Shopping Wars: Magic Kingdom vs. Epcotby Gregg Jacobs, contributing writer
Walt Disney World has over 200 shops to choose from that carry everything from $37,000 representations of Cinderella's Castle in crystal to "crisped rice treats" (Mickey Mouse-shaped Rice Krispie treats), a personal favorite. We all love Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney), and the resorts have some exceptional shops—but the undisputed heavyweight champs of Walt Disney World shopping have to be the theme parks. From Disney nostalgia to German cuckoo clocks to African handicrafts, the parks have it all.
I thought a fun way to explore these behemoths would be through a little friendly competition. Let's start by comparing Walt Disney World's most visited two parks, Magic Kingdom and Epcot:
The Flagship stores: Emporium vs. Mouse Gear
If there's one shop that everyone knows and visits, it's Magic Kingdom's Emporium. Essentially taking up the entire left side of Main Street USA, from Town Square all the way to Casey's (mmm… hot dogs), it is one of the largest and most extensive off all Walt Disney World stores.
The Emporium is themed as a turn-of-the-20th-century five-and-dime that one might have visited in a small town. These stores had everything, and so does the Emporium.
You enter the main room of Town Square and are met with an explosion of merchandise. There's a large wall with all your Disney electronic needs—everything from cell phone cases to batteries to magic bands. Typically, this area is where you'll find seasonal as well as park-specific goods. As you wander among the display racks, you'll find a variety of plush, books, and CDs, a large selection of Disney-themed kitchen and housewares, toys, and small souvenirs such as key chains.
You continue on through the store through the various other "rooms" that focus on clothing for children, women, and men that mainly feature the Magic Kingdom logo and Disney characters (I'm a big fan of the pajamas and buy a set almost every trip).
All in all, the Emporium is an expansive shopping experience that fits in perfectly with the Main Street USA theming and has the best selection of Disney souvenirs on property, with the likely exception of World of Disney at Disney Springs.
Next, we move on to Mouse Gear in Epcot, a shop I've always thought of as the Emporium in space. The theming has that retro-futuristic feel that we see throughout Future World in Epcot. There's themed signage,"gears," and character images decorating the walls. While Epcot-themed and character clothing dominates the center of the store, there are several clearly defined areas along the perimeter for jewelry, home decor, toys, souvenirs, and—because the Main Street Bakery isn't beckoning across the street—an area that has bulk candy and sweets.
Things are neat and easy to find. I especially like that there's an area where books and CDs have a few displays together rather than scattered throughout the store. I'm also a big fan of the gear with the old EPCOT Center retro logo.
Comparing these two is an interesting exercise since they serve essentially the some function: to be the main shopping site for their respective parks. The generic souvenirs are very similar and each does its park proud with logo shirts, hats, picture frames, and so on.
Since the two are so similar, for me it all comes down to theming and the Imagineers' original vision. Which suits its park best? The edge goes to the Emporium at the Magic Kingdom. The old-time fixtures and feel of the place suit Main Street USA to a tee.
Advantage: Magic Kingdom.
Specialty shops and variety
Let's now go beyond the obvious main stop. While the flagship stores are similar, this is where the two parks' offerings diverge greatly.
Magic Kingdom has some of the best shops on property. Main Street USA alone has several winners that are must visits.
The Main Street Confectionery, right across from the Emporium, is a definite must-do at the end of the night when you need something sweet. It's also themed to turn-of-the-century America and has a wide variety of offerings. I've already shared my love for the hand-dipped Mickey-head crisped rice treats, but at the back of the store, the counter has all kinds of handmade goodies, including caramel apples covered with a wide variety of good stuff. There's tons of boxed chocolate to take away, as well. You can also watch the confectioners at work. The smell is also wonderful.
Crystal Arts, also on Main Street USA, is another must-do, even if just to browse. They have all kinds of representations of Disney characters in crystal, as well as hand-blown glass. This is also where you can see that $37,000 crystal replica of Cinderella's Castle (just don't touch). They have a lot of beautiful non-Disney themed pieces, as well as Lladró china. A highlight of your visit will be watching the artisans at work at the back of the store.
I'm a big fan of celebrating the holidays all year long, and one of the best places for this is the Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe in Liberty Square. Just walk in and get that holiday feeling as you browse the ornaments, tree toppers and skirts, and stockings, usually adorned with Mickey and friends.
Bonjour Village Gifts is another hidden gem in New Fantasyland. Across from Gaston's statue, the shop has a medieval theme. On a recent visit, it offered glassware, some stylized Beauty and Beast shirts, some vinyl recordings with Disney images, and another favorite: puzzles with Disney images created by Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light (and I swear, I will finish that 1,000-piece puzzle one day).
