In the 1950s, Mickey and Minnie didn’t roam the streets of Disneyland. On opening day, Disneyland borrowed character costumes from the Ice Capades—which produced a Disney on Ice show—for the televised festivities. Those costumes, however, were owned by the Ice Capades and were used in a touring show for most of the year. From time-to-time, the Ice Capades would loan the costumes to Disneyland—particularly in the summers of 1957 and 1958—but aside from that, in the 1950s, Disneyland was primarily an atmospheric park, without walk-around characters.
After a time, we made our own costumes for the walk-around characters Of course, we got better at it as we went along. For example, we found smaller people who didn’t distort the image so much.
Because height ranges for the characters had not been established, Mickey was sometimes over 6 feet tall! In the fall of 1961 that all changed through the contributions of Bill Justice and John Hench who brought a higher quality design and consistency to the characters.
At Walt’s personal request, a new Mickey Mouse costume was designed by John Hench. Walt wanted to cast a smaller performer as Mickey and standardize the performer’s height in costume. Paul Castle (who had performed in the Ice Capades as Mickey and other Disney characters like Dopey for years) was personally selected by Walt to perform the role.
When Disneyland opened, we needed characters to meet the public regularly. Everything had to be re-designed to more accurately represent the characters and stand up to the rigors of every day use among the guests.
"Walt told me, ‘Other places can have thrill rides and bands and trains. Only we have our characters.’ The costumed characters were very important to Walt," Justice said. "He said, ‘Bill, always remember we don’t want to torture the people who are wearing them. Keep in mind they’ve got to be as comfortable as possible. Try to get the lightest weight materials and the most ventilation as possible’. The first concern was always safety and the second was accuracy."
To create the walk-arounds, we have to choose those physical features that convey a character’s essential identity. The essential characteristics that best identify the animated film Mickey and Minnie are their large heads and ears…since no human body has the exact proportions that the animated characters have onscreen, we had to find the right degree of exaggeration that would make the walk-around heads large enough to establish the character’s identity while relating well to their body size.
Many experiments were made in those early years to capture an acceptable Mickey Mouse costumed character.
While Mickey was given white gloves, they were standard gloves but with the last two fingers sewn together to give the impression of three fingers and a thumb.
"People’s perception of Mickey Mouse is the one they see at [Disneyland]. That’s the one they meet with their children. He’s got long pants. He’s got extra eyebrows….more like the stuffed dolls they sell said Disney Legend Ward Kimball.
"In the early years, the characters walked around Disneyland freely, greeting guests and posing for pictures," stated Ron Logan, former executive vice president of Walt Disney Entertainment. "There was no schedule shared with the guests so there was no guarantee that the guests might see them. It was all serendipity."
If Disney character costumes all started with an ice skating show, then that tradition is maintained today by more than 30 years of Disney on Ice shows.
I like that Walt cared about his performers safety. Sometimes I wonder if people now-a-days do.