Will the Force Awaken in Disney's Star Wars Land? The Importance of Cosplay

December 23, 2015, 11:28 PM · Yesterday, we asked if Disney's plans for Star Wars Land will win the same enthusiastic support from theme park fans that The Force Awakens is winning from movie fans. Today, we continue our week-long look ahead to Star Wars Land by considering one the elements that distinguishes many successful entertainment franchises.

Walking into a showing of The Force Awakens, my son and I were talking about why the highest grossing film of all time — Avatar — seems to have failed to inspired the type of passionate fan base that we see from other franchises, such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.

"No one wants to dress up like that colonel," my son said. And with that, he nailed what I think is one of the most important elements that transforms a movie or book or television series into franchise — the potential for cosplay.

Obviously, merchandise is also important for growing a property into a franchise. But buying a figurine or other souvenir doesn't connect you with a franchise the way that dressing up as one its characters does. You can buy a cabinet filled with scale models and figurines, but all that does is to make you the owner of a bunch of franchise paraphernalia. Even if you take those souvenirs out and play with them, that deepens your engagement, but you still remain somewhat apart — an outside agent, looking at or playing with stuff, but never really becoming a part of it.

In cosplay, you become part of the franchise. You put your identity aside and instead assume the role of someone (or something) within a story you love. When you invest emotionally in a franchise to the level when you engage in cosplay, you cross from that franchise being something you like to the point where the franchise is part of who you are.

That's a point where entertainment companies would love to see their fans get. After all, fans who show that kind of loyalty are ones who will spend aggressively on movie tickets, merchandise, costumes, theme park tickets, home decor, and everything else that businesses create to market to those fans.

Clearly, Star Wars has gotten to that level. Just look at the number of people who showed up to the opening weekend of The Force Awakens in Jedi robes and Han Solo jackets, or sporting Princess Leia "buns" in their hair. If movie theaters across the world hadn't banned masks and make-up, you almost certainly would have seen legions of Stormtroopers, Darth Vaders, Kylo Rens, Chewbaccas, and other exotic creatures from the Star Wars universe, too.

Cosplay helps reinforce the loyalty of fans of many other franchises, including Star Trek, the Marvel and DC Comics universes, and perhaps most notably, Harry Potter. You can't walk into Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter without seeing at least one family in house robes. Potter offers perhaps the most engaging opportunities for cosplay, as you can wear your allegiance to the Wizarding World in every imaginable degree — from subtle notes, such as adding a scarf that just happens to be in house colors, to full-on commitment, such as donning complete Death Eater gear.

Hogwarts house robes for sale
Hogwarts house robes for sale

Avatar scores well behind other franchises on the cosplay test. The human beings in the story wore unremarkable clothes, and it's tough for anyone other than the most extremely committed fan to pull off dressing as a nine-foot Na'vi. While Pandora is visually beautiful, the narrative of the movie makes clear that the planet is toxic to humans. That's not creating the type of inviting environment that inspires fans to want to imagine themselves visiting. (That said, I am looking forward to seeing how Disney's Imagineers overcome these obstacles, when the new Avatar land opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom in 2017.)

So what does this mean for Star Wars Land? Obviously, there's no problem from the fans' perspectives here. People love dressing up as Star Wars characters, and fans are welcoming the opportunity to add new characters such as Kylo Ren, Rey, and Finn to the repertoire, as well. (A huge shout-out, by the way, to whoever pulls off the first General Hux/Bill Weasley cross-franchise cosplay mashup.)

The problem — potentially — lies with Disney. The company's recent expansion of its long-standing ban on adults wearing costumes in its theme parks could undercut Star Wars Land's appeal for many visitors. Yes, the fans will come — costumes or not — but the ability to cosplay within Star Wars Land undoubtedly would expand its appeal to the most loyal Star Wars fans.

Of course, Disney fans are resourceful. Just look at the success of "Disneybounding" in recent years, as fans have found ways around the company's costume ban by assembling outfits that suggest, rather than replicate, the look of beloved Disney characters. Fans will push whatever limits Disney sets on the wearing of costumes in the park.

But while Disney fans likely will accept a "no cosplay" rule in Avatar Land without a thought — who really wants to dress up like those guys, anyway? — the stakes rise with the opening of Star Wars Land. No one wants a theme park to jeopardize its visitors' safety. But when the pursuit of safety starts to drain the fun from a park, managers need to get creative to find a better way to achieve both safety and fun.

So among the plans for Disney's Star Wars Land should be a respectful approach to cosplay in the parks — clearly defined rules that encourage fans to express their love for and loyalty to Star Wars while allowing Disney reassure everyone that it is providing a safe environment, as well. If Disney wants to build a land better than Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it will need to take full potential of the Star Wars franchise, and that includes finding a way to accommodate a comfortable level of cosplay for all who visit Star Wars Land.

