When Disney announces that a new princess will be joining its storied character ranks, you can bet that people take notice. And when the California-based entertainment giant revealed earlier last year that Elena of Avalor would be its first Latina princess and star in her own TV series, the buzz grew even louder. As the House of Mouse prepares to roll out the series Elena of Avalor on Disney Channel, consumer products partners are lining up behind the new property. So confident is Disney in Elena that she is not being licensed as part of the multi-billion-dollar Disney Princess franchise, but as a standalone property à la Frozen. And we’ve got a sneak-peek at the company’s TV and CP plans for its latest additon.
On the surface, the upcoming showcase for Disney’s new princess, Elena of Avalor, has all the ingredients that have made Disney the most prosperous entertainment company on the planet.
“We have a long, successful history telling the kinds of stories we are going to tell in Elena of Avalor,” says Nancy Kanter, EVP of original programming and GM of Disney Junior Worldwide. “It has that special mix of fairy tales with the right amount of drama and humor. We do that a lot for films, and here we had to right-size it for the TV screen.”
“There hasn’t really been a princess before that explores a specific culture in this way. We thought we could add to the story that we want to tell and use this rich environment for storytelling. ”- Nancy Kanter, Disney Junior Worldwide
Born from the successful Disney series Sofia the First, the initial 26-episode season of CGI-animated Elena of Avalor will launch July 22 on Disney Channel US. (It will eventually air across 163 Disney Channels worldwide.) While it mines territory similar to Sofia the First, and is connected to that series through the magic amulet that Sofia wears, the new series’ cultural influence sets it apart from all else Disney has produced.
“It will be completely obvious from the moment you hear the first notes of the opening music,” says Kanter. “This series is rooted in Latin and Hispanic culture and celebrates their rich traditions in everything from architecture and history, to mythology and language.”
Although the action itself takes place in the fictional locale of Avalor, the entire look and feel of the series will evoke a real-life Hispanic sensibility. “The characters will use Spanish for terms of endearment, holidays and food,” explains Kanter. “There is a Latin flair throughout—it is something that we have embraced.”
By featuring a Latina princess, Kanter says the series is consistent with Disney’s long tradition of promoting positive values like inclusiveness and multiculturalism. “There hasn’t really been a princess before that explores a specific culture in this way,” she says. “We thought we could add to the story that we want to tell and use this rich environment for storytelling.”
Brought to life by Sofia the First showrunner Craig Gerber, with the help of head writer Silvia Olivas, the series targets a core girls demo and tells the epic tale of Elena, a princess who returns to her beloved kingdom after 40 years of exile. Her goal is to lead the good people of Avalor into a new era of peace and prosperity. (Elena of Avalor has a standalone narrative, but will feature a crossover episode with Sofia the First during its debut season.)
“She takes the kingdom back from an evil enchantress and rallies all the people through her leadership,” says Kanter. “She wants to be the best leader she can be.”
Of course, there is a cast of characters to help in her quest, including her loving grandparents (part of the Ruling Council), her sister Princess Isabel, wizard-in-training Mateo, and Naomi, a friend with a decidedly non-royal background.
“The qualities of leadership, bravery and courage are the focus of this series,” says Kanter. “She is a really empowered, bold and interesting character.”
While episodes will be released via the Disney Channel app on July 1, in advance of the primetime double-episode rollout in the US later that month, the early test-market reaction has already met Disney’s expectations.
“People have been pretty wowed,” says Kanter. “It has received a very positive reaction from girls who see the main character as more than a beautiful girl who wears a great dress and has a talking amulet. Maybe more important, she is also an intelligent adventurer and an effective, kind leader, too.”
Given Elena’s intricate backstory and toyetic features like her magical scepter and animal sidekick, Skylar, Disney’s doll licensee Hasbro has high hopes for the new princess and her ability to make significant noise in the US$650-million fashion doll category. (In what could be called a licensing coup, Hasbro scored the Disney fashion doll license from Mattel in 2015 and started shipping its first range in January.)
“Elena is clever and adventurous and bold,” says Jean Gomez, VP of marketing and global brand strategy at the toyco. “Where there is good content—and Disney always makes good content—there are going to be kids who want to act out what they see on TV.”
