In parks, hotels, and the mecca of all shopping experiences, Downtown Disney, the Disney marketing machine spares no angle or usable space to sell its wares. Without a strong sense of budget and a heavy dose of discipline, money and time will disappear quickly. This article presents strategies to avoid spending too much of the latter while shopping your way through Walt Disney World, particularly when traveling with children.
Most adults travel to Walt Disney World with some sense of how much disposable income is available for souvenirs and other miscellaneous expenses, but not necessarily an idea of the amount of time they can take to pursue these extras. Pre-trip planning and discussion can help establish shopping expectations. This is critical if accompanied by children, but also important for adult companions.
Much like running across a character signing autographs, the level of distraction for the 3 to 12-year-old set created by bright character displays and colorful kiosks can cause touring plans to grind to a halt. The first step prior to the trip is to set age-appropriate expectations on the souvenir budget and general shopping logistics by answering such questions as:
- We will set aside time to shop in each park, or will shopping be more spontaneous?
- Is Downtown Disney on the itinerary? If so, when?
- Are there certain items, such as a special pin or specific character merchandise, that someone is searching for?
- We will have time later in the trip to return to a park or to Downtown Disney for a particular item?
- Who pays for the souvenirs?
- What is our souvenir budget?
Older children should save and carry their own money. My kids (12, 11 and 9) usually bring $20 to $30 each from their chore money and I supplement that with about $20 before we leave for Orlando. If they don’t spend the extra money, they are allowed to keep it, and they are not allowed to plead for more during the trip. An unlimited budget can lead to unlimited shopping—or worse, unlimited whining—wasting precious time in the process. Children who understand they only have a certain amount of their own money to spend will usually demonstrate more disciplined shopping, and might even bring money home.
Shopping with my family during the first few days of vacation is usually in reconnaisance mode. We might spend 10 to 15 minutes browsing in a store that catches someone’s eye, but we rarely make purchases during those first couple of days; we’re just checking things out. There is little merchandise unavailable at other parks or Downtown Disney, either identical or similar. We save our park shopping for early afternoon when the weather is hot, or we make quick shopping excursions while waiting for a Fastpass return window or meeting a family member. I encourage patience if I sense an impulsive purchase, with the assurance of returning to buy the item at another time. I am careful not to promise we can go back to a store or park to purchase something unless I am absolutely certain, barring emergency, that we can make a return trip. Ultimately, since my kids spend their own money and carry what they buy, if they feel strongly about the purchase, I step out of the way.
If you are staying at a Disney resort with at least two days before checkout, You can have your park or Downtown Disney purchases delivered to your hotel free of charge. Otherwise, shop later in the day to avoid carrying purchases through the parks.
If you enjoy shopping, nothing beats Downtown Disney, home to the world’s largest Disney Store and more than a dozen other Disney-themed specialty stores. Downtown Disney also houses a large, centrally located amphitheater for the less-inclined shopper to avoid the retail hubbub, and if the timing is right, enjoy family-friendly entertainment. Unfortunately, the bus service to and from the resorts to Downtown Disney is usually very slow due to inconvenient stops and the multitude of traffic lights in the area. I either plan a short stop in Downtown Disney on the afternoon of my Animal Kingdom park day or on the morning of a rest day. I have also skipped a trip to Downtown Disney during a Walt Disney World vacation since there is more than enough merchandise to choose from at the parks and resorts.
There are several alternatives to the shop-‘til-you-drop Walt Disney World experience, including ordering online before or after the trip, shopping at Orlando area outlets, or shopping at one of the many Disney stores sprinkled throughout the country. Ordering online prior to a trip and giving items to younger children at intervals helps avoid the "gimmes" at the parks. While this strategy saves time—provided you are not also spending a lot of time shopping during your vacation—it’s not liable to save money.
You can purchase pins and other items on eBay or Craig’s List, which will save both time and money, and is a particularly good strategy to cheaply acquire pins to trade once on vacation. If you have a car, there are Disney outlets within easy driving distance, including the Character Warehouse in the Orlando Premium Outlets near Downtown Disney. This and other outlets typically carry overstocks or out-of-date Disney merchandise at significant savings.
The objective for a vacation in Walt Disney World should be about the memories, not the memorabilia. Make sure your shopping habits mirror your words. Spend time before the trip to consider the relative priority of picking up Disney trinkets, and also establish time and money limits with your family. Don’t plan the spontaneity out of your vacation, but don’t waste time arguing with a child about buying more stuff or waiting long periods for an adult companion bent on acquiring that perfect gift. The investment of time on the front end will help create the discipline needed to walk past all of those shiny Disney objects, giving you more time to create lasting memories of your magical vacation.