The Duffy Phenomenon at Tokyo DisneySea
Duffy the Disney Bear is a divisive character. At Walt Disney World and Disneyland, he has a small and loyal fanbase, but was largely unpopular and rejected by guests. It’s fairly easy to see why: Duffy is representative of the complaint that Disney is driven by consumer products and marketing. (Updated May 4, 2020.)
By any standard, the case of Duffy in the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort theme parks is an extreme example of trying to manufacture a successful vehicle for more 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.
Fans have seen through this and Duffy has failed stateside. The character’s merchandise flopped and his meet & greets have disappeared. In all honesty, I was happy to see most traces of Duffy vanish from Walt Disney World and Disneyland–I didn’t care for the character. However, my opinion changed totally when we visited Tokyo DisneySea for the first time. I now love Duffy!
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.
To be fair, it’s not exactly as if this is a new thing. Even in Walt Disney’s era, there was an effort made for synergy 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. But I digress.
A few years after first debuting as the “Disney Bear” belonging to Mickey Mouse, Disney and the Oriental Land Company fleshed out his backstory and made him into a spotlight character. They reintroduced him as “Duffy” in 2005, at which time he was an immediate smash hit with guests at Tokyo Disney Resort.
Five years later, this version of the Duffy was reimported to Walt Disney World and Disneyland as a prominent character. He has subsequently appeared at every Disney theme park complex in the world. However, he’s most popular at the other Asia parks, Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland plus Aulani, all of which also have exclusive Duffy merchandise.
Fast forward a decade from then, and Duffy has since been given a veritable posse: ShellieMay, his girlfriend; Tippy Blue, a mail-bird; Gelatoni, a cat artist; StellaLou, a dancing rabbit; CookieAnn, a baking dog; ‘Olu, a ukulele playing turtle. The first three friends have been warmly embraced by Duffy fans, while the latter three have had more mixed success.
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.
However, 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.
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.
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.
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).
In Japan, Duffy is a symbol of everything positive that people love about Disney. Quite the stark contrast to what he represents at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, right?!
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.
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.
Here’s a look at the show that runs at Cape Cod Cook-Off. It’s cute, with a Duffy song that is way too catchy.
You have to dine at the restaurant (the food at Cape Cod Cook-Off leaves a lot to be desired) in order to watch the show. On busy days, the line to order and be seated can exceed an hour!
Thankfully, the snacks and desserts at Cape Cod Cook-Off are usually pretty good.
Plus, there are always seasonal add-ons (like cups and cozies) that can be purchased. We love our Duffy Summer Fun stuff.
While several shops in the park sell Duffy merchandise, Aunt Peg’s Village Store in Cape Cod is the Duffy-dedicated store.
Aunt Peg’s is almost always packed, with merchandise flying off of the shelves. On release days, the line here can stretch into other ports of Tokyo DisneySea!
These life-size plushes sold in Aunt Peg’s cost around $400 US.
Given their price, we were surprised at how many we’ve seen out and about in the parks.
Many guests personify the plushes and treat them with loving care.
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.
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.
It’s likely 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.
Photographing Duffy and friends in various spots around Tokyo DisneySea is incredibly popular. So much so that there are these fold-out “Duffy Photo Points” throughout the park (pictured above).
On the in-room resort TV at the hotels, there’s also a segment consisting of tips for photographing Duffy.
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.
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.
Special Duffy photo spots were installed for “The Happiness Year” celebration.
At times, we have seen 4+ people in line for some of these photo spots.
There are a plethora of costumes available for Duffy and ShellieMay (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–an even more costly and time-consuming process.
These outfits are often times elaborate and beautiful. This is definitely what I like 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.
In Cape Cod, it’s not uncommon to see guests carefully posing a dozen Duffy and ShellieMay plushes, all with homemade costumes, in elaborate scenes. (That’s 10 above!)
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.
Some of these Duffy plushes are even “famous” in Japan, having their own Instagram accounts with thousands of followers. Like we said, it’s a phenomenon!
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.
I still don’t have my own Duffy, but… Since originally publishing this, we’ve “adopted” a Duffy (two actually)…plus a Gelatoni. We’ll probably end up with a ShellieMay soon, too. Maybe even StellaLou! (But not CookieAnn or ‘Olu, who aren’t part of the real crew. But that’s another topic for another day…)
It’s fun to embrace the Duffy experience to its fullest, and I respect the vibe Duffy gives to Tokyo DisneySea. Critics might contend that the park as-opened was an original, adult concept that didn’t need a mascot. In fairness, the same thing could have been said about EPCOT Center and Figment. Diversifying the appeal of a park is not necessarily a bad thing if it expands the audience and is respectfully accomplished. Above all else, Duffy embodies the zeal and passion guests in Japan have for their Disney parks. It’s tough to argue against that.
