Managing Your Child’s Souvenir Budget at Walt Disney World

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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 incredible rides, food, entertainment, and general merriment at the Disney parks, there are indeed, many, many, many shopping opportunities. Merchandise is available everywhere at every price point, from $1 pencils to several thousand dollar art and jewelery. 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.

Plush toys are a popular souvenir

With all the eye candy just crying out for acquisition, you’ll be in much better shape both emotionally and financially if you create a souvenir-buying plan 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 sitting down with your kids, it may help to sit down with your spouse or other adults in your traveling party to make sure you’re in agreement about general strategies. Some questions to ask each other are:

  • Will we give the child souvenir money or will she be expected to spend her own funds?
  • 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 are 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 disneystore.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. Ask your child:

Pins make an inexpensive collectible

  • Is there something you’d like to collect? Pins, Vinylmation figures, and pressed pennies are all inexpensive collectibles. The trading possibilities of the first two items may also be interesting to an extroverted child.
  • Do you have a favorite character? Focus on buying only items with Mater or Daisy Duck 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.

Deciding on a Dollar Amount and How to Manage It

I know 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 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.

Personally embroidered hats are a popular item

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. Figure 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?

Again, 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?

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Posted on July 19, 2011

31 Responses to “Managing Your Child’s Souvenir Budget at Walt Disney World”

  • When it comes to kids and souvenirs, my best advice is to distinguish between something that a kid wants to hold in his hands and look at for 40 seconds (let him hold it for a minute or two, then put it back), something that he wants to play with for five minutes or maybe a half hour (try to distract him with something else, but definitely don’t buy it), and something that he may still be interested in a week or a month from now (give it some consideration).
    Spoken as a former kid who was taught early on that parents are going to say “no” more often than we wanted.

    • by Erin Foster on July 20, 2011, at 7:34 am EDT

      I agree that a key component of learning to manage finances is learning to understand the concept of long-term value. I think the older the child is, the easier it is for them to understand.

  • Thanks for the great tips, Erin. I have read in various places strategies for children’s spending money on Disney trips. When we went 4 years ago, my 3 kids at the time had a set dollar amount for the entire trip (one day at MK, a day and a half at DTD). Their money consisted of money they were given for the trip ($5 from great grandma), their own saved “vacation money” and then the jar of change at home that was divided up among the 3. I encouraged them to “look” while we were at the park, then make their final purchases at DTD, which worked fine for the items they were gunning for. By giving them control over their spending it saved us a lot of begging and whining. This trip we are taking in Sept has the same 3 kids (son almost 11, b/g twins 9) plus son 3years. This will be a week long trip with grandparents along. We plan to approach much the same way as last time. Youngest will get mouse ears from us as it will be his first visit. I think our souvenir instructions will include sweets/specialty candy as well…I can see those being very enticing at parks and DTD but also add up quickly. Curious if we should go with Disney gift card, or do cash, or a little bit of both? Concern is that oldest son 11 for example may not be interested in a lot of Disney themed stuff but would prefer having money for non-Disney items back home. Interested in others’ experience with this. Thanks again!

    • by Erin Foster on July 20, 2011, at 7:37 am EDT

      I have found that now that my kids are tweens/teen, less at the parks enticing them. (This is probably also because we go so often that most of the merchandise is familiar.) Perhaps if you gave your oldest a gift card and he didn’t spend it all, you could reimburse him with cash for at-home spending and then save the gift card for a future trip.

  • by Amie Mattson on July 19, 2011, at 6:29 pm EDT

    We gave our son a Disney gift card and let him spend it on what he wanted. We were surprised at how much thinking and planning went into his purchase! I think it helped us out a lot not having to hear him beg for things and when he was done with his gift card, he was done.

  • 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 tiera”, “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 2 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. (Now if only I could limit my cupcake and Dole Whip intake.)

    • by Erin Foster on July 20, 2011, at 7:39 am EDT

      This is a great idea – one that I hadn’t heard before. I might also include a coupon that says something like “One bonus/surprise item” to cover unanticipated enticements.

  • Gift cards worked great last visit with dd6, niece7 & nephew 4. they got gift cards for birthdays, xmas, etc.. as we planned the trip for over a year. They ended up having an avg of $25/day to spend on what they wanted. Worked out great and taught them all that they needed to be smart about what they wanted and they couldn’t ask for/buy everything in sight. will do same for dd7 next trip in January. ds2 I think may still be to young for full control over spending money…. Love the “coupon” idea too Irene.

  • 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 up special bank accounts just for their Disney savings. They each worked hard and saved up $100. We used our Disney Dream Dollar rewards from our credit card for our matching dollars. I requested 2 cards with $100 each on them, so for the first $100 they used the cards. For the second $100 (their earnings), they had cash, but we only took $50 a day and I held onto it, not them.

    It worked very well for us. We spent 4 days in the park, so it was a great way to teach our kids about budgeting their money. If they still wanted money to spend on Friday, they had to spend no more than $50 a day and if they spend more one day, they would have to spend less on another day. It was a great lesson.