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Replies (16)

December 24, 2015 at 2:47 AM · Excellent observation of what makes a themed experience sticky. One of the best was the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. Such a shame it is no more as Trek, like Potter, is a very accessible and fun cosplay experience for fans. It's going to be hard for Disney to stop Star Wars fans from wearing Jedi robes in the new land, especially when blue milk will taste much better when dressed in the surrounding theme.
December 24, 2015 at 3:33 AM · Interesting to consider Avatar in this particular discussion. Because, ultimately, isn't the film itself just about a guy who gets really, really invested in cosplay?
December 24, 2015 at 4:38 AM · Prancing around in robes and swinging wands/light sabers while dancing with singing frogs/ewoks is not my idea of a good theme park experience. Cosplay is important to a niche crowd - the majority of folks just smile politely, take a few amusing pictures of the guy dressed up as Hermione/Princess Leia, and walk on. My point being, I don't see cosplay as being a game breaker for Star Wars. As much as it is sci fi/fantasy, it isn't quite as... uh .. "geeky"... as Harry Potter, and it skews to a bit older crowd that doesn't need all those trappings to have a great, immersive visit.

The bigger reason for Star Wars' success is the richness of the expanded universe behind the movies - from TV shows, to novels (both the canon and "legends" line), to action figures, legos, and other toys, to video games, board games, card games, and role playing games - Star Wars has successfully invaded every entertainment element of our public psyche. Cosplay is a small part of that invasion, not THE difference maker - at least, not for me.

December 24, 2015 at 6:12 AM · I disagree with James. I am an adult who thoroughly enjoyed casting spells with my son in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter ... in robes. It was really the whole immersion into that world that made our trip so much fun. (I was even chosen to have my wand pick me and it was the geekiest moment of my life. I was so giddy the whole time!) We have every colored light saber at home and will greatly enjoy donning robes and "fighting" our way through the planet at the new Star Wars Land. In fact, we have been looking forward to it ever since we learned about The Force Awakens as we expected Disney to offer up a new attraction to go with it. It is kind of like playing video games. You play to escape your current reality ... to become someone else for a little while. Although I am not a cosplayer normally, I enjoy that kind of activity on Halloween and at the theme parks. I hope that Disney will make this concession and allow people to dress up.
December 24, 2015 at 7:28 AM · Star Wars is less "geeky" than Harry Potter?
December 24, 2015 at 7:52 AM · Dear Disney, it's not too late to change the construction on Avatar land to the planet Endor, Kashyyyk, or one of the new lush planets in Episode 7 of Star Wars.

All kidding aside, cosplay goes back to my sticky argument- Star Wars is rich with characters and alien races that the public around the world are familiar with. You could show a random person on the street a picture of a wookie, jawa, or even Han Solo and 8 times out of 10 they would be able to tell you what they are. I'm betting the chances of recognition of the creatures, sights, and characters of Avatar would be fairly low. The same would go with the Lord of the Rings characters. Unless Disney forces James Cameron to include catchy sing along songs and lovable cartoonish characters with a new Avatar film, I really don't know how you are going to incite excitement for this film series and the new themed land with the general public. Sure, people will visit Animal Kingdom in larger numbers, but I wouldn't think you would see the increases like Universal had for both Harry Potter areas.

December 24, 2015 at 8:07 AM · The Battle of the Geeks. Interesting. Levels of Geeky? Sounds like a potential theme park land.
December 24, 2015 at 8:19 AM · "Geeky" is not a bad thing, and I did not intend it as such when I wrote it. Hope I did not offend anyone. Remember, the Bible says, "Blessed are the Geeks." Or something like that....
December 24, 2015 at 8:45 AM · No offense taken. I was just wondering what makes you think Harry Potter is more geeky. Depending on the level of commitment a fan makes, both can be considered equally geeky. In fact, most of my geekier friends prefer Star Wars by a large margin.
December 24, 2015 at 8:49 AM · Star Wars seems more accessible to me and less eccentric. After all Star Wars is more of an adventure film in disguise, while Harry Potter is pure fantasy.
December 24, 2015 at 9:17 AM · Disney allowing cosplay? Three words: Star Wars Weekend (I know its gone now, but it is not some foreign concept to Disney)

From my view, I really didn't see too many people dress up in Harry Potter Robes and walking around at IOA. Maybe I am lucky (or unlucky).

I think the difference between what Disney considers a costume and what Harry Potter (or Jedi) robes are a bit different. Disney doesn't want adults to wear costumes to dilute the experience. They do not want a knockoff Elsa walking around the parks and confuse the kids. You can be a Hogwarts Student and still be "you". You can be a Jedi and still be "you".