Planning a trip to Tokyo Disney Resort? For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Tokyo Disneyland & DisneySea Trip Planning Guide! For more specifics, our TDR Hotel Rankings & Reviews page covers accommodations. Our Restaurant Reviews detail where to dine & snack. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money post. Our What to Pack for Disney post takes a unique look at clever items to take. Venturing elsewhere in Japan? Consult our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan and City Guide to Tokyo, Japan.
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? Agree or disagree with our perspective on Duffy and friends? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
We adopted Olu Mel and Lina Bell today at TDS and had a blast taking pictures with them around the park. I probably also made at least 200 guests and CMs day with how I made my Olu Mel wave at them. When we lived in California and they introduced Duffy it just felt out of place for some reason. could be the way they did it. Over here in Japan it just works.
“I probably also made at least 200 guests and CMs day with how I made my Olu Mel wave at them.”
That’s fantastic. Agree with the rest, but that part is amazing. (Should’ve been Gelatoni, though. 😉 )
Back in the 1990’s -before Duffy became Duffy he was just the Disney Bear with the icon 3 rings Mickey head on his foot. He came in an array of colors. He didn’t even have a line of clothes yet. Just a naked colorful bear. I remember when she picked out her yearly Disney trip stuffed animal and she picked this bear. I kept saying are you sure you want this bear? What about Minnie or Daisy. How about Mickey? Nope at 3 or 4 years old this is the toy she wanted and that was that. She is now 26 years old and still takes “jewel” everywhere. She went to college with her and to this day she takes her on vacations with her. She is very loved and it shows.
My daughter and I are huge fans of yours Tom and we are even bigger fans of ShellieMay and Duffy. I have tons of pictures of my daughter through the years with her Shellie. She always represented the parks for us where as all the other characters represent a movie title also. Glad to see home much Duffy and friends are loved.
Thanks for writing so passionately. Shayla and Delayna.
My experience closely reflects your own. Hated Duffy during his stint at the US parks…thought he was nothing more than a Disney marketing cash-grab of the lowest order. Then went to Tokyo DisneySea. Now I get it. And I love him.
We like Duffy! He was the one character my 4-year-old was eager to pose with for a picture. We didn’t even know who Duffy was when we saw him at a character meet & greet in Epcot in 2014, but my son ran right up and gave him a big hug! Who doesn’t want to hug a giant teddy bear? 🙂 My older son chose a Duffy plush as his “something to hold” souvenir that trip, and it’s still a favorite. Did I roll my eyes a little over meeting a giant teddy bear right outside a store where you could buy teddy bears? Yes. But, my kids love him, so I‘ve made peace with it. 🙂
I wasn’t terribly impressed by Duffy when I first saw him in DCA many years ago. He was a contrived character & I didn’t buy it. But on one of our early trips when my son was about 9 he decided he really liked Duffy, so we bought one. And we got some really cute photos with Duffy as well (regularly clothed & in a Halloween costume once ). Years after that, we went to Aulani & I got sucked into buying a Shellie May plush (my son couldn’t care less at that point, but she had a really cute Hawaiian dress which was last years model, so she was on clearance). I had planned to take them both with us to Japan when we went last year, as I’d read about fans taking photos of them in the parks, but I forgot. I managed to resist buying more Duffy merch in Japan, but it was tough – I too appreciated him much more after visiting the Asian parks. (Duffy & Friends had a great show in Shanghai Disneyland too). Seeing the adoration he receives in Japan makes him all the more endearing. I’ve grown to love him too now. I’m even a tiny bit sad he isn’t in DCA anymore.
My daughter’s Duffy was her “souvenir” for the trip she (and I!) didn’t get to take because she was due 3 weeks after my sisters and parents got home from WDW.
When she discovered how big he is at TDS (thanks to this blog), she started saving her pennies to go see Duffy there– and probably buy several outfits.
It’s amazing how many fast food dinners I can talk her out of by promising to put the cash in our Disney fund!
She does have Duffy’s Mickey costume, complete with small Pluto, and has discovered that oversized shirts from some 18” dolls fit him. I personally like the witch’s costume she stuffs him into regularly.
My son fell in love with Duffy and the bedtime story that WDW played at night. He is missed by us.