    • by Erin Foster on July 20, 2011, at 7:40 am EDT

      Matching dollars is a great way to show kids that the harder they work/save, the more they’ll have – but also allow them a bit of extra fun too.

  • Instead of toting around my 3 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. After a few trips, I came up with this method, and it has saved us so much time at the register, and it has lessened the hassle of keeping track of their separate monies.

  • We spent way less than I expected on souvenirs on our first trip to WDW. The secret: Pin Trading.

    We bought a huge lot of pins (50 I think, but might get 100 next time) from eBay for $1 each before the trip. The kids loved trading pins with all the cast members and they each eventually got some really special pins they were proud of. This really satisfied their desire to get something in each shop… just trade with one of the CMs.

    We did buy them a couple special souvenirs (ears, and a brand-new pin for each) but I was truly surprised when I found we had come in way under our souvenir budget!

    • Agree! And pin trading is fun to do. Some of the memorable moments from past trips have been just in chatting with CMs over a little pin trading.

    • by Erin Foster on July 20, 2011, at 7:42 am EDT

      We’ve gotten into Vinylmation trading. I’ve also been amazed at how much the quest and interaction of trading can take the place of new purchasing.

  • 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 1 toy and 1 item of clothing, they give purchases a fair amount of thought. When they're considering buying something, often they will talk with us about whether the item in question is worth the money, and whether they would find something later that they like even better but can't buy because they ran out of money. We don't visit the mall at home very frequently, so WDW is one of the big opportunities they have every year to gain experience in dealing with money, in a place where there are many things they might potentially like to buy.

    • My parents had this same rule when they took me and my brother when we were kids. One stuffed animal/small toy and a t-shirt (could be substituted for cap or other similarly priced item). I plan on using the same practice when I take my kids!

  • Interesting topic as we just got back from a trip to WDW last week. My daughter (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 whe 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.

    • We do the same thing. For each of our Disney trips, my now-ten-year-old daughter saved money she received for her birthday and Christmas and we divided out the total amount by days. I usually carry the extra money and she puts her day’s allotment into her waistpack. When she was younger, she would have me carry all of the money and when it came time to purchase, I would hand her that day’s envelope so she could pay the cashier.

      Even at 3 (her first trip), she had total control of how she could spend her money. Whatever she didn’t use each day got divided out and added for the remaining days. When she asked if she could get something, I would reply, “you have (whatever the amount was for the day) dollars, is that what you want to buy? Then you’d have x dollars left.” She would buy some things and put others back depending on her decision. And at the end of each trip, she always had money left over “for next time”.

  • We had a set dollar limit for each child on our trip. I created some “Disney Dollars” — fake money for our trip. The kids each had their dollar amount in these Disney Dollars. I, acting as the Bank of Dad, had enough to create change as needed. When they wanted to buy a souvenir, they paid me with their “Disney dollars”, and I made the purchase (via rm key) on their behalf. This meant that the kids were always aware of how much money they had left to spend, and a visual representation of how much an item costs. It also meant that we didn’t have to worry about the kids losing or dropping any real money in the parks. This method worked quite well for us! The kids did not go crazy when shopping. The first couple of days, they would often look at something, want it, see just few “disney dollars” they would have left if they bought it, and decide they didn’t want it that badly, after all.
    (Kids were 10 and 6)

  • When we go to WDW (or take any other trip for that matter), I tell my daughter that I will buy her something on the last day. I’ve been doing this since she was 3 and a half and it works really well for us. I reminder her of this “rule” at the beginning of each trip, so that when we go into a shop she knows she can look and touch things, but that it doesn’t do any good to ask me to buy it until the last day when I tell her we are going into a shop specifically to buy. I try to pay attention to what she says she wants to buy throughout the trip, and then make sure the store we go into carries this item. Something else that works well for us is taking photos – I’ve got some great photos of her trying on various Disney hats, and that usually is enough for her, as she knows we have the photo as a souvenir. And if there is really a souvenir that I think is worth “bending the rules”, I try to buy it without her being aware of it, and then give it to her later as a surprise or a reward for good behavior.

  • Five children and over a dozen Disney trips, the Disney pre-loaded gift cards have been the easiest and best for us! We’d carry them for the younger children (under 12), but the rest of the responsibility for keeping track of the card and their expenditurewaldo ides an excellent teaching tool and is easy to manage.

  • During our last trip our children were 3 and 6. We took the time to explain that going to the park was the privilege not buying. I shopped ahead at the Disney store and brought new shirts and a sweatshirt for each child. They each choose a hat and were able to make a “bigger” purchase in DTD. The princess dress was bought ahead of time and the pirates league provided the rest! I also brought glow in the dark items for fun in the parks. They are looking forward to the next trip so they can get pirate ears.

