The legion of Vinylmation figurines staring at me from the shelves of my home office right now will tell you that I am a veteran Disney parks shopper. I have often succumbed to the siren song of Mickey merch, sometimes with happy results, but more often followed by a giant buyer’s remorse hangover.
To help you make better choices, here are ten things to think about as you approach your Disney World souvenir shopping.
1. Don’t buy things you won’t use at home.
This seems like the most basic advice out there, but when every ride exits at the gift shop, it’s surprisingly difficult to adhere to. Everything looks SO CUTE when you’re in the parks. That “I Survived It’s a Small World” shirt is ADORABLE. I MUST HAVE IT. Well, guess what, I never wear themed tee shirts at home. Never. I’m not going to wear a Mickey tee to the mall; that’s not my style at home. I prefer tech gear for workouts. I even have perfect PJs and don’t sleep in tees. After donating more than a dozen Disney shirts during one trip to Goodwill, I finally realized that buying tee shirts in the parks is always going to be a waste of money for me, no matter how appealing they may look on the rack in The Emporium.
Your personal pitfall may be different. Do you not display tchotchkes on your mantle? Then why are you buying Precious Moments Mickeys? Do you carry Coach and Fendi at home? Then why are you getting a Haunted Mansion print Dooney & Bourke bag? Is your kitchen filled with minimalist china tea cups? Then why are you buying a mug shaped like Spaceship Earth?
You get the idea … If you’re not going to use it at home, it shouldn’t be in your shopping basket at Disney World.
2. Don’t assume that you have to pay for every souvenir.
Believe it or not, you can score many items for free at Walt Disney World. They practically throw Mickey stickers at kids during resort check in and there’s always a reason to grab a free celebration button. You can also get free cards or stickers at the EPCOT Kidcot Fun Stops or a lei at the Polynesian resort. The free park maps that you lovingly stash away are often a better souvenir than a toy your child will abandon immediately. These items can go a long way toward scratching that “but I MUST bring something home” itch, with no additional outlay of cash.
And don’t forget that the best Disney souvenir is usually a memory. “Remember when brother Billy blew kisses at Cinderella?” “Remember when we finally got Grandma to go on the Teacups and she actually had a blast?” “Remember when the cousins spent an entire day playing Marco Polo in the hotel pool?” Assuming that you’ve got a digital camera or a camera-equipped phone, these memories can all be captured gratis. Isn’t a photo of Mom wearing 3-D glasses on the Toy Story ride a better souvenir than a snow globe?
3. Don’t buy non-consumable gifts for other people.
When you go away, there’s often someone back home helping you out. The neighbor kid waters your lawn just the right amount. The cat sitter spends some extra time with Fluffy. Your child’s teacher made a special learning packet so Junior wouldn’t fall behind in math. These people do deserve special thanks. What they don’t deserve is a dust-gathering hunk of plastic. Just as you shouldn’t buy things you wouldn’t use at your home, you shouldn’t buy souvenirs or gifts for people that they won’t use at their home. Does the cat sitter want to wear a shirt advertising Disney World when she’s never been there herself? Does the teacher really need another coffee mug?
Frankly, it’s hard enough to self-analyze, there’s almost no way you’re going to get it right for someone else that you don’t know intimately. Therefore, your best bet for buying for others is to get something consumable – used up and thrown away. This may mean food like Chip & Dale pretzels or salt water taffy, but it could also mean Disney-themed pens, or H2O lotion. Basically, stick to things that do not have to be worn or displayed and that can be used up in a finite amount of time.
Sticking to these rules doesn’t mean you have to be thoughtless. If you know that the teacher likes to kick back during her free periods, buy her a nice selection of exotic teas from World Showcase countries at EPCOT, rather than getting the mug. You also don’t have to spend a lot of money to make this strategy work. Again, photos can be a great option. For your dog walker, make a sign (paper and markers) that says something like, “You’re the doggone greatest!” and take a photo of your family holding the sign next to the Pluto statue in the Magic Kingdom. It’s cute, thoughtful, memorable, and free.
4. Don’t pay full price when you don’t have to.
There are plenty of tips on saving money on souvenirs. A few classics are: buy Disney-themed tees/toys at Walmart or Target and give them to your kids during your trip, shop at the Disney discount outlets, or stock up on fun disposable items like glow-sticks at your local dollar store before leaving home.
These tricks do work, but you should also know that you don’t have to go the knock-off or remainder route to save some dough. Before buying any Disney-themed item in the parks, first take a look at shopDisney.com. This online site now carries many of the same clothing items, kitchenware, collectables, and memorabilia sold in the parks. While the items sold in the parks are rarely discounted, Disney Store online often has sales, markdowns, and coupons. If you spend $75 or more, shipping is generally free (with a code). I occasionally purchased an item for full price, only to find out later that the EXACT SAME ITEM was simultaneously being sold online at a discount. I now make a habit of checking Disney Store’s website before committing to an in-park purchase.
