Costumed characters have come a long way since 1955. In the 60 years since Disneyland opened, the parks have gone from rented costumes at special events to characters having specially built meet and greet rooms, FastPasses, and hour long lines. Not only have the characters' looks and costumes changed throughout the years, but the interest of meeting and taking pictures with the characters has drastically changed as well. So let's explore the evolution of character meet and greets through the years, from Disneyland's opening day to today, and take a look at what we can expect in the future.
One of the first official public appearances of costumed Disney characters happened on December 21, 1937 at the star-studded Hollywood premiere of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Among celebrities like Shirley Temple and Cary Grant were the first costumed versions of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and, of course, the Dwarfs. You can see them in the film reel below:
These costumes were crude and fairly basic. The Mickey, Minnie, and Donald costumes included a full body suit with a pointed sack head with painted eyes and mouths. Donald also a large beak for a mouth. The Dwarfs were more life-like than Mickey, Minnie, and Donald and were three dimensional, especially around their eyes, mouths, and cheeks and included real, full beards. While these characters interacted with celebrities and audience members, their appearance was far from traditional meet and greets as we know them today.
A few years later, the Ice Capades was founded and became a hit. The touring show involved former Olympic and US National Champion skaters and the routines featured popular music and characters. In 1950 the show included a segment called "Walt Disney's Toy Shop" that included skaters in Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, Dumbo, and Pinocchio costumes. These costumes, like the Snow White premiere costumes, were also basic, although to their credit they had to be designed in a way that allowed the ice skater to have enough free movement to skate properly. The heads were made of mesh so they could be light and so it could give the performers the best visibility (especially since ice skaters need to be very aware of their surroundings). Oddly enough, the Dumbo and Pluto costumes appeared have four legs, meaning that there were two skaters in each costume. The Ice Capades continued to present show segments with Disney characters, including shows in 1951 and 1952 which included characters from new Disney films such as Alice and Wonderland and Cinderella, respectfully.
Disneyland's opening and early years
Disneyland opened for previews on July 17, 1955. The opening day was televised on ABC and included thousands of guests, a ton of celebrities, and a parade. However, there were no characters. Well, at first anyway. For whatever reason, it didn't appear that Walt wanted characters in his park. But with a large live and televised audience, he decided that he needed to add some to the parade. Not only would it better represent the Disney brand, but he knew some of the guests would want to meet the characters and shake their hands. Since the Ice Capades had the only character costumes at the time, they were rented just for the opening day. Besides Mickey and Minnie, other costumed characters like Chip, Dale, Peter Pan, Wendy, Alice, Cinderella, Aurora, and Snow White attended. Although they did at least somewhat resemble the famous animated characters, Walt was not happy. Their heads were oddly shaped, their heights were off, and their bodied looked more like a person in tights rather than a mouse or a duck. For the next few years, he had various Imagineers and animators tinker with new designs and costumes that more closely resembled his characters.
Throughout the 50's the character costumes evolved. Not only were they getting closer to resembling the actual characters, but they were made to better accommodate the performers inside of them. One of the Imagineers tasked with designing the new costumes Disney legend Bill Justice. Justice joined The Walt Disney Studios in 1937 as an animator where he worked on classics like Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. After directing some animated shorts and stop motion segments for live-action films, he was invited by Walt Disney himself to be an Imagineer. Once in Disneyland, he was responsible for programming Audio-Animatronic figures, specifically for guest favorites like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and Country Bear Jamboree.
Both Disney and Justice's first priority was the safety of the Cast Members in the costumes. The original costumes could be heavy, which was especially challenging in the hot California sun. The second priority was to get the costumed characters look as close as possible to their animated counterparts. Justice's first thirty-five characters premiered in the park in 1961. The arrival of the characters was announced in park advertisements, promising guests the chance to finally meet their favorite characters in person.
These new costumes had one very striking feature - their large heads. They were so large it appeared that the character's head covered the performers up to their waists. In fact, many of the characters wore tall hats, giving the performer even more room. You can see the mesh piece where the performers would see out of below. Because of this, most of the character's arms hung limply by their sides, unable to shake guest's hands or sign autographs. Minnie's hands were made of wire so she could always hold a parasol. And while the costumes were not proportional, they at least better resembled the characters. In fact, the costumes had an almost comic strip-type style. But to Walt, they still weren't perfect.
The 1964 "Fantasy on Parade" introduced guests to a new version of the characters, and this time the Imagineers hit the mark. Mickey had a normal proportioned head and the performer had the use of his or her arms back. Not only did Mickey look like himself, but he could now freely walk around the park, waving and shaking hands.
This brought up another topic - now that Disney had good looking characters and costumes that allowed performers to move, what would they do with them? Of course, they were in the parades, but now they could also meet the guests. This was the start of what is considered the "roaming characters" era. While the performers would come into work with a schedule, the character's schedule was never announced to the guests. To them, the characters would pop up at seemingly random times in random places to meet the guests. And while the character's appearance drew a small crowd, it appears that guests wouldn't linger for long. They would go up and shake the character's hand, perhaps pause for a quick photo, and move along. It appears guests of this era enjoyed simply watching the character rather than interacting much with them.