The Duffy Phenomenon at Tokyo DisneySea

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Duffy the Disney Bear is a divisive character in the United States. Actually, not so much divisive as unpopular or unnoticed by a majority of Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans, but also having a small and loyal following. For the group with whom he’s an unpopular character, I think it’s largely because Duffy is representative of the complaint that Disney now is driven by consumer products and marketing divisions, with great efforts made to manufacture success if that success means more merchandise sales. To be fair, it’s not exactly as if Disney hasn’t always strived for this to a degree. Even in Walt Disney’s era, there was an effort made for synergy (even if that word was never used) between areas of Disneyland and things like Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures. As is the case with anything, impressions of the bygone-era of Disney are remembered more optimistically and ‘unblemished’ than perhaps they actually were.

By any standard, the case of Duffy in the United States Disney theme parks is an extreme example of trying to manufacture a successful vehicle for merchandise sales. He seems to be less a meaningful theme park character and more a new attempt to find the next version of pin trading–a lucrative merchandise line that lends itself to repeat sales and special editions. (Where Duffy has failed in this regard, Vinylmation and custom MagicBands seem to be the merchandising spiritual successors to pin trading.) Instead of having a thoughtful presence in the theme parks, he strikes me as a cute meet & greet character randomly interjected places to sell plushes and clothing for them. Because he’s a thinly veiled merchandising ploy, I think Duffy has largely been rejected by United States audiences. I have not been a fan of him here.

My opinion of Duffy changed when we visited Tokyo DisneySea for the first time. I love Duffy in Tokyo DisneySea (and Tokyo Disneyland, but his home there is DisneySea). Before I get into the why and the how of what changed my mind, here’s a bit of background on how Duffy came to be. Or, at least my understanding of what happened. In the early 2000s, Duffy was developed as an ancillary toy–not even a standalone character–Mickey’s teddy bear. He was presented, essentially, in the background and available in some merchandise capacities in the United States parks, but he was never viewed or treated as a prominent character. A few years later, Disney and the Oriental Land Company fleshed out his backstory and made him into a spotlight character, introducing him as “Duffy” in 2005, at which time he was an immediate smash hit with guests. In 2010, this version of the Duffy, the Disney Bear was reintroduced in the United States parks as a prominent character. He has subsequently appeared at every Disney theme park complex in the world. Since his refresh, Duffy has since been given a few friends: Shellie May, his girlfriend; Tippy Blue, his mail-bird; and Gelatoni, his artist-cat friend.

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While Duffy was undoubtedly given a makeover in Tokyo for the express purpose of selling merchandise, which would seemingly make any criticisms about his presence in the US parks equally valid in the Japan parks, there is a critical difference between Duffy in the US and in Japan: guests absolutely love him in Japan, and he is a character with a meaningful presence. He is not just haphazardly placed wherever without any explanation as to why.

Virtually everything introduced in any Disney park throughout the history of the theme parks has arguably had ulterior motives in terms of merchandising and marketing, it’s much easier to forgive this when the end result comes across less like a product of a marketing machine and more like a natural fit for the park. Heck, there were probably ulterior motives even with our beloved Figment way back in 1983 given his large stock of merchandise throughout EPCOT Center, but like Duffy in Japan, Figment was a natural fit and had organic popularity. He was instantly embraced by guests because he came across as genuine. Same goes for Duffy at DisneySea.

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Seeing Duffy in Tokyo DisneySea made me realize he’s not an inherently bad character. He is beloved and there he has a storyline that fits the Cape Cod area of the American Waterfront, and Tokyo DisneySea in general pretty well. His “Spring Voyage” with Mickey Mouse is fun and cute, and it makes sense in the context of Tokyo DisneySea. More importantly for me as a cultural outsider, he is the single greatest example of how American culture has been not just been embraced by the Japanese, but has been transformed and turned into something of their own.

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For lack of a better way of describing it, Duffy and his friends are how Japanese guests “show their Disney Side,” to borrow a phrase from the current Disney marketing campaign. Throughout this post, I’ve included photos demonstrating the passion guests in Japan have for Duffy. It’s real, and I think it’s actually pretty cool to see.

Duffy plushes are to Tokyo DisneySea what Mickey Mouse ears are to the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. Duffy plushes have that quickly become such a popular and significant part of the Tokyo parks that they can likewise be identified as a quintessential part of the Disney experience in Japan. Yes, Duffy is quintessential Disney.

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Park-goers in Japan love Duffy so much that there are actually limits on how much of his merchandise you can purchase. Can you imagine that in the US?! Hating Duffy in Japan would be tantamount to hating Mickey in the United States. You’d be an iconoclast. I’m not putting Duffy in the same league as Mickey in terms of historical significance, but in terms of cultural significance, I think he’s right there with Mickey in Japan (Mickey is no slouch there, either). There, Duffy is a symbol of everything positive that people love about Disney. Quite the stark contrast to what he represents here.

This is really difficult to convey, and people who are only used to our Duffy might have a hard time accepting it. I think it’s almost easier to convey with photos than it is with text, so let’s take a look at Duffy in the Tokyo parks to get an idea of just how ubiquitous Duffy and his friends are there.

