The wait time in line at Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park was over six hours, the kind of line that forms for the debut of a high-end attraction.
Waiting for the hundreds of extremely determined fans at the other end: a purple plastic popcorn bucket in the shape of a dragon named Figment. The buckets sold for $25 for a limited time — a maximum of two per person — and soon went on sale online for up to $270.
“Popcorn buckets are popular. Figment merchandise is in short supply,” said Jay Cisco, a solutions architect from Winter Garden, Florida, who stood in line with hundreds of people on a Friday in January. “Combine the two and it’s a perfect chaotic cocktail for capitalism.”
Disney has rarely produced merchandise featuring Figment, a character from an Epcot attraction called Journey Into Imagination that opened in the 1980s. So when the company released a vague teaser ad featuring the dragon on her TikTok channel, which has more than 4.3 million subscribers, she’s sparked the kind of fan frenzy that sometimes erupts over Disney memorabilia.
The buckets went on sale at Epcot’s International Festival of the Arts, which opened Jan. 14 and runs through Feb. 21. They sold out on January 17. They are still selling on online auction site EBay for up to $145.
Disney fans are notoriously dedicated fans, and their commitment extends to the merchandise the company strategically distributes to generate brand buzz and big revenue. Plastic figurines are becoming coveted collectibles, selling second-hand on sites such as EBay and Mercari at huge markups.
“I think I really enjoyed collecting sets from my favorite movies or my favorite attractions, so that when I watch them, it brings back fun memories and makes me feel connected to a place I love” said Johanna Beaven, 25, a marketing assistant in London who has been collecting Disney figurines since she was 12.
Beaven estimates she spent more than $2,500 on her collection, which includes several hundred Mickey Mouse-shaped figurines adorned with the faces of other Disney characters.
If the rush for limited-edition Disney merchandise means anything to you, it’s because new bindings break out every few years.
A collection of dolls with oversized heads, known as Funkos, was the focus of fans several years ago, with several resales for almost $5,000 each. In 2017, golden Minnie Mouse ears became fashionable, as did the Mickey-shaped figurines Beaven collects — known as Vinylmation dolls — around 2012.
And then there was the fascination last year with pins marking the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Every few years, crowds gather to buy limited-edition tiki-style mugs at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at Disneyland in Anaheim and Walt Disney World.
Merchandise sales typically generate about 20% of theme park revenue, industry experts said. This increases when parks offer new souvenirs, clothing, and hats related to a new attraction opening, birthday, new character launch, or party.
Merchandise releases have become bigger — and more effective — productions in recent years thanks to social media, through which theme parks or Disney influencers with tens of thousands of followers preview and promote products.
In the TikTok video posted by Disney Parks on Jan. 6, a person wearing Mickey ears teasingly sings, “I know something you don’t know, I know something you’ll never know,” while making a gesture to a photo of the Figment Popcorn Bucket in the backdrop. The video was “liked” by nearly 80,000 viewers.
Disney collectors are die-hard fans whose “life revolves around Disney,” said Janet Wasko, a media studies professor at the University of Oregon who has written a book on the appeal of the Disney brand. .
“These are the people who put Disney front and center in their lives, at important events like birthdays and weddings,” she said.
Through advertising, she says, Disney promotes the idea that fans aren’t lining up to buy merchandise — they’re buying childhood memories of park visits or beloved Disney characters.
In 2010, Disney launched a social media and advertising campaign called “Let the Memories Begin” which encouraged fans to share their videos, photos, or stories from trips to Disney World or Disneyland for potential use in future advertisements.
“We believe our products connect guests to the stories and characters they want to remember with tangible memories and a sense of nostalgia,” Disney spokeswoman Liz Jaeger said.
Most of the special merchandise is sold at the park to encourage fans to come back, she said. Disney also splits offers across multiple park locations to minimize long lines.
Disney likely spends a lot of time and research determining what new items will resonate with fans, said John Gerner, theme park consultant and managing director of Leisure Business Advisors.
Flooding the market with Disney merchandise could generate big short-term revenue, but Gerner said Disney is making the smarter choice to offer limited-time items on a regular basis, which keeps fans coming back for more.
“It’s better to underproduce for that niche group and get the publicity value from all those fans who are really paying top dollar,” he said. “It gives Disney a lot more publicity and a lot more buzz.”
The resale of Disney merchandise is such a large market that EBay has an entire category on its website called “Disneyana”. It lists more than 1.3 million items, including Walt Disney paintings, pins and autographs, sold for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ardent fans say they try to avoid dealers, but if they spot memorabilia they can’t live without, they’ll pay the markup.
Several eBay sellers listing the Figment popcorn bucket at double or triple the original price did not respond to email inquiries from The Times.
Cisco, the fan who stood in line for six hours, is no stranger to long lines. He waited hours and hours for pins, ears and a special edition Disney 50th anniversary spirit jersey – a flowing long-sleeved shirt with gold lettering – and other things for his wife.
Cisco estimates that it has spent around $1,000 over the years to collect around 30 pairs of Mickey Mouse ears. They are displayed as art on a wall in his house.
What made this surveillance unusual was that he wasn’t there to buy the bucket of popcorn for himself. He was doing a favor for another Disney fan he had only met online.
Jennifer Siegel, a graduate student and stay-at-home mom from Tulsa, Okla., had posted a message on her Twitter account about a week before the buckets went on sale, saying how desperate she was to get one. “After that, a few anonymous Twitter accounts pestered me for wanting one,” she said in an interview.
Not Cisco, who saw the comments on Siegel’s Twitter account and drove the 25 miles from his home to Epcot to line up on Jan. 14. He put the bucket in the mail and didn’t ask her to pay for anything.
“I felt it was the right thing to do,” Cisco said.
The two had previously interacted via Twitter – occasional chats with fans.
“I would never have asked. He just did it,” Siegel said.
She’s spent a few hundred dollars collecting dozens of Disney Lego sets, Funko dolls and Mickey Mouse figurines dressed as a wizard.
“I collect because it brings back childhood memories, but I also believe it helps me heal my inner child as an adult,” she said. “These objects remind us to have hope and to dream.”
When he stood in line that day, he checked with Disney employees who assured him there were enough buckets for everyone in line.
“It was a wonderful day,” he said. “I had a great time getting to know my neighbors.”