How the Disney Bear Became Duffyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
When Michael Eisner came on board as the CEO of the Disney Company in 1984, he found a business that was not capitalizing on its many assets.
People had begun taking Disneyland for granted unless a new expensive attraction was unveiled. While attendance swelled as it always did during the Summer season and the Christmas holidays, it had fallen slightly during the other months.
Eisner thought that less expensive than attractions, limited time events would increase attendance in the “off seasons.” He was absolutely right. He introduced Circus Fantasy (1986), State Fair (1987) and Blast to the Past (1988) and these special promotions resulted not only in financial success, but public enthusiasm for them.
On the East Coast, Epcot was also experiencing lower attendance, so Eisner decided that introducing limited special activities there would produce similar results.
Unfortunately, his first attempt, the Epcot Daredevil Circus Spectacular in 1987 was ill conceived.
However, Eisner’s basic idea was solid and eventually led to the highly successful The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival (1993) and later The Epcot Food and Wine Festival (1995) which significantly increased revenue and attendance for the park even to this day.
Before those gems debuted, several other special activities were attempted including the Disney Teddy Bear and Doll Weekend, that originally began at Disney's Contemporary Resort in 1988 and moved to Epcot by the turn of the recent century. This event lasted for 20 years through 2008, and was held in May during the same time as the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival.
Dealers and fans who looked forward to the 2009 show were greatly disappointed when they received the following letter:
Due to the introduction of a variety of popular teddy bear and doll product lines, the need for an organized convention specifically for teddy bear and doll collectors has changed and will no longer occur at the Walt Disney World Resort.
We are pleased to let you know that you will still have access to a special line of teddy bear and doll products offered at disneygallery.com and at select merchandise locations throughout the Walt Disney World Resort.
Please visit disneygallery.com and disneypins.com for information about future offerings.
Walt Disney Event Services
The event was one of the top-tier shows in the teddy bear and doll industry.
Disney hand selected artists and manufacturers from around the world to showcase their masterpieces. Each artist/manufacturer created a limited-edition piece (numbered series) and one auction piece that was Disney themed.
While there was a public day on the last day, for the rest of the weekend there was a restricted attendance with people literally in tears if they received too-high a number so they weren’t always able to buy, at an exorbitant price, one of the limited-edition bears or dolls that they wanted.
The Disney Company eventually noticed that the Disney-themed bears were generating high prices (thousands of dollars) both in the auctions and later, on the secondary market.
With the August 2002 opening of a 16,000 square-foot toy store at Downtown Disney Marketplace called Once Upon A Toy, it was decided to create an exclusive Disney bear that could be sold to the general public, but adapted for “special limited editions” for the Teddy Bear and Doll Weekend.
It was primarily meant to be a marketing initiative to draw attention to the new store. It was risky because the introduction of the character would not be supported by any previous appearances in animation, comics, records or any other media. Basically, there was the hope that people’s love for teddy bears and especially one with “Hidden Mickeys” would be enough to generate sales.
Steven Miller, who is well known as the Merchandise Communications Manager, but at the time was a Walt Disney World Ambassador, was present when the first “Disney Bear” was sold.
Walt Disney World cast members who worked at the Once Upon a Toy store were given a special color sheet with the story of the Disney Bear and some merchandise information.
The Story of the Disney Bear
(Mickey holding his brown bear)
One night before the park opened, Mickey was sitting by the castle.
The rest of his friends had not arrived yet, so Mickey brought along his favorite teddy bear to keep him company.
(Mickey looking up over his right shoulder and seeing Tinker Bell hovering in the air with a trail of pixie dust behind her.)
Mickey was so excited to be in such a magical place that he wished he had somebody to explore the park with.
Suddenly, Tinker Bell flew down out of the starry sky and saw Mickey sitting there with his stuffed friend.
She had heard Mickey’s wish and sprinkled the bear with Pixie Dust.
The Pixie Dust filled the bear and he miraculously came to life!
Mickey was so excited and happy that he gave his bear a hug.
(Mickey hugs the bear and smiles at the reader.)
As soon as Mickey hugged the bear, a magical Mickey head shaped impression appeared on the bear’s face, forever bonding him with Mickey.
(Same picture as above but reversed so that readers can see the bear’s face over Mickey’s shoulder. The bear gives a wink.)
From that moment on, Mickey had a very special friend to share all his magical memories.”
Here are the “Disney Bear Facts” given to cast members in 2002:
Disney Bear is a “Once Upon A Toy” exclusive for the store opening.