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Cape Cod is best considered a “mini-port” within the American Waterfront. It’s separated from the rest of American Waterfront, and it’s this village that is home to Duffy. This is where his meet and greet is, as well as Cape Cod Cook-Off, where he performs a show.

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Here’s a look at the show that ran at Cape Cod Cook-Off until this year. It’s cute, with a Duffy song that is way too catchy.

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While several shops in the park sell Duffy merchandise, Aunt Peg’s Village Store in Cape Cod is the Duffy-dedicated store. It is almost always packed, with merchandise flying off of the shelves. Those life-size plushes are around $400 US, if I recall correctly. Regardless of exact price, they’re very expensive.

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Here are the life-size plushes in the park; given their price, we were surprised at how many we saw. Notice that Duffy and Shellie May and Duffy are “cuddling” here. Many guests personify the plushes and treat them with loving care.

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Seeing Duffy pushed in strollers, given his own chair at meals, or being sat upright in a parade being area (on a mat, of course) so he has a good view of the parade is not uncommon.

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In this shop, every piece of Duffy merchandise besides these two plushes had sold out. Were they intentionally placed beside one another so neither felt “lonely”? Would a guest purchase one without another?

The point with these last few photos is that, for many guests, Duffy is not just a kawaii toy or plush purchased as a way to remember their trips to the parks. He’s also not just a collectible with limited edition merchandise that makes for fun collecting. For many guests he is these things, but for other guests he is a friend and family member. In this sense, Duffy transcends traditional merchandise. Friends of ours who have spent extensive time in Japan speculate that Duffy has special significance to many people due to the nature of Japanese culture, and can sometimes act as a surrogate child or close companion. I’m no expert on human behavior or Japanese culture, so what, exactly, Duffy is for some guests is beyond the scope of this post and is merely speculative. Without question, Duffy does have special meaning unlike anything I have seen of theme park characters in the past.

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Photographing Duffy in various spots around Tokyo DisneySea is incredibly popular. So much so that there are these fold-out “Duffy Photo Points” throughout the park. On the in-room resort TV at the hotels, there’s also a segment consisting of tips for photographing Duffy.

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You can also purchase a book that’s all photos of Duffy around Tokyo DisneySea. The photos in this book aren’t stationary poses; they are action shots of the plushes.

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Here’s one of the Photo Points in action. I was told that these were installed due to a large number of guests placing Duffy plushes in flower beds and other places that could be damaged. You still see guests photographing Duffy in places besides these spots, but presumably not as much as prior to their installation.

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Special Duffy photo spots were installed for “The Happiness Year” 30th Anniversary. At times, we have seen 4+ people in line for some of these photo spots.

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There are a plethora of costumes available for Duffy and Shellie May (far more than are sold in the US parks), many of which are quite elaborate and expensive. However, serious Duffy fans make their own costumes.

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These outfits are often times elaborate and beautiful. Think of it as Disneybounding for Duffy plushes. This is probably what I liked most about the Duffy phenomenon. Anyone can buy collectibles and souvenirs off the shelf and display them, but it takes dedication, effort, and skill to create something–it’s a way of making the plush their own. Plus, it gives other park guests something unique and cool to see.

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Whenever I have spotted costumes that I thought looked homemade, I have stopped the guest with the plushes and asked them about their Duffys. There have been a couple of issues with a language barrier, but most of the time guests understand what I’m asking, and are enthusiastic to talk about their Duffys and have their photos taken. The Mister Geppetto plush above is my favorite costume I’ve seen.

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These guests brought their Star Wars Duffy plushes for the grand opening day of Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. On that particular day, there were a ton of Jedi Duffy posed in various places around Star Tours (usually with FastPasses to indicate the date) for photos. Duffy is one way the guests at Tokyo Disney Resort outwardly demonstrate their passion for those parks.

All of this is ultimately what turned me into a Duffy fan. Like I said, it’s difficult to explain, but I think Duffy brings a palpable energy to Tokyo DisneySea that makes it feel like more than just a beautiful environment. It gives it an added emotional resonance, and this is mostly through the guests with their Duffy plushes, as Duffy’s presence in the park itself is fairly mild. While I still don’t have my own Duffy, I respect and appreciate this feel that Duffy gives to the parks, and the zeal other guests have for him. Critics might argue that Tokyo DisneySea was an original, adult concept that didn’t need a mascot, but in fairness the same thing could have been said about EPCOT Center and Figment. Above all else, Duffy embodies how much guests in Japan care about their parks.

If you’re thinking of visiting Japan for the first time and are overwhelmed with planning, definitely check out our Tokyo Disney Resort Planning Guide. It covers much more than the parks, from getting there to WiFi to currency and much, much more. For more photos and an idea of what we did day-by-day during our first visit, read our Tokyo Disney Resort Trip Report.

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Your Thoughts…

What do you think of Duffy? If you dislike him in Walt Disney World or Disneyland, does this change your opinion of him a little? Are you a Duffy fan? If you have any questions, tips, or thoughts to share, please post them in the comments. We love hearing from readers!

33 Responses to “The Duffy Phenomenon at Tokyo DisneySea”
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