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The care and training of costume characters

We've all been there. You're nearly at the front of a long line waiting for that special character to meet your child when someone whisks them away. While frustrating, the reason is simple: Walk-around characters must adhere to a strict set of protocols that direct how and for what length of time they interact with fans. In fact, there are several restrictions surrounding the proper care and training of these prized creatures that many may not even think about.
February 1, 2008

We’ve all been there. You’re nearly at the front of a long line waiting for that special character to meet your child when someone whisks them away. While frustrating, the reason is simple: Walk-around characters must adhere to a strict set of protocols that direct how and for what length of time they interact with fans. In fact, there are several restrictions surrounding the proper care and training of these prized creatures that many may not even think about.

Most walk-arounds have handlers to assure the safety of the performers inhabiting the costumes. In suits that size, sight and tactile abilities are usually quite limited, and they’re not allowed to stay at a meet-and-greets longer than 20 or 30 minutes due to health reasons. And for the sake of scarring young psyches, they cannot be seen publicly without the entire costume on. Talking is also a no-no, and it’s up to the performer inside the costume to demonstrate the character’s personality in other imaginative ways. For example, says Sesame Workshop VP of themed entertainment Peter Van Roden, the org encourages its characters to let kids hug and put their arms around them and to never shy away from photos.

Additionally, the safety of kids visiting with the characters is of utmost importance, and they are typically not allowed to hold or lift children or objects (except an autograph book and pen at signings). National Promotion Associates, 4Kids Entertainment’s costume and character appearance licensee, has talent specially trained to dance and entertain the crowds. For basic appearances where a meet-and-greet is the main feature, as opposed to a live show, the company usually uses college students who often have a fondness for the brand and are excited to be part of making kids and parents smile.

Companies follow these guidelines very carefully with specialists like London-based Rainbow Productions establishing an in-house events team that auditions and trains professional costume artists. (The company handles much of this type of work in the UK and currently has an Animalia-inspired gorilla walk-around character with an active iguana puppet on its shoulder, a Mr. Bean costume for Tiger Aspect, and 4Kids Entertainment’s Viva Piñata characters in production.)

Rainbow also offers training courses to its existing clients, including workshops on coaching actors about how to react to an audience and use non-verbal physical gestures to improve communications; the rights and wrongs of physical gestures; developing the character’s personality; and taking care of the costumes, themselves.

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