To the millions who visit Disney Parks in a given year, theme parks like Magic Kingdom and Disney California Adventure are for rides, shows and snacks. But for those in the know, each Disney Parks location — from Walt Disney World to Tokyo DisneySea — has layers of history and rich storytelling that have been developed since Disneyland opened its gates in 1955.
In addition to unique attractions and dining experiences, Disney Parks is known for its own original characters. And, there's none quite as cuddly as Duffy, the Disney Bear, and his small squad of friends. But just who is Duffy? And how did he and his pals become a part of Disney Parks lore?
When was Duffy Bear introduced?
It all started in 2002, when the Disney Bear appeared for the opening of Walt Disney World's Once Upon a Toy shop. But soon, the unnamed bear would go on a journey … and become an icon.
"Back in 2004, we brought the Disney Bear to Tokyo, but we wanted to give him a name and a story that connected him to Tokyo DisneySea," said Daniel Jue, a portfolio creative executive at Tokyo Disney Resort and Walt Disney Imagineering during a The World of Duffy and Friends Revealed panel at the D23 Expo last month. "There's an area there called Cape Cod (a part of the park's American Waterfront land) … that's where Duffy was first introduced."
"The story for Duffy is that Minnie [Mouse] stitched Duffy as a gift to Mickey [Mouse], so Mickey would have a companion as he traveled the different ports of call around Tokyo DisneySea," Jue shared of Duffy's true beginnings. In fact, parents who've put little ones to bed to the Duffy the Disney Bear: Mickey's New Friend bedtime cartoon formerly shown on in-room televisions at U.S. Disney resort hotels may remember this tale.
Duffy's humble introduction to Cape Cod, where stuffed versions of the bears were sold at Aunt Peg's Village Store for several years, launched a phenomenon in Disney parks across Asia. New stories, accessories, stage shows, specially-crafted photo opportunities, dining experiences and character meet-and-greets were added to keep up with the love for the adorable teddy bear. And, guests began to create Duffy-based traditions all their own.
Duffy's story evolves
"What's really interesting about our guests in Japan," said Jue, "they are taking their [stuffed] Duffy around their journey through Tokyo DisneySea, just like Mickey does. Duffy is their companion in the parks."
Jue explained during the panel that there's even a special way guests carry their Duffys.
"You never hold your Duffy with him facing you … in Japan, you always hold him facing out because you want him to experience the park with you," he said. "It's a very different way of thinking — of a friend, a companion. They will eat with their Duffys, they will get them highchairs, rent strollers for their Duffys, dress up their Duffys … even [dress them in] custom-made costumes. When we saw guests doing this — creating their own stories with their Duffys — that's when we thought, There have to be some more friends of Duffy to introduce."
Who are Duffy’s friends?
Today, the lineup, known as Duffy and Friends, includes ShellieMay, a bear just like Duffy, a green tuxedo cat named Gelatoni, a lavender rabbit called StellaLou, CookieAnn, the yellow dog, 'Olu Mel, a shy turtle, and most recently, LinaBell, a smart pink fox.
Each character is purposefully designed to inspire feelings of comfort and coziness, but that's where their similarities end. Charlie Wantanabe, a senior story editor at Walt Disney Imagineering and the global writer for Duffy and Friends, shared that each character has their own purpose and personality.
"One thing about Duffy and Friends is they all teach each other about something … the Duffy characters all have core values," said Wantanabe. "Duffy is pure innocence, ShellieMay is a little more adventurous, Gelatoni is a very artistic cat — not only artistically-talented, but he sees beauty in everything. He reminds us to see what's beyond our eyes."
Wantanabe says each Duffy and Friends character has their own unique relationship with the other characters in the group, each adding something to the story and dynamic.
“StellaLou is a rabbit who loves to dance, but she’s also pretty spunky,” he explains. “CookieAnn — even though she has a chef’s hat — she's not just good at cooking, she combines seemingly-unrelated things and makes something great. She has a very inventive spirit. 'Olu Mel is able to be one with nature, with the natural things we might not notice. He can create music with them."
Eva Lee, a senior manager of franchise development for Walt Disney Imagineering, shared that when creating a new character for the franchise, the team has a lot to consider. "We think about the whole group when we create another character," she explained.
The latest to the group, LinaBell, was released exclusively at Shanghai Disney Resort in 2021, and debuted last month at both Hong Kong Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Resort. When LinaBell was released into the world, Disney Parks guests waited in lines for hours to grab their very own plush version.
"LinaBell is the most intelligent," said Lee. "She loves to solve mysteries and loves to learn — like a detective. She likes to solve problems."
What's next for Duffy and Friends?
So what's new in the world of Duffy and Friends? A six-episode stop-motion show, based on LinaBell’s desire to solve the mystery of Duffy's missing lunchbox, is headed to Disney+, and will star Duffy and his buddies, leading some to wonder if a resurgence of the friends is on the way in U.S. parks, where they haven't been seen since 2018.
Duffy Bear as an in-park, costumed character made his appearance in U.S. Disney parks in 2010, but five years later, the character was removed from his meet-and-greet spot at Florida's EPCOT. In 2018, most traces of the bear and his pals were removed, seemingly overnight, from the stateside parks, with the exception of occasional merchandise releases. For years, fans have been missing their comforting presence, leaving many hopeful the D23 panel and coming Disney+ show are signs of fuzzy things to come.
Wantanabe shared that Duffy's stories are personal to him, based on his own experiences growing up. He believes there's a little Duffy in everyone. "We all have an inner Duffy," he said, "if we can remember that, we can go back to our pure innocent self."
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