It’s not often that theme park news gets mainstream coverage, but when it does, it’s frequently treated as something weird or funny or embarrassing. Case in point: many outlets reported on the Figment popcorn bucket that Disney fans lined up for last week, with the wait at one point reaching up to seven hours. Yes, that’s a little ridiculous, and something I personally would never do—I can tolerate lines for an attraction, but not for snacks or souvenirs. I’m not here to encourage you to laugh at these people, though, or to mock the existence of adult Disney fans; no, my goal is to give you a bit of context, some understanding, as to why people might be so excited about a piece of dragon-shaped plastic that they’d spend the better part of their day in line for one. It only partially involves making money.
First, though, let’s talk about Figment. The purple dinosaur debuted at EPCOT’s Journey into Imagination pavilion when the park opened in 1982; the ride he starred in, which originally had the same name, opened five months later. From the start Figment was a staple of EPCOT marketing, with all the merch you’d expect from Disney: shirts, toys, hats, and, especially, stuffed animals. (I had the latter two when I was a kid. I loved Figment.) At the time EPCOT didn’t feature many traditional Disney characters, and so Figment became its go-to mascot, and the character most closely associated with the park. As a young child in EPCOT’s earliest years, I immediately recognized him as EPCOT’s version of Mickey Mouse, and was as excited to meet Figment as any of the cartoon characters at the Magic Kingdom.
Figment’s original ride was an ode to the power of imagination, and like many early rides in the park that is now known as Epcot, it was slow, lengthy, and built around multiple showpiece scenes filled with audio-animatronics. Many of the early Epcot rides were replaced throughout the ‘90s for experiences that were shorter, more thrilling, or cheaper to maintain, with the original Journey into Imagination going away in 1998. An entirely new ride opened in the same pavilion about a year later; it barely featured Figment, instead focusing on a new character played by Eric Idle. It was so unpopular that it, too, closed just two years later; it was updated with a new storyline that primarily focuses on Figment, restoring him to prominence, but as a foil to Eric Idle’s buffoonish scientist. That version of the attraction turns 20 this June, and guests can still experience it at Epcot today; there’s almost never a wait. It might be a marginal improvement over the second version of the ride, but it’s still a far cry from the one that opened in 1983.
Disney has often seemed less than committed to Figment as a mascot for the park. Like I said, he was almost entirely removed from his own ride for two years. The company long ago realized there was a nostalgic market for merchandise based on attractions and characters that are no longer found in the parks, though, so it’s not a surprise that they would crank out a Figment popcorn bucket—especially in the year that Epcot turns 40. Obviously it is a surprise to many outside the realm of Disney fans that people would wait in line so long, or pay so much money on second-hand sites, for one. Here’s why people got so hepped up over this overpriced little collectible.
First off there’s the obvious cynical reason, which is to make a quick buck. Exclusive theme park merchandise often sells for a lot of money on sites like eBay. It’s been very common for years for Florida residents to swing by Disney World on the release day of something like this popcorn bucket, buy up as many as the park allows them to (the Figment bucket was limited to only two per customer), and then flip them online at a great profit to collectors who couldn’t make it down to Orlando. Florida residents get special discounts on annual passes and park admission, making it affordable for them to hit up these on-sale dates throughout the year. And sure enough, on the day of release, eBay was already full of listings for Figment. The buckets are routinely selling for between $100 and $200, and occasionally spiking higher than that (one sold just today for an even $500). That’s a pretty good return on something bought new for $25 just a week ago. The large ecosystem of Disney merch flippers means every limited edition release turns into a mad rush, with resellers jockeying against fans and collectors who just want to get this cool thing starring a beloved character. The eBay vultures want their payday, the Figment fans just want their dragon-shaped popcorn bucket at a reasonable price, and the result is a line that starts hours before Epcot opens and stretches throughout the park.
Of course, for the line to get that long, there has to be a great deal of interest in the product itself, or the character that it represents. And that’s the second lesson from the great popcorn bucket drama of early ‘22, one that was long ago learned by Disney itself: there’s a huge audience of Disney fans that are nostalgic for classic ‘80s-era EPCOT, and who are willing to wait hours upon hours for limited edition Figment merchandise.
I don’t want to wax too nostalgic here, but Epcot is in an unusual position when it comes to Disney notalgia. Other Disney parks have undergone significant changes in their lifetime, often for the better, but no park has seen as big a shift in its theme and purpose as Epcot. The front of the park, an area that was known as Future World from 1982 up to 2021, has seen an almost complete turnover in its rides and attractions since the 1980s. Of all the Future World attractions that had opened by 1990, only two still exist in a shape that would be recognizable to Epcot’s earliest visitors. In the mid ‘90s Disney began a full retreat from Epcot’s original vision, and the result is a park that is today but a shadow of its old self. People who loved the original Epcot still miss it dearly, and many of them will hunt down any collectible that makes them remember the park’s glory days.
That popularity could be written off as pure nostalgia, but I’d say it’s also a testament to the enduring vision that Disney’s Imagineers introduced when the original EPCOT Center opened in 1982. EPCOT had grander ambitions than bringing popular movies or characters to life; it aimed to track the history of humanity and show where technology would take us in the years to come. Its best rides were legitimately inspiring, with Horizons and Spaceship Earth ranking as two of the greatest and most beautifully realized theme park rides of all time. People mourn that EPCOT today not just out of nostalgia, but because it had a purpose beyond simply entertaining its guests or capitalizing on Disney’s intellectual property.
It’s no surprise that those early fans of Epcot would feel nostalgic for the park as it was in the ‘80s. It’s no surprise they would want to buy a cute plastic replica of the character most associated with that era of Epcot. And it’s no surprise that those fans—and the speculators who want to rip them off—would show up early and wait an insufferably long time to buy that merch, knowing how quickly limited edition parks merchandise sells out. If you’re familiar with Disney fandom and the heavy amount of nostalgia inherent to it, the long lines for a Figment popcorn bucket make perfect sense. I personally would never wait that long or pay that much on eBay for it, but I can understand why people who are passionate about Figment or classic Epcot—or who just want to make sixfold what they spent for it—would. And hopefully, if you didn’t already, you might understand it a little bit more, too.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.