Thursday, September 28, 2023

Mermaids and dugongs: The Costume Connection helps celebrate marine life at SeaWorld Yas Island

By Gabrielle Russon

The mermaid needed to look perfect underwater and swim with a functional tail. And so, celebrated costume designer Bonnie Sinclair found herself doing something she’d never done before in her decades of experience: An underwater fitting.

In November 2022, the opportunity presented itself, and Sinclair climbed into the water alongside a hired performer at one of the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment properties in Orlando to field-test the underwater performance of the mermaid costume, a prototype designed for the new SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. This state-of-the-art marine life theme park would open six months later in May 2023 and take its place as the first international SeaWorld Park. SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is an instant icon of Abu Dhabi leisure development, offering a world-class guest experience including multimedia attractions, rides, live entertainment, and the world’s largest multi-species aquarium.

Images courtesy The Costume Connection

Whatever it takes

The underwater fitting is exemplary of the “whatever it takes” work ethic that Bonnie Sinclair and Karen Weller, owners of The Costume Connection, bring to their work – in this case designing some 38 entertainment costumes for SeaWorld Abu Dhabi.

In 2019, during the design development phase, The Costume Connection was brought onto the project by Los Angeles-based Thinkwell Group, a leading design and production studio, now part of TAIT. For the ensuing three years, The Costume Connection worked closely with Thinkwell’s creative team, led by project director Cory Asrilant. Also weighing in were Miral, owner and operator of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi and a leader in Abu Dhabi entertainment development, Miral’s partner SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and the management team of Ellis Don. As the collaboration progressed with multiple rounds of research and drawings, the final designs evolved into illustrations detailing the front, back and sides of each costume so the costume fabricator could build them.

“It was a very smooth project process,” Asrilant said. “We were meeting with the client – usually two to three times a week – about various items in our scope, including costumes. They were very much involved from day one. SeaWorld and Miral were on every call. They reviewed every drawing. We discussed every individual piece – from the shoes to the wigs, the bodysuits and everything else that was very specific. It was a really fun experience….It was great having Miral’s input and their entertainment team and design team on the phone calls to help guide us through, especially when it came to cultural costumes in the Abu Dhabi realm.”

These custom-designed costumes are now part of the fabric of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi – including the mermaid, atmosphere performers and a variety of engaging walk-around characters, including the giant pink and orange starfish, praying mantis, butterfly and tree frog costumes. They are Instagram-worthy, whimsical and fun.

Mandy the mantis and other designs

The stilt walker characters were technically quite challenging but are very striking in their final forms. Weller said, “Mandy, the praying mantis, is probably the most unique character of all we have ever developed.” And that’s saying a lot – considering that Weller and Sinclair have been in the business a good three decades, including the 10 years they’ve helmed The Costume Connection – with a distinguished client list between them that includes Disney, Universal Creative, Warner Brothers, Herschend Family Entertainment, and Radio City Music Hall Productions.

For the praying mantis, Sinclair and Weller’s focus was on creating a towering insect that wouldn’t frighten children despite its height, and could also navigate the employee backstage areas. Their concept ended up being a nine-foot-tall mantis, scaled down from the original 12-foot-tall concept. “The real trickiness of the costume development was analyzing the insect so the costume could be broken into component parts that work on the human form – an exaggerated form on stilts, in this case,” Weller said. “Our collaborating vendor Ryan Rhodes and his team at Custom Characters, Inc have a very refined eye for such engineering, while also establishing a visual ‘personality.’”

Images courtesy The Costume Connection

Another big challenge was to interpret a dugong as a standing, walking sea creature to roam the park. In nature, this large, coastal ocean dweller can be 10 feet long and weigh upwards of 800 pounds. How would they design this swimming character to walk? How to ensure this large animal wouldn’t frighten young children? “There were many iterations explored to create an image that finally made everyone on the creative and client teams happy,” Weller said. The final design featured a softened shape, a smiling expression and an enchanting seashell and coral wreath headdress that gave the character charm. “We then worked very closely with our production vendor, Custom Characters, Inc. who realized the costume beautifully,” said Weller. The end result: Sakina, the sweet-faced, kid-friendly dugong.

Sinclair and Weller feel they succeeded in bringing a sense of merriment and joy to the park, and in expressing the park’s themes and messages in an “up close and personal” way with their costumes. In addition to being eye-catching, these costumes must meet targets of practicality and authenticity, as well as cultural relevance. They designed costumes that fit into the park’s different realms and accurately captured the different animals or wove in the history of Abu Dhabi. It took extensive research to achieve this, down to the accurate spots on the jaguar costume. “The amount of research that Bonnie and Karen did to get us to that point was intense,” Asrilant said. “They take their work seriously.”

Photo by Joe Kleiman for InPark Magazine

Collaborative process

Like so many in the attractions industry, Sinclair and Weller’s roots are in theater, where they loved being part of a collaborative process and feeling the synergy in the room. “Collaboration is a really important thing to us because that’s part of where the creativity comes from, especially on a multifaceted project like this one,” Weller said.