  • Our upcoming trip will be the first time the kids, DD8 and DS5, will have a souvenir budget. The last time we went, they were 3 and 5 months. They have been receiving Disney Gift cards for Christmas, their birthdays, and any special occasion ever since we announced we were going last year. They each have a pretty nice sum to spend at the parks. They know that once their gift cards are gone, there is no more spending. Teaching them to really think about their purchase before they make it will be the difficult part. DS seems to understand $ better than DD, she is definitely a spender and he is definitely a saver. When I explain that “no, we can’t get XXXX right now”, he follows with “because we are saving for our trip to Disney”. As long as she comprehends that we will not pay for anything above and beyond what she spends on her gift cards, then I see it as a great learning opportunity for her. She may learn the hard way that buying everything at first sight may not be the best plan. What my husband is really worried about is me managing my budget while souvenir shopping at DW. Hehehe : )

  • On our last trip that was 3 day trip, we told the kids that we would buy them each one item each day that was around 20 dollars. If they chose to skip a day and roll the money to the next that was fine by us. The kicker was, that I would only buy the item during one of the last hours of being in the park. This means we could go and look, touch, feel any item in any of the gift shops all day long, but they knew nothing would be bought until the end of the day so we didnt have to deal with the buy me this, buy me that all day long. It was more, I am coming back for this tonight! Also, this way they had an entire day to make up their mind and they wouldnt have the stress of finding something else later in the day that they liked better than the first toy they saw that morning. Plus not having to lug it around all day is a bonus too. This seemed to really worked and it also got the kids charged up when during the last hour we would make our plans to hit the shop that they wanted and get the toy that they had been hoping for all day. win. win.

  • Love this article. The first time we went to Disney, we went through a lot of grief from my oldest (who was just under 5 at the time), who wanted everything he saw. Two years later we were still hearing about the Indiana Jones gun he didn’t get. This time I decided to give both of my sons $50 gift cards to spend however they wanted (we were there for 5 days), and my oldest could bring whatever money he saved from his allowance. This worked so much better – no whining at all. We talked about what were the best choices, and he was much more judicious with his “own” money. It also kept me to a budget, since I tend to buy more for my kids than myself anyway. Overall, we came away much happier parents with much happier kids, and a better vacation. (I have to add: keeping to a touring plan also kept us away from the stores and concentrated more on the attractions – they were not only a time saver, but a money saver too!).

  • Another thought on this. Since we are going at the end of October, I will also be shopping for Christmas presents. If the kids do spend through their gift cards and see something that is reasonably priced and worth getting for them, I’ll still tell them no, but it may just end up under the tree for them from Santa. : )

  • by Sharla Lonsway on August 7, 2011, at 7:10 pm EDT

    My husband devised a “points” system for our daughter when we first went several years ago. Each point corresponded to a dollar, and she could earn these for good behavior, trying new rides, being helpful with younger siblings, and obviously could lose points for tantrums etc. We would have spent the money anyhow so this way we got something in return. Usually she shopped for something big that she wanted and saved up for it for several days.

  • We went to Disney last year. This was my girls (2&8) 1st trip and my 1st trip in 17 years so souvenirs was a must. When we ate I often paid the extra $3 and upgraded the girls to souvenir cups, they were refillable at most places, and the girls loved being able to bring them home. We also took a napkin from our favorite places to eat, that are now in our scrap books. I had a few souvenirs that I wanted the girls to have (mickey ears, autograph books, ect) so I planned on buying those. The 2 year old I picked out all her souvenirs except for a Daisey Duck PEZ that she just had to have and now a year later she still uses and puts it back away, telling me it’s her special candy toy. However I gave the 8 year old $25 a day to use as “over-ride money” If she asked for something and I said no then she could use her money to buy it. Everytime she thought about buying something she would think to herself “would I spend my money on it?” and if she wouldn’t then she didn’t even ask me. I did buy somethings, like her favorite rides I would get her a shirt or pin and the picture they snapped while we were going down the big drops, and the Duffy Bear she had be asking for for months, but then she bought the extra clothes for him. Aside from her Duffy clothes she saved her money through the entire trip then went wild the last hour we were there. She did however leave Disney with $15 left over, which she spent on the drive home. (typing this I just realized that next time we go I’m treating my mother and she’ll probably spend more than both the girls combined; I’m in trouble)

    The biggest hit souvenirs were the pressed pennies. I took a roll of quaters and a roll of pennies and everytime they saw one they could do it. They both loved doing it and still pull them out together and look at them.

    Epcot was a good souvenir place for us. In China and Japan they have a lot of items ranging between $3 and $8 and they will write your name on the in Chinese or Japanese.

    On a side note; We found that having lunch at one of the sit down restaraunts was a great thing because it gave all of us a chance to cool off and recharge. Plus it gave my ex and I a chance to plan out the next stages in our day. Then we had quick serve for dinner, so we could get back out there and enjoy the cooler night.

  • We make a beaded necklace or keychain. Each bead represents one dollar. They give us the beads and we pay for the item. This way they see their allowance disappear and can make wise decisions. If they see for instance that they only have 45 beads left, they will hesitate to buy that impulse 30 bead item and wait to get something they truly love. There is also no danger of real money being lost.

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