Many years ago, I traveled to Walt Disney World with a friend who derisively called it, “A mall with a cover charge.” To that I say both, “Bah, humbug,” and “Well, maybe he has a point.”
In addition to the rides, food, entertainment, and general merriment at the Walt Disney World parks, there are indeed, many, many, many shopping opportunities. Merchandise is available everywhere at every price point, from $2 pencils to $10,000+ art and jewelry. You can find items as diverse as underwear and teapots emblazoned with the image of Mickey Mouse, as well as completely unembellished French perfume, designer clothing, and Italian wine. Basically, unless you’re the most austere of minimalists, you’re going to find something you want to buy. And yes, so will your children.
With all the eye candy just crying out for acquisition, you’ll be in much better shape both emotionally and financially if you create souvenir-buying rules before you hit the parks. Of course this may not prevent every Veruca Salt-like outburst, but it can go a long way toward preventing family discord.
Questions for the Adults
Before communicating any spending rules to your children, start by sitting down with your spouse or other adults in your traveling party to make sure you’re in agreement about general strategies. None of this will work unless everyone is on the same page.
Some questions to ask each other are:
- Will we give the child souvenir money or will she be expected to spend her own funds?
- If we expect the child to use his own funds, where will this money come from? Allowance? Extra chores? Birthday gifts from grandma?
- Will all the children in our group be given the same budget? (If you’ve got a four year old and a fifteen year old, their needs will not be the same.)
- What is the maximum total dollar amount we feel comfortable having the child spend on souvenirs?
- Are there any categories of items that are off limits for practical reasons? For example, snowglobes could be problematic with airline travel and TSA restrictions. Similarly, the four-foot-tall plush Mickey won’t be able to make it home without his own seat on the plane.
- Are there any categories of items that are off limits for personal reasons? You can’t stand toys that make noise, for example.
- Will you give the child access to his complete budget at the outset of the trip, or will we ration the money daily?
- Will we allow the child total purchase control within the budget or will the child be required to have particular purchases approved?
Preparing the Kids
You can involve children even as young as two or three in some of the decision making about their souvenir budget. Start before the trip by telling them that there will be lots of enticing merchandise at the parks. Explain that on vacation, just like at home, it’s not possible to buy everything we want. Then, do a little advance planning to help them narrow the scope of the things that they will want. Try taking a look together at the merchandise on shopDisney.com. This website does not even begin to approach the variety of items available in the parks, but it will provide a basis for talking points as well as accurate pricing for most items. Ask your child:
- Is there something you’d like to collect? Pins, Wishables, and pressed pennies are all inexpensive collectibles. The trading possibilities of pins may also be interesting to an extroverted child.
- Do you have a favorite character? Do you want to focus on buying only items with Mater or Daisy Duck, for example, on them?
- Do you want to have items only available at the parks, not at a local Disney store or other retail outlet? You’ll likely only find an “I survived the Tower of Terror” tee at the Tower of Terror.
- Is it important for you to have a wearable item to show your friends at school? Then it’s better to allocate your spending on a tee rather than on a toy that will have to stay at home.
- Do you already have enough of something at home (plush animals, for example), so you don’t need to get more at the parks?
- Do you want things that are personalized or that you’ve had a hand in creating? Many in-park items can be made one-of-a-kind, from embroidered Mickey ears or build-your-own-lightsabers.
- Are there no cost souvenirs you’d be happy with? Maps can be made into room-decorating posters, for example.
A few pointed questions like this can get the child thinking about specific items of interest, rather than having an “I want it all mentality.” If your child goes into the vacation with the realistic view that, “I’m going to get one tee shirt featuring my favorite ride and find four Donald Duck pins for my collection,” you can more easily steer him away from the giant model monorail.
Some families ask children to made note of items they’d like to buy during the trip, but not purchase anything until the last day. You can do this by keeping a written record or by taking photos on your phone. This will allow the parent and child to really think about which of the many enticing items found across all the parks make the most sense to actually take home.
