The objective of each Where's Waldo? book is simple enough: comb through the crowds of people to find Waldo, who's always decked out in his trademark red and white striped sweater and glasses. But simplicity isn't on creator Martin Handford's agenda. The English artist has made a career out of crafting immense visual puzzles, complete with mammoth oceans of people, spiraling buildings, and mythical beasts that make spotting the elusive Waldo an exercise in patience and frustration, even for the most eagle-eyed fans. With the character celebrating his 30th anniversary in 2017, we're taking a look at 14 facts about Where's Waldo?
1. MARTIN HANDFORD'S FIRST NOTABLE WORK WAS A VAPORS ALBUM COVER.
Waldo's creator didn't start his career with an eye on children's books. One of his most noteworthy pre-Waldo works was the art for the 1981 album Magnets by The Vapors, of "Turning Japanese" fame. Despite debuting more than half a decade before Waldo, the album cover looks like it would fit right in with one of his famous look-and-find books. The album cover depicts one of Handford's trademark crowd scenes, pulled out far enough so the swarms of people all form the shape of a giant eye.
2. NO ONE CAN AGREE ON WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA OF WALDO.
When David Bennett, art director of Walker Books, was looking to produce a picture book similar to Philippe Dupasquier’s Busy Places series, he needed someone who could specialize in one thing: crowd scenes. While he knew Handford would be perfect for the job, someone at Walker didn’t think a book of crowds—no matter how well illustrated—would be enough. According to Walker’s character publisher, Donna Cassanova, someone at the company came up with a way to turn a crowd scene into something far more interactive for readers.
"The company was getting ready for Bologna Book Fair and, just a week or so before, someone—several laid claim to being the 'someone'—said, 'Wouldn't it be good if you were looking for an individual within that crowd scene, rather than just looking at a crowd?'" Cassanova told The Independent. "Everybody thought there was something in that." Bennett took the idea to Handford, who, in just 24 hours, created a two-page spread that the publisher displayed at the book fair. "Within 24 hours there was a huge crowd of people standing round looking for Wally," as the character was called in the UK. ("In England," Handford explained to The New York Times, "if someone says something silly or looks slightly foolish, he is called a Wally. He is a little goofy, but well-meaning.")
Though no one can quite pin down who this "someone" was, the idea worked, and when the first book, Where's Wally?, hit the UK in 1987, it began something of a phenomenon. The first four books sold more than 18 million copies worldwide in the first four years of the series' existence, far outpacing other children's books of the time (which would sell around 50,000 typically). Since then, the series has sold more than 55 million books, and is available in more than 35 countries and 30 languages.
3. HIS NAME WAS CHANGED TO WALDO FOR THE AMERICAN RELEASE.
When Wally made the jump to the U.S. publishing market, he got a new moniker. John G. Keller, vice president and publisher of children's books for Little, Brown at the time, wasn't a fan of the name Wally. He told The New York Times that the name "reminded me of Wallis Simpson," who married King Edward VIII after he abdicated the throne of England for her. And so Wally became Waldo—and that's far from the only name given to the bespectacled world traveler. To name just a few: In Germany, he's known as Walter; in France, Charlie; in Vietnam, Van Lang; in Lithuania, Jonas; and in Italy, Ubaldo.
4. EACH PUZZLE TAKES WEEKS TO COMPLETE.
While you're busy frantically searching for Waldo, you can't always appreciate just how impressive the level of detail is on each page. Every scene takes Handford around eight weeks to finish. "I work in stages across the page, from left to right," he told The New York Times in 1990. "I start out with a list of about 20 gags I want to put in a picture, but more come to me as I am working."
But despite the care that goes into every inch of the page, the placement of Waldo himself isn't exactly a science. “As I work my way through a picture, I add Wally when I come to what I feel is a good place to hide him,” Handford said in an interview with Scholastic. Handford has plenty of places to hide Waldo—each scene includes anywhere from 300 to 500 characters, all meticulously drawn by Handford to the same scale as they appear in the book.
5. HANDFORD'S FAVORITE WALDO SCENE IS A MASSIVE ODE TO MOVIE MUSICALS.
Though most artists loathe talking about their favorite works, Handford did reveal the Waldo scene he likes best: “A Tremendous Song and Dance,” which could be found in 1993's Where’s Waldo in Hollywood? The staggering visual is packed with hundreds of characters, most decked out in glitzy costumes on a Hollywood movie soundstage that could have come straight out of an Esther Williams musical from the ‘40s.
That cinematic flair should come as no surprise: Handford said when he was a kid he was always inspired by “typical Hollywood swashbuckler epics with a very heavy concentration on lots of extras and exciting battle scenes.”
