It’s a gorgeous day at Universal Studios Florida. A large crowd is gathered — right where New York meets San Francisco — to watch four performers, standing on scaffolding, making music with construction equipment.
This is the phenomenon known as Beat Builders.
The near-15-minute live percussion street show is mesmerizing to watch. It’s fast-paced, frenetic, and, most of all, fun. I wanted to better understand the show and its origins, so I met up with its creator Richard Cravens.
“Follow your bliss”: an origin story
Richard Cravens is a senior show director for Universal Destinations & Experiences. A former percussionist and entertainer himself, Richard exudes positivity when you talk to him. He tells me he’s always lived his life by one motto: “follow your bliss.” This motto is what led to the creation of Beat Builders.
For quite some time, Cravens wanted to combine his love for street drumming with his passion for theme park entertainment. There was just one thing he needed to figure out first: the story. And “story is king” — that’s Cravens’ other motto and, in talking with him, you can see he takes it seriously. So, what is the story behind Beat Builders? The idea came to Cravens one day when he was walking around Universal Studios Florida.
“A new ride was under construction in the New York area at the time. I was standing there on the corner, opposite where the attraction was being built, and the idea just hit me,” says Cravens. “Not only is that location the perfect place for a show, but the construction across the street was the perfect inspiration,” he continues. “We could tap into the construction element of theme parks and create a show where construction workers create street percussion using tools, equipment, and various other items.”
Building the Beat
Cravens pitched the show idea, got the green light, and before he knew it, started crafting what would be known as the Beat Builders. I ask him where the whole creative process began, but the answer is obvious: a hardware store.
“I hung out there for about two days and went around drumming on just about everything I could find. I listened to the different sounds and picked the pieces I knew would work best in a street show,” he says.
From there, Cravens began casting for the show.
“First and foremost, obviously we needed exceptional drummers. But they needed to be much more than drummers. They also needed to be exceptional performers. They needed to emotionally connect with an audience and bring smiles to people’s faces,” Cravens says.
Cravens assembled a workshop cast, which included Andrew Frye, Mitchell Beckman, Jesse Schoenauer, and Dylan Charles (the latter two are in the show I’m watching today). But Cravens and his workshop cast would quickly find out the challenges associated with putting on a street percussion show.
“People in our parks are often in a hurry to get to the next thing,” says Cravens. “We’re basically asking people to not only stop for 15 minutes but to also stand in the hot sun. To do that, we better deliver something really exceptional.”
“Many of the current street shows in our parks are eight or nine minutes long,” Cravens continues. “We were creating a 15-minute show of non-stop action and movement.”
The workshop cast practiced their moves, experimented with pacing (both drumming and jokes), and perfected the show. They were ready to open.
An Immediate Hit
To say Beat Builders was an immediate sensation is not an understatement. Crowds at Universal Studios Florida were drawn to the bare bones set, the use of ordinary objects and construction equipment, and, of course, the stellar drumming.
“It was really amazing to see it all come to life,” says Cravens. “In the early days, guests would turn the corner and see our setup there and wonder, ‘Are they actually doing construction there?’ Then, of course, the show would begin and people would see what we were doing. It got people to stop. It drew them in.”
A Random Wednesday
It’s a random Wednesday and I’m standing with Cravens at the Beat Builders set. We’re waiting for the next show to begin. Like a proud parent, Cravens points out different elements of the set. He shows me the “rockinspiel,” an original instrument made of wrenches that he and the workshop cast actually built themselves. He lifts up an orange safety cone to show me the hidden microphone inside. He bangs on a rubber trash can before diving into a scientific explanation of percussion sounds. He even lets me climb up the scaffolding myself to stand high on the set and take in the view.
Meanwhile, Cravens can’t stop smiling. This is clearly a man who has followed his bliss. More on that later. The show’s about to start.
They arrive via cart and instantly the entertainment begins. Cravens had talked about needing to cast exceptional all-around performers and he wasn’t joking. These four drummers are doing it all: acting, cracking Dad jokes, literally moving around set pieces, and, all the while, showcasing really spectacular drumming.
The drumming is fast. Real fast. Like “blink and you’ll miss a killer move” fast. I’m trying to take it all in and notice everything. Perhaps the thing I notice the most, though, is that these performers legitimately seem to be having fun. Their smiles are genuine and the energy is infectious. They ask for a volunteer from the crowd. Before long, a young boy has joined the performance and is standing front and center with the Beat Builders. There’s even a cow bell.
Over the course of the show, the Beat Builders turn everything in sight into an instrument of percussion. Buckets, scaffolding, garbage cans, and more. Like I said, they legitimately seem to be having the time of their lives. So does the crowd who “ooohs” and “aaahs” along the way.
Behind the Beat
After the show, I have the privilege of spending some time with that day’s cast: original Beat Builders Dylan Charles and Jesse Schoenauer, along with Mike Hansen and Ian Clarey.
Remember what I said before about this group having genuine smiles? Backstage, as we talked, it was clear to me how much they all enjoy each other.
“There’s eight full-time Beat Builders,” says Charles. “It’s a small club and we’re all glad to be part of it.”
“There’s a culture among drummers,” says Schoenauer. “You come up from a drum line and play with different people. It all builds trust. The eight of us who do Beat Builders all trust each other completely.”
As we sit and talk, it occurs to me that none of these guys are even breathing heavily after the energetic performance I just witnessed. So how does a Beat Builder stay in show-ready shape?
“We have to train regularly,” says Hansen. “The workshop cast set the bar real high so we all have to push ourselves to maintain that.”
“We’ve got that camaraderie too,” says Schoenauer. “We push each other and hold each other accountable with everything. From being in shape to always raising the bar.”
One thing I noticed while watching the show is that the Beat Builders definitely have a loyal fan base.
“There are some regulars who come to several shows a day,” says Clarey. “We even have some guests who come to our shows wearing custom Beat Builders shirts. It’s amazing.”
While some guests come wearing custom Beat Builders merch, other guests come bearing compliments.
“We’ll have parents come up to us after a show and tell us that they saw our show six years ago and now their son or daughter is drumming,” Charles says.
“To have a parent tell you that their child was inspired to start drumming because of this show or have an adult come up and tell you that they themselves were inspired to start drumming because of this show is incredible,” adds Clarey.
This begs the question, what advice does a current Beat Builder have for someone who wants to, one day, become a Beat Builder?
“Just start drumming,” says Charles. “Once you start, you can’t stop.”
“Drum with as many different people as you can. Everyone has their own style and you’ll learn different things from different people,” Hansen adds.
Can’t Stop the Beat
Beat Builders opened nearly eight years ago. Since then, it’s had over 5,000 performances. There are currently 21 Beat Builders, including one female performer. The show even features two seasonal overlays, one for Universal’s Mardi Gras and one for Universal’s Holidays.
Do yourself a favor. The next time you’re at Universal Studios Florida and you’re speed walking from Revenge of the Mummy to a certain wizarding alley, take a moment to notice the construction site located on the corner between the New York and San Francisco areas. Six times a day, this area transforms into a powerful percussion performance that you need to see to really believe.
“I just wanted to create a street percussion show that would make our guests smile,” Richard Cravens tells me.
Well, congratulations, Richard. That’s exactly what you’ve done.
Do you remember the first time you saw Beat Builders? Tell us your story in the comments below.