Behind the Mask: UNCG Alumna Brings Theme Park Characters to Life

Posted on March 26, 2024

Sumo wrestlers pose with actors dressed as Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Lucy.
Sumo wrestlers visit the Peanuts characters at Universal Studios Japan.

Costumed characters are part of many theme park experiences. Whether they’re a performer, an immersive tour guide, or a movie character, there’s a chance their costume ties back to a UNC Greensboro alumna. 

Karen Weller.
Karen Weller

Karen Weller ’75 wanted to do something in the fashion industry. A series of collaborations and recommendations, which began at UNCG, took her from merchandising to creating costumes for actors at Disneyland and Universal Studios theme parks.

“To me, no experience is wasted time,” says Weller. “Even if the first job you get doesn’t turn out to be the all-time best job you ever wanted, it’s going to teach you things that you can take along with you.” 

Weller’s experiences ultimately took her to The Costume Connection, a design and development company she co-founded that has handled projects for Radio City Music Hall and Warner Brothers Studios, among other famous entertainment corporations. Their accolades include a Primetime Emmy Award, and most recently a THEA Award from the Themed Entertainment Association for their work on SeaWorld Abu Dhabi. 

Stages of Success 

Weller always wanted to design clothing, so a university in the middle of North Carolina’s textile industry felt like the right fit. She came to UNCG to get her bachelor of science in clothing and textiles, now within the Consumer, Apparel, and Retail Studies Department (CARS).

An invitation from a student in another program at UNCG unexpectedly helped put Weller on track for a career in themed entertainment. 

“A college dorm mate of mine who was a music major asked me to come help sew costumes in the Theater Department’s costume shop for a show she was to perform in,” says Weller. “At the time, I was like, ‘I love this, but what can I do with it in the real world?’”

That experience, combined with courses on fabric draping, costume history, and theatre appreciation, as well as the encouragement of her professors hooked Weller onto the idea of costuming. “I was learning skills that were different from the things I was learning in the fashion department.”

A theme park guest hugs Winnie from Woody the Woodpecker.
Winnie from Woody the Woodpecker at Universal Studios Japan. Weller was on the park’s original design team.

Upon graduating, she went into merchandising but found she wanted something more creative. She moved to the west coast and decided graduate school could aid in redirecting her career. Because costuming work is primarily based on project contracts and recommendations, Weller had to form new connections. She taught college courses and worked for regional theatres and Shakespeare festivals until a colleague told her about a job opening with Disneyland. 

“That first job with Disney was what solidified the theme park direction for me,” she says. 

Entering the World of Entertainment 

After seven years with Disney, she got an offer to help Universal Creative open a new theme park in Japan. “I’d supported Tokyo Disneyland and their park opening in Paris, but that was from our home base in California. Universal Studios Japan gave me a chance to be at the front end of opening a park being built from the ground up, and I got the chance to go onsite during the process.” 

Working internationally has been one of the perks of her career. Weller and The Costume Connection’s co-owner, Bonnie Sinclair, have helped well-known entertainment entities expand into other countries. Most recently, that includes the award-winning indoor marine park at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi.

“Almost everything I work on now has been through networking contacts,” says Weller. “I would have to really dig into my resume history to find when I last cold called somebody. It’s incredible and humbling.”

There is a lot of unique hands-on testing that goes into a theme park costume. For example, for SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, they held underwater fittings for a mermaid costume. All the costumes must hold up in hot, humid, or icy climates. If a park has animals, they make sure the costume elements are not toxic or have pieces that are easy to swallow. They even test to make sure the oversized, exaggerated features are not too scary for children. 

Watching how park visitors interact with their final product is a special reward for Weller. “When we get a chance to be on site, it is great to see the guests and their reactions,” she says. 

Many Paths of Creativity 

Window at Universal Studios Japan bears name of UNCG alumna Karen Weller.
Weller got a tribute in a Universal Studios Japan window for her role in opening the park.

Costumes are part of many industries. Some of Wellers’ peers went into theatre, ballet, or circuses. Their designs appear in films, music videos, and live concerts. They bring historical reenactments and museum exhibits to life. They design regalia for religious ceremonies and royal pageantry. One of her colleagues even teaches costume design for video game character development.

“You can really explore many kinds of individual passions through all that can be done with costumes,” says Weller. 

Today, UNCG’s CARS Department has a historic costume collection to help students research fashion trends. The College of Visual and Performing Arts offers a bachelor of fine arts in drama with a concentration in design and technical production. Weller encourages UNCG students to begin building those potential game-changing connections with their peers before they graduate. 

“Take note of students you know who are doing clever things, that you think you collaborate well with. Keep in touch with them. This is a time of incredible communication opportunities that did not exist a couple decades ago. Those connections may lead to something satisfying in two years or ten years that you never expected.” 

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications 
Photography courtesy of Karen Weller, The Costume Connection

UNCG student Lisa Woolfall stands a row of mannequins with dresses.

Make your Dreams Leap off the Page.


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