Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Disney hopes bear's success in Japan will translate elsewhere

ORLANDO, Fla. — A few weeks ago, Disney introduced a new costumed character into company theme parks in Orlando and California. He did not arrive alone.
"Duffy the Disney Bear" made its debut in Walt Disney World's Epcot and Disneyland's Disney California Adventure with an army of merchandise. Park souvenir shops began stocking three sizes of stuffed-plush bears and accompanying Duffy costumes, key chains, magnets and more. Additional souvenirs are on the way: Disney says it will have nearly three dozen Duffy items for sale in its theme parks within the next year.

It's a long line of products — all riding on a character that even many Disney fans don't know.

Not in movies

Duffy, unlike Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and other well-known Disney characters, has never starred in an animated movie or television show. He is instead a retail creation of Tokyo Disney, where he is one of the most sought-after souvenirs in the Japanese resort that draws 26 million visitors each year.

Now, after a brutal recession that sapped spending in its domestic parks, Disney is betting Duffy's merchandising strength in Japan will translate to the U.S.

"This is really a model that we've not done before," said Dara Trujillo, manager of merchandise synergy and special events for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

Born in Orlando

Duffy was actually born in Orlando. The stuffed bear, which has a Mickey Mouse-shaped face and a Mickey-shaped birthmark on its hip, was initially designed as a unique product to sell in "Once Upon a Toy," the 16,000-square-foot toy shop that opened in Disney World's Downtown Disney in 2002. But back then it was known only as "Disney Bear," and it never caught on.

But two years later, the toy was adopted by Tokyo Disney, where executives were searching for fresh content for Tokyo DisneySea, one of the resort's two theme parks. They figured it could sell well in Japan, where teddy bears are a popular cultural symbol.

To make sure, they gave it a push. First came an elaborate back story: The bear had been made by Minnie Mouse, who gave it to Mickey to keep him company whenever he traveled. Mickey named it "Duffy" because Minnie gave him the bear in a duffel bag.

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