"Dora the Explorer" is the world's most beloved preschooler. Dora's adventures with her best friend, a monkey named Boots, take her all around the world. With singing, dancing, and interactive play, Dora engages children to use their imagination and helps them learn.
Valerie Walsh, the co-creator, writer, and executive producer of "Dora the Explorer," provided us with a behind-the-scenes look at how "Dora the Explorer" works.
At a December 1997 meeting, Nickelodeon executives asked the network's in-house development team to come up with ideas for new shows. The execs had been working with outside creators to conceptualize shows, but were not satisfied with the results.
Walsh, a Nickelodeon employee who was in film school at the time, was at the meeting. Walsh brought her ideas to the group's next meeting and found that she and another Nickelodeon employee, Chris Gifford, had a similar concept: a story-driven interactive show starring a little girl heroine.
"I felt like I knew preschoolers and what was entertaining to them," Walsh said. "I loved the idea of trying to infuse teaching preschool-appropriate things with getting the kids up and making it an active learning experience for them."
Nickelodeon executives, intrigued with the concept, asked Walsh and Gifford to flesh out their ideas into a TV show. About four months later, "Dora the Explorer" was born.
Walsh and Gifford considered other characters for their concepts before they decided on Dora. One version told the story of Dora the rabbit and her friends who lived in the woods. The creators preferred a little girl all along as the lead character, but initially were restricted by monetary considerations.
"We weren't allowed to consider doing an animated show because, at the time, Nick couldn't afford animation," Walsh said. "It would have been a live action show with people wearing animal suits. We called it 'The Knock Arounds.'"
While they were uncertain about the future of "The Knock Arounds," Walsh and Gifford really liked certain elements of the concept:
- Characters take a journey
- Characters set and achieve a goal in every episode
- Interactive games get kids moving
- Stories have a lot of heart
- Strong female lead character doesn't easily give up
Once animation became an option for the show creators, the show started to look like "Dora the Explorer." Boots, who was originally a mouse, became a monkey; Dora turned from a rabbit into the strong little girl we know today."There are so many shows out there that have characters act in very stereotypical ways. We believed you should see someone on TV who knows that it's important to be smart and work well with others," Walsh said. "This is more important than the Barbie image. Chris had daughters and preschoolers at the time and agreed that there was a lack of female role models."At that stage of development, writer Eric Weiner joined the project, and the production process began. After six months, the group was ready to make a pilot. Designer Helena Giertz and her husband developed the look of the characters, and the Dora creators were overwhelmed with the results. "The minute Helena put her stuff down in front of us, we knew," Walsh said. "Her sensibility was very much in the preschool world. There's something so loveable about her characters. Dora's still the cutest kid I've ever seen."Giertz worked on the storyboards, which are a series of illustrations displayed in sequence for the purpose of previsualizing the show.. Nickelodeon's talent department put out a casting call to New York agencies for bilingual girls ages five to seven. After listening to the voices of ten or fifteen girls, the team met Kathleen Herles, who became the voice of Dora. By December 1998, a pilot, or prototype, of the show was ready. Nickelodeon tested the show with preschoolers, and the results were highly favorable. Within four months, Dora the Explorer was scheduled to air."Dora the Explorer" airs on Nick Jr., Noggin, and CBS. All episodes are created for Nick Jr. on the Nickelodeon channel. Noggin and CBS run episodes that have been retired from the thrice-daily schedule on Nickelodeon. Now that you know how "Dora the Explorer" came to be, we'll examine what goes into creating an episode. This is covered in the next section.
Creating a 'Dora the Explorer' Episode
Multiple elements go into creating an episode of "Dora the Explorer." There are so many moving parts, in fact, that each episode takes about 18 months to make. In this section, we'll examine how the production process works.
Writing, Music, and Recording
Everything begins when the writers gather in a meeting and present story ideas. Each writer is assigned a slot in a show and is charged with pitching ideas for that slot.
Once an idea is accepted, the story goes into the outline phase. Writers take two outlines and develop them into storybooks that are tested with kids in preschool and daycare facilities. Based on the youngsters' reaction, a script is written and then reviewed by the show's creative group.
"Sometimes things will change," said Valerie Walsh, the show's co-creator. "Everyone's writing a paragraph. We're reading everything at the table together, telling each other 'that worked' or 'this was really fun,' 'this felt very flat.' It does feel very collaborative."
Once the script is ready, music composers write songs for the episode. After the lyrics and songs are finished, the next step is to record the voice actors, which can be challenging since they are young children.
After the script is recorded, it goes to a team of animators. Storyboard artists do rough sketches, with input from the writing team. After revisions, the animators prepare clean boards of the scenes and put them into a story reel, or an animatic, a device that pairs the sequenced images with the sound track. Animation directors then make certain that the video and audio elements are working in concert. For instance, the actors' lips need to move according to the words coming out of their mouths.