I also find it a little odd that everybody is freaking out about a costume rule that, frankly, Disney has always appear to have. Perhaps they might enforce it a little harder or let it be known to all.

I also think that Avatar is not fully developed yet to make its own universe. However, the aspect of the movie that everybody loves are the animals and the environment (which will be found in DAK's Pandora)

December 24, 2015 at 10:47 AM · My biggest concern is a potential for theme dilution with Star Wars in Disneyland. A princess walking around Disneyland doesn't necessarily break the theme. It could be a princess from Switzerland visiting the Matterhorn, or a princess from France visiting New Orleans Square.

It also works with Potter since anyone can be a wizard, maybe they just don't know it yet.

But how many stormtroopers on Thunder Mountain or Small World might break the illusion of a themed area?

Star Wars may be timeless, but it happened in a galaxy far, far, away. I think kids even pick up on that and I think they might start to question why they are wearing a Darth Vader costume on the Winnie The Pooh ride.

December 24, 2015 at 1:57 PM · I dont think cosplay has anything to do with making a theme park more popular. I dont think someone throwing a house robe to go to Universal is Cosplay. Someone who truly enjoys cosplay is spending way more than just money on putting together a cosplay. Also Cosplay has really only gotten huge I would say in the last 15 or 20 years. We are at year 60 for Dland. Im pretty sure that Disney has always had this rule about costumes.
December 24, 2015 at 8:33 PM · When are you and others going to realize that Avatar wasn't that great of a movie? Seriously!

I saw it in its original release and in the highly touted 3D. It was a fun movie at the moment, but as time passed I came to the conclusion that Avatar really wasn't that great. I had no desire to see it again, much less add it to my movie collection.

The fact is Avatar's characters weren't that great. The story not that memorable.

This has nothing to do with cosplay, Avatar is simply a brand that is just not that great.

December 25, 2015 at 9:10 PM · To cosplay as the main characters from Avatar you'd basically need to wear a blue spandex suit and not much else, right? I know some people wear some small outfits when they cosplay, but you have to be pretty confident to pull off just a spandex suit and I think there aren't a lot of guys or ladies that feel comfortable dressing like that. Dressing like someone from HP or Star Wars could compliment any body type. I'm not sure that plays much of a role in why Avatar isn't as popular as it's box office performance would lead you to expect. It was the first 3D movie and I think a lot of the box office was due to the novelty of going to see a 3D movie and that the forests of Pandora look really cool at night which works well in a movie theater. I think the movie lost a lot of impact when viewed at home and so it didn't inspire long lasting love for the movie.
I actually didn't realize adults were ever allowed to wear costumes outside of special party events. I think it's kind of nice that they increased the age kids can wear costumes to 13 because many 10-13 year olds are still young enough to feel left out if their younger siblings get to dress up. I think at 14 almost all kids are either desperately trying to be "adults" and/or are old enough to understand why the no costume rule is in place. Also, aren't kids 13 and under not supposed to enter the park without an adult? So it kind of makes sense to have that be the consistent kid-adult barrier, although the ticket prices increase at age 10. :)

In the end this is partly a security issue, or an efficiency issue for security screening, right? They discouraged costumes at the red carpet event for The Force Awakens, and many theaters didn't allow masks or fake guns at the movie opening nights. Clearly that wasn't about people posing as Disney employees. In fairness how would someone go about screening a person in full Storm trooper outfit properly and efficiently? There may be the additional concern that adults in costume in the parks may freak some little kids out. Darth Maul isn't exactly friendly looking. If you have a 3 year old scared of him or Storm Troopers etc, you can just avoid the Jedi training show or Star Wars area all together. If some guy dressed like Darth Maul gets in line for Peter Pan's Flight though and a little kid snaking around in line just starts screaming because they are terrified of the guy, you've got an issue here- who needs to leave the line? That's potentially a lot of drama that I'm sure guest services would like to avoid.

December 28, 2015 at 1:11 PM · I think Disney is missing an opportunity here, if for no other reason than merchandise sales.

Universal can sell robes, wands, scarves, Quidditch uniforms, and school uniforms. Basically, they can sell expensive cosplay outfits, and encourage fans to wear them inside the park. (excuse me, while I run to the bathroom stall to change)

I'm not saying Disney could sell replica Stormtrooper costumes or anything, but they could sell shirts and replica costumes from the folks who live on the planets from the movies, and if they put any amount of effort into it, they could charge quite a king's ransom.

I hope Disney re-thinks this, although I think holding onto the ban of face-obscuring masks and headwear isn't a terrible idea.

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