Here’s a strange tidbit: Duffy, AKA the Disney Bear, is a fraud. Yes, shocking but true. The stuffed phenomenon that has taken Japan by storm – and that Disney retailers have introduced to Central Florida in hopes of creating must-have demand from key demographics – is not Disney World’s first teddy bear. He’s been around in some form since at least 1988 and probably earlier. Sure, he looks more artsy today. In 1988, his paws were stamped with “Walt Disney “World,” and now have symbolic Mickey ears; and the old Disney bear simply sat on a store shelf looking cute, while the new one has a clothing line and his own “back story.” (“Back story” is Disney-speak for “we made a story up so it seems as if he has history.”)
In Japan today, however, the latest Disney bear is perhaps the most popular souvenir in the park, and Duffy’s face appears on everything from zipper bags to popcorn buckets. He has multiple outfits, and recently received a lady-friend, Shellie Mae. Duffy’s key demographic – women age 20 to 35 – line up when Disney introduces a new little outfit.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Duffy actually debuted in Orlando at Walt Disney World’s shopping district, Downtown Disney, in 2002. A cute stuffed bear that happened to have Mickey paws, Duffy (the name came later) kind of sat there like his 1988 predecessor, destined for obscurity and somewhat lost in a sea of shinier Disney souvenirs. However, Disney then introduced Duffy to Japan, and the bear rose to a fame seen only by a handful of superstars, such as Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga.
In 1988, my daughter had just learned to walk. At an age where a “good vacation” equates
to “she didn’t cry all the time,” only two things caught her toddler imagination: The singing bear trio in The Country Bear Jamboree, and the not-named prehistoric Duffy at Downtown Disney. She spotted pre-Duffy from across the plaza, waddled a direct path to the display overflowing with pre-Duffys, grabbed one and wouldn’t let go. We paid for it by lifting her up and allowing the cashier to check the price.
Duffy – and perhaps my daughter’s 1988 grandfather teddy bear – never quite made it on their own in Orlando, but now he has strong corporate backing. Disney many times creates a corporate product to see how it sells. Consequently, the new successful Disney bear, Duffy, is more a matter of timing than introduction. Japan, clearly, was the right country, and the 21st Century is clearly the right time. And, perhaps, the artistic Mickey paws are cooler than the more generic corporate paws. For some reason, allowing adult women to dress a teddy bear like a Barbie doll also helped, as did the back story Disney made up to explain why an adult Mickey Mouse carries a child’s teddy bear. (Story ruiner: Minnie gave it to him.)
Disney loves collectibles like Duffy because it generates income. Sometimes the company does market research and creates demand, as it did with pin trading. Other times, Disney keeps its ear to the ground and capitalizes on any item that could become the next big thing. Duffy is the former in Japan but the latter in Orlando. A full-sized Duffy character now appears at Epcot, and many gift shops have Duffy sections – bears on the end and outfits along the side.
The next step is to see if Orlando visitors get the same rush of adrenaline as their Japanese counterparts.