The 1,200 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 truly understand the desire to troll the theme park shops for the perfect souvenir. But as satisfying as it can be to come home with just the right thing, there are plenty of pitfalls to Disney parks shopping. Here are seven potential Disney souvenir shopping mistakes and how you can avoid them.
1. Thinking that you have to pay for souvenirs.
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 bookmarks by participating in the Enchanted Tales with Belle attraction at the Magic Kingdom, free stick puppets at the Epcot Kidcot Fun Stops, or a lei at the Polynesian resort. These free 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 Cousin Billy spilled his milk on Goofy’s shoe at Chef Mickeys?” “Remember when Baby Sally hugged Cinderella for the first time?” “Remember when we finally got Grandma to go on the Teacups and she actually had a blast?” Assuming that you’ve got a digital camera or a camera-equipped phone, these memories can all be captured gratis. Disney PhotoPass photographers will even take group shots using your camera, at no charge. Isn’t a photo of Mom wearing Mickey ears a better souvenir than a snow globe?
2. Buying things you won’t use at home.
I’ll admit that this is a trap that I’ve often fallen into. 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 in Mouse Gear.
Your personal pitfall may be different. Do you not display tchochkes 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 Minnie 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.
3. Buying 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 a special thank you. What they don’t deserve is a dust-gathering hunk of plastic. Just as you shouldn’t buy things you wouldn’t use at home, you shouldn’t buy souvenirs or gifts for people that they won’t use at 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, H2O lotion, or music CD that they can download and dispose of. 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 Goofy holding the sign. It’s cute, thoughtful, memorable, and free.
4. Paying full price when you don’t have to.
There are plenty of tips on saving money souvenirs. A few classics are: buy Disney-themed tees/toys at Walmart and give them to your kids during your trip, shop at the Disney discount outlets, or stock up on fun disposable items like glo-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 the DisneyStore.com website. (Use your smartphone or tablet and the new free in-park WiFi system.) Disney Store online 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 have often purchased my Vinylmation friends in the parks for full price, only to find out later that the EXACT SAME ITEM was simultaneously being sold online for 50% less. I now make a habit of checking Disney Store’s website before committing to an in-park purchase.
5. Buying items that you can’t easily transport home.
Before buying anything physically large (Cinderella Castle playset, area rug 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? Do I have the physical stamina to carry this through the airport? Do I want to shlep 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.
6. Not setting limits for a child (or yourself).
I’ve been known to get buyers 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 and download my photos each evening, I’m reminded of how much I’ve already spent.
Bonus tip: Beware the MagicBand. Now that Disney has fully implemented MagicBands and the “Tap to Pay” system, it is almost ridiculously easy to buy things. For purchases under $50, you often don’t even have to sign anything. I’m not surprised that Disney reports that guest merchandise spending went up after most guests had MagicBands. If you feel that Tap to Pay makes buying too easy, remember that you’re not required to activate the charging capability of your Band. Sometimes making yourself use a gift card, credit card, or good old cash, can slow you down enough to derail impulse purchases.
7. Not taking advantage of membership discounts.
While MagicBands make paying easy, they don’t make getting discounts easy. For example, I am a Disney World annual pass holder. 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 10% 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 pass holder, 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.
Did I miss anything? What are your tips for smart souvenir buying at the Disney parks? Have you made any souvenir purchase mistakes that you later regretted? Let us know in the comments below.