6. DUBLIN BROKE THE RECORD FOR "LARGEST GATHERING OF PEOPLE DRESSED AS WALLY/WALDO."
In 2011, a crowd of 3872 people in Dublin, Ireland, broke the record for the largest gathering of people dressed as Waldo. The feat took place at the Street Performance World Championship in the city. A previous record was set on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 2009. There, 1052 showed up dressed as Waldo.
7. HANDFORD LIKES TO BELIEVE WALDO HAS GOTTEN LESS NERDY OVER THE YEARS.
When Handford first designed Waldo, he told the Los Angeles Times, "I gave him that look, because ... I just imagined that the reason why he was lost was because he was slightly idiotic and didn't know where he was going." However, that view has changed over the years, and Waldo's creator now sees the character as someone who is more mature and worldly than his original intention.
"From the personality point of view, I see him as completely different now," Handford said in that same interview. "As far as I'm concerned, he's not idiotic. He is a cool guy. He knows where he's going. He's very open-minded. He's kind. From a visual point of view, his face has actually changed to make him look less nerdy."
Though the changes aren't major, Waldo's face shape, posture, and hair have all evolved over the years, helping him look less disheveled.
8. A ROGUE SUNBATHER GOT WALDO BANNED FROM LIBRARIES.
Well, if Captain Underpants can get banned, why not Waldo? The surprising transgression has to do with the inclusion of "adult images" in the book, most notably that of a topless sunbather in the "On the Beach" scene, according to the American Library Association. The image, found in the original Where's Waldo? book, caused the title to be banned in numerous libraries and stores across the United States, most notably the retail chain BJ's. Eventually the woman was redrawn and covered up when the book was released in later editions.
9. WALDO'S SUPPORTING CAST HAS GROWN TO INCLUDE FEMALE COMPANIONS, PETS, WIZARDS, AND AN ARCH-NEMESIS.
Superman has his Bizarro, Mario has Wario, and Bart Simpson has an evil opposite number in the form of the mysterious Lester, so why shouldn’t Waldo have his own crafty doppelganger? As the books have evolved, the Waldo brand has introduced several more characters to the universe, including the diabolical Odlaw, who is decked out in a yellow and black striped shirt and evil dude mustache. Other Waldo staples include Wenda and Wilma, a pair of twins who have both been romantically linked to Waldo; Wizard Whitebeard, who basically looks like Gandalf wielding a candy cane; and Woof, a dog dressed just like Waldo.
10. YOU CAN EVEN FIND WALDO ON GOOGLE EARTH.
If you've found Waldo in every book, Canadian artist Melanie Coles has a challenge for you. In 2008, she crafted a viral game called Where on Earth is Waldo? after painting a 55-foot rendition of the iconic character on a rooftop in Vancouver. She encouraged people to find it through Google Earth, and created PDF instructions for people in other parts of the world to create their own Waldo painting wherever they may live.
11. BETHESDA DEVELOPED THE WHERE'S WALDO? VIDEO GAME IN 1991.
Yes, that Bethesda. The same video game company behind blockbuster hits like Fallout 3, the Elder Scrolls series, and the recent Doom relaunch also developed a Where's Waldo? game for the NES in the early '90s. The result happened to be one of the system's shoddier efforts, where the player was tasked with helping Waldo get to the moon. Seriously. The debut game received a follow-up just a year later on the Super Nintendo, and more Waldo games have continued to hit shelves through 2009 with entries on the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii.
12. A COMPUTER SCIENCE GRADUATE CREATED AN OPTIMAL ALGORITHM FOR FINDING WALDO.
After close to 30 years, people are still having trouble finding Waldo (don't even get us started on that "Land of Waldos" puzzle). To turn that frustration into smug satisfaction, a computer science graduate from Michigan State University named Randy Olson created an algorithm to find the optimal search path for the evasive Waldo. By mapping out the location of Waldo in every book, he graphed out the spot the character is most likely to be, as well as where he never appears, like the top left and bottom right corners. What he came up with looks a little something like this:
— Randy Olson (@randal_olson) February 3, 2015
You can see even more graphs, GIFs, and information over on his blog.
13. HANDFORD MADE A FORTUNE BY SELLING THE WHERE’S WALDO? RIGHTS.
In 2007, Handford sold the rights to the Where’s Waldo? characters to a company called Entertainment Rights for £2.5 million. Handford still has the rights to illustrate and publish future Waldo books, but Entertainment Rights holds the rights to make money from other ventures, such as video games, TV series, movies, and other merchandise.
14. THERE’S GOING TO BE A WHERE’S WALDO? MOVIE (EVENTUALLY).
A Where’s Waldo? movie has been in development for years, but in 2016, serious steps were taken to bring the character to the big screen. It was reported that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were in talks with MGM to finally make the film a reality. While nothing concrete has been announced since then, Waldo’s enduring popularity should always keep studios interested in turning him into a movie star.