Why For: Disney theme park character costumes
throughout the years
DisneyWhirl sent me an e-mail yesterday to say:
I got into the Town Square Theater today during its soft
opening and the new Mickey meet-and-greet that the Imagineers built there is
amazing. It's loaded with all sorts of great Disney in-jokes ...
Photo by Gene Duncan. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
... and the magic show theming carries through all the way to
the gift shop.
Are you going to do a story about this addition to the Magic
Kingdom anytime soon? I'd love to hear about how the Town Square Exposition Hall was
I promise that I'll get around to writing something in-depth about
the Town Square Theater project for JHM very soon. But in the meantime, I'd just like to say ...
... isn't that a good looking mouse?
I say that because ... Well, to be blunt, the Mickster hasn't
always looked so hot. I mean, take a gander at how the Mouse and the Duck
looked on Disneyland's opening day.
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These two Disney character costumes are (to put it politely)
very off-model. But that's because they weren't actually built by anyone at
Disney. These character costumes were designed and built by the folks who
produced the Ice Follies ...
... who had licensed Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, Pinocchio
and Dumbo's likenesses. So that these Disney characters could then appear in a
"Mickey and Walt Disney's Toy Shop" number in the 1950 edition of this
traveling ice show.
Now jump ahead to July of 1955. When the folks who were
putting together ABC's live TV broadcast of Disneyland's opening ceremonies
realized that there should probably be some Disney characters in the Park's
inaugural parade. So they reached out the Ice Follies and asked if they could
borrow their Disney costumes.
Now from what I hear, Walt wasn't all that pleased with these
Ice Follies character costumes. Want proof? Take a look at who the Old Mousetro
got his picture taken with on July 17, 1957 when the Company was celebrating
its 2nd anniversary.
Mind you, the folks at Disneyland - recognizing that Walt
wasn't all that fond of those Ice Follies costumes - worked hard to try and
improve on these designs. But as you can see from this photo from June of 1958
... they were still having trouble making a Mickey Mouse
costume that actually looked like the character and - more importantly - was
safe for a Cast Member to wear (i.e. So that the person inside the head could actually
see out and then move safely through the crowds in the Park).
Disneyland's Mickey and Minnie costumes were further refined
in 1959 ...
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Inc. All rights reserved
But Walt still wasn't happy with what he saw. Which is why
he then turned to Bill Justice and asked him to design character costumes for
Disneyland. As Jeff Kurtti and Paula Sigman-Lowery recalled in the
tribute that they recently to this last Disney Legend for the Walt Disney Family Museum:
Bill remembered, "Walt told me, 'Other places can have
thrill rides and bands and trains. Only we have our characters.'" The costumed
characters were very important to Walt. He said, 'Bill, always remember we
don't want to torture the people who are wearing them. Keep in mind they've got
to be as comfortable as possible.' The
first concern was always safety and the second was accuracy."
And the first 35 of these Bill Justice-designed costumes
debuted at Disneyland in Summer of 1961.
Which isn't to say Walt was entirely enthusiastic about
Bill's initial design for Mickey ...
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Chief among Walt's concerns was that - while the
giant-headed version of Mickey was admittedly amusing looking - it wasn't all that practical. The key flaw of
this character costume was that it had faux arms. Which meant that the Cast
Member inside couldn't then use their hands to shake hands, wave to the crowd and/or
And given that Disneyland visitors clearly wanted more
interaction with that Park's walk-around version of Mickey Mouse ...
... Well, that's why Bill Justice revamped the design of
Mickey Mouse's character costume in 1964. And the version of Mickey that
premiered in that year's "Fantasy on Parade" ...
... then began the template for the way that Mickey Mouse was
depicted in at the Disney theme parks from here on in. More to the point, here
finally was a version of Mickey Mouse that Walt was proud to have his picture
taken with whenever he was in the Park.
Which isn't to say that Mickey was the only Disney character
that saw the design of his Disneyland character costume refined over the years.
Take - for example - the Three Little Pigs. This is the way that Fifer, Fiddler and
Practical Pig looked in the Park circa 1955 ...
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... and how these character costumes were then reimagined for Disneyland in 1959.
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Inc. All rights reserved
And then - of course - there's the Bill Justice-designed version of
the Three Little Pigs character costumes, which debuted at Disneyland during the Summer of 1961.
And here's how these playful porkers look whenever they appear in the Park these days.
Winnie the Pooh has gone through a similar sort of slimming
down over the past 45 years. Here's what his character costume looked like when it debuted at Disneyland back in 1966 ...
Pooh's costume received a slight design in 1968 - with his
hunny pot being swapped out for an Uncle Sam hat - as part of that year's
"Winnie the Pooh for President" promotion at the Park.
By the late 1980s, Winnie had ditched the hunny pot &
the hat. Going instead with a reconfigured character costume design that was a bit more on model. More importantly, a whole lot easier for Cast Members to wear and/or move around in.
And by the time the new millennium rolled around, the Park's
walk-around version of Winnie the Pooh had undergone yet another redesign. With this latest version of the character costume being a pretty close approximation of the way Winnie the Pooh actually looks in Disney's animated featurettes
and TV shows.
Now if you want to see something truly scary, check out Bill
Justice's first stab at creating walk-around character costumes for the Mad
Hatter, Alice and the White Rabbit.
The Park's staff tried to tweak the Mad Hatter's costume
design in an effort to make this walk-around character a bit more appealing (i.e. less frightening to kids) ...