"One of great things about animation is that you can have anything you want," Walsh said. "The downside is you have to draw everything you want -- even mundane things, like a pen lying on a desk and pictures on the wall so it looks like a cozy family home."
Once the creative team is satisfied with the look of the characters, props, and backgrounds on the storyboards, the boards are sent to Korea for full animation and coloring, which takes 14 weeks.
"Dora the Explorer" storyboards typically run 350 pages, with three pictures per page, almost like a comic book. Animators fill in everything that happens between each picture. They draw thousands of pictures, all by hand. Twenty people in New York work on the writing, research, and music, and another 50 people at the Nicktoons animation studio in Burbank, California, work on the show. The crew in Korea numbers 250.
One of the reasons the creation process is so complex is because of the interactive and learning elements that are built into each episode. In the next section, we'll look at interactivity and learning in "Dora the Explorer."
Interactivity and Learning in 'Dora the Explorer'
The interactive and learning elements in "Dora the Explorer" are what set it apart from other shows aimed at preschoolers. When co-creators Valerie Walsh and Chris Gifford were conceptualizing "Dora the Explorer," they knew they wanted to make the show an interactive adventure.
"I really felt motivated to get the kids up [and out of their chairs]," Walsh said. "I always had this quandary of putting kids in front of the TV like a babysitter. The beauty of Dora is that you're invited to stand up and jump or clap, do something physical."
When planning each "Dora the Explorer" episode, writers strive to have an interactive piece every minute. "Kids are so trained to watch TV. Not a lot of interaction is happening," Walsh said. "Once the kids fall into that passive role, it's harder to get them back up on their feet."
Kids approach education differently than adults. "They don't see counting as work. For them, it's fun. We tap into that," said Walsh, who has a master's degree in education and considers herself to be both a television producer and a teacher.
"Dora the Explorer" developers use psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences as a guidepost for the show curriculum. Gardner's theory holds that humans exhibit seven kinds of intelligence, and that educational endeavors need to address all types of intelligence in the target group to be successful.
Parents can reinforce the learning elements from "Dora the Explorer" into daily routines. "One great way is the planning we do through the map," Walsh said. "If you're going to the doctor, make a map. Talk about how you're going to get there and what you're going to do there."
Using the lessons from "Dora the Explorer," parents also can transform mundane tasks into fun learning games. For example, if your daughter is helping you in the kitchen, you can ask her to count for you. If you need two cups of flour, ask, "Can you count in Spanish?" Or have your child get four eggs and count them in both English and Spanish.
Language is another key part of the show. Go to the next section to find out about the importance of language in "Dora the Explorer."
Language in 'Dora the Explorer'
A unique element of "Dora the Explorer" is Dora's language ability. She's Latina and speaks both Spanish and English. On every show, preschoolers are introduced to a new Spanish word or phrase that Dora uses throughout the episode.
Dora wasn't always a bilingual girl. In the original show concept, she was a rabbit. Even after she became a girl, she wasn't envisioned as Latina -- her original name was Tess.
Neither Valerie Walsh nor Chris Gifford, the show's creators, is bilingual. But that didn't deter Nickelodeon executives from asking Walsh and Gifford to consider making Dora a Latina character. The idea sprang from an industry conference during which network leaders were challenged to portray positive images of Latinos on TV.
"In 1998, when we started developing the show, there was a difference in terms of popular culture," Ms. Walsh said. "Believe it or not, it was only six or seven years ago that a lot of Latin American culture was considered foreign. Now it's more mainstream. We had no idea there would be a cultural revolution happening at the same time. There was a Zeitgeist factor out of our control."
The Spanish words spoken in "Dora the Explorer" are carefully chosen. "We have a language consultant who helps us choose preschool-appropriate words," Walsh says. "These words are repeated over and over in different episodes. They're action verbs that kids use in everyday life, words for counting and colors that they're already using in English."
Dora Around the World
"Dora the Explorer" has become a cultural phenomenon around the globe. Dora doesn't just air in the English-speaking world. It is the number one preschool show in France and also airs in Russia, China, Japan, and Korea, among other countries.
"For the most part, those shows all have Dora in the native language and what we consider our Spanish beats in English," Walsh said. "I've seen it in Chinese. It's pretty amazing. I think kids from the rest of the world just accept this is an American girl."
"Dora the Explorer" also airs on Spanish language channels, with a reversal of the English and Spanish beats.
As critical as language is to the success of "Dora the Explorer," the colorful characters are what really make the show go. We'll look at Dora, Boots, and Swiper in the next section.
Characters in 'Dora the Explorer'
The characters in "Dora the Explorer" are critical to the show's success. At the heart of every episode is a loveable little girl named Dora Marquez. She's feisty, strong, and good-hearted. Dora and her friend Boots are great role models for kids. Swiper, meanwhile, is an interesting villain. Here is a look at these characters:
Dora Marquez is the seven-year-old main character of "Dora the Explorer."