He may live in other locations later.
He is a 17-inch bear that comes in three variations:
- Core Disney Bear—colors: white, tan, brown or gray
- Infant Disney Bear—colors: crème or mint green
- Lying Disney Bear—colors: brown, gray or black
The fabric on the Core and Infant Disney Bear is brand new to Walt Disney World. It is like nothing we have ever used on any of our products.
The stuffing used on all Disney Bear styles is unlike anything that Walt Disney World has ever had. It feels like powder!
Each face and body features different fabrics, giving each Bear its own unique look and feel.
There are four hidden Mickeys on each bear. Each of his back paws and hip have a Mickey imprint! Of course, there’s the Mickey on his face given to him by Mickey with a hug!
Disney Bear is not available anywhere but at Walt Disney World! He isn’t available at the Disney Store or in the Disney Catalog.
Unfortunately, the Disney Bear was not an immediate success as hoped. However, several of the teddy bear artists at the Teddy Bear and Doll Weekend show made different, limited-edition, handmade versions of the Disney Bear, including a Steiff version (by Margit Richter) in 2005 that initially sold for $5,000 each.
The Description: "Mickey’s famous silhouette graces this bear’s face and paw pads. Each Disney Bear comes with a booklet which tells the mythical story behind the origins of this Teddy. Disney Bear is five-ways jointed, made from tan and blond wavy mohair, and has darling hand embroidered facial features. He bears a red and white consecutively numbered 'Knopf Im Or' tag and golden Steiff button."
In 2006, there was a limited-edition by Steiff where a mohair and velvet Mickey Mouse held a miniature version of the 2005 Steiff Disney Bear. In 2007, Bev White of Happy Tymes produced a Disney Bear attired in Mickey’s Sorcerer Apprentice costume. There was even a version of Minnie Mouse holding a miniature Disney Bear.
In addition, there were a series of Disney Bears that were released during these events that more closely resembled the Disney Bear being sold at Once Upon A Time, but were hand made and often colored differently.
Disney tried several revisions of the teddy bear. At one time it was “My First Disney Bear” and dressed like a baby. There were even “Princess” versions in pink. Disney shrunk the bear to 12 inches and released them as “seasonal gift with purchase” if you spent $50 or more on Disney merchandise. The quality of these new versions of the bear, even though they kept the same basic design were not quite as nice as the originals. They weren’t quite as “plush.”
Yet, despite all the effort, the product was considered a “dud” by the Disney Company, who cleared their shelves and sent the remaining stock to their outlet stores.
The Disney Bear was indeed cute and the Japanese have always had an affection for things that have cuteness. The product was introduced to Tokyo DisneySea Resort as a special limited promotion for the Harborside Christmas celebration in 2004 in the American Waterfront area. It was still called the Disney Bear.
Guests went wild for the toy and, the following year, it was renamed, given a new backstory and was re-launched as a mascot for the Cape Cod area.
Roughly translated, here is the new story that was related in a storybook along with Mary Blair-ish illustrations to create that sense of childlikeness:
One day, as Mickey was about to set sail for one of his long adventures, Minnie thought he should have a special keepsake to remind him how much he was loved while he was out at sea.
She gave him a teddy bear she had hand-made with her whole heart.
Minnie wrote a happy "Bon Voyage!" message and carefully dropped it into a small glass bottle. She gently tied the little bottle round the bear's small neck, capped it with a cork and sealed it with a kiss for luck.
Minnie presented the bear to Mickey at the pier by the old lighthouse. Mickey smiled and placed the teddy lovingly into his duffel bag. Cleverly, Mickey said, "I'll call you Duffy!" since the duffel bag would be the bear’s new home.
One night out at sea, Mickey was so tired from navigating all day that he decided to go to bed early.
Duffy appeared in Mickey's dream, wearing a sailor's uniform and smiling. The happy little bear opened Minnie's message in the bottle and showed it to Mickey:
THIS BEAR IS MEANT TO BRING YOU LOTS OF HAPPINESS AND LUCK.
When Mickey awoke with a big smile on his face, he found Minnie’s message in his hand but he was sure it was sealed tight in the bottle when he had fallen asleep. Even more amazingly, Duffy was dressed and wearing the same sailor suit from the dream.
When Mickey returned home, he told the story to all his friends who agreed that Duffy was a special bear. In fact, everyone wanted one of Minnie’s special bears. However, there were too many orders for Minnie to make herself, so her friends all pitched in to help. Each bear had a message in a bottle around its neck. It was a message from the heart.
