Tying the Knot with Disney

Just in time for wedding season, Disney will launch its first line of designer bridal gowns. Will grownups take the plunge?

By the time most little girls turn 3, Disney is part of their lives. Few homes are without a Princess play set and plush Pooh bear. By the teenage years, Disney is an old friend, the photos from Magic Kingdom and Disney DVDs counted as treasured possessions. But by their twenties, Disney is an artifact, packed into a box and buried away in the basement.

This June, Walt Disney (DIS) Consumer Products will launch its first line of designer wedding gowns, a hint that the media and entertainment giant wants to play a bigger part in the lives of its consumers as they mature into adulthood. The "Fairy Tale Collection," by Los Angeles bridal designer Kirstie Kelly, is priced moderately, between $1,100 and $3,000, and draws inspiration from the costumes of fictional characters Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, and Jasmine. By October, matching bridesmaid and flower-girl outfits will be added to the line. Sorry guys: No mention yet of Prince Charming tuxedos.

Disney is taking a bold step into a market dominated by designers like Vera Wang with high-end cachet. But Mickey Mouse is no stranger to the altar. In 1991, Disney World in Orlando, Fla., launched its Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons service. The popularity of the program and the number of available options and extras have grown over the past 16 years. Disney now plans and hosts more than 2,000 unions a year—typically costing between $8,000 and $45,000—in both Orlando and at Anaheim (Calif.)-based Disneyland.

Prefab Ceremonies

"They found a business that they probably didn't even know was there," says Katherine Rizzuto, publisher of Condé Nast Bridal Media. Many of these weddings are elaborately themed around Disney characters and movies, such as the popular Cinderella's Royal Court wedding, in which the bride and groom parade down Main Street USA in Cinderella's pumpkin carriage and say their vows on the steps to the iconic Cinderella Castle.

Due to their convenience and the association with a familiar brand, these one-stop wedding packages are becoming more appealing to people in their twenties, according to Elise Mac Adam, a writer on contemporary wedding etiquette currently under contract with book publisher Simon Spotlight Entertainment. "I think there's something that's comforting about Disney [because] you know what you're getting," she explains. "Weddings are scary, and if you have something prefabricated, you can reduce the number of unknowns."

With the launch of the gowns, Disney hopes to carry the wedding success of its parks over to its Consumer Products Div., which last year generated 6.4% of Disney's $34.3 billion in total revenues, vs. the 30% contributed by its Parks & Resorts Div. Though the gowns will be available to Fairy Tale Weddings brides-to-be, they also will be sold in bridal boutiques around the country, and their sales will be operated as a separate business entity. Magazine publisher Rizzuto estimates that the average wedding dress costs between $2,600 and $2,900, and believes Disney is right on target with its price point.

Prolific Cross-Pollinator

However, the dresses will be the among the biggest-ticket items offered by the company's consumer products division, and aren't likely to fly off shelves as quickly as mouse ears at an Epcot Center souvenir stand. But more important than individual sales, the dresses will serve as a billboard that asserts that Disney can be relevant and cool in the social circles of young adults.

"Disney at its finest will take an existing product, like a character from a film, and continue to feed it into new channels in hopes of finding other revenue streams," says UBS analyst Arieh Bourkoff, who's not surprised at this latest brand extension. From toys to television shows to parades and apparel, Disney is a prolific cross-pollinator of its properties.

Last year, even peaches, apples, and grapes bearing the likenesses of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Goofy appeared in supermarkets in an attempt to lure kids from the junk-food aisles. "Disney Garden," a promotion with Indianapolis-based Imagination Farms, looks to be a successful venture, though some media outlets dismissed it as more of a short-term publicity stunt following the termination of Disney's long-term relationship with hamburger-flipper McDonald's (MCD).

To market to twentysomethings, Disney needs to be a little more cunning—a wedding dress bearing the face of Goofy isn't going to cut it. Instead, the company has homed in on the dreams young girls have of an ideal, "fairy-tale" wedding, connecting this to the happily-ever-after endings of their own princess characters. Gown designer Kelly has added her own sensibilities to the subtle references in each princess's outfit. The Cinderella dress, for example, will be offered in delicate champagne and ivory colors, as opposed to the bright blue frock seen on screen, but the dramatic flourish of the skirt is true to the original.

Making Dreams Come True

Critical reviews of the design sketches for the wedding line has been mixed. Writer Mac Adam says "poofy princess dresses" are a big trend right now, and expects them to be received well. But Disney most likely hopes to outlive current fashion trends and occupy a permanent page in wedding catalogs. Young girls aged 3 to 6 currently fuel a $3.5 billion Disney Princess merchandising market, and Disney wants to be around decades from now when they say "I do."

Branding experts believe that as long as the design and retail model is executed properly, Disney will find a built-in audience among those who have grown up with the brand. "[Disney] is one of the best emotional brands in the world," says Marc Gobé, author of the newly released Brandjam: Humanizing Brands Through Emotional Design (Allworth). "They're saying, 'We aren't only an entertainment company, but we can help you bring that dream into your life.'"

Robert Sprung, CEO of New York-based branding consultant Tipping Sprung, points out that marriage represents a crucial turning point not only in a young person's social perspective but in the relationship they have with the brands of their youth. "The nature of a wedding is looking backwards wistfully, giving up some things of your childhood, and looking forward to uncharted territory," he says. By choosing a Disney wedding gown as the centerpiece to this occasion, a bride and groom recognize that the brand is accompanying them into their married life.

And with its Disney Couture clothing line, iTunes movie distribution, and adult-friendly theme park destinations, Disney looks intent on keeping these couples happy forever after.

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