The wonderful thing about World Showcase is that it has so many layers—layers that many of us come to appreciate in various ways during different times in our lives.
The architectural and landscaping details offer one layer of appreciation; the films and attractions add another. Visiting with the International Program participants who work in the pavilions adds depth, meaning, and a level of personal connection that truly enhances the experience. Then there are the restaurants and the shops.
This last layer—the World Showcase shopping experience—is one aspect that has changed over the years, particularly in the past three or four. Many of these changes, no doubt, are the result of economic and cultural shifts well outside Disney's control. The Internet has changed forever the way high-end collectibles are bought and sold, and the Walt Disney World shopping experience reflects these changes. But many of the changes in merchandising philosophy are the direct result of a conscious tonal change in the company's overall approach to shopping at Walt Disney World.
Let's take a sentimental walk around the World Showcase Promenade where there are so many wonderful shopping experiences to enjoy. By revisiting many of the unique shops featured there, the changes in merchandising philosophy are more than evident.
Our first stop, Mexico, retains much of its original appeal. The unique marketplace with its perpetual twilight continues to enchant with colorful wares and lots of energy. The addition of Mexican artisans in the foyer of the great pyramid adds to the authenticity and color of this popular shopping spot.
Sadly, many of the side shops surrounding La Plaza de los Amigos no longer feature the extensive array of wares such as jewelry, upscale art, or delicate pottery that they once did. Many of the charming nooks and crannies in these shops have been shut off completely, as have some of the shops themselves. Artesanias Mexicanas, for example, once featured fine pieces of silver and turquoise jewelry, a variety of candlesticks and candelabra, and bookends made of onyx and silver. There's much more to Mexican imports than the selection of blankets, sombreros, silly puppets, and tequila glasses now offered here. The lack of variety does not kill the fun of shopping in the Mercado, but it was much more interesting when there a wider range and greater depth of authentic Mexican merchandise than is currently available.
The newest of the World Showcase countries features an interesting mix of picturesque shops that at one time or another sold everything from upscale winter sweaters to Norwegian cruises.
The main shop in Norway is called the Puffin's Roost and features a pleasing array of trolls, Viking hats, fairy tale books, and sweets. Charming wooden Christmas ornaments—red stars, horses, bells, and angels—are featured here as well. At one time, the shop also sold a large array of Norwegian made toys here, including sturdy trucks and charming dolls.
Other shops continue to offer clothing, fine fragrances, and a small selection of Konge Tinn pewter. This selection was much more varied at one time, and we purchased several pieces as Christmas gifts for family and friends. On our most recent visit, there were only a few pieces of Norwegian pewter available.
A huge Chinese emporium, the newly redecorated and renamed House of Good Fortune offers an overwhelming variety of wares, from trinkets to artistic treasures. Many of the offerings are surprisingly affordable, including unique household items like lamps and pottery in both traditional and modern varieties.
This vast shop continues to delight in its newest incarnation that is more streamlined and more modern than its predecessor. I miss some of the nooks and crannies of the original shop that, at least to my mind, gave it a more authentic Chinese market feel. Nonetheless, we never fail to stop by and admire the wares at his unique location.
Our favorite World Showcase shopping destination, Germany, offers many fine shops in its quaint town square. Der Buecherwurm once featured prints of German towns and a vast selection of music boxes and CDs representing Germany's rich musical heritage. Now, however, German soccer gear is the main event, along with various German-themed Disney character items.
Luckily, Volkskunst, located next door, still features cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest, a wide variety of German beer steins, and kitchen items like placemats and towels. We miss the traditional Tyrolean hats, German-made scarves, and the small collection of woodcarvings from Oberammergau that this shop once featured.
Der Teddybar, Germany's toy store, once offered a truly inspiring selection of classic toys. The store still carries a limited array of authentic German toys—from stuffed animals to dolls and trains—but most of the merchandise is the same made-in-China Disney-themed Snow White merchandise found all over Disney property.
At one time not that long ago, store merchants here created custom dolls for guests; children could pick hair, eye, and complexion color and choose from an extensive array of clothing. The store also sold traditional miniature train sets, as well as a truly unique collection of highly detailed knights, ladies, kings, and queens complete with castles and horses. The store still sells some Schleich World of Knights toys, but the selection is very limited.
The collection of Steiff stuffed animals here once equaled the one found in the charming German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Once upon a time, you could find unique German-made Disney PVC characters here as well; we treasure the characters from Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks that we purchased here in the past. A collection of retro black and white PVC characters—Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Daisy in classic poses—was also available here for a long time.
We still visit Der Teddybar every time we're at Epcot, but find less and less to purchase.
If there were a contest for the most charming World Showcase shop, there is little doubt in my mind that Glas und Porzellan would win. Once the most prominent of shops in the German pavilion, its architectural details of elaborately carved moldings, columns, and woodwork, its attractive window displays, and a workshop area that once featured Goebel artists at work were full to overflowing with charm and authenticity. The impressive collection of M. I. Hummel figurines, based on the drawings of Sister Berta Hummel, once filled the shelves and curio cabinets. I suspect that shifting buying habits of collectors and a brief financial difficulty at the Goebel factory itself led to the demise of this lovely place.
Fortunately, the store remains virtually intact, and now houses a new sweets shop named Karamell-Kuche, which is German for "Caramel Kitchen."
While I understand the need for change at the parks, it would be nice to see a small collection of Hummel figurines featured in one of the Epcot shops—perhaps the lovely little Christmas shop nearby. After all, the Disney-Hummel link is decades old: Goebel once made figurines based on the early films of Walt Disney. Pieces made in the 1940s based on characters from Fantasia, for instance, are highly sought after by collectors. In recent years, Disney-Hummel pieces were a mainstay at Disneyana Conventions. Let's keep our fingers crossed that this rich relationship will one day be reinstated.
Il Bel Cristallo is the largest of Italy's shops, and at one time, the most varied. A fine selection of Armani figurines, featuring classic Disney characters as well as Armani originals, once graced the glass cases separating the two rooms of this beautiful shop. A large collection of authentic Venetian glass once sparkled on the shelves behind the registers, and also on hand were charming Sorrento music boxes. The shop also featured an extensive array of Fontanini nativity figurines here for many years; guests could add unique figurines—like the Little Drummer Boy or the camels of the Three Magi—to their collections, or begin a family tradition by purchasing the Holy Family and an Italian stable.
Unfortunately, that vast selection is now a part of Epcot's past. Fine fragrances and soccer memorabilia now fill the shelves of Il Bel Cristallo.
Shopping at Walt Disney World was originally conceived as part of the overall Disney "show." Some shops, like the long-lost Olde World Antiques shop in the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square or the Tricornered Hat Shoppe once located in Frontierland, were never designed to be big money-making locations. Instead, Imagineers created them as experiences that enhanced the overall atmosphere and theme. I miss those little shops just like I miss the depth of merchandise once available along the World Showcase Promenade.
For those of us who visit Walt Disney World frequently, it is wonderful to discover mementos from our visits that don't necessarily scream Walt Disney World. Visitors to our home would be surprised to learn that many of our most treasured Walt Disney World souvenirs seem to have no "Disney" connection at all. These treasures from World Showcase, however, do have strong associations with visits to that wonder of wonders, EPCOT Center.
So what are your most treasured World Showcase finds? Please feel free to share, and to join me again when we continue our visit to World Showcase.
(Send an email to Tom Richards)
Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.