The Origin of “Where’s Waldo”


Found him

Today I found out about the history of Where’s Wally (known in the US and Canada as Where’s Waldo).

The iconic, elusive man in the red-and-white striped shirt was first hidden away in 1987 by British illustrator Martin Handford.

Handford had been drawing since he was a boy, and was particularly fond of viewing and drawing crowd scenes. He felt crowds contained a certain kind of excitement, and he liked to capture it on paper.

After three years of art school, Handford started working as a freelance illustrator, drawing crowd scenes for a variety of magazines and advertising companies. He got the idea for a whole book made up of crowd scenes and approached a publishing company about it in 1986. The art director suggested that he make a character to act as a focal point in his pictures of crowds to encourage people to look at the picture more closely.

After a bit of thought, Handford came up with the distinctive Wally/Waldo character. The round glasses and pom-pom on top of Wally’s head were definitive of Wally’s personality, which Handford described as something like a “train spotter”—a phrase used in England in the 1980s to describe someone who was a bit daft.

In Handford’s own words,

I gave him that look because when I originally thought of the character who was lost in all those scenes, I just imagined the reason he was lost was because he was slightly idiotic and didn’t know where he was going.”

Handford soon started designing the two-page spreads that would make up the first Where’s Wally? book. It took him as many as eight weeks to finish each picture, which were filled with various other characters doing a myriad of entertaining things. Some of the spreads contain upwards of 3,000 to 4,000 tiny figures, which understandably take some time to create—not to mention the crazy backgrounds, which include everything from a cake factory to a band competition.

The first Where’s Wally? book was published in the UK in 1987 by Walker Books, followed by publication in the US by first Little, Brown and Company, then Candlewick Press. It featured Wally visiting a bunch of familiar places like the beach and train station.

The books have since been widely published throughout the world in nineteen different languages to date. Wally’s name is often changed for these different editions.  For instance, he’s “Waldo” in the US and Canada, “Charlie” in France, “Walter” in Germany, “Ali” in Turkey, “Efi” in Israel, and “Willy” in Norway.  All total, the books have sold well over 50 million copies and are still going strong.  Not bad for what essentially are just books of drawings of a bunch of crowds in various settings.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Where’s Waldo? was on the American Library Association’s list of top 100 banned books from 1990-1999. What could be so offensive about Wally? On the beach scene there is a picture of a cartoon woman lying on her towel topless. She was covered up in the 1997 special release of the book.
  • Throughout his many adventures, Wally can be found all over the page. Handford says there’s no formula for finding Wally, but that doesn’t mean scientists haven’t considered him an interesting point of study. In 2009, researchers made some discoveries about how the brain searches for objects using the Where’s Wally? books as a reference. Participants in the study were simply asked to “find Wally.” While they searched, their eye movements were recorded. It was discovered that the number of tiny eye jerks, called microsaccades, increased dramatically when Wally was found. Dr. Martinez-Conde explained the significance of this research, saying, “This link can help with future advances such as creating neural prosthetics for patients with brain damage or machines that can see as well as humans.”
  • So far, Wally’s adventures are detailed in seven main books (though there have been many spin-off books), the most recent of which is Where’s Wally? The Incredible Paper Chase, which was released in 2009. But books aren’t the only places you’ll find Wally hanging around these days. His image can also be found on cereal boxes, a comic strip, a TV show, film, video games, and various other merchandise.
  • You can even find Wally in real life—or try to. In 2011, a world record was set for the largest gathering of people dressed as Wally: 3,872 Wally look-alikes in Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland. The record broke the previous record set in 2009 at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA, which had just 1,052 participants. In September 2009, a Where’s Wally? recreation took place in Chicago, featuring the main cast of characters, including Wally, Wanda, Wizard Whitebeard, Odlaw, and Woof. The characters were hidden throughout downtown Chicago and people were encouraged to try to find them.
  • You might even stumble across Wally while you’re browsing Google Earth. A project called “Where on Earth is Waldo?” was started up by Melanie Coles, a Media Arts student based in Vancouver, Canada. Coles designed a Waldo template that could be painted on roofs and made it available to everyone online. That means dozens of these 54-foot long Waldos could be popping up on rooftops near you, and you can find them by zooming around on Google Earth. Coles won’t divulge the location of the one she painted for the start of her project, because what’s the fun of a game of Where’s Wally if you know exactly where he is? However, she hopes that more people will participate in the game and have fun attempting to find her painting.
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  • Thank you for this information, I’m getting an education

  • I’m sorry but train spotter has never meant “someone who is a bit daft”, it’s always meant someone who collects train numbers. I’ll admit they are often a bit on the weird side though

  • But why thr namechange? Simply because America doesn’t have “wallies”?

    And why is it that Waldo has become the go-to name of choice – sheer numbers, popularity, laziness, publisher-dictat, authorial choice, or..?

    • There are more Wally’s (you don’t change the y to ie when adding the s, this isn’t a cherry you are talking about, don’t change the Y on a persons name, it’s a proper noun, so that also means you capitalize it no matter where it is in a sentence.
      The probably changed it to Waldo because they could piggyback the popularity of the song (and music video) “Hot For Teacher” that came out 3 years before Waldo/Wally came out. (there are others that predate “Handfords version,” I hardly believe he invented Waldo
      In the music video, Waldo is a nerd/geek (with the same glasses) who gets freaked out by his hot teacher and rowdy classmates, at the end of the video they say what happen to the people later in life…except Waldo went missing, everyone says “Where’s Waldo?”

  • I’m not so sure he is the originator of the idea. I happened to catch a scene from one of the original Little Rascal movies. During the scene someone asks “where’s Waldo” and the camera scans to a dark haired boy with round glasses standing in the crowd. I don’t recall for sure if he had a striped shirt on but it was a B&W scene so I might have missed it. It would seem to predate Mr. Hanaford’s writings/drawings.

  • My recollection at the time was that Where’s Wally was a repeated refrain on the Tannoy at a Rock Festival looking for a missing person and inspiring this idea for a book. The crowd, Reading Festival I think, chanting Where’s Wally?

  • Waldo was a rip-off of Brewster Macleod