I hear ya, Tom. I was stubbornly ensconced in the WTF camp… until TDS. Came back with a Gelatoni plushie and Gelatoni fuzzy hoodie o_O I’m still in denial of my StellaLou roots, but I might cave next trip out to TDS (a purple ballerina bunny… COME ON!!!). I have to decide if I’m staunchly monogamous or if I can embrace the multiple-friends-of-Duffy lifestyle.
This article is literally the reason I am now a proud owner of Duffy and all his Friends I have no regrets.
Duffy used to be named Max, and I hated that they changed his name. No Duffy for me.
Such an interesting read. I went to DisneySea a couple years ago and honestly was a bit annoyed with so much Duffy and so little Mickey. Just got back from Orlando with my bf where we watched the Duffy bedtime story in the hotel and I was sold. Came back with my own Duffy plush, of course. Now dying to go back to Japan to see even more Duffy goodness!
I kind of don’t get the idea that Duffy is only here to make money. What do people think the rest of Disney World is here for? The ENTIRE PLACE is here to make money! Every single thing Disney does is motivated by profit (maybe not what Walt’s motivations were, but if its not making money now, it’s not gonna be around for long). So people take it out on this cute little bear, when really — look around the place at your next visit. It’s one giant marketing machine!
I love the pictures and information! I got my Duffy about a year ago and I love mine! I’m not crafty enough to make my own outfits but I often get many from build a bear. My Duffy dresses up every day and also has pajamas for nighttime. My Duffy has dresses from the park and Disney dresses from build a bear. I like to dress my Duffy up as a princess usually because I do not have a Shellie may but I would love to get one at some time. I’ve even seen Duffy away from WDW in my state of Indiana. Duffy is more popular than commonly believed.
I was in the “mock and ignore Duffy” category for a long time because he didn’t fit in at WDW and was obviously just there to make money for Disney. His seemingly sudden appearance all over Epcot really annoyed me.
Last year I was going through a particularly rough day at work and decided to go to the mall on my lunch break for some “shopping therapy.” I went into the Disney outlet and spotted Duffy. I tried very hard to ignore him, but he was soft and smiling at me, and (after lots of internal debate) I caved and bought one.
I’ve loved teddy bears all my life and he comforted me that day, just as any cute teddy bear would. Forgetting the Disney aspect and controversy, he’s really just a very cute teddy bear.
Firstly, I enjoyed reading this article!
I am a half Japanese and half caucasian-Murican. Naturally, I grew up going to both Tokyo Disney parks and Orlando Disney parks. When I became a big kid (aka an adult ish haha), I chose Los Angeles for uni, so I was lucky enough to experience the LA parks as well. Yes, I am a big disney fan :)!!
Like the blog post, the biggest difference I noticed between the Disney parks in the States and the ones in Japan was and still is customer/ consumer culture. And I have to admit, I had to somewhat put on different masks in the American parks and the Japanese parks -it’s quite sad but not unusual considering most of bi-racial, cultural and lingual kids do just that with pretty much everything.
I guess this customer/ consumer culture difference is most evident with the Duffy merchandises, but with other things as well.
I think the Japanese Disney goers tend to “go all out” in comparison to their American counter parts. Personally speaking, except for the one time I went to the LA Disney with a bride-to-be sorority sister and her future bridesmaids sorority sisters and highschool graduation trip to Orlando Disney which most kids in my class were drunk on excitement for college and (many cases) actual alcohol, I don’t remember myself or many people in the parks above age 12-13 fully decked out in Disney goodies, costumes, and etc. On the other hand, it’s very common to see people from all age groups dressed up in costumes to clothes that look very similar to those of disney characters’ year around in the Japanese parks!! I even heard that with the American Disney parks, adults aren’t allowed to wear costumes 🙁 ?! But, well. I think it’s good that American children get to dress up & many actually do dress up like their fav princesses, characters and etc.
I think it’s this cultural difference that made Duffy possible and successful in Japan, but not so much in the US. Japan is also a collectivist society, so when you see a couple of people carrying duffy merchandises around, the next thing you know, more and more people will carry duffy around!
Though I’m a part of this TDL/TDS fandom (I’m an annual pass holder to both Tokyo Disneyland and Sea since I moved back), I am often surprised to see this duffy, shellie may (duffy’s girlfriend), and now gelatoni (duffy’s friend cat) craze.
Another thing Japanese customers love (this is beyond Disney. Convenient stores to bakeries and other businesses do this as well) is the seasonal, limited edition merchandises. I often see people lining up and buying up those limited edition goodies, but with duffy, shellie may and gelatoni, these things are gone if you are too late!!!
