Costume Characters 101

July 30, 2013 8 Comments
Industry expert Allen F. Weitzel spent 45 seasons in the recreation field and was most recently safety and training manager at a California amusement park.

Industry expert Allen F. Weitzel spent 45 seasons in the recreation field and was most recently safety and training manager at a California amusement park.

By Allen F. Weitzel

A stirring discussion about costume characters occurred among some park managers recently, so I wanted to use blog time to share some information. For eight years, I managed a nine-character costume department. I also set up programs for other parks. However, no matter the park size, effective procedures should all be the same.

Set Ground Rules

Costume character procedures must cover the purchase, maintenance and use of the costume by employees.
Decide how the characters are to act with guests. Outline all approved activities, as well as activities to avoid so that the character is not exposed to unforeseen hazards. Will they ride the rides? Will they use stairs or stay on flat ground? How will they interact with patrons: merely standing for photos or hugging guests and roaming the park? Will they be on their own or accompanied by a ‘walker?’
Consider all the character activities and how they can or cannot be performed while in costume. You might think it would be cute to have a character enjoying the rides, but rips, cuts and dirt can easily damage the costume around rides and queue lines. Safety restraints might not fit properly over the costume. Guests could be injured by the character due to poor costume vision. Ride speed might cause costume parts to fly off. Oh, and not to forget, the employee getting sick inside the suit. Riding a ride with limited visual field, heat and confinement can easily make any employee ill. We tried it…once. Believe me, you will never get “that smell” completely out of the costume.
Anyone, who has budget or management authority over the program, should be required to experience wearing a costume. If it will not fit, have them walk around the employee courtyard wearing at least the costume head, hands and feet, so they understand the issues. If Ted from Accounting has to walk around in a smelly, sweat-soaked costume head for 30 minutes, he is less likely to require budget cuts on cleaning and maintenance and will probably support purchasing costumes in duplicate. Having a back up costume limits the exposures to damage from frequent use, and permits proper cleaning and drying time.

Maintenance

Have one person responsible for all costume maintenance. Have your manufacturer answer all your costume care questions before you perform any cleaning or maintenance. Nowadays, there are many excellent cleaning and odor reducing products, but you must still follow manufacturer’s procedures to avoid damage and not void any warranty. Never allow employees to experiment with other cleaning products. Unapproved products could stain or permanently alter the smell of the costume. Do not hang suits next to heaters to force-dry the suits faster.

Character Walkers

Having been in costumes myself, and understanding the diminished the field of vision, I became a devotee of employing walkers for costumed characters. Walkers are necessary for the safety of both guests and characters. Walkers should be utilized even if it means fewer characters roaming the park. Walkers are the character’s eyes and ears. They can bring the character to life by identifying hazards, pointing out children that want attention, understanding the restrictions of a suit, and keeping the character out of harm’s way. Avoid using undercover walkers. Guests need to see that the walker is a partner with the character and is there to assist and protect. Walkers prevent dangerous situations from occurring during interaction with guests. Intentional or not, danger could come from kids trying to show off, guests who just have a ‘mean streak,’ or those who enjoy creating havoc. Prevention is the key in reducing costume maintenance costs and protecting the employee character.

Important Tips

• Take command. Employees should recognize and avoid potential problems, such as spills, small children, “sticky stuff,” etc.
• Forbid running, horseplay or mock fighting in the suits.
• Keep shoes in good condition to prevent tripping and falling.
• Employees should practice proper hygiene and avoid wearing fragrances.
• Employees should cleanse and bandage all exposed cuts and wounds and launder personal clothing regularly.
• Extra, clean undergarments should be made available.

Summary

The effort and cost of a costumed character program is not cheap. The principles of the program are: buy a costume once you can afford both it and the support resources. Ask questions about costume care before you buy. Set guidelines for costume use, assign a walker for the character, follow manufacturer-cleaning procedures and purchase a back up suit. If a park cannot do these things, then they may not be ready to offer a costume character. But, if they can, the rewards are great when you see a child’s happy face as they encounter your park character for the first time.

