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Vinylmation the next collectible in a long list of Disney keepsakes

LAKE BUENA VISTA

Johana Wynn spent more than $2,000 buying her first 200 Vinylmation figures, Walt Disney World's latest contribution to the collectibles market.

"We don't smoke or drink and our kids are grown up, so we're entitled to one obsession," explained the 41-year-old nurse from Okeechobee, whose devotion to everything Disney includes a 6-inch ankle tattoo of Ariel, the red-haired mermaid princess. "And Vinylmation figures are just so cute."

Say hello to what the Mouse House thinks is the next big thing in its theme parks' ever-expanding array of keepsakes. In less than two years, Vinylmation just topped one million units sold.

Each figure — priced at $10 for a 3-inch model, $40 for a 9-inch — comes molded in the identical silhouette of Mickey. Then Disney artists deck him out in theme park icons or as characters ranging from Mr. Toad to Miss Piggy. So far there are 315 models and at least that many more waiting to be hand-printed in batches of a few thousand each in Chinese factories.

Vinylmation is a clone of the Japanese monster and superhero vinyl figure craze popular among anime collectors since the early 1990s.

An Orlando core team of four artists designs new Vinylmation figures with help from handpicked freelancers. Their work has spread to Disney resorts in Hong Kong, California, France and soon selected Disney Stores, including a new prototype that opens soon in Tampa's International Plaza.

Disney merchants wanted more affordable art to lure the sticker-shocked into Disney World galleries, which are filled with commissioned Disney-themed art priced up to $16,000.

"We broadened the appeal of vinyl from 10- to 40-year-old males to all age groups," said Donald Ferro, product development director.

For example, one of the first vinyl series — called "girlie" internally within Disney — debuted in pastels and characters targeted at women. Publicly, it's called Cutester.

• • •

Disney has plowed the licensed products field for a long time. Walt Disney himself first licensed Mickey Mouse's image for a writing paper tablet in 1929, a year after Steamboat Willie, his squeaky-voiced rodent's first hit cartoon.

Since then Walt Disney Co.'s lineup ballooned into the world's largest stable of licensed consumer products with sales of $27 billion in 2009, enough to provide the entertainment giant with $2.4 billion in royalty and related revenue. Sales were flat during the recession, but perked up in the quarter that ended July 10 to 21 percent higher than the same quarter of 2007.

At Walt Disney World, a consumer products team juggles more than 1,000 products sold in the resort's 291 retail shops plus Disney parks worldwide.

In the theme parks, it all started with mouse ears. Roy Williams, a studio cartoon story writer who became an adult Mouseketeer in the 1950s, dredged up the Mickey Mouse Club felt ear hat from a 1929 cartoon called Karnival Kid in which Mickey tipped his ears as if they were a hat.

Sold for 69 cents apiece in variety stores in 1955, Disney fetched 10 times that at Disneyland once they were personalized with an inexpensive machine-embroidered name. Since then Disney has sold more than 100 million of them in the parks — one in 10 of all Disney World guests — including limited editions such as a new tuxedo hat version packaged with a Vinylmation figure and a satin hatbox that will go for $50.

Inspiration for park geegaws comes from all over. The pin trading business was lifted from the Olympics where people from different counties trade decorative national lapel pins. Disney scheduled its own pins for a 15-month promotion for the millennium celebration and then never stopped. Disney's newest: character wrist bands partly inspired by cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's yellow Livestrong bands.

• • •

One person's art is another's trash, but the popularity of what some consider commercial kitsch misses what drives demand.

"We are really selling the memories of a great experience," said Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney World. "An ear hat gives adults permission to feel like a kid again."

Plus, Disney doesn't treat a sale as just a transaction. By adding trading, it can become part of a bonding experience within a community of hard core Disneyphiles.

The company funnels harder-to-find limited edition design pins and Vinylmation through park employees. Some get them free. Others buy for their own collections using an employee discount. But employees wearing them on lanyards, chatting up deals with any taker, are a common sight in the parks.

Disney hosts monthly events in park hotel ballrooms that typically draw 1,000 traders. Several times a year Disney stages three-day trading events to draw more people to its parks and fill hotel rooms. Recently at Epcot, about 500 pin and Vinylmation traders paid $25 each to attend Trade City, a preview of upcoming designs, buy limited run releases and trade stories and vinyl with fellow collectors. In a blind silent auction, a bidder paid $3,500 for 55 Disney trading pins without knowing which ones were in the collection.

Trading interest is also spurred by the peculiar way Vinylmation figures are distributed. Some vinyls come blank so buyers can paint on their own design. Obscure designs are packed in mystery boxes where the buyer doesn't know what's inside. Don't like what you got? Trade for one you do.

Letting amateurs create and re-sell their own edgy versions of Disney characters is a departure for a company that's been so protective of its characters that it once sued a Florida day care center for painting an unapproved mural without paying royalties.

Vinylmation "is accessible art that combines creative expression with the thrill of the hunt," said Steve Miller, trading director at Disney consumer products and the public face of Disney vinyl and pin trading thanks to a blog, Facebook and Twitter.

As long as Disney keeps flooding the market with new designs and trading events where private selling is forbidden, fat profits can be illusive for collectors.

"You really have to know values because some figures trade on eBay at 10 times the original price while others are less than half," said Ann Van den Sompel, a 44-year-old Belgian who picked up the Vinylmation bug at Disneyland Paris serious enough to make her first trip to the United States for a trading event.

Some Disneyana fans quit building their pin trading trove.

"I've got 5,000 pins, but after 11 years Disney created so many designs, it's hard to make money," said Peggy Staab, a Brick, N.J., retiree. "We switched to Vinylmation. They're cheaper and there aren't as many yet."

Indeed, profit-oriented "pin sharks" nudged Wynn, the Okeechobee nurse, into Vinylmation, too.

"I don't collect to sell," she said, noting her home includes Disney kitchen utensils, a fence mural and a living room full of collectibles. "But I have gone to eBay for Vinylmation that I really had to have."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Vinylmation the next collectible in a long list of Disney keepsakes 09/11/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 9:38pm]
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