I think Disney’s marketing scheme is genius and almost border line scary haha
And to just tell an interesting side stories, Tokyo Disney Sea’s Cape Code within the American Water Front Area used to belong to Mickey& Minnie and Donald & Daisy before! They wore those nautical sailor clothings. The shops there had their merchandises and the hamburger place which now offers duffy everything (even a show) used to sell mickey shaped burgers. But now this whole Cape Cod area is all about Duffy and Shellie May. Oh and Gelatoni as well.
The Mediterrean Harbour area that’s closer to the New York Harbour/ streets is also totally taken over by Duffy and Shellie May as well, but mainly Gelatoni since he was released in July. Also, Gelatoni seems like an Italian cat? haha and the whole Mediterranean harbour’s theme being Italian…maybe?
Oh, while Duffy and Shellie May are still popular, it seems Gelatoni is the most popular thesedays. Most of the shops in the Mediterranean harbour to the Cape Cod have reduced their Duffy/Shellie May sections, and Gelatoni’s sections tend to be bigger.
I think all Duffy, Shellie May, and Gelatoni are very cute. I never had or will have any of the bigger plushes, because I’m not really into it. But I do have the smaller ones for my keys. As explained in the post, Duffy felt lonely because Mickey and Minnie are an item. So Minnie made Shellie May for Duffy, so he can have a special friend too. But I think I will be pissed at Tokyo Disney if this cat Gelatoni goes around feeling lonely and wanting a special friend too!!
I love Duffy. My Duffy even has his own facebook page. It’s called “Duffy’s Adventures.” He has a closet full of different clothes and I try to post a pic of him every other day or so. Bears bring smiles to people’s faces. For me it is just fun. My daughter has hit the age where she doesn’t want her picture taken with every monument or place of interest. So to make my picture special I put Duffy in it. If there wasn’t something special to me in the photo then I may as well be looking at anyone’s picture of a monument or place of interest on the Internet. I wish we had photo spots for Duffy here in the states. My arm isn’t really long enough to take Duffy selfies. It’s sometimes difficult if he doesn’t have a nice clean place to sit.
Thanks for this article, Tom. It’s really nice to see someone like you coming to this conclusion about Duffy on your own, and then writing a nice piece on the “why”. It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon to people in the US. After the half-hearted relaunch of Duffy here, I can see why. Disney as a whole has a problem putting its heart behind any product. Everything they produce these days is all about cash. Even collectibles. Yes, they have dedicated artists behind some of the nicer objects, but generally, we don’t get any kind of merchandise lines that are as well thought out as the Duffy line in Japan. I think it’s not necessarily a problem with Duffy either, it’s a Disney problem. That creates the perception though, that Duffy is a cash-grab. It seems more blatant to the more cynical American Disney fans.
If Disney could have handled Duffy in a very similar way to OLC, and done a thorough job of introducing him to people, I think he could have found success, like Figment. Even creating a show for him, or something like that. Give him a real sense of place in the parks instead of a makeshift gazebo or pavilion.
It’s interesting to watch people cheer that the Duffy meet-n-greet at DCA is now gone, to be replaced by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Granted, they are not in the same location, but apparently to save on the budget, they just axed one character in favor of another. However, those same people that are happy to see Duffy go, are happy to see Oswald. So, adults…who are now the ones waiting in line to meet Oswald, have an issue with a plush bear. Yes, Oswald has some established history, but he’s been absent for so long, that really he doesn’t have all that much more history than Duffy. Both Oswald and Duffy can be seen as underdogs who were not given a fair shake.
It’s amazing to see just how much the Japanese fans love Duffy, and the effort they will go. Also, it’s interesting to watch how OLC handles the merchandise. Yes, they also want money, but Japanese companies as a whole, seem to pay more attention to aesthetics when they release consumer goods. Even cheap things at least look good. So, with Duffy in TDS, there is bountiful supply of things to buy, but they are so well designed and thoughtful that it seems less of a crass marketing scheme, and more of a loving fan community. Although ask some of my friends who visit TDS on Duffy release days and they will tell you a different story of mass chaos and the dark side of Duffy fandom, but that’s another topic. On the whole though, looking at the way OLC handles Duffy, it’s easy to see why he is loved. Disney really didn’t even bother to adopt that model when transitioning the bear back to the States, and it shows.
Although it will be interesting to see what happens now that ShellieMay is being introduced at Aulani resort in Hawaii, and also at Hong Kong Disneyland. So, Duffy’s presence diminishes just as she arrives? Interesting choices there, Disney…
Thanks again, Tom, for articulating your Duffy “conversion”, it was nice to read that as opposed to the usual bashing he gets elsewhere.