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Reality Shapes Disney Garb

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Times Staff Writer

It’s not such a small world after all. As Disneyland celebrates its 50th birthday, the park is grappling with a harsh reality of middle age: Mickey Mouse’s entourage has put on a few pounds.

To accommodate the ballooning bodies of American workers, the Magic Kingdom is redesigning some of its costumes for ride operators, shop clerks, waitresses and other employees.

A couple of decades ago, the park’s wardrobe department stocked only a narrow range of sizes. Today, the uniforms for women extend from size 2 to 30. And men’s trousers have stretched to 58-inch waists.

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The super-sizing of costumes is the latest wrinkle in the park’s unending quest to balance Walt Disney’s storybook vision of perfection against real-world practicalities.

The demise of longtime bans on mustaches and cornrow hairstyles drew considerable publicity a few years ago. But the shift on weight escaped attention. Although employee contracts still require medical leaves for workers who are “unable to maintain their physical proportions,” the clause is no longer enforced.

Disney officials downplay the issue, saying they’re simply aiming for a more diverse workforce. But outside observers say a tight labor market for low-paying jobs has forced the company to loosen its strict personal-appearance standards.

“Disneyland can’t be as picky as it used to be,” said Jamie O'Boyle, a theme-park scholar at the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia.

Employers elsewhere are facing similar issues. In the airline industry, for example, a series of lawsuits wiped out weight limits for flight attendants. And some military officials consider obesity a threat to national security, warning of recruitment shortfalls unless weight standards are eased. Other employers are pressuring overweight workers to shed pounds to control soaring health insurance costs.

“Obesity is the issue du jour,” said Bill O'Brien, a Minneapolis-based employment attorney. “It’s everywhere you turn.”

Behind Space Mountain, in a building filled with severed Goofy heads and seamstresses toiling over smashed Tigger tails, Disney’s costume maestros direct the resort’s massive clothing operation. It’s their job to outfit the 14,000 humans and 700 audio-animatronic figures at Disneyland and California Adventure.

The first clue to Disney’s costume makeover hangs in an upstairs hall: a photo montage of thin 1966 employees next to snapshots of more recent “cast members,” who come in a smorgasbord of shapes and sizes.

Nearby, a conference room displays sketches of five new costumes. One shows a more chaste tour guide ensemble worn by a gray-haired woman in her 50s.

“You’d have never seen that 20 years ago,” said David Koenig, author of “Mouse Tales,” a behind-the-scenes history of the Magic Kingdom. Early tour guide slots were reserved for the prettiest young women, he said. Clad in jockey-style threads with velvet hats, riding crops and short plaid skirts, they escorted clusters of guests and VIPs around the park.

Today’s guides include middle-aged women and senior citizens who “aren’t as comfortable in a short skirt,” so the costume is being overhauled for the first time in four decades, said Robbin Almand, director of entertainment services for Disneyland Resort.

The 2006 version, scheduled to debut this summer, features a longer hemline and looser jacket.

“Very few Americans in service industry jobs in the early 21st century have the figure to pull off uniforms with short skirts and form-fitted blouses,” said Disney watchdog Al Lutz, founder of miceage.com. “The new costumes ... feature cuts and styles that hide the figure rather than flatter it.”

Rounder physiques aren’t the only issue Disney designers must take into account these days.

“Sun protection is a big thing now,” said Jess Neudauer, a costume production manager. Skin cancer anxieties spurred a mandate for 3-inch brims on all hats. It can be a challenge to design a hat that looks as if it’s from a certain historical period but has a big brim for sun protection, he said.

Dressing Disney cast members isn’t cheap. The hotel uniforms in the Tower of Terror ride at California Adventure cost more than $1,000 apiece, the priciest get-ups in the Disney empire. And park managers stock at least four backup costumes for each employee and robotic character, to stand in during repairs or laundering.

In the 1990s, to curb spiraling wardrobe budgets, Disney shifted toward generic attire. In Adventureland, for example, it seemed as if “cast members fell into a giant vat of khaki,” Lutz said.

Now, as part of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, management is reviving separate fashions for each ride, restaurant and shop. By fall, Jungle Cruise skippers will again have their own duds. And Tiki Room inhabitants will wear tropical blue-turquoise shirts dotted with Polynesian gods.

In the last year, Disney designers have rolled out 20 costume revisions; another dozen are on the way.

But they’ve had to make some concessions for differently dimensioned cast members.

In Frontierland, designers wanted to reincarnate the can-can-dancer garb worn in the Golden Horseshoe saloon until the 1980s. But the original costume included a corset, unsuitable for plump employees.

As a compromise, the 2006 sequel is fronted by a mock black corset with apron strings that wrap around torsos of any proportion.

This isn’t the first time that outside social trends have intruded on Disney’s fantasy universe. In 1997, corporate bosses sent the Pirates of the Caribbean through sensitivity training, forcing the mechanized buccaneers to chase women carrying food instead of the women themselves. A few years later, they stripped Tom Sawyer Island of rifles.

Disney costumes have likewise proved susceptible to outside whims. Tomorrowland tunics are periodically revamped because the public’s image of the future keeps evolving.

However, the latest cycle of costume mutations has more to do with the labor pool.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Disneyland had a surplus of high school and college students clamoring for jobs so managers could afford to be choosy, Koenig said. “They would say, ‘You’re not just a custodian; you’re an actor in our show.’ For many positions, there were size restrictions.”

Several former employees from that era said they didn’t recall the weight limits, but they also didn’t recall any really heavy co-workers.

“We weren’t quite as weight-obsessed or obese as a culture back then,” said Stephanie Williams, who worked as a Blue Bayou waitress in the early 1970s. “There was always a lot of talk about looks being involved in who was hired for different jobs, but I don’t remember anything about weight.”

Instead, other grooming rules commanded most of the attention. “Supervisors were constantly harping on the guys about their hair, stubble or sideburns,” Koenig said. And female cast members grumbled about bans on makeup and jewelry.

When those rules were liberalized, newspapers nationwide took notice. But Disneyland’s new attitude toward weight went unheralded.

It takes a pretty big closet to store the resort’s inventory of nearly 1 million garments. In 1999, Disney opened a costume center that stockpiles 89 sizes of pants, a spectrum of maternity wardrobes, and belts that look long enough to lasso Dumbo.

Designers even created a new hat block because “people’s heads are getting bigger,” Almand said.

But that doesn’t mean Disneyland should change its motto to “the heftiest place on Earth.” An influx of Asian employees in recent years prompted the park to add smaller sizes too, Disney officials said.

Inside the costume warehouse, thousands of jackets, shirts and pants dangle from a network of motorized racks that “looks like a dry-cleaner shop on steroids,” in the words of Disney spokesman Bob Tucker. Shelves brim with pirate hats, moccasins and conductor caps.

Each item is bar-coded. Employees file in at the beginning of their shifts, find what they need, then line up to check out the clothes. The operation has turned Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort into one of the biggest users of coat hangers and dry-cleaning services in the nation.

Another building houses costumes for marquee characters such as Pluto and Snow White. The most varied wardrobe belongs to Mickey Mouse, whose 500 outfits include scuba diver, astronaut, mariachi, scarecrow and George Washington.

The current binge of sartorial transformation has Disney addicts buzzing. “I hate to see some of the old outfits go,” Lutz said.

But some costumes remain exempt from weight and fashion fluctuations. Beloved Disney movie characters, for instance, must stay true to their celluloid cellulite-free image.

“Mary Poppins is Mary Poppins,” said costuming honcho Joe Pittaluga. “Those costumes don’t get redesigned.”


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