5. Don’t buy items you can’t easily transport home.
Before buying anything physically large (Cinderella Castle playset, ottoman from the Morocco pavilion) or potentially breakable (Cinderella Castle again, glass kitchenware, statuaries) figure out how you’re going to get it home. Can you fit it in your suitcase? Do TSA regulations allow me to check this? Will I have to pay extra baggage fees with my airline? Is there room in the trunk of my car? Do I have the physical stamina to carry this through the airport? Do I want to schlep this object along with three kids, two strollers, and six suitcases?
Disney does offer a few varieties of shipping services, but these tend to be expensive, particularly if you’re not a resident of the contiguous 48 US states. Even shipping rates to Canada can be exorbitant. You have to really decide if it’s worth it to pay $100 to get a $50 play castle back home to Toronto.
Again, using shopDisney.com can solve some of these issues.
6. Don’t forget to set limits for your child (or yourself).
I’ve been known to get buyer’s amnesia while on vacation. I’ll buy that darling bracelet in the shop, only to realize once I’m back at the hotel that I’ve already gotten myself four darling items on earlier days of the trip. Wait, how much have I spent already? And of course it’s a real challenge for a small child to recognize how much money they’re spending during one day, or several days, of vacation.
The remedy to this is to create a strict souvenir budget AND STICK TO IT. This is easier said that done, I know. Some typical tips for managing your child’s souvenir budget include getting a dedicated Disney gift card for all souvenir purchases – once the card is empty you’re done shopping. Or keeping a running list of all desired items while touring the parks, then weeding the list and doing all purchasing on the last day.
Something that works for me is simply taking a photo of my register receipts. As I review my photos each evening, I’m reminded of how much I’ve already spent.
Bonus tip: Beware the MagicBand. Guest using the MagicBand “Tap to Pay” system may find that it is almost ridiculously easy to buy things, and the fact that you’re paying with a bracelet makes it seem several steps away from actual money. Sometimes making yourself use a gift card, credit card, or good old cash, can slow you down enough to derail impulse purchases.
7. Don’t forget to take advantage of member discounts.
While MagicBands make paying easy, they don’t make getting discounts easy. For example, I am a Disney World annual passholder. My pass is encoded into my MagicBand. Disney allows me to use this Band to enter the park and to pay for items, but it does not allow me to receive the annual passholders’ merchandise discount without showing the register clerk my pass card and personal ID. The discount is not automatically factored into my purchase. Similarly, Disney and my MagicBand know that I’m a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) member, but they don’t automatically offer me a DVC discount when these are available.
The moral of the story is: If you have ANY Disney membership affiliation (cast member, DVC member, annual passholder, D23 member, Disney Visa card holder, things not yet invented) or are a AAA auto club member, always carry your membership cards with you in the parks and ALWAYS ask about discounts. You may find that you save hundreds of dollars, just by asking.
8. Don’t get caught up in the “limited edition” frenzy.
During Disney World’s recent 50th anniversary celebration, actual fistfights broke out in The Emporium with guests fight over access to limited edition merch. Some of these folks were eBay resellers hoping to grab inventory for their shops. But others were guests who were just swept along with the excitement and ended up buying things because of a perceived scarcity.
I’m thinking back to the hours-long lines for commemorative merchandise during EPCOT’s 35th birthday in 2017. Take a peek on eBay now and many of those “must have” items are available brand new for less than half of their original price. Take a deep breath and let the mania pass.
9. Don’t think you’re making an investment.
I’ve heard several friends buy Disney souvenirs and say something like, “This will be worth big bucks someday.” Um, no.
There have been a few Disney items here and there that have appreciated in value. However, the odds of that happening with anything mass produced in quantities saleable in a theme park are infinitesimal. Unless your souvenir is truly unique (a signed item) AND you have time and space to preserve it in a controlled space for decades, then you’re spending money, not making it.
Beyond the financial component, consider what will happen to your items as you age. Will your child want your “investment” purchases? Will they have room to store them? Will they even know that a particular item is “valuable”?
10. Don’t start a collection you can’t maintain.
One strategy that helps guests control their spending is to buy only items associated with a particular collection. That often makes sense, but before you go that route, assess whether you’ll be able to maintain that collection. Christmas ornaments and mugs seem like small items, but even as few as 10 of them start to take up real space.
What are your strategies as you approach souvenir shopping at the parks? Let us know in the comments.