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.
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.
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.
• 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.
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.