We all hate change. As Disney-lovers, resisting change in the interest of nostalgia is the wrench (or spanner) embedded into the gears of our souls. We fear it and often resent it with kind of push back that internet forums are made from. So when a new character is introduced to us as the Disney audience, it isn’t uncommon for us to stare back at it like disgruntled three-year-olds before turning our backs in disgust. A perfect example of this was the debut of the rebranded Disney Bear, Duffy. Even though we were able to appreciate the popularity of Duffy the Bear throughout the Asian markets, his introduction to the Californian Disney parks wasn’t met with the instant fandom he had previously seen. Ultimately, his Mickey silhouette shaped face wasn’t enough to bring fans rushing to his meet and greet line and he was subsequently retired in 2014.
Duffy was doomed with western audiences from the beginning, lacking ties to a movie, or storyline, or anything, really. Duffy comes across to many as a simple money grab for merchandise opportunities. In fact, Duffy didn’t even have a storyline at all until more than a year after its release in the Japanese parks of Tokyo in 2005. The story was an afterthought and has always felt like it.
Despite this, the Duffy the bear phenomenon continues to grow throughout the Disney Tokyo, Disney Hong Kong, and Disney Shanghai fan base with the introduction of more friendly characters to complete the Duffy lineup. Gelatoni, ShellieMay, StellaLou, and Cookie were all a product of the Duffy fanfare throughout the Asian region, each with their own intertwining storyline and supposed rightful place in this modern-day fab five. I for one was happy for this new group of mystery characters to remain loved in the hearts of an overseas audience, as I found their existence confusing.
This continued effort to symmetrically couple off each character with a girl or boy partner seems repetitive in this day and age. Am I suggesting that Duffy should have had a boyfriend named Scruffy with a five o’clock shadow and a center-dent fedora instead of ShellieMay? Well, maybe, come to think of it, but that wasn’t the point. Haven’t we reached a stage where characters can just exist in themselves or in a group of friends without requiring the Mickey and Minnie style spin-off of his and hers? Is it the weak backstory or poor makeover existence that makes Duffy less desirable to an audience of Disney fans that are used to strong characters, dynamic storylines and a media franchise backing each one that is able to draw you into their world? This add-on style of introduction and re-introduction for Duffy feels a little forced. He’s a bear! Now he is a bear with a name! Now he is a bear with a sailor hat! Yeah, no.
I was feeling quite disillusioned by the whole thing, so when news broke in 2018 of the new addition to the Duffy friendship circle, I can’t say I was paying too much attention. That was until I made a recent trip to Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa and met ‘Olu.
Here is the official word from Disney Parks Blog on July 20th, 2018 on how the duo came to be:
“As Mickey and Duffy sailed the islands on a quest to find the perfect birthday present for ShellieMay, rhythmic sounds of an ‘ukulele called to them over the ocean, leading them to a cozy cove and to ‘Olu, a kindhearted turtle playing happy music.
‘Olu smiled and shyly greeted Duffy, “I play my ‘ukulele to make songs of love. Want to sing with me?” ‘Olu strummed a beautiful song for his new friends. “That will be the perfect present for ShellieMay!” said Duffy excitedly. Off to the party they went, singing the special song together for their birthday friend.”
Maybe I am just a sucker for a Ukelele and a hibiscus flower but ‘Olu had me at hello. In spite of the two paragraphs of less-than-interesting backstory quoted above, ‘Olu doesn’t come from an epic tale and his existence doesn’t seem anymore well-concocted than any of the other Duffy-related characters but dude, he is cute. Perhaps it stems from the idea that Aulani finally has its own character identity, unique to the Hawai’ian island resort on Oahu, that has a name and heritage directly in line with where he is from. Duffy, on the other hand, was born as an unnamed bear in Orlando before migrating east and has always felt more like he is mid identity-crisis than anything else.
‘Olu is dressed in a cute little Hawai’ian shirt with a hat and shorts and has a simplicity about him that makes me smile. He is humble and thoughtful and isn’t trying to be anything he isn’t. Show-boat Duffy, I am looking at you.
Much like the Aulani resort itself, ‘Olu feels like a beautiful blend of traditional Disney cuteness mixed with the culture of the Hawai’ian people. The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is known locally as “Honu,” and is regarded as a symbol of good luck, endurance, and long life, some living to be between 80 – 100 years old. Hawai’ians also believe that turtles can appear as a person’s “Aumakua” or guardian spirit. It is further said that turtles are excellent navigators and often find their way home, which is a prudent personality trait for a character that has originated on a small island in the Pacific Ocean.
‘Olu feels almost like the traveler’s friend with a more spiritual presence in the resort that I expected. His merchandise range is small and limited to his basic design, which keeps him feeling less like a gimmick and more like an ambassador for his resort and his island. It was no surprise that many others felt the same way, with ‘Olu stock displayed in prime positions throughout the Aulani gift shop and Duffy merchandise squirreled away in the back under a sign that read “clearance.” Still, no one disturbed it.
Aloha ‘Olu, and welcome to the Disney Ohana.