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A costumed character wears a costume that usually (but not always) covers the performer's face. These range from theme park "walk-around" or "meetable" characters, the mascots of corporations, schools, or sports teams to novelty act performers. Some costumes cover the performer's face; others, especially those in theme parks, may leave the performer's face visible.
In theme parks, international fairs, and festivals
Costumed characters are a major feature of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts (Disney Parks),:341 the world's largest operator of theme parks, where the most ubiquitous character is Mickey Mouse, but a wide variety of characters from different media franchises are portrayed at various parks. For example:
- Disney Parks — feature approximately 250 characters:341 from Disney Studios' library of animated and live-action films, as well as characters from George Lucas' Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises
- Six Flags parks — feature Time-Warner's Looney Tunes cartoons and DC Comics superhero characters
- Cedar Point, Knott's Berry Farm, and other Cedar Fair parks — feature Peanuts characters
- Kings Island, California's Great America, Kings Dominion, Carowinds, Canada's Wonderland — until recently featured Nickelodeon characters (and before that, Hanna-Barbera characters)
Other theme parks, as well as international expositions and fairs, create their own meetable characters.
Costumed characters are intended to add to the fantasy experience by enabling visitors to encounter and interact with fictional characters, such as mascots for a company or organization. The characters are portrayed by employees in costume. Some of the costumes merely consist of clothing and makeup (e.g. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Batman), while those for non-human characters generally conceal the performer entirely and include a full-head/body mask (e.g. Donald Duck, Goofy, Bugs Bunny and his crew, Felix the Cat, Godzilla, Woody Woodpecker, and World Exposition characters such as Seymore D. Fair, Twipsy, and Haibao). A longstanding policy of Disney Parks is that the first category of characters, where the performer's face remains visible ("face" characters) are allowed to speak (usually on the basis of scripts carefully prepared in advance), while the second category of characters, where the face is covered ("fur" characters) are not allowed to speak and can only communicate through pantomime.:343
An interesting phenomenon regularly seen at Disney Parks with costumed characters, especially "fur" characters, is that young children can become very scared at first sight, when they belatedly realize a character they may have seen only on television or in a book is much larger in person.:342–343
For human characters based on a well-known media franchise that speak with visitors, theme park operators may prepare detailed scripts covering a variety of questions regularly asked by visitors, especially young children who have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Performers cast in those roles are required to memorize and rehearse those scripts as part of their training, so they can learn their characters' backstories by heart and consistently respond in character to visitors.
At the largest theme parks (especially Disney Parks), popular costumed characters are often accompanied by one or more assistants in regular park uniforms, who handle customer service, security, and crowd control. This minimizes the necessity for performers to break character to deal with those kinds of issues. When a performer really needs a break (as staying in character is hard work), they simply give a prearranged signal, and their handler will then assure patrons the character will be back momentarily.
All theme park operators that present costumed characters enforce strict character performance regulations so that performers are never seen out of character by visitors. In the case of more elaborate costumes, they are never seen "with their head off." A related rule is that performers costumed as the same character (normally to allow the other to go on break) are supposed to avoid being seen side-by-side by the public.
The Japanese name for costumed performers is kigurumi (着ぐるみ?). The name comes from the Japanese verb kiru (着る to wear?) and noun nuigurumi (ぬいぐるみ stuffed toy?). Japan's kawaii aesthetic means that mascots are commonly used for promotional purposes. These mascots are often constructed with an appearance that is more chibi than Western mascots, with a massive head that encompasses the performer's entire upper body and the arms low on the body. Other mascots more greatly resemble anime characters.
Animegao (アニメ顔?, anime face) is a type of kigurumi used to portray anime or cartoon characters. The face of the performer is fully covered with a stylized mask, and the costume of the character is worn. Animegao costumes are used both in professional stage shows and by cosplayers, sometimes called "dollers", who make custom masks of various characters. It is still a very minor part of the cosplay scene in Japan, though around 2005, it began attracting attention in other countries, including the United States, Canada, and European countries.
As with other kinds of cosplay, many hobbyists have costumes of established characters from games or animations. The characters are usually female, and commonly human, although kigurumi characters of other races and genders do exist, including male (such as Kenshin Himura from Rurouni Kenshin/Samurai X), mechanical (such as Gundam Wing), elfin (such as Deedlit or Pirotess from Lodoss), and demonic (such as Inuyasha from the anime of the same name). Some kigurumi are original characters created by the performer.
To be called animegao, the costume must include not only a mask, usually molded from clay or fiberglass composites, but also a zentai that matches the mask's color, typically with an open face. This is because the simplified features of the mask would otherwise not match the wearer's actual skin, breaking the illusion. Some hobbyists obtain masks from established hobbyist mask studios such as Build Up Studio SIGMA or Dolphin Factory.
Current shows featuring a costumed character puppet include Big Bird of Sesame Street, Barney from Barney and Friends, and Bear of Bear in the Big Blue House. Less complicated characters include Hip Hop Harry or RAGGS Kids Club Band.
In recent years, performers wearing unauthorized, counterfeit costumes of pop-culture characters such as Elmo or Spider-Man have appeared in popular tourist destinations such as Hollywood Boulevard and Times Square. They usually pose for photos and collect (or, often, extort) tips from tourists. The 2007 documentary film Confessions of a Superhero focuses on costumed "superheroes" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Because they are not regulated or authorized, there have been many controversies and arrests involving costumed characters in Times Square.
The mascot industry is estimated at $5-million a year. Toronto, Canada, is one of the hubs in the industry, with six major firms headquartered out of the city. Knock-off costumes are fabricated in, among other places, Peru.
- Bob Sehlinger; Len Testa (2014). The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2014. Birmingham, AL: Keen Communications. ISBN 9781628090000.
- Six Flags entertainment website
- Camp Snoopy at Cedar Point
- Camp Snoopy at Knott's Berry Farm
- Nickelodeon Universe at Kings Island
- Nickelodeon Central at California's Great America
- "Build Up Studio SIGMA".
- Robbins, Christopher. "Are The Costumed Grifters Of Times Square Diluting Disney's Brand?", Gothamist (June 19, 2011).
- Lysiak, Matt. "Sick, touchy Elmo returns to Times Square, back to old antics as he scares parents and kids," New York Daily News (October 24, 2010).
- "Character builders". Macleans. Toronto ON: Rogers Media. 28 July 2011. Retrieved 28 July 2011.
- Semple, Kirk. "Spider-Man Unmasked! Elmo and Minnie, Too: The Lives Behind Times Square Cartoon Characters," New York Times (AUG. 2, 2014).