Costumed Characters - May 2014

by Prasana William

Walk into the Hershey Bears training room on any given summer day and you won’t know who wears hockey pads or sequins to work. There could be a costumed character performer recovering in the ice bath, an acrobat being taped up by a trainer, or even a dancer on the treadmill alongside a hockey player. For Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania, having a minor-league professional hockey team owned by the same parent company right next door does have its advantages: Even though their uniforms are more plaid than padded, the park’s costumed performers are given the same physical care as athletes.

Sequins in spin class and furry feet at the gym would never fly, but costumed characters and street performers exert about that much energy while on the job. A colorful costume can quickly turn into a hazard when you add limited visibility, sidewalks that double as stages, extreme weather, and thousands of adoring fans to that demanding routine. Protecting these performers from the pitfalls of wearing a costume begins with design and continues even after they’ve hung up their tap shoes or tails for the night.

Materials Made for Movement
“Costumes must take into consideration the specific role requirements,” says Todd Hougland, executive director of operations and entertainment at Ocean Park Hong Kong. “Will the performer be dancing, jumping, doing stunts or acrobatics? Will the costume be used indoors or outdoors? What will the prevailing weather be during this production? Each of these will factor into the design.”

Ocean Park’s performers go through a variety of training sessions and rehearsals focused on safety, physical training, stretching, and body awareness before taking to the park streets. During this time, performance teams meet with the wardrobe department to “review costumes and ensure each piece is appropriate for the role,” Hougland says. “All costumes are designed to fit the theme of the show or character required for production with an emphasis on safety, wearability, and durability.”

Designers choose materials and design elements that allow performers to fulfill their roles with limited obstruction. These components have a more elastic quality, according to Hougland—additional panels are built in to create more space for movement, reinforcement is added to extend life of the garment, and venting is incorporated to protect from overheating in the humid climate.

Testing materials for traction and strength occurs before costumes are created to ensure they will stand up to the weather and multiple washes; Ocean Park fabricates sample pieces and administers multiple laundry tests. Using wicking material, like that found in athletic clothing, also reduces the chance of sweat or rain damage that can break a costume down over time.

Ian Jenkins, director of entertainment at Europa-Park in Rust, Germany, suggests cotton, which has no elasticity, for artistically themed costumes and Lycra for intense movement. “Naturally, the first concern for a costume design is what will be needed from the artist wearing the costume,” he says. “Usually more resistant -materials or weather-proof materials can be considered for indoor/outdoor use; however, we have to give the artist every opportunity to work as freely as possible.” Europa-Park holds more than 14 live shows daily and seeks to “support both the technical/artistic performance and the safety of the artist,” Jenkins says.

Walking the delicate line between practicality and artistic function means no detail is too small. “Hemlines on all costumes are given attention to avoid falls and spills by performers,” says Ryan Stana, CEO of RWS & Associates, a New York City-based production company that specializes in creating prepackaged events and live shows for attractions worldwide. “The hemline you wear day-to-day at work is a lot different from what you use day-to-day performing. Ultimately, the designer tries to minimize the risk to the performers—whether [the risk is] in what they’re wearing or where they’re performing.”

Safety from the Feet Up
Whether performers are working on mulch, concrete, or grass, Stana urges understanding the performance space, not just the nature of the performance, before choosing footwear. “Dance shoes are typically rubberized and braced to provide extra support and longevity to the shoe and confidence for the talent performing,” he says. “It allows them more stability and allows for fewer injuries. Essentially, all stages at amusement parks are different … so make the shoes appropriate and safe.”

“Footwear is a critical component of the safety and comfort of performers,” agrees Hougland. “We tend to design with a more modern split jazz dance sneaker, as many of our performances are outdoors and we need optimum traction in a variety of weather conditions.”

There is a recent trend of designing street performer costumes to look more like regular, fashionable clothing, which certainly applies to footwear. One of Ocean Park’s latest shows is a prime example: In the show, performers wear Heelys—the popular wheeled sneaker favored by tweens and teens. Ocean Park integrated safety equipment, such as kneepads and elbow pads, into these and other costumes “to ensure a seamless look while providing the required protection,” says Hougland.

Light-as-Air Inflatable Costumes
Inflatable costumes have taken center stage as a durable, easy-to-clean, lightweight alternative to their foam brethren. (See pages 60-61 for more information.) “All of the costumed characters at Ocean Park are designed using an inflatable system,” says Hougland. “This allows for more flexibility in the body type [that can] perform in the costume, less performer body contact with the costume itself, less weight, and a stronger flow of fresh air throughout the costume allowing for increased performer comfort. [Inflatable costumes have] been a very successful approach for the park and have managed to keep a very low safety incident rate for costumed character performers compared with other more traditional costume approaches.”

Inflatable costumes are made of an inner layer of rip-stop fabric—typically used in parachutes—that inflates around the performer with air from a series of fans in the costume and powered by a battery attached to a belt the performer wears. An outer layer of fabric is completely customizable to the design of the character and can use ultra leather, weather-proof fabric, and even fur and cloth.