While Magic Kingdom's shops fit the park theme well and do Mickey and Friends proud, Epcot has a powerful weapon in its arsenal: World Showcase—or as I like to call it, "Around the World in 80 Minutes." I've been to many of the countries represented around the lagoon, and while there's no substitute for the real thing, I can tell you that many of the shops in the individual pavilions offer a great representation of what you'd find overseas.
The marketplace in the Mexico pavilion is always a must for me. The Imagineers did a great job of making you feel like you were strolling the stalls in an outdoor market. Favorite items here are the wood carvings of various animals. The pinatas are fun, too. The goods are both Disney and non-Disney themed and you can often see the artists at work.
One of my favorite shops on property is Mitsukoshi in the Japan pavilion. There's a wide variety of goods, all in the theme of the host nation. You can buy a live bonsai tree and have it shipped home. There's all manner of chopsticks and dishware available. A favorite is also the counter where you pick an oyster that a friendly cast member will open it for you to reveal a beautiful pearl to take home (and you need to see the celebration when you get a big one).
One of the things Japan is also known for is "kawaii," or cute culture. There's actually a terrific exhibit currently in the Japan pavilion dedicated to the phenomenon. Cartoons and animated characters are all the rage in Japan, and some of the merchandise reflects that, including Hello Kitty.
Der Teddybar in Germany is another wonderful place to visit. Anyone who's been to Germany's Black Forest knows that cuckoo clocks are the must-have item, and you can purchase these German imports here. There's also a wide variety of toys, including some beautiful plush animals. The shop is themed to a German home and even has a model train that runs around the ceiling.
If you want a little Mickey Mouse in your German experience, there are Disney-themed goods as well.
If you want the quintessential Disney shopping experience, Magic Kingdom has it all. From the Fab Five to the Princesses to Pooh, you can likely find anything you need at Magic Kingdom. For an around-the-world view of merchandise, visit Epcot; World Showcase in particular. It's hard to imagine any other place having such a wide assortment of goods available from so many different places.
Advantage: Epcot—for sheer variety and extensive theming.
Best place to find…
We're now going to take a quick look at a few items and the best places for you to find them.
Holiday stuff – I'm going to qualify this one by saying it depends on the the time of year. Most of the year, Magic Kingdom is the place to be, particularly the Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe. During the holiday season, however, head over to Epcot. Each pavilion in World Showcase has a wide assortment of holiday goods from its host nation.
Gifts – This one depends on what you're looking for. If your gift recipient is a fan of Mickey and company, head to Magic Kingdom—particularly the Emporium or Big Top Souvenirs in New Fantasyland—for a wide selection. If you want something a little more off the beaten path, head to Epcot.
Home Goods – This one is a slam dunk for the original park. Again the Emporium or Main Street Confectionery are the places to go for kitchen items. For pillows, blankets or home decor, you can hit any of several stores along Main Street USA.
Collectibles – This one might be a draw. Both parks have Art of Disney Stores (Magic Kingdom on Main Street USA, Epcot in Future World on the right side of Spaceship Earth as you face into the park) and those are the best places to get artwork or figurines based on your favorite character or attraction. Both also have Crystal Arts stores (Epcot's is La Princesa de Cristal in the Mexico Pavilion).
Toys – Again, this depends on what you need. The Magic Kingdom has an enormous selection of Disney-themed toys. Emporium and Big Top again have the most choices, but you can get great finds all over the park. A special mention here goes to Hundred Acre Goods in Fantasyland for a ton of Pooh merchandise. Mouse Gear at Epcot has a wide selection of toys also, and here I'll also give a shout-out to the SeaBase Gift Shop in Seas with Nemo and Friends for some great Nemo goods. World Showcase, again, is a great place to go for toys from around the world. You might something special you hadn't thought of.
Advantage: I'm going to cop out and call it a draw. The best park to visit, in this case, depends on your need.
Both parks have a wide variety of shopping experiences and, from a shopping and merchandising standpoint, both are worth visiting.
And the winner is…
The main draw of Magic Kingdom is its wide selection of Disney themed merchandise in a fun environment. From turn-of-the-century Main Street USA to animated Fantasyland to the Wild West in Frontierland, you're likely to find that Walt Disney World-themed item you've always wanted and have a great deal of fun during the search.
Epcot's main draw is variety. It has Disney goods as well, though not in the same volume as Magic Kingdom, but its focus is shopping around the world. Whether you want a Mexican pinata, African Beads, Italian chocolate or British tea, you can find it here. You may have no idea what you want, but rather to just have a window shopping experience in other parts of the world.
Based on all of the above, the winner is… drumroll please… Epcot, by a (very small) nose. What your personal winner would be is based on who you are and what you're looking for, and both parks certainly have the goods, literally. But for this writer, Epcot gets the slight edge for sheer variety and the ability to enjoy a shopping experience not available anywhere else in the World, the chance to get a sampling of many different cultures in one place. That said, I think I need to run back to the Emporium to buy that Mickey Mouse tee shirt I didn't get last time.