Reporting from Orlando, Fla — A few weeks ago, Disney introduced a new costumed character at its theme parks in California and Florida. He did not arrive alone.
Duffy the Disney Bear debuted at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim and Epcot Center in Orlando 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 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.
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, following 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.
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 then it was known only as Disney Bear, and it never caught on with shoppers.
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.
They then splashed the bear around the park. Duffy, outfitted in a new sailor suit, became a walk-around character and got a 10-minute show called "My Friend Duffy" that was performed multiple times a day inside a park restaurant. A new line of Duffy merchandise sprouted in gift shops, from furry zip pouches to molded popcorn buckets.
Duffy's popularity soared. Disney says the bear became a coveted collectible with women 20 to 35, who would sometimes line up in advance outside stores whenever a new Duffy costume was introduced.
While Disney won't discuss sales figures, it notes that it must periodically limit purchases of Duffy plush bears to three a day. Tokyo Disney recently unveiled a new companion for Duffy, a female teddy bear named "Shellie May."
"The story itself is really what made Duffy come to life," Trujillo said. "Even though there's not a story outside the berm [beyond Disney's theme parks], we managed to create one inside."
Now, Disney is taking Duffy global. He was introduced at Disney World and Disneyland on Oct. 14 and will arrive at Hong Kong Disneyland on Nov. 19. He's expected to eventually show up at Disneyland Paris, as well, though a specific date hasn't been set.
Park executives say their approach with Duffy reflects a pair of key business strategies: the "One Disney" theme-park initiative to share content between parks; and a broader, corporate goal to identify company-owned intellectual property, regardless of the medium in which it was created, that can be exploited across more platforms. (The ultimate example: Pirates of the Caribbean, the venerable theme-park ride that has since spawned a multibillion-dollar movie and merchandise franchise.)
Disney is also betting on Duffy to help reverse a slump in souvenir sales. Overall food, beverage and merchandise sales across Disney's theme park division sank 6% to $3.4 billion during the company's 2009 fiscal year, according to regulatory filings.
Still, experts say Disney faces a trickier sales job with Duffy merchandise than it has with other characters it has added to the parks recently, such as last year's Princess Tiana of the animated film "Princess and the Frog" or this year's Rapunzel of "Tangled." Those princesses had the benefit of expensive film-marketing campaigns to build public awareness.
"Selling a Tangled or a Tiana is a lot easier, when you've got the movie vehicle, than a Duffy," said Duncan Dickson, a professor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "A lot of people, when they go to the park, are going to go, 'What's that bear?' "