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.
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:
- 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.
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?