“You step into the costume, plug in the two fans to the battery, zip up the costume, and it fully inflates in about 45 seconds,” says Ed Emerson, account manager for Costume Specialists Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s not 100 percent sealed like a beach ball, but there’s enough pressure inside the costume to keep air inflating [it].”

Costume Specialists creates both foam and inflatable costumes for attractions, corporate clients, sports teams, and educational programs. Inflatable costumes have become more desirable because they allow for greater maneuverability and wearability. According to Emerson, visibility is the key to safe maneuverability, and inflatable design gives the performer a greater range of motion, which in turn allows for increased visibility and ability to react to the environment. Without the headgear traditionally found in foam costumes, it is easier for performers to turn their heads to see oncoming hazards and move out of dangerous situations. In addition, the head portion of the costume is connected to the body and inflates around the performer, enabling Costume Specialists to create a larger head-to-body ratio without placing stress or weight on the performer’s shoulders and head. Arms will retain their shape even if performers pull their limbs into the costume to make adjustments. This provides greater control of what happens inside the suit—whether that’s fixing the fan belt for comfort or simply wiping sweat out of the eyes. While in costume, Emerson has even pulled his arm inside to retrieve a sports drink from his pocket (even though inflatables are only about two degrees warmer than the outside temperature, it’s still important to hydrate).

Don’t count the classic foam costume out just yet, though. Over the past decade, Emerson has seen the materials used to create foam costumes adjust for ease of wear, as well. Designers will change the expression of the character or open up the mouth more to afford greater visibility and use more flexible foam in the sculpted pods that shape the body to allow for movement.

Staying Safe in Costume
Even the best-designed costumes can’t anticipate all the potential dangers created by the street performer and costumed character’s greatest hazards: unpredictable guests and the weather.

A street performer’s costume may be cleared for wear during a routine, but the attention-grabbing aspect of a costume can create dangerous situations. Stana, of RWS and Associates, has seen multiple scenarios where ardent fans—affectionately called “groupies”—have made performers feel uncomfortable.

“Our performers love the compliments, but these compliments can sometimes go too far. Guests can bring unsafe territory,” he says. “We make it a rule that our performers cannot accept gifts, because we’ve seen these relationships go to a place of uncertainty that can make performers feel unsafe going into work every day. I always suggest performers walk out in the park as a group and never alone.”

At Hersheypark and other attractions, costumed characters never wander alone. Handlers are the eyes and voice in this situation and are actually trained as costumed characters themselves to recognize potentially unsafe conditions the performers cannot see. “Sometimes the characters get pushed around by people,” says Jen Paul, manager, entertainment experience, at Hersheypark. “They’ll try to give [the character] a really big hug, but if they run up to it, if they’re an adult, they can really knock the character back a bit. We try to teach our guides to get in between and try to diffuse any situation, if possible.”

Ocean Park performers are trained as handlers, as well. “Parks should be proactive in training potential performers on how to manage their performance area and guest interactions,” says Hougland. “We have dedicated sessions on this topic, and our talent managers continue to provide feedback once performances begin.”

Neither a handler nor training can protect a costumed character from the heat, however. At Hersheypark, street performer costumes are designed with interchangeable elements for the summer heat or fall chill. The Candy Crew, the park’s strolling troupe of performers, was outfitted last year with a layered costume; jackets, shirts, hats, and vests come off or on as needed without losing the costume’s theme.

Costumed characters unfortunately can’t remove layers, but the costume can be built to accommodate vests made of cooling ice packs to be worn inside and, surprisingly, moving more allows for greater cooling airflow. Paul also suggests cutting runs from the average 30-minute walkabout to 10 or 20 minutes as the weather demands. She sometimes schedules multiple people to wear the costume for shorter amounts of time, as well.

Rinse and Rest: Out-of-Costume Care
After the performer has headed for the ice bath, the safety efforts around the costume continue. With multiple wearers, cleaning, sanitizing, and repairing costumes are essential steps for keeping a costumed performer safe and healthy.

“Repairing, painting, and cleaning the footwear is done on a daily basis,” says Europa-Park’s Jenkins. His team inspects costumes for wear and tear each day to prolong the life of a piece.

Sanitizing of shared costumes can prevent the spread of harmful bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (commonly known as MRSA), which is often found in improperly cleaned athletic equipment and is spread by contact. Solutions can be simple: Paul sprays out the feet and body of costumes with a water and alcohol solution. Or, sanitizing can be more complex: Hersheypark has utilized the SaniSport sanitizing closet used by the hockey team to clean equipment. Ocean Park similarly uses ozone-sterilizing cabins that emit vapor to bond to bacteria—dehumidifying and freshening costumes quickly.