If you decide to use this strategy, you may want to consider how you will physically purchase a deferred item. For example, if you’re visiting just one park per day and don’t have a park hopper ticket you might not be able to pop back into the Magic Kingdom just to buy a specific item that is only found there.
You can work around this in a few ways:
- Check the shopDisney website or app. If a preferred item is available there, buy it online and have the item set directly to your home.
- Buy all the possible purchases with the knowledge that some of them will be returned before the end of the trip. With a receipt, you can return WDW purchases at almost any shop in the parks or resorts.
- If a possible purchase is found in a theme park, ask a cast member at the park to check whether that item is also sold at Disney Springs or a resort hotel location that does not require an admission charge.
Deciding on a Dollar Amount and How to Manage It
There is a school of thought that advises saving money by purchasing Disney-themed items at discount stores at home and giving those items to the children during the vacation. I understand that from a short-term financial perspective, this makes sense. You can find a Minnie Mouse tee at Walmart for $10 that might cost $20-40 at the parks. However, you’re missing out on some wonderful learning opportunities by doing this. Planning a budget and making purchase decisions within that budget is an invaluable life skill. Your child won’t have a chance to practice and learn if you just hand him items that he had no hand is selecting. Even having control over a few dollars can be very empowering.
Setting a total dollar amount of spending is important to many Disney visitors. For some families, a child might be allotted a five dollar budget for the entire trip. I have one friend who gives her children $50 to spend on each day of their Disney vacations. The exact amount will vary depending on the child’s age, the family’s means, and the general souvenir strategy developed by the family during planning discussions.
Once you’ve arrived at a dollar amount – and communicated that dollar amount to your children – you should work out how you’re going to physically manage the souvenir money. Will the child hold his or her own cash? Will mom hold cash for the child? Will mom pay for the items and the child reimburses at another time? Would giving the child a Disney gift card loaded with the budgeted amount be safer? Should an older child be allowed charging privileges on his room key or MagicBand?
Strategies our readers have suggested include:
- When my daughter was 4 we started making decorative “coupons” for our trips with things like: “face painting in DHS”, “1 fake tattoo”, “1 Mickey ice cream” (there were multiples of these coupons), “1 necklace or ring”, “1 tiara”, “1 small stuffed animal friend” etc. If she found something she wanted, we would take the coupon out and show her “remember you are spending your coupon now.” After two trips she didn’t need the coupons any more, she began to understand that she agreed to specific “purchases” that we had discussed before our trip.
- We started planning our trip well in advance, so we had time to let our kids earn money to spend. We told them that we would match the first $100 that they earned. We even opened special bank accounts just for their Disney savings. They each worked hard and saved up $100. We used our Disney rewards from our credit card for our matching dollars.
- Instead of toting around my three kids’ separate Disney money, I put all of the purchases they make on my Disney room key/charge card. After paying, I ask the cashier to borrow her pen, and then I write the initial of the child making the purchase on top of the receipt. When we get back to the room, I tally up their purchases, and then they pay me back.
- We always tell the kids we will buy them one toy (<$25) and one item of clothing (they usually pick a t-shirt or cap), and if they want anything else, they need to spend their money. A few months before the trip, I give them chances to build up their savings by coming up with special jobs to do. We find that if they’re spending their own money, or having to decide on just one toy and one item of clothing, they give purchases a fair amount of thought.
- My daughter (age 7) used money she received for Christmas and birthday as well perfect attendance at summer school. We divided the total which gave her a $25 limit per day. If she didn’t spend all of it, the balance went to the next day. If she wanted to spend more she had to get approval from Mom or Dad and know that the next days amount would be reduced. For the most part we let her get what she wanted. We said no to some stuffed animals as she had already purchased some. The hardest part was getting her to look around and not just buy the first thing she saw at the first shop she came to.
Working out as much as possible in advance, and getting all members of the family on board, can help turn a greedy whine-fest into a productive lesson about money management.
So what’s worked for you? How do your kids manage money in the parks?