The storybook not only showed that people loved buying the bear but that they loved taking pictures with the bear. The bear sat at the breakfast table with Mickey and Minnie and had his picture taken. In his red duffel sack, he had his picture taken with Jasmine and Aladdin as well as other Disney characters because in this story, Duffy IS another Disney character. Supposedly, the joy of the people in the picture with Duffy would overflow to the person viewing the photo.
(Interestingly, the United States version of the story has Mickey and Duffy sailing around the world making new friends and “making memories that would last a lifetime." Every time they returned from their trips, they shared new photos with Minnie. The U.S. version completely eliminates the duffel bag or the message in the bottle around the neck. And while the storybook says that Mickey put the bear in his duffel bag, originally Minnie gave Mickey the bear in a duffel bag.)
Basically, the Oriental Land Company (OLC) had cleverly positioned the bear as a friend who accompanied you throughout your journeys and represented happiness. For a year until the Harborside Christmas celebration of 2005, OLC experimented with new costumes, different ideas and surveying guests and their reactions.
In December 2005, Duffy was born as not just a product to sell, but an experience to share. The character definitely fit in with the themes of Tokyo DisneySea including water exploration and adventure which is one of the reasons for Duffy’s sailor suit. Mickey is a sea captain and his first mate was Duffy, which is another reason for the sailor suit. In fact, Cape Cod became “Duffy’s hometown” with appropriate signage in the area.
In 2006, five new costumes for Duffy were introduced to celebrate Tokyo DisneySea’s fifth anniversary. They quickly sold out, especially since they provided the opportunity to “mix and match.” Just like the lessons learned from Barbie (“accessories sold separately”), more and more costumes were produced.
Duffy became established as a “photo and fashion” character.
In Japan, costumes expanded at a frightening rate including replicas of cast uniforms from Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland (a new one each month in 2008 to celebrate Tokyo Disneyland’s 25th anniversary) in addition to costumes for various holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
In particular, Valentine’s Day resulted in a “Sweet Duffy” Café event (starting in 2009) with special limited edition sweets, a drink, tons of merchandise…and, oh yes, a new “Sweet Duffy” costume with a café waiter’s apron for the month-long celebration.
At Tokyo DisneySea, Duffy performs in a live stage show called “My Friend Duffy” at The Cape Cod Cook Off Restaurant.
Some fans even made their own costumes for Duffy…and, in fact, sold copies of their designs to other fans.
Of course, the Disney Company saw that guests were buying mulitple Duffys to carry around as well as all the costumes, so they decided to re-introduce the character in the Disney parks.
The official relaunch was October 14, 2010, at Epcot at Walt Disney World because Duffy was a world explorer, although he was also re-introduced that same day at Disney California Adventure in California.
Officially, the Disney Company maintains that Duffy is not just a revised version of the “failed” Disney Bear. Duffy is a “cousin” of the Disney Bear.
In January 22, 2010, Oriental Land Company introduced a “friend” for Duffy, a little girl bear in a soft shade of pink named Shellie May. Actually, at one point, they considered the girlfriend would be a pink cat with polka dots (to theme in with Minnie Mouse) and dark red Mickey head silhouette imprint on her behind. Some prototypes were made.
Her story is that Minnie Mouse makes a friend for Duffy, who at first is a little shy and embarassed. The female bear wears a heart-shaped shell pendant and so Duffy says, “Nice to meet you, Shellie May”. (In one version, Duffy gives Shellie May a heart-shaped shell he found on his travels and she makes it into the pendant.)
Her Mickey “birthmark” on her rear is on the opposite side of Duffy but, overall, she is a similar design. She has blue eyes and a bow on her head (so you know she is a girl) as well as a skirt and panties when she first appeared. People waited in lines more than seven hours long to get into a store to buy Shellie May when she was first released.
Duffy brings happiness and Shellie May’s slogan is that she brings joy. She especially brings joy to the financial bottom line because OLC launched sets of matching costumes for Duffy and Shellie May, including new matching set costumes for every season. There seems to be no limit to the number of costumes.
In the United States, there are Duffy pens, handbags, key chains, magnets, Vinylmation, and even a plush Steamboat Willie Duffy…and limited edition Duffy costumes, some only available at Disneyland (like a Buena Vista Street Duffy) or Walt Disney World (WDW 40th Anniversary).
Disney merchandise today promotes the following phrase: “Duffy is your one-of-a-kind travel buddy. Where will you take your Duffy next?”
The Disney Company is taking their Duffy to the bank every day.