Mickey Mouse has been a lot of things in his life, but a canvas?

That's the latest role he's playing in a new collectible called Vinylmation.

Sold at Disney Parks around the world, the 1.5-inch, 3-inch and 9-inch figures have enabled artists to "paint outside the box" and give fans a new way to look at the iconic movie star.

Basically backdrops for a host of other characters, the 3-D figurines have played host to everything from "Star Wars" to the Muppets.

They're an offshoot of public arts projects and they've even prompted a World-wide trading craze.

"The funny thing is, it was going to be a small thing -- two series a year," says Steven Miller, merchandise communications manager at Walt Disney World.

Fans became so enamored with the painted Mickeys they grew into a  new art form, with thousands of releases already in the marketplace.

The inspiration? A Disney World art project that let celebrities paint their "version" of a Mickey Mouse statue. They were placed around the theme parks to celebrate 75 years of Mickey.

That prompted Disney designers to rethink the concept on a more portable level and in November 2008 the first appeared.

Today, there are whole stores on Disney properties devoted to Vinylmation. Trading centers -- where collectors can swap their figurines -- are popping up everywhere.

The reason? Vinylmation figures are sold in sealed packages. Buyers don't know what they're getting until they've opened the packages. Because some series aren't open-ended, they can be highly collectible.

Fans could buy a whole tray of the figures (ensuring a complete set) but that would spoil the thrill of the hunt, Miller says. "The really successful piece of this is the socialization factor. They offer an opportunity for fans with a like interest to interact."

Need proof? A Vinylmation Facebook page keeps collectors abreast of the latest innovations and offerings. More than 13,000 are offered for sale on eBay.

Since those original "Mickey" days, Disney has expanded the line to include "park stars" -- characters from the theme park as the background. There's the Yeti from Animal Kingdom's "Expedition Everist," for example and the squid from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." "They're a way for guests to remember the parks and their favorite attractions," Miller says.

Naturally, they're only available at the Disney theme parks. And, to make the collecting even more intriguing, some packages have what are called "variants" -- a figure that comes with some difference that makes it even more valuable.

Although Miller says limited edition versions are particularly popular (one set packaged to look like sushi has its admirers), the company doesn't track the secondary market.

Instead, it's more interested in encouraging socialization -- just like it did with pin trading.

While some fans have felt the need to have every Vinylmation figurine ever made (just do the math), others look for themes. One, for example, might want to get all of the "Star Wars" characters that have been painted on Mickey's body. Another might warm to ones that are in a specific color.

Miller is a big "Tron Legacy" fan -- and has collected Vinylmation related to the film.

"There's the thrill of the chase and the sense of completion wne you find that thing you've been looking for for years," he says. "You feel complete."

Fans think of unique ways to display their figurines; others use them as a quick way to represent their personality: "That's who I am...that was part of my childhood," Miller says.

At a D23 event (a collectors convention), a 5-foot Vinylmation was produced.

And for purists? There are blank ones where collectors can create their own works of art. "I've had friends use them at parties," Miller says. "They're great for farewells or birthdays. You can get everyone to sign them and they're a unique figure."

While new movies are obvious sources of inspiration, Miller says the theme parks have proven particularly intriguing. "Vinylmation is a way to recall the attractions, the icons and the images they remember from that park experience."

The next big Disney thing? Who knows, Miller says. "There's always something new. I just went to the Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot and got jazzed. You see things that are tied to the Disney experience that you can't find anyplace else."



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