The wait time in the queue at Walt Disney World's Epcot theme park was more than six hours, the kind of line that forms for the debut of a high-end attraction.
Awaiting 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 — limit two per person — and were soon spotted for sale online for as much as $270.
"Popcorn buckets are popular. Figment merchandise is rare," said Jay Cisco, a solutions architect from Winter Garden, Fla., 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 posted a vague teaser ad featuring the dragon on its TikTok channel, which has more than 4.3 million followers, it kicked off the kind of fan frenzy that erupts occasionally over Disney memorabilia.
The buckets went on sale about a week later at Epcot's International Festival of the Arts, which opened Jan. 14 and runs through Feb. 21. They sold out by Jan. 17. They're still selling on the online bidding site EBay for as much as $145.
Disney fans are notoriously devoted fans, and their commitment extends to merchandise the company strategically doles out to spark brand buzz and bring in big revenue. Plastic figurines become coveted collectibles, selling secondhand on sites such as EBay and Mercari at tremendous markups.
"I think I really liked collecting sets from my favorite films or favorite attractions so that when I look at them it reminds me of 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 age 12.
Beaven estimates she has spent more than $2,500 on her collection, which includes several hundred Mickey Mouse-shaped figurines that are emblazoned with the faces of other Disney character.
If the scramble for limited-edition Disney merchandise rings a bell, it's because new fixations erupt every few years.
A collection of dolls with oversized heads, known as Funkos, were a fan focus several years ago, with several reselling for nearly $5,000 each. Back in 2017, gold-colored Minnie Mouse ears became all the rage, as did the Mickey-shaped figures that Beaven collects — known as Vinylmation dolls — around 2012.
And then there was the fascination last year over pins marking the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Every few years, crowds form to buy limited-edition tiki-style mugs from 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. That surges when parks offer new souvenirs, clothes and hats that are tied to the opening of a new attraction, an anniversary, the launch of new characters or a holiday celebration.
Merchandise releases have become bigger — and more effective — productions in recent years thanks to social media, through which the 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 sings teasingly, "I know something you don't, I know something you will never know," while gesturing toward a picture of the Figment popcorn bucket in the backdrop. The video has been "liked" by nearly 80,000 viewers.
Disney collectors are hardcore fans whose "lives revolve around Disney," said Janet Wasko, a University of Oregon media studies professor who wrote a book about Disney's brand appeal.
"These are the people who put Disney at the heart of their lives, during important events like birthdays and weddings," she said.
Through advertising, she said, Disney promotes the idea that fans are not standing in line to buy merchandise — they are 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" that encouraged fans to share their videos, photos or stories of trips to Disney World or Disneyland for potential use in future ads.
"We believe that our products connect guests to stories and characters they want to remember with tangible memories and a sense of nostalgia," Disney spokesperson Liz Jaeger said.
Most special merchandise is sold in the park to encourage return visits by fans, she said. Disney also spreads the offerings across several locations within the park to minimize the hours-long queues.
Disney probably spends a great deal of time and research to determine what new items will resonate with fans, said John Gerner, a theme park consultant and managing director of Leisure Business Advisors.
Flooding the market with Disney merchandise might generate big revenue in the short run, but Gerner said Disney makes the smarter move of offering limited-time items on a regular basis, which keeps fans coming back for more.
"It's better to underproduce for this niche group and get the publicity value of all of these fans really paying top dollar," he said. "That gets Disney a lot more publicity and a lot more buzz."
The resale of Disney merchandise is such a big market that EBay has an entire category on its website dubbed "Disneyana." It lists more than 1.3 million items, including paintings, pins and Walt Disney autographs selling for as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ardent fans say they try to avoid the resellers, but if they spot memorabilia they can't live without, they will pay the markup.
Several EBay sellers listing the Figment popcorn bucket at double or triple the original price did not respond to email requests from The Times.
Cisco, the fan who stood in the six-hour line, is no stranger to long queues. He has waited hours upon hours for Disney pins, ears and a special edition 50th anniversary spirit jersey — a flowing long-sleeve shirt with gold lettering — and other things for his wife.
Cisco estimates he has spent about $1,000 over the years collecting about 30 pairs of Mickey Mouse ears. They are displayed like art on a wall at his home.
What made this stakeout unusual was that he was not there to buy the popcorn bucket for himself. He was doing a favor for a fellow Disney fan he'd 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 this, I had a few anonymous Twitter accounts harass me about 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 stand in line Jan. 14. He popped the bucket in the mail and didn't ask her to pay for any of it.
The two had interacted through Twitter before — occasional fan chatter.
"I'd never have asked for it. He just did it," Siegel said.
She has spent a few hundred dollars collecting several dozen Disney Lego sets, Funko dolls and figures of Mickey Mouse dressed as a sorcerer.
"I collect because it brings back memories from childhood, but I also believe it helps me heal my inner child as an adult," she said. "These items serve as a reminder to have hope and to dream."
"I felt it was the right thing to do," Cisco said.
When he queued up that day, he checked with Disney workers who assured him there were enough buckets for everyone in line.
"It was a gorgeous day," he said. "I had a great time in line getting to know my neighbors."