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Fantasy, frills and a pink fox: Playing dress up at Hong Kong Disneyland

<i>Noemi Cassanelli/CNN via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Many visitors at the park post photos to social media wearing Disney paraphenelia. Some find it a welcome reprieve from the pressures of life outside.
Noemi Cassanelli/CNN via CNN Newsource
Many visitors at the park post photos to social media wearing Disney paraphenelia. Some find it a welcome reprieve from the pressures of life outside.

By Christy Choi, photos by Noemi Cassanelli and curation by Jennifer Arnow, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — There are a lot of princesses at Hong Kong Disneyland, but not the ones you think. Instead of your Cinderellas, Elsas and Annas in their royal best, it’s a fuzzy pink fox that’s inspiring the princess-esque outfits of Disney-goers in their teens and 20s.

LinaBell is the latest addition to a line of plush toys called “Duffy and Friends,” created by Disney for the Asian market. She has never made it onto the big screen, but she and her furry companions have resonated with fans in the region, becoming one of the company’s best-selling franchises in the city’s theme park. Young women in particular are drawing inspiration from the pastel-colored characters, creating coquettish looks.

“LinaBell is my favorite,” said Liang Xiaoyu who was visiting from the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The 18-year-old was dressed in a pink-trimmed white frock, her hair in two loose ponytails, and was carrying a LinaBell backpack and keychain.

Others spotted during a rainy June day channeled CookieAnn (a yellow dog who loves to bake), by wearing dog-ear headbands as well as ShellieMay and Duffy, the line’s two bears.

Dressing up is popular at Disney theme parks across the world — not just for kids, but for adults as well. Known as “Disneybounding,” the phenomenon sees visitors circumvent rules on wearing full Disney costumes (some masks, for instance, are banned to avoid any confusion with the parks’ own costumed employees) by using clothing and accessories that evoke their favorite characters.

Qin Wuxiao, dressed from head to toe as Jessie the cowgirl doll from the “Toy Story” franchise, was taking photos with her mother in front of the Castle of Magical Dreams. The 23-year-old student said it’s become popular for young people to dress up like characters and post pictures of themselves on Chinese social media apps like Xiaohongshu.

Charmy Chan and her friend Yanni Chung dressed for the day as Officer Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde from “Zootopia.” The Hong Kong Baptist University students grew up watching Disney movies and now that they’re in college they find themselves with more time to visit. “We usually come to the park once a month,” said Chan, in front of the park’s bakery on Main Street USA.

And at Hong Kong Disneyland, Disney characters aren’t the sole fashion inspiration for dedicated fans. All around the park, there were guests like 27-year-old Li Mengru from China’s Fujian province and 16-year-old Chen Xinyu from Guangdong province, dressed as Lolitas.

Not a Nabokovian Lolita, but women who dress in an unabashedly feminine style of clothing popularized in Japan in the mid-1990s. Think petticoats, dainty shoes and accessories. Li wore a light baby blue dress with statement bows and elaborate crystal nails, while Chen went with a more gothic look.

Linda Lee, meanwhile, wore a bold striped black and white dress adorned with cherries and red ribbons.

In the age of Instagram and TikTok, the park lends a perfect background for Disneybounders and cosplayers to immerse themselves in a fantasy world.

There’s the World of Frozen that opened in November last year, where influencers can be found taking photos in front of a snowflake fountain on the streets of Arendelle. Tomorrowland lends itself as a futuristic backdrop for Marvel and “Star Wars” fans while Toy Story Land with its outsize wooden blocks, green army men and race cars make for some playful shots.

A sweet escape

Since the pandemic, the city – which imposed some of the world’s strictest travel restrictions – has been looking to boost tourism numbers by launching a “Hello Hong Kong” campaign, that included giving away free flights. Though most visitors to the park are local residents, the majority government-owned Hong Kong Disneyland Resort is one of the key attractions being promoted to tourists.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board’s exit survey of around 93,000 people in 2023 showed the park was the third most visited attraction in the city. The shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui and scenic spot The Peak were the two top spots respectively.

Many of the non-local visitors to Hong Kong Disneyland live in mainland China or countries in Southeast Asia like the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, with some coming from Japan and South Korea as well.

Wandering into Adventureland from Grizzly Gulch, 34-year-old Kris Yang and 35-year-old Jimmy Redinger stopped to chat with CNN. “He’s crazy about Disney,” said Yang who is from mainland China of his partner, who is from the United States. The two primary school teachers were visiting from the northern Chinese province of Hebei. They wore shirts from “Zootopia” and “Hercules” and were decked out in Disney paraphernalia.

“If you like my outfit today, you should have seen me yesterday,” said Redinger who proudly identified himself as a “Disney adult,” a term that might come with some baggage in the United States, given some of the extremes fans have gone viral for. “I was in a full Goofy movie get-up.”

“I embrace the idea of a ‘Disney adult’,” he added. “It’s in the name. Adults who love Disney. Someone who really has that connection to the company and parks.”

In Asia, the penchant for child-like things as adults broadly carries less social stigma than in the West. China’s “meng” and Japan’s “kawaii” cultures embrace cuteness.

Many, like 37-year-old Mariko Otomo kitted out in Disney accessories, were there as a form of escape. “Usually we work very hard. We go office and back, office and back,” she said. “When we finally come to Disney we forget the daily stuff.”

“Even just walking here, (I) have a good feeling,” said Ankh Wong a 24-year-old saleswoman who has visited the park more than 20 times over the past six years. As soon as she got her first job, she bought a ticket to the park.

“It’s a place for happiness and I can put down my worries,” said 16-year-old Deng Chundan.

Tactics like themed staycations and special events, collaborations with brands like Le Creuset, Godiva and local jeweler Chow Tai Fook and cultivating successful franchises such as Duffy and Friends are part of the park’s strategy to appeal to Gen Z and millennials. In recent years, the park has invested a reported $1.4 billion in expanding some of its attractions, which included a new “Frozen” themed section of the park. (“Frozen,” which came out in 2013, is likely one of the first Disney films Gen Z would have watched as children).

Disney declined CNN’s request for information on the ages of its annual visitors, but it’s clear the Hong Kong park draws many grown-up fans.

Redinger said nostalgia brings him back time and time again. “As the parks grow, we grow with the parks, reliving that time with our families (that) we had.”

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