At one time, not so long ago, shopping at the Walt Disney World Resort was designed as an extension of the theme park experience. Shops were considered part of the Disney "show." As a result, small, specialized shops (like the much-missed Silversmith in Liberty Square or the quaint two-story bookshop in Epcot's World Showcase) could be found property-wide. The thinking was that even though crate-loads of merchandise might not fly off the shelves of these shops on a daily basis, their very existence enhanced the guest experience. It was interesting to browse through the Hollywood memorabilia at Sid Cahuenga's One-of-a-Kind Shop, entertaining to try on Western hats at the Trail Creek Hat Shop in Frontierland, or enlightening to browse through the entertainment themed books at the Celebrity 5 & Dime.
Sadly, a merchandising philosophy shift occurred sometime in the late 1990s, and the variety of the Disney World shopping experience has yet to fully recover. When new management was imported from outside the Disney realm, the success of shops was reduced to numbers. The ratio of square footage to profit became king, and one by one, cozy boutiques and unique little shops were obliterated. Remember when Mickey's of Hollywood used to feature several beautifully themed areas as opposed to the one huge mall-like configuration of today? How about a Main Street that featured individual shops rather than block-long mega-stores?
Have you noticed the "purchase with purchase" rage that ubiquitously intrudes upon just about every shop? This is a reaction to the need to compete—with other Disney-owned and -operated stores, for heaven's sake—for guests' spending money. The stacks and stacks of boxes that now frequently appear "on stage " would never have been tolerated years ago when the Disney difference of individualized attention and the standards for Disney "show" would have halted the intrusive "big-box" mentality now found in many Disney merchandise locations.
Luckily, one group of shops called the Art of Disney was mostly spared the homogenized fate suffered by so many unique shops. Recently, however, it seems that even these shops have fallen victim to the "Disney Park" mentality of merchandising. Let's take a look at the four remaining "Art" shops and what they have to offer Disney's most loyal, most discerning, and most enthusiastic shoppers.
Back in the days of the Disney Village Marketplace, merchandise such as cels, limited edition reproductions, and high-end collectibles from Armani and Capodimonte could be found in a large section of Mickey's Character Shop. (This area still exists to the right of Team Mickey. It is now part of Guest Services at Downtown Disney.)
With the arrival of the World of Disney, collectibles were moved to the Art of Disney, located near the Rainforest Café, and this is pretty much where they've stayed. (There was another art store—Suspended Animation—that was once located in Pleasure Island. It has since been demolished.) The Art of Disney is typically a pretty busy place, and it is almost impossible to reach a cast member on the phone or to find someone to help without an extensive wait. Cast members here tend to be knowledgeable, and traditionally, the selection here has been very good. With the end of hand-painted cels, the shift away from hand-painted reproduction cels and sericels, and the sad demise of the Walt Disney Classics Collection, this store now stocks big Disney figurines, prints, posters, pins, and Vinylmation collectibles. At one time, it was possible to spend several hours in this shop looking at amazing artwork; that is no longer the case. While I have nothing against Vinylmation characters or posters, it's not what I've come to expect at an art store.
Still a nice place to visit, the Art of Disney at Downtown Disney is certainly no longer a must-do on our vacations.
The Art of Disney, EPCOT
The first Epcot location for Disney collectibles was located upstairs in Future World's main store, the Centorium. It was small, but awesome. When the Centorium was remade as MouseGears, this space was closed forever.
The new location, just outside Spaceship Earth, was named the Art of Disney. For years, this was our very favorite of the Disney art stores because of its attentive, knowledgeable staff, its well-stocked shelves, and its beautiful displays of Disney treasures. The staff here was remarkable. Cast members would work this location for years and years, keeping files with guest names and interests. It was not uncommon for cast members to personally call collectors when new items were released, even if those guests hadn't made specific requests. Much like the early years of the Disney Stores located in local malls, cast members here were chosen with great care and took a special pride in working at this particular location.
The display areas here, particularly the Walt Disney Classics Collection displays and the walls of artwork, were mini museums. Even if some of the merchandise was extremely "high-end" or not suited to our particular tastes, we never failed to visit. We also made a point of purchasing one special piece here yearly. Sometimes, it took several years to complete a collection, like the Christmas scene from Lady and the Tramp created by the Walt Disney Classics Collection. It was also fun visiting with cast members and sharing their enthusiasm.
On our most recent visit, the shop was gutted of Classics pieces and all original artwork. When we asked a cast member about these items, she remarked sarcastically, "They must have all sold overnight." Those beautiful cases are now filled with Enesco giftware, like those ubiquitous Precious Moments that can be found in just about any Hallmark store in just about any town. The walls are covered with "pop art" interpretations of Disney characters. While there are still occasionally interesting items here—we loved the Contemporary Resort vase and the Walt Disney World Railroad merchandise—it is no longer a special destination in and of itself.
