Of all the screen queens on kids’ TV, Dora the Explorer reigns supreme.
She’s a bouncy, brightly coloured seven year old in bobby socks and sneakers but she’s also a world-beater on preschool TV. Dora is absolutely everywhere.
In New Zealand one mum reported that her baby girl’s first word at 14 months was “Dora”. Another said her daughter learned to count in Spanish before English.
It’s hard to exert that kind of influence in the highly competitive TV world, which is now saturated with adventurous pint-sized heroines to attract two to five year olds.
Dora the Explorer first aired in 2000 as the creation of Chris Gifford, Valerie Walsh and Eric Weiner. Speaking from the US, Chris Gifford is hard put to analyse the enduring popularity of Dora: “I would like to say it’s because we have more talented people [laughs] but there is something that’s really special about Dora. This is going to sound corny but I think she embodies love. She cares about her friends and she cares about her family. She has a strong sense of who she is and that’s communicated to the viewer.”
Chris’s own daughter Katie and her younger brother Henry helped shape the characters of Dora and Boots.
“Katie aged five was very spirited and curious and she had a younger brother who was just so worshipful of her. She could do no wrong.”
It’s no surprise to Chris that Dora is also a hit with toddlers who haven’t yet learned to speak. “We try to write the stories and animate them so you can follow the story with the sound off.”
Another technique they use for the preschool market is known as the “power of three”. Everything is repeated at least three times — just look at Map when he’s telling Dora how to reach her destination. Certain Spanish words are repeated many times within an episode and over a series.
Dora didn’t start out as a young Latina. First she was a rabbit, then a little girl named Nina. She became Latino as a result of Nickelodeon looking to appeal to the Latino demographic.
If you’ve ever wondered about Dora’s super squeaky voice Chris admits that in the past some of the girls voicing her part may have been trying too hard to sound younger. These days — they’re up to season seven — they hire younger actresses so Dora’s voice sounds more natural, if a little high-pitched to adult ears.
But while Dora lives in a magical and slightly silly world with giant chickens, blue monkeys and grumpy old trolls, her cousin Diego, who became a star on the back of her success, lives in a much more natural, realistic world. A great deal of attention is paid to getting the details about his animal friends exactly right.
The team had to ditch one episode “after spending a fortune on it” when they discovered a snake they had featured was depicted in a way that wouldn’t happen in real life.
However, you’ll still see seven-year-old Diego driving round in a jeep and performing amazing rescue feats. “There’s a certain aspirational aspect to Diego.”
But he still can't match his cousin for sheer toddler adoration.