"We chose the age of seven because it seemed like she'd be old enough to be out on her own in the jungle with her animal friends," said Valerie Walsh, the show's co-creator. "She's old enough to sit down and read a book."
Child actress Kathleen Herles is the voice of Dora. Herles auditioned for the role when she was seven and has grown up with the character.
Boots the monkey is Dora's best friend. Boots goes along with Dora on most of her adventures, helping out by climbing trees and reaching things that she cannot. Boots is more like a preschooler than any other character on the show. Kids relate to the fact that, like them, Boots is too young to accomplish many things. He can't read, and he needs Dora's help to achieve most tasks.
In the original story ideas, Boots was a cute little mouse that fit into Dora's pocket. She would take him out and play with him. But the creators soon realized an important element would be missing if Boots remained a mouse.
"[Dora and Boots] would never be able to hold hands," Walsh said. "And how cute would it be for this little girl to go on her adventures into the jungle holding the hand of her best friend?"
The show creators decided Boots would become a monkey. Everyone loved the name Boots, so the creators thought about a way to allow him to keep his name. One pair of red boots later, Boots morphed into the monkey best friend that Dora hangs out with today.
"Swiper, no swiping!" This is the line commonly associated with the masked tricky fox that attempts to thwart Dora and Boots in almost every episode. If Dora catches Swiper stealing, she must recite the above line three times to stop the thief. If she doesn't see him in time, he takes what doesn't belong to him.
Critics have observed that Swiper seems to steal just for the fun of it -- on the few occasions he does manage to steal from the characters, he will take the item and fling it up to the highest mountain.
Walsh has an explanation. "Swiper is a one-dimensional character. You don't know why he steals, and we did that on purpose. Kids this age are learning about more complex thinking. The emotional and psychological reasons behind someone being bad have to be explained so thoroughly that we didn't want the back-story.
"We've had this discussion with advisors who wanted us to get into the motivation behind Swiper's bad behavior. We decided that it's cleaner without it. Similar to villains in fairy tales, we don't get into the why."
With so many great characters and story lines in "Dora the Explorer," children enjoy watching the same episodes over and over again. In the next section, we'll provide summaries of some of the most popular Dora episodes.
'Dora the Explorer' Episode Guide
Part of what makes "Dora the Explorer" so successful is the show's repetition. Dora will repeat the different goals and objectives of an adventure multiple times. Preschoolers thrive on that repetition, and learn from it.
Not surprisingly, youngsters want to watch the same "Dora the Explorer" episode over and over again. While this might not be the most fun for parents, they should take comfort in knowing that their children are learning every time they watch the same Dora video.
The following is a guide describing many of the most popular "Dora the Explorer" episodes.
Show 101: "The Big Red Chicken"
Dora and Boots read about a large chicken and set off to meet him. They cross a broken bridge, open a locked gate, and reach the big red hill.
Show 116: "Backpack"
Dora remembers the first time she met Backpack. Backpack helps Dora carry her books back to the library. They solve the Troll's riddle at the Troll Bridge, avoid a raincloud, climb the big rock, and reach the Library.
Show 118: "Fish Out of Water"
Dora and Boots are at the beach hunting for seashells when they find a baby fish trapped in a tide pool. Dora and Boots decide to bring the baby fish to its underwater home. They climb over King Crab's Sandcastle and take a submarine ride with Val the Octopus.
Show 121: "El Coqui"
In this version of the famous Puerto Rican legend, Dora and Boots find a homesick coqui who's lost his voice. Dora and Boots take the frog home to his island so he can sing again. They cross the ocean and travel past Echo Bush.
Show 207: "Lost Map"
A goofy bird mistakes the Map for a stick. The bird flies Map all the way to his nest on top of Tallest Mountain. Dora and Boots have to draw their own map in order to rescue their good friend.
Show 208: "El Día De Las Madres"
Dora wants to help Papi bake Mamá a special cake for Mother's Day. With Boots's help, Dora sets out to gather the missing ingredients of bananas, nuts and chocolate so that Papi can finish the cake. In the end, everyone celebrates their mothers.
Show 210 "A Present For Santa"
Dora and Boots travel to the North Pole to deliver a present to Santa on Christmas Eve. They go over snowy mountains and across an icy river to reach Santa. The episode has a happy ending -- even Swiper learns about the spirit of giving.
Show 308: "Meet Diego"
Dora's cousin, Diego, works at the Animal Rescue Center. He makes animal noises and talks to wild animals. A Baby Jaguar calls for help. Dora and Diego her by zip-cording through the Rainforest, moving like the animals, and talking to howler monkeys, snakes, condors, dolphins, and baby bears.