The Art of Disney at the Animal Kingdom
This rather incongruous shop has left Disney's Animal Kingdom. This location is now home to the newest meet-and-greet area named Adventurers Outpost. In many ways, the Art of Disney never was a very good thematic fit here, and the few times we visited this location, we found both the selection and the costumer service lacking. The meet-and-greet actually seems like a much better use of the space.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
When this park opened as the Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, its goal was to present real honest-to-goodness movie and television production. The Magic of Disney Animation was a testimony to this original vision for the park. Actual Disney animators worked here, and the accompanying gift shop—the Animation Gallery—was something of a museum in its heyday. Incredible works of art from the Studios' rich history were on display, and the cels and collectibles here were often truly one of a kind. The store received a major makeover when the actual animation studios was foolishly shuttered, but—until very recently—stocked a fine selection of collectibles. Now, sadly, it is a shell of its former self.
The tradition of hand-painted collectible cels, however, has happily continued here. These cels offer fans the opportunity to pick up artwork by actual Disney artists for around $100. These unique items put the Animation Gallery on our "must-do" list every visit.
The Magic Kingdom
This is perhaps the most difficult section to write, because the loss here—at the Magic Kingdom of all places—is most egregious.
The first collectibles shop was located in Fantasyland in a small shop outside of the Mickey Mouse Revue. It was called the Disneyana shop, and featured original production cels, limited edition cels, actual Disney antiques, Disney history books, and other items that appealed to serious collectors and Disney enthusiasts alike. This shop was closed when "The Legend of the Lion King" took the place of the Mickey Mouse Revue. (Mickey's Philharmagic and the accompanying shop now fill these spaces.)
Disneyana merchandise was relocated to a corner of the Town Square Theater on Main Street U.S.A.. The merchandise was displayed in the area that housed Disney Photopass for years and now hosts a location for the new MyMagic+ initiative at Walt Disney World. Many of the lovely wooden display cases remain in this location. It was a beautiful place and appropriately located near the now defunct "Walt Disney Story."
Disneyana—now called the Art of Disney—was moved once again, this time to the Sun Bank building located next to City Hall on Main Street. For longtime Walt Disney World fans, it was bittersweet. The bank was one of the few remaining "real" places on Main Street, and its presence helped create the illusion of a real, working town. The resulting store, however, more than made up for any sense of loss.
The Imagineers outdid themselves in designing this location as a place for Disney artwork. Gorgeous Victorian cabinets, turned wooden spindles, filigreed wallpaper, and authentic lighting graced this large space that housed one of just about every single high-end Disney collectible available at that time. It even put Epcot's Art of Disney to shame.
This beautiful, spacious area is now package pick-up. Only a very small area is open to the public. The rest of this breathtaking space is filled with industrial metal shelving. So sad.
The next place for Disney art at the Magic Kingdom was inspired; it was located right inside Cinderella Castle, sharing a space that was originally called the King's Gallery. With its soaring gothic arches, heavy wooden doors, and storybook nooks and crannies, this was an ideal space to display Disney art. It now houses the Bibbbi Bobbidi Boutique, an experience designed exclusively for little girls to get very expensive princess makeovers. Again, I've nothing against the concept, but a lovely space—once accessible to all guests—is now gone.
Speaking of things that are no more, the Main Street Cinema once aimed at re-creating the experience of visiting a turn-of-the-century movie house. It was converted into a shop that now houses what is left of the Art of Disney. The neighboring Uptown Jewelers, another beautifully designed place gleaming with Victorian excess, also housed many Disney collectibles for years. Its sparkling cases once glowed with figurines by Lennox, the Walt Disney Classics Collection, Armani, and Capodimonte. Its back room even featured Hummels and Lladros once upon a time. That is all gone now. The "art" of Disney is now relegated to the very small space of the Cinema and features mostly Precious Moments, Vinylmation, posters, and contemporary prints.
It's very true that Disney parks are not museums, and that evolving needs necessitate some level of change on a regular basis. That said, that time-honored Disney tradition of "show" is immutable. While there's no denying the apparent demand for mega-stores like the World of Disney, there's also no denying the charming sense of discovery one feels when admiring the wares of a small, quaint, specialized shop. While I doubt we will ever see the likes of Liberty Square Antiques again, I am hopeful that as many of the Disney traditions seem to be slowly reappearing throughout the Disney property, a truly appropriate place for Disneyana will once again return to the Vacation Kingdom of the World.