Its first outing for the brand is the feature 11.5-inch Disney My Time Singing Elena fashion doll, a new entry in the market that will reflect both the series’ Latin feel and musical elements. The doll’s key feature is Elena’s magical amulet that delivers her signature song “My Time” at the push of a button. The Hasbro line will also include secondary characters such as Elena’s sister princess Isabel, who will also get the fashion doll treatment, and a molded Skylar figure.
The Disney My Time Singing Elena will retail for US$29.99 and is expected to reach mass distribution with a global launch on August 1, only a couple weeks after the series bows on Disney Channel.
Gomez says that for a blue-chip program like Elena of Avalor, there is no need to wait the customary nine- to 18-month period after a show’s launch to put the toys onto shelves. “Kids are so quick with the ‘see and want’ now,” she says, adding that Hasbro’s long-term partnership with Disney has allowed the companies to invest more time in product development and production in order to meet the tight new timelines that the market demands.
And the introduction of a new fashion doll into the market could be coming at a fortuitous time for Disney and Hasbro, according to Juli Lennett, SVP and industry analyst for The NPD Group’s US Toys division.
The latest numbers from the Port Washington, New York-based market research firm indicate that the overall fashion doll segment experienced two years of growth, thanks to the popularity of Disney’s Frozen, released in 2013. The blockbuster film drove more than a US$500 million in revenue across all categories in 2014 and 2015. However, with the Frozen program maturing and adding other categories like building sets to its roster, there might be a fresh opportunity for growth in fashion dolls. “I think it’s cyclical,” says Lennett. “When you are coming off banner years with such big IPs, that is just how it is going to work. It can’t possibly keep going.”
While the toy industry as a whole is up 6% in Q1, the fashion doll segment is not performing as well, suffering a 5% decline in the same period. However, there is no need to panic. “They had fashion dolls back in the caveman days,” assures Lennett. “It is a classic play pattern that is definitely not going anywhere.”
Of course, the stakes are high for any entry into this category. It is a notoriously crowded marketplace with intense and iconic competition. “Barbie is still the number-one fashion doll,” notes Hasbro’s Gomez. “I think people sometimes forget that.”
Rounding out the top-three bestsellers in the category are Mattel’s Monster High and Disney’s Frozen. MGA Entertainment’s born-again Bratz and its relative newcomer Project MC² are also strong competitors vying for fashion-doll dollars.
However, Lennett says the result of all that competition can sometimes produce a bigger overall category that will benefit all major players. “You saw that happen when Frozen came out,” she says. “It grew the category. The same with something like Barbie Fashionistas. I’d say Elena of Avalor has the potential to grow the category, as well.”
Fashion dolls is not the only category that Disney will be looking to shake up with its new princess property. Josh Silverman, EVP of global licensing for Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, says a major licensing program with a slew of already-inked deals is in the offing for Elena of Avalor.
“We have focused on leveraging best-in-class licensees to create high-quality products that bring the story to life in an authentic way,” says Silverman, adding that in addition to Hasbro, Disney has also signed Jakks Pacific for a complete line of dress-up accessories and role-play items that will also feature musical elements such as a role-play guitar, scepter and light-up dress.
Other partners on-board the US program include Amscam and Disguise, which will deliver Halloween costumes featuring all the key characters this fall. Additionally, Franco Manufacturing and Children’s Apparel Network are signed up to develop softlines that will hit mass retail this fall.
Disney will leverage its own retail outlets by introducing some product online first on June 13, and then in its Disney Stores starting on June 20—weeks ahead of the series’ network debut. In addition, Elena-themed windows will start to roll out at all Disney Store locations in July, and retail giant Walmart has committed to supporting the program with media on Disney Channel throughout all of August.
Retail carriage and promotion promises to be robust with Walmart, Target and Toys “R” Us all participating.
Elena of Avalor will also be supported through Disney’s multiple theme parks. She will be introduced at Disney World in Orlando, Florida in August, and a California-based Disneyland Resort debut expected to follow.
Silverman is confident that Elena will follow in the same successful glass-slipper-clad footsteps as other princesses before her. “The amazing story of Elena will resonate with fans all over the world,” he says.