Show 310 "¡Por Favor"
Dora and Boots read a fairy tale about a young kinkajou, a cuddly forest creature, who is destined to be king. The kinkajou loses his crown because he doesn't know the magic words, "por favor." Dora and Boots tell the kinkajou the magic words, but not before meeting knights, dragons, and talking drawbridges.
Show 314: "Dora Saves the Game"
Dora's cousin, Daisy, is playing in a big soccer game that's showing on TV. Daisy's team is short a player. Dora joins the team and saves the game. To get to the stadium in time, Dora must run, jump, and chin-up her way through the jungle with crocodiles at her heels.
Shows 325 and 326: "Pirate Adventure"
Dora and Boots put on a pirate show for their families. The show's just about to start when the Pirate Piggies sail in and take their treasure chest filled with costumes. Dora, Boots, and their friends set off on a musical adventure to get their costumes back so the show can go on. They sing and sail across the Seven Seas, through the Singing Gate, until they reach Treasure Island.
Show 402: "Dora's First Trip"
Dora tells the story of how she first met Boots. On their very first adventure, Dora and Boots have to bring instruments back to the Fiesta Trio so they can play for the cranky Queen Bee. Along the way, Dora and Boots meet Tico, Isa, and Benny, and learn to watch out for that sneaky fox, Swiper.
Show 406: "Daisy, la Quinceañera"
It's Dora's cousin Daisy's 15th birthday party, her quinceañera. But the party can't start without Dora and Boots because they need to teach everybody the mambo. Dora and Boots must get past the barn, and the rainforest, to Daisy's Party on time.
Show 407: "Save Diego"
Dora's cousin, Diego, protects and defends all the animals in the rainforest. But in order to save a Baby Condor, Diego winds up trapped himself. Dora, Boots, and all the rainforest creatures rescue Diego.
Show 410: "Dora's Got a Puppy"
Abuela gives Dora and Boots a present for Dora's new puppy, but they'll have to watch out for Swiper, who's got a bunch of new swiping tricks up his sleeves. He builds a swiping Robot Butterfly, he hides inside a Submarine Fish, and he disguises himself as a Dancing Tree.
Show 411: "Big Sister Dora"
Dora finds out that her Mami is having a baby, but she doesn't know if it's a boy or a girl. Dora and Boots have to get home quickly to find out the gender of the baby.
Show 418: "Swiper, the Explorer"
Dora and Boots discover a lost Baby Fox. Swiper appears and offers to help bring the fox home to his Mami. Dora, Boots, and Swiper bring Bebe Zorrito back to his Fox Hole. With Swiper's help, they scoot past the volcano, over the Prickers and Thorns, and then find Bebe Zorrito's Mami at the Fox Hole. Swiper even learns to say "Thank you."
What's in store for Dora in the future? We'll tell you all the secrets in the final section.
The Future of 'Dora the Explorer'
Dora is America's favorite preschooler. With episodes of "Dora the Explorer" running on Nick Jr., Noggin, and CBS, Dora seems to be everywhere. What does the future have in store for Dora the Explorer?
A lot. In early 2005, "Dora the Explorer" spun off into a second show, "Go, Diego, Go!" Dora's cousin, Diego, helps operate an animal rescue center in the jungle. While Dora is pretty fantastical, Diego's story is told from a more realistic point of view.
Dora isn't currently in production on a regular basis, but co-creators Valerie Walsh and Chris Gifford gather the old gang together every now and then for special episodes. Many of these episodes are longer and go straight to DVD, which makes it convenient when toddlers want to see the same episode over and over. After the special episodes are released on DVD, they air on Nickelodeon.
The team produced a new hour-long episode that will air on Nick Jr. on November 19. The episode, "Dora's World Adventure," is sure to become a favorite because Dora travels around the world. She visits the Eiffel Tower in France, the Kremlin in Russia, and the Great Wall in China. Check your local listings to see Dora in action.
Dora is also on the road entertaining children in live shows all over the world. The "Dora the Explorer" live show is opening in France in December and London in the spring, and plans to take it to Latin America are in the works. The tour has been so successful that a "Go, Diego, Go!" live show is in production and will debut in January.
The biggest news is Valerie Walsh's project. "It's been our dream since the first year to make a movie," she said. "We want to make it live action and film it in the jungle. It's what we're working on now."
The creators are working with Nick Movies to bring "Dora the Explorer" to the big screen. Development is in the early stages, but they've shot tests of a little girl against a rainforest background. The initial plan is that Boots will be three-dimensional and have the look and feel of a Chronicles of Narnia character.
The movie, like all "Dora the Explorer" television shows, can be expected to end with Dora and Boots asking viewers what part they liked best. For Walsh, it's the creation. "I love coming up with stories," she said. "It's the hardest part and my favorite part. Of course, I also love when Dora and Boots hug. I'm always asking, Can we get another hug in there? Hugs and giggles are the best."