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8 Comments to “Costume Characters 101”
  1. Great article Allen. It would be interesting to see the Disney rules with their characters as well. I hear they are extremely strict. They have also had to institute a back ground check to insure inappropriate sexual advances. Regardless, your article was excellent.

    Mike

    • Mike, Thanks for the words of support and for following our blog. The last time I checked, I do not believe that Disney uses obvious walkers. If Walkers are used, they are undercover. In today’s world, all employees are under extreme scrutiny by the general public, including those wearing character suits. Within the limit of a blog, it is difficult to list all the suggested procedures to help those parks that use costumed characters. Hopefully I have touched on a few ideas that may be of some help to those starting out with their costumed character programs. Thanks again for your contribution and kind words. Best, -Allen

  2. Paul Warren says:

    Dear Mr. Weitzel:

    Do you have any thoughts about which gender makes a better
    costume character? Are women better able to interact with
    the Guests? Do male actors better tolerate the extreme
    conditions of a costume?

    Due to the extreme conditions, would you feel that the actors
    should receive a higher rate of pay than the ride operators,
    or other line employees?

    Sir, I always enjoy your articles. If you’re ever in the area of our
    park, I’d love to have you visit and be our guest for the day.

    Cordially, Paul Warren
    Fun-Time Land

    • Dear Paul, When I started in the industry, men were the primary employees used in costume character suits. I was happy that we were on the forefront of that change. I really think that, now, women dominate that role. Just as you cannot judge performance by age, you cannot judge performance by gender. We had some great female and male costume characters. We had a gal by the name of Robin who was unbelievable – sorry forgot her last name.

      As far as pay, that is a tough one. I think you pay and treat your employees as well as you can, always, regardless of the job. I still believe that one of the toughest jobs in the park is the front counter worker in a fast food stand at rush time. Guests are very demanding about their food and the front counter worker cannot control the end product and take a break whenever they feel like it – as can a costume character (most of the time). Fair pay has always been a tough issue and deserves more substance than what we can address here. I’ll put it on my list of subjects to cover. Thanks. -Allen

    • Paul Warren says:

      Dear Mr. Weitzel:

      Thank you for your response to my two questions. Your answers
      were most helpful. Sir, you have a unique perspective which I
      find refreshing. As a park veteran, you seem very current on
      today’s employment environment. Congratulations on a successful
      career and for help those of us who are still trying to provide quality
      entertainment for our patrons.

      I hope to some day have the privilege of meeting you in person. Do
      you attend the IAAPA conventions or any of the other industry
      gatherings?

      Cordally,

      Paul Warren
      Fun-Time Land

      • Dear Paul,
        Thanks for checking out the blogs. I am glad I was able to provide some helpful information. In my 45 years in the industry, I worked or managed almost every job function or department found in a park or attraction environment, so that allows me to respond to a wide variety of industry scenarios. As they say in the military, in problem solving, I like to “turn the map around” and look at both sides of an issue. As far as traveling, I do get out and about as conditions permit. Good luck with your industry adventures. Best regards, Allen

  3. Neil Fallstead says:

    dear Allen Weitzel:
    Another well written blog on a subject, dear to my heart.Of course the question of food safety comes into play,but if the park has a large walk in freezer it takes on a whole new meaning. And yes, you never can quite get that smell out,having been in the “trenches” myself!
    Thank you Allen for bringing a smile to this old bear.If I may add a comment to Paul Warren’s question about higher pay,I always felt I should be the one paying the park for all the joy I received,not the other way around! Neil

    • Neil,

      Thanks for reading the blog and checking in. As far as food safety, I assume you are talking keeping costumes away from guest food as the character walked around. An important factor in keeping cleaning costs down.

      As far as the pay question, as I indicated, management should hire the best people, train them well, require good performance, and pay as much as the company financial picture will permit. Managers need to be in tune with the tasks the employees are required to perform. I am glad you enjoyed your work experience as a costume character. Sorry about the head smell. Again, thanks for checking in on our blogs. Best, Allen

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