because of all these life skills that I’ve learned. I feel like I’m so much better off in my adult life now.”
The level of perseverance that Ochitwa described helped her get through challenges.
“The ice is not very forgiving,” she said. “When you’re learning a new jump or you’re learning a new spin, you fall. It’s not a very forgiving surface. It’s hard. I kind of use it as fuel to push me further and harder. It does take a while to train yourself to keep going, but the payoff at the end is so great. There’s that little voice in your head that says, ‘Keep going. You’re going to get it.’”
Ochitwa has been a member of the “Disney on Ice” cast since 2017. She said she was helping her sister, Annie, with a move when she found out she got the job.
“My older sister went to college in Tucson, Arizona. My mom and I were in Arizona, helping her move apartments. I was in the middle of a container store, when I got the email saying that I was going to join ‘Disney on Ice,’ ” she said. “It was such an extraordinary experience for such an ordinary activity. It was kind of like … oh my gosh! I’m never going to be able to walk into a container store without feeling that same super excited feeling of getting my first offer with ‘Disney on Ice.’ It’s something that I will always associate with moving or going to get hangers or something so ordinary.”
Her family, she said, has been very supportive of her ice skating dreams.
“My mom has been my biggest fan for as long as I can remember. She was absolutely over the moon and my dad was, as well. I have such a wonderful support system at home that that they made transitioning into this world so easy and so exciting, and it was very, very nice,” Ochitwa said.
The world of “Disney on Ice” is centered on traveling and performing. Ochitwa said she loves to perform for audiences: “I’ve always been a giver my entire life, so whatever I can do to make other people happy and stay the happiest. It definitely helps in the job that I do, because we get to give everything to our audiences and make them so happy; and it fills me right up.”
Performing with “Disney on Ice” is more than a job, Ochitwa said. Every week finds her in a different city.
“I have been almost all over the United States,” she noted. “I’ve loved performing in Boston. We were just outside of Queens, in New York. We were at the brand-new New York Islanders arena, and that was a really cool experience. We were the first ‘Disney on Ice’ show to play at the new arena. I’ve gotten to play in a lot of shows. We were in the Staples Center in Los Angeles. I’ve gotten to do shows in my home town in Denver, and that was so special. So, I’ve been almost everywhere, at least in the United States. I haven’t gotten to go too far internationally yet, but I’m hoping that opportunity comes at some point.”
She said working in a touring production is a lifestyle: “You have to sacrifice a lot because, at the end of the day, the job is my entire life. Every week is a new experience. Just outside of your window is a new city. There are new people to see and places to go. Also, I experience all of this with some of my closest friends that I get to work with. We think that some of the things that we do on the ice are magical, but even getting to experience what we do every week, I think is magical.”
She acknowledges that she still experiences stage fright before a show.
“As much as I do sometimes experience stage fright, I think that it’s less of nerves and more that it reminds me that I am still excited that I get to do what I do,” Ochitwa said. “It reminds me that I am still excited to get on the ice every day and perform in front of audiences, and I haven’t lost what’s keeping me in this job. When I’m on the ice, nothing else matters, that sort of feeling. They are my friends who are portraying these characters, but I still feel like a little kid every day. Oh my gosh! How cool is that!”
"Disney on Ice" returns to Buffalo. (Images courtesy of "Disney on Ice"/PinckneyHugoGroup/Feld Entertainment)
Ochitwa said she has formed a bond with the other skaters in the show: “We do spend a lot of time together, but I am so thankful for it because these will be the people that I’m close to for the rest of my life. No matter where we end up, we all got to share this experience together, and that’s something that we’re going to hold near and dear to us for the rest of our lives.”
In addition to her job with “Disney on Ice,” Ochitwa is taking college classes online.
“While I’m living the absolute dream, I am slowly, but surely, working toward the future, where I may end up,” she said. “I feel like I’ve switched my major so many times. I started school as an English major, then I switched to marketing. I’ve gone so back and forth with everything. I think, as long as I keep taking steps toward my future, it doesn’t matter where I end up as long as I’m happy. I would love to stay in the performance world in some way, shape, or form because I’ve just fallen in love with everything that it takes to make a production like ‘Disney on Ice’ happen. So, I think that I would love to stay in this world in whatever way I can.”
When Ochitwa isn’t skating, she enjoys a variety of hobbies, including drawing, singing, baking, and making jewelry.
“Ever since I was young, I like to have my foot in many, many doors,” she said. “I think that it keeps life interesting, and it keeps me interested in a lot of things, especially with a job where we are doing the same thing every day. It’s nice to have ways to step away from that. Going back and reading a book or coming back to the hotel and drawing for a little bit. These different little things take my mind off of reality. It definitely helps keep me grounded.”
She said that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, she feels safe performing in the shows: “We have very specific COVID guidelines in place, and they do everything that they can to keep us safe and our audiences safe, so we never feel worried about what’s going on, because they take such good care of us, and they do everything that they can to keep us safe.”
Ochitwa encourages people to come to the performances: “If you’re able to come for the show, we would love for you to come down and see your favorite Disney characters and just share all of the Disney magic with everybody. It is so fun.”
Show times are 7 p.m. Jan. 27-29; 3 p.m. Jan. 29; and 4 p.m. Jan. 30. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ticketmaster.com or in-person at the KeyBank Center box office.