Seven Disney Souvenir Buying Mistakes

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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.

Some Disney take-home items can be had for free.

Some Disney take-home items can be had for free.

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.

Neon Mickey shirts are super cute, but will you really wear them at home?

Neon Mickey shirts are super cute, but will you really wear them 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?

Epcot's World Showcase countries are a great source of unique consumable souvenirs and gifts.

Epcot’s World Showcase countries are a great source of unique consumable souvenirs and gifts.

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.

Does your son's math teacher really want another novelty mug?

Does your son’s math teacher really want another novelty mug?

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.

The play castle is AWESOME, but it can be a real pain to get home.

The play castle is AWESOME, but it can be a real pain to get home.

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.

If you want to read more about souvenir regret, check out Derek Burgan‘s monthly series The Magic, The Memories, and Merch!

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.

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Posted on July 8, 2014

27 Responses to “Seven Disney Souvenir Buying Mistakes”

  • These are great tips, although #1 to me is always just junky clutter. We do do pressed pennies to keep the “I wants away” for the kids. I’m also immune to the magic band effect; I don’t find touch to pay any easier than swiping a card. I’ve had less hassle with cards than those annoying bands too. But I live and die by tip #2, no matter where we are.

    • #1 is often junky clutter. But it’s junky clutter that I don’t feel guilty about throwing away. If I’ve spent $50 on a toy, I feel bad if I trash it – not so much if it is a free Duffy puppet.

  • Disneystore.com shipping is only free in the US. Even to Canada they charge far more for shipping than any other US based web site.

    Also, check your receipts at counter services. They sometimes put 20% discounts for certain souvenir stores.

    • Yes, I recently discovered this discount after I was home and reconciling receipts for my credit card statement. Be sure to check your receipts while at WDW. There is at least one shop per park and at downtown Disney that accepts it!

  • If you do want a t-shirt (I wear Disney T’s any time I can get away with it… even to work) always check the two official outlet stores first. I got one for $6 that was in Epcot for $25 at the time. Also, mall Disney stores in your home town frequently have better deals. Buy your shirts in advance, put them away, don’t let the kids see them, then give them to the kids after you get to the parks.

    • We do the buy at Disney Store, then put away thing too. When my daughter was younger, we didn’t let her see what we had stashed away, but now that she’s a teenager, we let her pick out her own stuff when we pick out ours. She asks me every couple of days if she can’t wear her Alice shirt just ONE TIME before we go, and I keep telling her no. This is usually followed by moping and pouting. :P I’ve got two brand new t-shirts each packed up for our trip. She’ll be so excited to finally get to wear hers, she’ll forget about other souvenirs for at least a couple of days! Works perfectly.

  • On our last trip, we took gift cards to help curb our spending. We didn’t link a credit card to our MagicBands, so it was just a bit harder to spend. I also had a list of things I wanted (an ornament, a sweatshirt, etc) and did my best not to be swayed by the other cute stuff. And we also told the kids that we would only buy stuff on the final day. They could spend their time looking around and choosing what they wanted before making a rash decision. The only exception to that rule was the Duffy bears from Epcot. Both knew before we left home they wanted one and we went to Epcot our first day. We waited to buy him outfits, though.

  • Great tips! I would add one more… our family only shops for souvenirs on the first day of our vacation, at Downtown Disney. The kids know this is the one opportunity to spend their money, and we never step into another store. It helps a ton with my son, who in general is always holding out to see if something better comes along.

  • Trista,

    I’m glad you’ve found a strategy that works for your family, but I’m curious how it is physically possible not to step into another store. Half the rides at WDW really do “exit through the gift shop.” How do your kids react to situations like this?

    • Get them invested in the touring plan! We can’t stop in the gift shop! Have to get to Pirates of the Caribbean next!

    • by Trista VanderVoord on July 16, 2014, at 3:46 pm EST

      I suppose we do technically step into the gift stores that we are funneled into (Space Mountain, Pirates of the Carribean, etc.). But we are always using a Touring Plan, so everyone in my family is aware that we need to get to the next attraction on our list! It really hasn’t caused problems, and we have been doing it this way since the kids were 5. It probably helps a lot that they each have a specific souvenir budget to spend, so once it’s gone (on the first day) they don’t actually have any money left.

  • by Mariana Ruiz on July 8, 2014, at 11:32 am EST

    I also tell my children they can look around whenever we enter a park store to choose ONE souvenir (or maybe two small ones instead of a medium oneā€¦). We don’t buy it at that moment, but get a picture in our smartphones and tell them that there are plenty of more things to look and choose from before making a final decision. The fact that they can see the picture whenever they want alleviates their urge for having it right away. By the last day of the trip we have accumulated maybe a dozen of pictures, but they can go through them and finally decide what they would really love to have as a souvenir. We also take a picture of the front door of the store so we remember where we saw the items and we can get back for it as promised.