Everything The Costume Connection designed had to be habitat-conscious to protect the live animals in the park. None of the costumes worn in or near the habitats could contain buttons, snaps, sequins, pearls, or other embellishments that might fall off; no toxic fabric dyes or materials could be used. Weller and Sinclair’s research included understanding just how acrobats’ costumes needed to move or otherwise accommodate their activity. They also collaborated with the zoologists, the animal caretakers and experts who advised them on the animal and insect costumes. The jaguar, for instance, has different shaped spots on different areas of its body as well as a distinctive tail.

The details had to be spot-on (pun intended) and the communication precise as The Costume Connection provided the designs to Limelight Costume Services Limited, a Hong Kong-based fabricator, to build the finished product. “Along with the design illustrations, we sent them detailed design information such as the jaguar spot reference images,” said Sinclair.

“Both our fabricators on this project were fantastic and a pleasure to work with,” added Sinclair. “Limelight Costume Services Limited fabricated the bulk of the costumes – all the show and atmosphere performer costumes, including the lovely mermaid. Virginia Chu, Jenny Wong, Angel Wong and the talented, dedicated team at Limelight deserve much praise for their excellent work. For their part, Custom Characters, Inc., built the amazing stilt walker costumes and the walk-around characters, and did a fabulous job.”

Sand Artist. Courtesy The Costume Connection

The complex craft of costuming

Although it often plays a significant role in a project, costume design for themed entertainment doesn’t always get its full measure of appreciation as a specialized industry discipline and art. This is beginning to change, partly thanks to the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Masters program, which honored Sinclair as a “TEA Master” in 2020. TEA has worked to broaden awareness of the myriad disciplines within the industry and the “masters of their craft” who propel them forward. TEA Masters don’t just sit on their laurels, but are active in professional development and education.

The level of detail and complexity required to produce costumes is still not well recognized. “Everybody wears clothes, so they think they know costumes,” Weller said. She explained that the learning curve occurs when it is time to create or update wardrobes – which can include employee uniforms as well as costumes for performers, mascots and walk-around characters. “Once they begin to recognize the wide range of issues to consider, that’s often when someone will say, ‘Why don’t you call Karen and Bonnie at The Costume Connection?’”

In ideal circumstances, costuming is given ample lead time for concept, design and execution. Bidding out designs to costume shops can take several months; the same goes for producing a custom print. “If you want to create a custom fabric, then you’ve got to account for that kind of timing and fabricate the supply needed for the future,” Weller said.

Tamarin pole climbers. Courtesy The Costume Connection

Into the water

The in-depth research and need for precision detail are what led Sinclair to climb into the water to test the mermaid costume prototype. But the mermaid field-test was also a breakthrough in another way. For the three years prior, The Costume Connection had been obliged to work remotely with their international collaborators, it being the early stage of the pandemic. But in November 2022, their clients would be in Orlando for the annual IAAPA Expo and they were finally able to meet in person. The underwater fitting there led to a functioning mermaid that wowed the crowd when SeaWorld Abu Dhabi opened the following year.

The mermaid’s costume is packed with details. Her tail is the shape of a dugong’s. The design of the scales on her tail reflects the shape of traditional Middle Eastern tiles. Her crown represents the color of the local sea coral and is embellished with pearls. “Of course, a mermaid is innately challenging as an underwater performer, but we believe that this design is a key contribution that adds a particularly lush quality to the show,” Weller said. “Beyond the practical challenges of such a costume, we hope the guests will be pleased to find that visually the character design supports the uniqueness of this story’s world.”

The costumes are one of the elements helping give the new park its sense of place, reinforce its conservation messages and provide “wow power,” as one of Weller’s colleagues called it. “We are honored to contribute our piece of the puzzle to the amazing achievement that is SeaWorld, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi,” said Weller.

“This is SeaWorld’s first international theme park,” said Asrilant. “We had to take everything, including the costumes, to the next level. And I believe we achieved that.”

A lifelong joy

Karen Weller
Bonnie Sinclair

Weller and Sinclair are longtime friends who met working together during summer theater when they were college students. They both went on to have independently successful careers in costume design, working in different industries as well as domestic and international projects in themed entertainment.

As major park operators began to source costume design externally rather than maintain in-house costume designers, Sinclair and Weller’s careers began to converge. They decided it made sense to work together and in 2013, they created The Costume Connection, which is based in the Los Angeles area. Today, most of their clients are theme parks and themed entertainment operators for whom they design both mass-produced wardrobe (employee uniforms) and live entertainment costumes created for parades, shows and walk-around characters.

The two women reflected on how their successful career comes from their lifelong passion. Sinclair remembered the first costume she ever made was a Joan of Arc Halloween costume out of aluminum foil and cardboard in sixth grade and Weller recalled the medieval gown she designed for her Barbie Doll as a child.

“I’ve been loving costumes and dress-up as long as I can remember,” Sinclair said.

Added Weller, “We both feel very fortunate, and pleased and honored to be able to make a living at what we love to do.”

Image courtesy Miral Experiences

Gabrielle Russon
Gabrielle Russon
Gabrielle Russon is a freelance journalist who lives in Orlando. She previously covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel, earning several statewide and regional honors for her coverage over theme park injuries, the economic challenges facing theme park workers and the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry. A Michigan native, she is a Michigan State University graduate and has worked at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Elkhart Truth during her newspaper career. In her spare time, she loves visiting Orlando’s theme parks and running marathons.

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