A little OxyClean and water can get most small spots out of foam and inflatable costumes, but the latter has been lauded for its ease of laundering. “When the costume’s not inflated, it’s essentially a pile of fabric,” says Costume Specialists’ Emerson. “The whole thing is one piece. The fans are just attached by Velcro, so you just take the two fans out and the wire that connects them, and [the costume] can go right into a front-load laundry machine.”

Taking care of the performer’s permanent costume is just as important as caring for the colorful duds. Hershey-park relies on the facilities and staff of the Hershey Bears and partners with trainers from Maryland Sportscare and Rehab to support the physical health of its performers. Paul says performers are used to powering through minor injuries such as sprains and rolled ankles. But an attraction cannot afford to ignore these, thus having a training staff on call is a tremendous benefit.

“Performers need a little extra attention and care,” says Stana of RWS & Associates. “Everyone [involved] needs to be cognizant of that so live entertainment goes to the next level in the coming years. In the amusement industry, you have people who are focused on many areas operationally. If you decide to have live entertainment at your facility, you need to be a champion of it and think of it as a main attraction. [Success] all comes from how we treat and keep the performers in tip-top shape.”

Contact Associate Editor Prasana William at

Healthy Performers: Its more than just ice packs and Band-Aids

Hersheypark uses the facilities and athletic trainers of the neighboring hockey team, the Hershey Bears, to help its performers stay in tip-top shape.

“For me, it’s about putting that person on the ice or putting that person on the stage,” says Dan “Beaker” Stuck, head trainer of the Hershey Bears. “You’re paying for someone to work and not sit in the stands or the audience. You want to help them out.”

Trainers are on call to check on and treat performers, should the need arise. Going from the ice to summer humidity is surprisingly easy for Stuck—many of the tenets trainers follow for keeping hockey players healthy apply to costumed performers, as well:

n Warm Up Close to Game Time (or Show Time): Stuck advises warming up no more than 45 minutes before going on stage, especially when performing in an air-conditioned theater where the cool air can tighten muscles.

n Keep Working Out Offstage: Performers are able to use the Bears’ athletic training facilities to work out or recover. “Our performers do Pilates and our choreographers teach [performers] routines,” says Hersheypark’s Jen Paul. “They have [resistance] bands and foam shapes that help them do yoga and stretch to strengthen their inner core so they’re strong employees for our rigorous schedule.” Like Hersheypark, Europa-Park provides access to workout facilities to their performers, as well as state-of-the-art rehearsal rooms. Ocean Park also provides weekly training sessions to help performers brush up on existing skills or learn new techniques.

n Cool Off Quickly: Cold towels and washcloths dipped in rubbing alcohol like isopropyl, commonly known as Wintergreen, cool the skin quickly and allow warm performers to maximize their break times. Ice baths can also bring core temperature down.

n Refuel with Fruit, Protein, and a Little Bit of Salt: “They have to refuel the body,” says Stuck. “They get their protein—you see a lot of yogurt and peanut butter and jelly [in the break room]. They have their protein mixes and Gatorade.” Break rooms should be stocked with fruit—including potassium-rich bananas that can help prevent muscle cramps—protein-rich snacks like peanut butter, and even lightly salted pretzels to replenish salt lost through excessive sweating.

n Hydrate Properly: Water is the best for hydrating during summer months, but sports drinks can quickly replenish electrolytes. Brad Stickler, regional director of sports medicine for Maryland Sportscare and Rehab, the physical therapy organization that provides Hersheypark with additional trainers, cautions against carbonated beverages and energy drinks that can cause further dehydration and take a body from heat exhaustion to heat stroke quickly.

n Promote Early Injury Detection: “Hockey’s more of a contact sport, but what theater people do takes a toll on their bodies, too,” says Stuck. “Groins, hamstrings, hip flexors—they [pull] the same things as hockey players.” By providing professional assistance, such as physical therapists and trainers, an attraction can promote reporting of injuries and healthy recovery. “At the first sign of aches and pains, if there’s treatment, whether it’s simple icing or doing some mild stretching to help calm it down, early treatment is key to [preventing later injury]. If you catch it early enough, most things are very treatable.” says Stickler.

n Know Your Players/Performers: “I listen to them and hear what’s going on,” says Stuck. “So, say [a player] isn’t doing too well. He’s not scoring goals [and] I can tell the coach, ‘He’s not doing too well because his kid’s sick right now.’ I hear a lot of what’s going on and keep the heartbeat of the room. It’s not just ice bags and Band-Aids—that’s probably 20 to 30 percent. The rest is mental. We provide a lot more.”

Staging a Safe Photo Op

Costumed character performers typically know where the costume’s eyes and mouth are, so Jen Paul, manager, entertainment experience, at Hersheypark, suggests letting the performers square themselves to the camera while the handler arranges guests. “You’re wearing so many clothes and your gloves are thick, sometimes you’re even wearing two pairs of gloves,” she says. “You really can’t feel or tell where your hand is when you’re having your picture taken so we just felt it was safer if the character lets the guest approach and avoid having any of those awkward moments.”