Move over Mickey Mouse: Disney’s hottest hit in China is a pink fox called LinaBell

Tracy Qu and Iris Deng, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 10 2022 12:14 PM | Updated as of Jan 10 2022 12:33 PM

LinaBell, a pink fox developed by Shanghai Disney Resort that is largely unknown in the Western world, has become a new fan favourite in China. Photo: Weibo
LinaBell, a pink fox developed by Shanghai Disney Resort that is largely unknown in the Western world, has become a new fan favourite in China. Photo: Weibo

Around the world, the name Disney is usually associated with classic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, but in China, soft toys of LinaBell - a pink fox that did not exist until four months ago - have become the latest offerings from the "happiest place on Earth" to set off a mania among young consumers.

Three days before New Year's Eve, thousands of people lined up outside the Shanghai Disney Resort overnight, braving the cold weather in hope of grabbing a prized limited Christmas version of the LinaBell doll. In one video that went viral online, a man who failed to get his hands on the blue-eyed, tartan-skirt-wearing stuffed animal broke down on his knees and yelled that he had blood in his urine for standing too long.

Shanghai Disney Resort, the only location where the item was sold, went on to publish an apology letter on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, saying that it "regrets that demand could not be all met".

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The frenzy around LinaBell, which was introduced as the latest member of Disney's Duffy and Friends toy line, provides a glimpse of the amount of money that China's younger generation is willing to spend on a product created by a foreign brand that is tailored to meet their unique tastes and preferences.

May Peng, a woman in her 20s from Guangdong, said that she understands why people would find comfort in being greeted by LinaBell at Shanghai Disney Resort.

"She is a vivid character who is sometimes childish, and sometimes warm. The actor who played the role is very energetic and hard-working," Peng said. "Think about it, if you can buy happiness with 500 yuan (US$78.4), why not? Life has been really hard, and LinaBell is the sweetest."

Unlike most Disney characters, LinaBell became a hit in China without first appearing in a film or television show. Rather, just like so many personalities and characters who have found fame in the internet era, LinaBell first landed on many people's radar through social media.

Many fans said they first came across the cartoon fox when friends sent them virtual stickers made from LinaBell's photos on Tencent Holdings' ubiquitous messaging app WeChat. On social media platforms such as Weibo and Xiaohongshu, as well as video-streaming platforms like Bilibili, LinaBell has been featured in countless videos taken by tourists at Shanghai Disney Resort.

Fans often refer to LinaBell as their "daughter". Many even show interest in the Disney employees who dress as LinaBell at Shanghai Disney Resort. Internet users speculate that at least three different people have played the role, based on how the costume fits the person inside at different times.

In a video that was reposted more than 700 times on Weibo within hours, LinaBell was seen comforting a woman who cried in joy on meeting the character. The fox gave her a hug, while dancing and wagging her tail, prompting one Weibo user to exclaim, "Our daughter is so warm. I almost cried, too."

"I think for many people, she is a character who lives in the fantasy world and will never hurt you," Peng said. "Even though you know she is not a real person, just think about the actors who play the role - they are also trying their best to be kind. You will also encourage yourself to keep going."

Much of LinaBell's appeal lies in the ability for fans to meet the character in person, said Zhu Changci, an analyst at market research firm Leadleo.

"The interaction between LinaBell and the tourists makes her a vivid character that is not limited to simple text descriptions like 'courage' and 'curiosity'," Zhu said. "These interactions are in line with the personalities and consumption patterns of Generation Z."

The character's popularity has sent the second-hand prices of LinaBell dolls soaring.

Most original LinaBell dolls are officially priced at around a few hundred yuan, but on Xianyu, a popular used goods trading platform owned by Alibaba Group Holding, some people are selling theirs at around 2,000 yuan - nearly 10 times the original price. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

Meanwhile, enterprising merchants are rushing to produce copycats, often sold for much less than the originals. On Xianyu and Alibaba's business-to-business trading platform, a search for LinaBell turned up dolls that cost as little as a few dozen yuan.

A Xianyu merchant, who declined to be named, started selling LinaBell dolls for 158 yuan each - cheaper than Disney's official price - more than a month ago. "Many (merchants) have made sewing patterns (based on the original version). In just a few months' time, I think almost all Disney fans had bought at least one (LinaBell) doll," she said, adding that she expects LinaBell's popularity to last for about half a year.

These cheaper versions of LinaBell toys sometimes led to disappointment.

A 27-year-old woman from Wuhan, who asked to be referred to as Jiali, said she received a LinaBell doll from her boyfriend as a surprise gift, only to find that its fur kept falling off, while its eyes looked a bit "spooky". Her boyfriend said he spent 500 yuan on the doll, which came with a price tag of 219 yuan, from a seller on e-commerce platform Shihuo who claimed it was authentic.

"It didn't feel right when I got it," Jiali said. "I'm pretty sure it's fake after comparing it to others, but it really did a good job in making it look real."

Jiali ended up applying for a refund, but said she understood how others would be happy to pay up.

"It's incredible how these sellers dare to sell a fake doll at 500 yuan," she said. "(But) people can spend as much as they're willing to pay for something they like."