... But - in the end - it was decided that the only way that
the Mad Hatter could truly be effective in a theme park setting was if he
became a face character (i.e. that a Cast Member wearing the Mad Hatter
outfit would then be allowed to talk directly to Guests in the Parks). Which is exactly what was done in the early
Whereas the White Rabbit ... The design of this character walk-around costume
was made rounder & softer in a deliberate effort to make it seem more on-model / look
more like this Lewis Carroll character did in Disney's 1951 animated feature.
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That was also what drove the folks at Disneyland to revamp
the Seven Dwarfs costumes that Bill Justice had designed back in 1961 ...
... going with something that was a bit more on-model in the
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With the design of the Dwarfs being revamped yet again in
the late 1980s / early 1990s so that it would then be easier for the Cast
Members who actually worked inside of these characters to sign autographs for the Guests
and/or caper about for all of the people who were now bringing video cameras
into the Parks.
That - to hear Zoo Crew veterans talk - is what actually brought
about the biggest redesign of walk-around character costumes for the Disney
theme parks. Once people traded their Kodak Instamatics for video
cameras, it was no longer okay for the characters to just stand there posing
with Guests. They were now expected to move / really interact with Disneyland
and Walt Disney World visitors. Which meant that these character costumes then had
to become lighter. They had to be made of far more flexible material and have
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Which - trust me - is something that the Cast Members who used to wear the
original version of the Park's Buzz Lightyear costumes really appreciated. That particular walk-around character costume was notorious for being ridiculously heavy and completely inflexible. Nowadays, Zoo Crew members are
thrilled with the Park's newest version of Buzz Lightyear. Which is
made of much lighter plastic (thereby eliminating 30 pounds of overall weight from this outfit) and reportedly has far better sightlines.
Anyway, that's a brief look back at the development and
refinement of walk-around character costumes for the Disney theme parks. Remember, if you
have any theme park-related questions that you'd like to see answered on this site, please send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great article Jim!
The characters are my favorite aspect of the parks. When I was little, that's what I wanted to do for a job when I grew up (still do, sometimes). The characters seem to be absent in most vintage pictures of the park, so these shots were gold to me. I would LOVE a print of that last picture of Walt with all the characters to frame
I have always thought a coffee table book showcasing the looks of the costumed characters, along with behind the scenes stories, would be really popular. Some might say it would "destroy the magic", but come on! You know there's a person in there, right?
Until that book comes along Jim, this piece will do.
That was a fun look-back! Thanks!
Thanks Jim! I love this type of articles! Keep 'em coming please!
Talk about a great opportunity to bring back the Main Street Magic Shop as part of the Town Square Theater, yet, not surprisingly, the theming looks like it stopped short with more uninspired merchandise.
In every case presented here, I have to say that I vastly prefer the Bill Justice designs. The big head Mickey and Minnie, certainly the Three Little Pigs and The Big Bad Wolf, and the big friendly looking Pooh. That second pic of The Seven Dwarfs is the best of the three designs - I suspect Bill was involved in those too.
As for the versions of all of these characters depicted in the most recent photos, they all strike me as being designed by plush toy manufacturers, not real cartoonists like Bill Justice. They are bland, lacking definition of shape, and the facial expressions lack inner life and personality. Why are they considered to be better again?
Surprised you didn't mention the talking Mickey Mouse walkaround character that was playtested at Disneyland. If anything, that will surely bring guest-character interaction to the next level (allowing the guest to hear Mickey talk in his signature voice!)
Really great to see those old costumes.
Do you have any pictures of Goofy's evolution?
I'd love to see them...
I'm still waiting for a new red shorts only walk around Mickey
Wow! The costumes have sure come a long way.
Some of those early ones...........................BAD.
Back in 1958 I worked along with Ruth and Evelyn for Van France in Training and Surveys. Since there was not a Character Dept. at that time, the characters were used in parades and had their photos taken with special park guests. Van always volunteered us. In August 1958 the three of us volunteered to be in the first Disney Night At The Hollywood Bowl. We were in two production numbers and they wanted the characters to bring out boxes of balloons to release during the finale. On the way to the Bowl it was decided to have Mickey, Minnie, and I think it was Chip 'N Dale to go out into the audience before the show and pose for photographs. A stage hand led Mickey and Minnie out to the box section in front of 20,000 people and left us. There we were--two blind mice surrounded by an excited and loving audience. There is more to the story, but over the years I have been desperately trying to find someone who has a photo of Mickey on that night. Perhaps some Grand parent has one in a family album. Please let me or Jim know. Thanks.
Fun stuff, Jim - thanks for the article!
Bizarre stuff out there. The bow on Minnie's chest in the '59 costume almost makes her look like she's wearing a bikini top! And is it just me, or do the Three Little Pigs from '59 look like Porky?
The current costumes are fine (I'm glad they got rid of that weird head Donald had a few years ago), but I've always wondered: Why doesn't Jessie have a neck? She just looks odd that way.
Great article! Just a small correction: The original Mickey costume was created by the Ice Capades costuming department (as illustrated in the photo you provided), not the Ice Follies. They were two separate and competing ice show touring companies. Strangely enough, Disney on Ice could be viewed as one of the contributors to the end of the Ice Capades as people would take their children to see Mickey and the gang instead of showgirls in feathers and sequins!
Thank you for sharing! My parents worked as characters at Disneyland in the 70's so it's always interesting to me to see the different types of costumes Disney used through out the years!
My dad worked as Mad Hatter a lot and I have a couple pictures of him in costume, but without a mask and using his own face. I think they were trying to soften the Hatters look even back then!
really enjoy it....and looved the last picture of walt with all the characters, never seen it before
Enjoyed seeing the early versions of the Disneyland costumes.