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Inside Disney’s biggest and most exclusive fan club: D23

Serena, Nicole and Marina all in character at D23. Images: Instagram @serenacosplay, Yahoo Finance, Instagram @marinatinker

It’s been three days, countless renditions of Disney songs and I’ve seen at least 800 different Cinderellas, one Captain America princess and a surprising number of Big Lebowski-esque Thors.

Welcome to D23, Disney’s bi-annual expo. Launched in 2009, the D23 expo is named to represent Disney and 1923 - the year Walt Disney founded the company.

Here, celebrities, writers and directors take to the stage to promote their upcoming projects - their words often drowned out by the screams of their adoring fans.

But offstage, the people are just as interesting. They’re mega-fans, and they’ll pay thousands to dress as their favourite characters.

How much does it cost to cosplay?

“I came here all the way from Russia,” Marina Voronina (@marinatinker) told Yahoo Finance. She’s dressed as warrior Bo Peep from Toy Story 4, and the level of detail - down to the coloured lenses - is truly extraordinary.

Bo Peep and her sheep at Anaheim. Image: Yahoo Finance

She has so many costumes, she’s lost count. But she knows that her most expensive outfit - a dress modelled on that worn by Lily James in the 2015 remake of Cinderella was at least US$3,000 (AU$4,441).

That beautiful dress is $3,000. Image: Instagram (@marinatinker)

It’s the same case for Serena (@serenacosplay), who’s dressed as a very glamorous Ariel from the scene in The Little Mermaid where she just got her legs and is wearing a dress made from discarded sails.

Serena has 48,000 followers on Instagram. Image: Instagram (@serenacosplay)

“The wig itself is about $300, the dress is a high-end designer dress who makes dresses for pageants - so that's about $1,000 right there, character shoes are $30 or $40 and the makeup is very expensive,” she said.

“I'm a walking price-tag right here.”

An uncanny impression of Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus. Image: Yahoo Finance

Then there’s drag performer Nicole Halliwell (eightyf0ur). Her rendition of Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson in hit halloween movie, Hocus Pocus, drew double takes from everyone from Disney executives to Jeff Golblum.

“This costume was probably $2,000-$3,000 worth of different pieces and accessories and having the book made,” Halliwell said.

Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Merida, Aurora and Snow White have aged! Image: Yahoo Finance

“A friend of mine made it here in California, it has all the details even on the back side and it even has the spells on the inside of the book.”

An entertainer who moonlights as a Bette Midler impersonator in Fort Lauderdale, she looks so much like the famous actress, it’s incredibly strange.

“I love Winifred because Hocus Pocus is an iconic childhood movie for me and I grew up watching the film and I have a deep connection with Halloween, my birthday's right around it so that plus Bette Midler fan. It all comes together as one.”

That's $100 of makeup. Image: Instagram (@msericaroark)

Erica Roark (@msericaroark), who dressed as village Belle from the animated Beauty and the Beast in 1991 got off more lightly.

“From head to toe, I began with the wig and the wig cost me $200 and the costume I got at a reasonable price of $70 but all of the things that go underneath that go with the costume like the pantaloons - these were about $30 - and the character shoes were around $40.

“Not to mention the make up, I'm probably wearing around $100 worth of makeup.”

Why do cosplayers go to D23?

Tickets to the D23 event in Anaheim aren’t too bad: $177 for a three-day pass, or $89 for a one-day pass. That gives you the chance to get up and close with Disney, Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm’s writers.

And, of course, the chance to see more celebrities than you can shout “I love you 3,000!” at.

Belle and Ariel share lunch at D23 in Anaheim. Image: Yahoo Finance

But when asked why they came to D23 and spent thousands on costumes, none said celebrity spotting or meeting their icons was the answer.

For Halliwell, this was the first time she’d been to D23 and just wanted to see what it was all about. A professional entertainer, cosplaying is a mixture of a profession and a love.

The same goes for Serena, who works professionally as a cosplayer.

Today, however, she’s here for the fun of it.

And, she adds, cosplaying doesn’t necessarily mean the most realistic costume is the best. Her outfit is non-canonical, she explains. That is, it isn’t lifted stitch for stitch from a scene in a movie.

“Despite being a very big Disney fan… and I worked as a Disney princess for several years, I never actually got onto Ariel so for this convention I thought today's the day.

“I didn't want to do one of the mainstream princesses or mainstream looks because at a convention solely focused on Disney there's going to be around 800 other Ariels from the movie so I like to do my own take.”

For Erica, the appeal of dressing up as Belle has carried through from her childhood when she remembers running around the house in a Belle dress.

“She was actually the first cosplay I ever did,” she said.

“As I grew older I never grew out of wanting to dress up and she was still my favourite character and I still relate a lot to her so I thought, let's carry that into adulthood.”

A quick look at her Instagram will reveal that Erica’s cosplay range extends far beyond Belle however, with Jasmine, Princess Leia and Wonder Woman all making appearances. However, her costumes are mostly of Disney’s princesses.

Image: Instagram (@msericaroark)

“It's a hobby but it's also more than that, it's a passion really,” she said when asked why she cosplays.

“Disney in the 90s exploded and we grew up with that, we grew up in the explosion and all of our parents just kind of went Disney this, Disney that, Disney world, Disney parks, Disney princesses and it was just everywhere, so at least that's how it was from me.”

Serena has a similar response.

“I have been involved in cosplay professionally for a few years now, so sometimes I'm hired for events and companies will pay for it but... this was just born out of passion, it’s just something that I've always enjoyed and has brought me such close friends through doing it.”

Serena dressed as Marvel hero Black Widow. Image: Instagram (@serenacosplay)

That’s just the thing. The lines here are massive, the merchandise - some may argue - is expensive (try US$30 for a pair of socks), but in the three days I spend at the conference in Anaheim, I don’t see a single person who doesn’t look thrilled to be there.

Rapunzel is quite happily eating pizza while seated on the ground, and a decked-out Captain Hook has a conversation with Hercules’ Meg while wearing a velvet coat, surely baking in the 31 degree heat.

But, nothing but smiles.

It’s clear the 7,000 attendees here love Disney and its new studios, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Marvel, and have for a very long time. Something in those movies has triggered a profound response inside them.

But as the largest film-making company in Hollywood, that impact extends far beyond the attendees at D23.

Does Disney realise the impact of its films?

Yahoo Finance put the question to Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm. Just how often does she realise that what she does impacts people and children this greatly?

All the time, Kennedy responded.

“All great movies teach lessons, that's part of what makes them great and I think that's the foundational importance of storytelling and films and now that’s what's happening in the explosion of great writing in television,” she said.

“There's a real opportunity to tell stories that do help make sense of the world, whether that's a young person having the experience or any one of us having the experience.”

She said the sense of hope in the Star Wars franchise is the lesson that sticks with viewers, and carries through to their daily lives.

“What the characters were going through was the tension of good and evil but also the tension within us of the dark and the light and [George Lucas focused on] the strength in watching the hero's journey and to see that sense of compassion and honesty be earned.

“I think that those values always permeate great storytelling, so it is important, it's something I think about all the time.”

The D23 convention will next convene in 2021.

Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit

The Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit will take place on the 26th September 2019 at the Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney. Check out the full line-up of speakers and agenda here.