  • When my children were little, we told them they could pick one small item per park. I made them wait until the end of the day if possible so they did not have to carry a bag around. As they got older they have learned to curb their souvenir appetites. Last year we went to Star Wars weekend. The only things my 14 year old son wanted were sunglasses and a baseball cap from Norway. My 17 year old daughter got a Doctor Who poster from England. I was quite proud!

    Also a tip we have used for souvenir spending… We save our Disney Visa rewards dollars over the two to three years between trips and that is our souvenir money!

  • The picture of consumables from World Showcase made me think of another tip. If you have an Amazon account you can often get the same thing for less money. For example, the Flavigny candies show on the picture are available for 3.00 per tin (but you do have to buy 8). So, if you’re thinking of consumables, they may, assuming you can use the quantity, be available from Amazon (and you can check if you have the phone app).

  • Great post. Similar to #2 we created the ‘cold light of day’ rule after local charity shops were in receipts a few lary t-shirts.

    Another tactic we use is photographing bigger purchases that might need trading off with other alternatives. For example if I want to buy an ornament I will photograph all the contenders throughout our holiday and then in the last couple of days go and buy the favourite.

    That said I always buy heaps of stuff, the bonus of the above is I generally don’t regret those purchases any more.

  • Thank you so much for #7, as a cast member I’m not supposed to ask if you have any discounts available. Also pointing out that you have to have the membership card and photo ID is right on, you would be surprised how many people every day tell me “I’ve never needed an ID before”. Another piece of information is that the person showing the discount and ID, must be the one to pay for the items. Thank you again for all of the great information.

  • First off, I liked the souvenirs from Disneyland in the 70′s and 80′s better than what they offer now. The coffee & beer mugs with Micky & Minnie were always welcomed. You could also find a few souvenirs that said WDW on them and I also bought a baseball hat that says Euro Disney. The fun thing I like to do is have the kids stand in front of the stuffed animals holding as many as they can. Take a picture. That’s the souvenir!!

  • Great article!

    We always save (wash out and take home) those colorful Mickey Straws that sometimes come with drinks !
    They are not quite free, since you paid for the drink or dessert to get them – but why throw them out?

    In different years we have found discounted/clearance items in Japan (a back corner of the store) or China (outside).
    Small, inexpensive, unique items we brought back for other people.

    Just one thing about going back to purchase on the last day…
    without park hopper, or without enough time, we did not find this to be a useful strategy in our family.
    We were told that anything you buy in a Disney owned/operated store can be returned to any other Disney owned/operated store.
    (Not all stores are Disney owned/operated. Not all the Downtown Disney stores. Not all the Epcot World Showcase stores.)

    But you can always ask, “if we change our minds, can this souvenir be returned in the lobby gift store at my Disney Resort?”
    We purchased a few things along the way, and returned an extra t-shirt purchased in Epcot Future World to our resort store – refunded, no problem at all.
    We purchased a couple of key chains along the way (as we saw them) and decided the day before we left which one to keep.
    Returned the others.
    Beats going back to the stores for us!
    But, of course, your kids (and your significant other) have to be on board about not keeping everything.
    (Obviously, this strategy does not work for all families!)

    And even though you will see a Disney Store in the Orlando Airport, this is not a place you can return items you purchased in Disney World.

  • The one gift that we always bring back that is greatly enjoyed is the bagged coffee from The Kona Cafe. Their special blend is $15 a bag. Get the whole beans so it stays fresher.

  • Very interesting to hear how others approach souvenirs! It seems popular here to wait until the end of the trip to buy kids souvenirs but my kids always seem to enjoy having something during the time we are at Disney – one time we had them wait until the last day and they quickly forgot about the items shortly after we returned home and had a very hard time waiting until the end of the trip – and it was hard for me to say no:) So, for our family, we always let them pick something out right away that they can enjoy or wear during the week even if we know it is an impulse buy. These are often their favorite purchases because they become part of their memories!

  • We are dining at ‘Ohana one night but not staying at Poly. Can my kids get free Lei’s even though we are not staying there? If so, where can they get them at the resort?

    • You’re certainly welcome to get a lei at the Poly. There is often a big rack of them (like in the photo above) sitting in the lobby, but with all the construction going on right now, this might be gone or moved. If you don’t see a lei display, just ask at the front desk or concierge stand and they’ll be happy to hook you up.

  • by Sara Roberts on July 13, 2014, at 9:59 am EST

    I have my go to souvenir for all vacations, Christmas Ornaments. We get one every time we go to Disney (or anywhere else) no tchocky stuff to deal with, but makes Christmas even more special when we pull out all of the ornaments and get to remember our family vacations too!

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