25 years of asking, ‘Where’s Waldo?’
Where's Waldo? He won't be difficult to find once the 25th anniversary kicks off for the bespectacled, and beloved children's book character. England got the global party started Thursday night, when it lit up its popular tourist attraction, the London Eye, in red and white stripes emulating Waldo's classic jersey. On Friday, New York's Empire State Building followed suit when it, too, was lit up in red and white.
For better or for worse, Waldo, who has already graced the pages of more than 58 million books sold in 30 languages worldwide, is about to become even more famous. And it has nothing to do with his creator, Martin Handford. The British illustrator, who dreamed up the picture-book adventurer back in 1987 and placed him in elaborately detailed, oftentimes humorous search-and-find backdrops from Hollywood to the Great Pyramids, sold the property in 2007 to Classic Media, a New York licensing company that has long had its eye on Sept. 21, 2012, as the start date for a Waldo revival.
As part of a year's worth of events and product tie-ins designed to launch Waldo as a lifestyle brand, the lanky explorer will race around the track at a NASCAR event next month. He'll be a category on the TV quiz show "Jeopardy!" this season. His smiling mug already appears in printed scarves from the Japanese fashion house Comme des Garçons and on commemorative coins from the Birmingham Mint. Even fans who want Waldo's happy-go-lucky look will have an opportunity, with eyeglasses and limited-edition cameras.
"There are a lot of properties we grew up with as children, but Waldo has transcended into a pop culture icon," said Nicole Blake, executive vice president of global marketing at Classic Media, which is working with 130 different licensing partners to promote the character. "Where's Waldo? is now vernacular for any time you're trying to find someone who's been lost in a crowd," said Blake, who was interested in Waldo for his all-ages appeal and sense of humor.
Known as Waldo in the U.S., the character is called Wally in most other parts of the world, including his native U.K. He is known as Holger in Denmark and Walter in Germany. But his image is the same in every country: That of a smiling world explorer, walking stick in hand, pom-pommed cap perched on his head, black glasses resting on nose.
"Waldo reminds us of everything we loved about childhood: Solving mysteries, looking at pictures and watching adults do wacky things," said Kaki Read, spokeswoman for Warby Parker, a New York City eyeglass maker that renamed its popular round frames the "Waldo" in early September.
In the books, Waldo is often spotted in colorful scenes packed with outlandish goings-on, such as a skier towed through the snow by a sport boat, or a camper pinned under a collapsed tent. Readers' enthusiasm for searching through these far-out scenarios for Waldo built the books into bestsellers, then a worldwide cultural phenom.
"When 'Where's Waldo' first came out, video games were still primitive, so you had this book that was kind of a game that was very portable that kept the kids busy for hours because once you found Waldo, you had a list of other things to look for," said Steven Ross, a story time reader at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., on staff since 1989. "It was the gift that kept on giving."
Waldo did, however, occasionally get in trouble. "Where's Waldo?" landed on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books for an image that appeared in the original 1987 picture book: A topless sunbather's breast was exposed in a beach scene crowded with hundreds of other beachgoers.
A portion of that same beach scene (minus the breast, which was removed from the art 15 years ago) will be wrapped around NASCAR driver David Ragan's No. 34 Ford during a Sprint Car race in Virginia in late October and will be available later as a limited edition die-cast car from Lionel NASCAR Collectables.
"Waldo is not your most traditional sponsorship," said Mike Laheta, marketing director for Front Row Motorsports, which owns the Ragan race car and typically sells on-car advertising for $150,000 to $200,000. Through Waldo, Laheta hopes to bring NASCAR to a younger audience who know the character but may not be fans of the sport. On race day, a character dressed as Waldo will also appear at the track, Laheta said.
Classic Media has been quietly setting the stage for Waldo's anniversary for about two years. In 2010, it launched a "Where's Waldo?" app that has since been downloaded 6.8 million times. More recently, it placed a character dressed like Waldo in the front row at New York Fashion Week and on the red carpet for the MTV Movie Awards, among other events. The details of Classic Media's partnership with Virgin Atlantic haven't yet been announced, but the sky seems to be the limit with Waldo, who may be the graphic on at least one of the airline's jets.
"Five or six years ago, we hadn't had any new Waldo books, and the property had become something college students were more interested in. Kids didn't have a lot of awareness of it," said Mary McCagg, director of licensing and key property development for Candlewick Publishing in Boston. "Now you can go into Urban Outfitters and get a Waldo tank top. It's reestablished the property."
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