Disney's $4b 'Princess' Brand

What kind of woman would wear a buttercup yellow wedding dress? A woman like Lindsey Timberman, 29, of Wilmington, Dela. For the record, Timberman's dress isn't just any old yellow. It's a shade that's remarkably similar to the golden gown worn by Belle in the Disney animated movie "Beauty and the Beast"—and it's not the only part of Timberman's Belle-inspired nuptials set for next November. Her flowers will be red roses, the movie's signature bloom. Timberman and her groom—all right, prince—plan to dance their first time as husband and wife to the title song from "Beauty." She's even shopping for a pair of glass slippers (and never mind that she's borrowing that idea from Cinderella's kingdom). There's only one kink in this happily-ever-after tale: Timberman's fiancé, Mark, won't dress like the Beast, or even the prince trapped inside him. "I think he's starting to get a little offended," says Timberman. "But he's a sport. Our first trip to Disney World, I was having my picture taken with Cinderella. She asked me if I had a prince with me, and I said, 'I do!' "

You've heard of a bridezilla. Meet a new breed: the princesszilla. She was created and nurtured in the Disney laboratory, and for the company she has become a dream come true. "Princess" is Disney-speak—a sort of noun-adjective you'd hear in a sentence such as "Your hair is, like, so princess today!"—for its plan to market Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle and the girls to world domination. They're almost there. Princess is a $4 billion business that's on its way to becoming the most successful marketing venture ever. (Mickey Mouse pulls in $6 billion annually, but he's been working it for decades.) When it was created in 2000, the Princess line was geared to kids and tweens, but in the past year Disney has begun going after middle-class women like Timberman. There's actually an entire line of Princess wedding dresses (in case you're more of a Cinderella) with matching jewelry and tiaras. Sleepwear and housewares are next. Disney is also updating some classic narratives to make the protagonists more empowered, which may appeal to women who have kissed a few frogs. Disney's newest princess movie, "Enchanted," gently spoofs every princess cliche in the book, but it ends with the heroine, Giselle, rescuing the prince from the evil stepmother. The desire for true love, especially served with a dollop of princess power, is all well and good—though considering what we know about the lives of actual princesses such as Diana and Japan's Masako, you have to wonder why any woman today aspires to royalty. The answer may rest in something far less rarefied: the quest for financial security, class mobility and, in our divorce-ridden, war-pocked world, a few moments of life lived happily ever after.

"Princess" began almost by accident. In 2000 Disney's new chairman of consumer goods—a Nike transplant named Andy Mooney—was making the rounds of the Magic Kingdom when he stopped at a "Disney on Ice" show. The audience was packed with girls wearing their favorite princess costumes, almost like a huge squad of regal cheerleaders. If they were that popular, Mooney reasoned, why not market Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Jasmine and Ariel as a team, together? (Pocahontas and Mulan are usually kicked off the throne. Disney says that's because their "qualities" are different from the others, though the only "quality" that seems different is that they don't wear long, girly dresses.) First came Princess-group DVDs and books. Then came the imitators. Mattel released its first Barbie princess video in 2001, and the series has sold 38 million units—compared with only 9 million for the nonprincess titles. Nickelodeon shamelessly followed with a long-haired, princess version of Dora the Explorer, which essentially vitiated Dora's working-class pedigree. When Disney's own live-action "Princess Diaries" films hit it big, expanding the brand to go after women seemed logical. Enter the Ariel Visa credit card, with which you'll soon be able to buy princess sheets and towels targeted just to adults. "We want women," says Jim Calhoun, head of Disney's apparel line, "to have a little bit of princess every day."

That credit card is the most telling jewel in the princess crown. It's no accident that the princesses in fairy tales usually come from humble beginnings, says Jack Zipes, editor of "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales." "The fairy tale appeals because everyone wants to move up in class," Zipes says. The wedding dresses speak to that. Starting at $1,100, a Disney Princess bridal gown is designed to appeal to the working- and middle-class woman interested in "trading up," says Calhoun. The dresses aren't so tacky as to overtly mimic their cartoon inspirations. Only the bride would likely get the connection, which is as much psychological as it is material. "The concept around Belle is called stylish sophistication," says Kirstie Kelly, who designs the line. "She's someone who would be a doctor or lawyer or book-smart. But she's still romantic." Jasmine is "bohemian chic" and "adventurous." Cinderella is "classic glamour." Snow White is "sweet elegance." Ariel is the "sultry, sexier bride." And wealthy, no doubt. "A prince today needs to be not on his white horse," says Stephanie Vermeulen, author of "Kill the Princess: Why Women Still Aren't Free From the Quest for a Fairytale Life." "He needs to be on his white—or red—Ferrari."

Considering that "What's Love Got to Do With It" attitude, it's no wonder that Disney is modernizing its princess formulas. In the new Broadway "Little Mermaid," Ariel no longer needs Prince Eric to dispatch Ursula the sea witch; she does it herself. In 2009 the studio will debut the animated film "The Princess and the Frog," featuring its first African-American princess (which is pretty shocking, if you think about the fact that there's already been Asian, Native American and Arab princesses). She's already stirred some controversy —she was originally a lowly chambermaid named Maddy, but after the blogosphere got wind of that, she was promoted to full princess and given a more regal-sounding name: Tiana. "Enchanted" (which comes out this week) offers its own extreme princess makeover. Giselle begins as your classic, animated princess. When she falls through a manhole into Times Square (where the movie switches to live action) and falls again after climbing up a billboard for a castle-themed casino, she reasons she's always falling because, well, someone always catches her. Not in New York City, sweetheart. Giselle soon discovers that her petticoats are a pain and her saccharine personality annoys people. She gets her man, but not before she's lost the dress and the breathy voice and learned to stand on her own feet—or at least catch herself when she falls down. "Traditionally, the female character is very strong until the last minutes of the film, and then the prince comes in and she's saved," says "Enchanted" director Kevin Lima. "I don't think that's a contemporarily responsible story. I had to give an alternate ending." Lima wants the new message to be: "You are responsible for your own happily-every-after." And if that includes a Disney Fairy Tale Wedding Snow White gown, all the better.