30 November 2008

Bagging the perfect gift

Shopping is as much a part of a Disney vacation as eating, taking pictures, and standing in line, couple that with the upcoming holiday season , and I think everyone could use a few tips on shopping for ourselves, or that special geek on your list (See Tip 7), while at Walt Disney World. In the Spring 200 issue of Disney Magazine, Kim Wright Wiley gave us her pointers for a successful Disney shopping trip.

The good news is that, in my job as a travel writer, I’ve gone to Walt Disney World more than 40 times. The bad news is, that’s the number of times I’ve had to bring home souvenirs. Buying T-shirts for the gang was fine at first, but over the years I’ve had no choice but to become more creative about my gifts. After all, there’s so much stuff to buy: stuff in carts, stuff in stores, stuff when you get off rides, stuff at your hotel. There’s big stuff, small stuff, sequined stuff, shiny stuff, and stuffed stuff. But how do you make sure you get the best stuff?

The term “souvenir” comes from the French word for remember. The polka-dot salt-and-pepper shakers and Beast bedroom slippers help us remember our trip to Disney World. So, why do we buy souvenirs and bring them back to the people who weren’t along for the ride? I suspect these presents are the ultimate “Wish You Were Here,” a way to share the excitement of the trip with those who stayed behind. Didn’t make it to Orlando to ride the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster? A Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster cap is the next best thing.

And the logic works, at least when you consider how much my family’s souvenirs are part of our personal anthology of Disney World stories. My first really great find was a $2.95 pink convertible with Minnie Mouse inside. My daughter, Leigh, three at the time, literally held this car in her fist for six straight days and nights. On the last day of the trip, Leigh dropped Minnie as we were boarding the monorail and the little car managed to fall into the gap between the platform and the train. She shrieked, “Minnie!” so pitifully that I almost dove onto the track after it.

Luckily, we found a new Minnie car at the shop near the stroller rental booth. On subsequent trips I bought other characters-in-vehicles (Mickey in a firetruck, Donald in his boat) for preschoolers, and they were always hits. But don’t bother looking for these exact items now: With rare exceptions, Disney retires merchandise and brings in new regularly. This has two effects, the first being that the Brer Bear figurine you bought three years ago at the Briar Patch beside Splash Mountain is now, in a way, a collectible. The other is that no matter how many times you walk through the Disney gates, there’s always something new to buy.Our all-time biggest hit was a Mickey baseball jacket. Lightweight, water-repellant, and unisex, this garment was worn by both my kids, then passed to a friend with four children, who eventually passed it on to her sister in Texas. At last report the jacket was still going strong.

On my last visit to Disney World, I bought a pair of sunglasses, perfectly round and sixties-style, with a miniscule Mickey on the side. Leigh, now 15, liked them so much that she stole them from me, and I had to buy another pair. Then we got home, and I lost mine and tried to steal hers back. Leigh and I are normally quite ethical, so I tell you this story to illustrate how attached you can get to a cool souvenir.

I’m not sure what comes over people once they’re inside a Disney park, but it’s powerful. The more resistant someone is to Disney merchandising, the more apt he is to end the day in a Goofy hat – you know, the big green kind with long ears. So don’t kid yourself: You’re going to buy something. Just make sure you buy something you’re still going to like when Orlando is a blur in your rearview mirror.Here are my Disney World shopping tips:

1. Don’t get too creative. People want Disney souvenirs that look like souvenirs – in other words, they want the characters. The trick is to find a classic and put a spin on it. Eeyore ears instead of Mickey ears. Minnie-shoe slippers. Pooh-and-Tigger-shaped pasta.

2. Except for maybe a T-shirt and autograph book, save major purchases for the last day. (There is one big exception here: see next tip.) By then you’ll have seen it all and know what you really want. A good place for one-stop wrap-up shopping is the mammoth World of Disney store at Downtown Disney. You’ll find a bit of everything there, from Pooh boxer shorts to a Mickey-and-Minnie wedding-cake topper.

3. The exception to the second tip regards merchandise related to a specific attraction or resort: You won’t see that Star Tours jacket anywhere but Star Tours, so buy it while you’re there. With the advent of Disney stores nationwide and catalog shopping, you can buy Disney merchandise in Las Vegas or Pittsburgh. You’ll score extra brownie points if you bring back souvenirs exclusively found at the resorts or theme parks, like a black-and-white checked Test Track T-shirt, a shower curtain from the Hollywood Tower Hotel in the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, or a Mardi Gras nightshirt from Port Orleans.4. Shopping on your way out of the parks at night is such a good idea… that 10,000 other people have the same plan. The late-night buying frenzy is not a pretty sight. I once saw someone sneak a Sleepy nightshirt out of a shopping basket while the woman about to buy the skirt was wiping the remains of a Mousebar off her child’s chin. Better to shop in the afternoons, when lines at major attractions tend to be long, but the shops are relatively uncrowded. If you’re staying at a Disney hotel, have your purchases sent back to your hotel room. Not staying at a Disney hotel? Have purchases forwarded to Package Pick-Up, located near the park exits, and you can retrieve everything on your way out.

5. We have a rule in our family: If it costs more than $10, it has to have a practical function. Give the kids a few bucks to blow on balloons, candy, and other stuff that won’t survive the trip home, but consider saving your serious money for things you need anyway: backpacks, lunch boxes, umbrellas, calendars, and pajamas.

6. Older kids might enjoy collecting something, like figurines, line sketches, or mugs from the various resorts. You can add to the collection over time years. Pins featuring the characters or attractions are priced between $6 and $12 and are fun to collect and trade.

7. Shopping for the ultimate Disney-phile? Check out The Art of Disney in Downtown Disney or the Disney Gallery shops in Disney-MGM Studios and Epcot, where you’ll find autographed cels and “serious” (read beautiful and pricey) collectibles. Or for sheer camp, try Sid Cahuenga’s One-of-a-Kind at Disney-MGM Studios for genuine movie-star memorabilia. Expect everything from Liz Taylor’s purple suede cowboy jacket to Clark Gable’s cigarette case in this crowded, unusual shop.


lorilovestigger said...

Great tips! Especially #7. I'm waiting for someone to get me the redheaded wench and auctioneer from the Walt Disney Classics Collection. Hint to Santa Claus!

Ryan P. Wilson said...

I don't know that Santa reads the Gazette, but if I see him I'll pass the word along.

The Artwork of Christi Bunn said...

Catching up on blog reading. This is a fantastic post... enjoyed every word of it. I have experienced most of that (except the lady grabbing the Sleepy nightshirt... what nerve!) But I loved your philosophy that things over $10 must have a practical purpose. I think that will soon be adopted by my family.

:-) Christi