The Story of Disney Dollars

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Disney Dollars ("the money made 'Disney' that makes Disney money") is approaching its 30th anniversary in 2017. However, don't expect any special dollar being issued to celebrate the occasion, since a surprise announcement was made May 12, 2016.

With the institution of Magic Bands to make instantaneous purchases, the Disney Company announced it is retiring selling any new Disney Dollars beginning Saturday May 14, 2016. Existing Disney Dollars will continue to be accepted for purchases since they never expire.

Places that normally sold Disney Dollars in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts continued to sell them until their current supply was exhausted, which was early on Saturday when frantic collectors rushed to grab the last remaining bills of any denomination.

Disney claims that digital purchases and the increased use of gift cards have made the expense of fabricating and maintaining these colorful paper gift certificates obsolete. Disney has not promoted their use for quite some time, so some newer Disney fans had no idea that these items even existed.

"It's a testimony to the enthusiasm and heart of Disney guests and collectors that Disney Dollars remain collectible today," the official Disney statement said. "We continue to offer many ways to collect cherished Disney memories in tangible ways."

Play money with the image of Mickey Mouse or Disney characters is not a new concept. It goes back to 1930 when it was used as a promotion for the Mickey Mouse Club meetings in movie theaters and in various licensed games. "Lucky Bucks" that featured Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Clarabelle, and others could be cut out from color Sunday comic sections in the 1930s and were so treasured that they still exist today and are sold.

However, Disney Dollars are real legal tender and can be exchanged for their U.S. equivalent at Disneyland and Walt Disney World with certain restrictions.

Their predecessor at Walt Disney World was probably the $1 Entertainment Coupons, signed by Roy O. Disney, having their own unique serial numbers that were given to VIPs, and occasionally special guests, and were available in 1971. They could only be used at the Florida park.

Reportedly, Harry Brice claimed to have originated the idea for Disney currency at the parks. He was a Disneyland silhouette cutter on Main Street who attended a local Disneyana convention and saw how fans went wild over just about anything "Disney" and were willing to pay the price for exclusive park items. He shared his idea of a souvenir Disney bill with his superior, who then funneled it to higher ups.

However, most people (myself included) give credit for the idea and the execution to the late Disney Legend Jack Lindquist who died at the age of 88 on February 28. Lindquist was a marketing genius for Disney and responsible for many popular and successful promotions including Grad Nite.

Lindquist joined Disneyland at age 28 and embarked on a 38-year career, moving up as a director and vice president of marketing for both the Anaheim park and Walt Disney World, and, finally, as Disneyland's first president, before he retired on Mickey Mouse's 65th birthday, October 18, 1993.

He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1994. A window above City Hall on Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. states: "J.B. Lindquist, honorary mayor of Disneyland, Jack of all trades, master of fun."

Imagineer and Disney Legend Marty Sklar told the Orange County Register on the day Lindquist died:

"Jack was a mentor to countless marketing people in the theme park industry. Beyond that: other than Walt Disney himself, I think Jack Lindquist was 'Mr. Disneyland' in Orange County.

"He represented the values and highest standards that Walt Disney wanted Disneyland to stand for, and he did it with such dedication that it never felt as though he was selling … he believed 100 percent in the product."

Lindquist was a man of well-known integrity and, when he told me that he was the one to originate the idea, I had no doubts or any need to check any further.

Lindquist said he got the idea on a flight from Florida to California where he was reading the financial page and saw that the British pound was going up. He realized that the Disney theme parks provided services to more people than lived in some small countries.

He decided that the parks should have its own currency but, despite many efforts, couldn't find any supporters. Most people thought it was some sort of play money for a limited promotion.

Because Lindquist took it seriously and was persistent, others began to take it seriously and he was given the permission to pursue the idea. After all, his track record had shown that he knew what he was doing no matter how odd it might initially sound.


The Disney marketing department thought that people would treat the $1 bills, with Mickey Mouse on the front, as an impulse buy.

"Disneyland has long been considered its own nation," explained Lindquist who was executive vice president of Marketing and Entertainment for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 1987 when the first bills were issued. "If you count our guests and cast members, we have a population in the millions. In keeping with that theme, it seemed natural to create our own currency. It's an extension of the fantasy environment we offer our guests."

One of the original plans discussed was to make the currency as different as possible from U.S. bills by having a $3 bill featuring the Three Little Pigs, or a $7 bill featuring The Seven Dwarfs, but marketing decided that a $1 bill would be an "impulse buy" that would sell more individual units and be treated more like actual currency.

Disney Dollars were first available in a $1 denomination with a waving Mickey Mouse on the front and Sleeping Beauty Castle on the back, and a $5 denomination with a proudly posing Goofy on the front and a steamboat on the back. They were illustrated by Creative Service Illustrator Matt Mew and were redeemable for goods or services at Disneyland.

They were first released at Disneyland on May 5, 1987 (and could only be used at Disneyland; on September 9, they could be used at Walt Disney World; and were sold at Walt Disney World beginning October 2, 1987.

For the first year, state-of-the-art four-color printing was produced by Embossing Printers Inc. of Battle Creek, Michigan.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time four-color currency has ever been used in the United States," said Mike Fatt, vice president and general manager of EPI. "The Walt Disney Company is known for their excellence throughout the world and it is very exciting for us to be involved in this pioneering program."

The bills then went through a complex intaglio engraving process that gave them raised texture and fine detail. United States Banknote Corporation of Chicago, noted for designing stock certificates, bank notes, bonds and other security documents, was the organization that did this part of the process.

"The engraving and making of the two plates (for the $1 and $5 bills) took 203 hours," said Morris Weisman, chairman of the board of U.S. Banknote.

To discourage counterfeiting, each bill had an individual serial number and was printed on rare, expensive rag cotton stock bearing a subtle watermark. In later years, even more extensive anti-counterfeiting methods were used and there was never an incident of the money being duplicated.

Disney Dollars were produced with the same level of "care and concern as any other currency," Lindquist said.

Since September 1987, bills for Disneyland are classified as the "A" series and the ones for Walt Disney World are labeled "D" series when first released for that park. That first year, they were identical. For the inaugural run, more than two million dollars worth of Disney Dollars was put into circulation, or approximately 870,000 individual bills.

In November 1989, a $10 bill was added for both series featuring Minnie Mouse making her the first female to appear on paper currency used in the United States.

In 1992, the Disney Stores started accepting the bills, as did the Disney Cruise Line when it started in 1998.

On July 17, 2005, Disney released a special $50 bill designed by artist Charles Boyer to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Disneyland. It had modern Mickey looking in a mirror and seeing the reflection of his older version. The advertising icon of Sleeping Beauty Castle for the celebration was also on the front. Only 500 were produced and 100 were autographed by the artist and placed in a mirror frame so both sides of the bill could be seen. They were only available for sale on that one day.

Occasionally special Disney Dollar versions were issued, including a $1 bill in 1993 to celebrate Mickey Mouse's 65th birthday.

The intent was, like with stamp collectors, that most people who bought the bills would never redeem them for their face value but save them as an inexpensive souvenir or collect the different variations that came out each year.

Lindquist told me that he estimated that there were millions and maybe even tens of millions of unused Disney Dollars out there in collections or lost somewhere in the back of drawers and storage boxes. So, each bill like a new stamp in a stamp collecting book was something that Disney never had to honor for a product or service and so was pure profit. One Disney executive recently estimated that the Disney Company had earned more than $200 million in unused revenue from Disney Dollars in the 28 years they were available.

New Disney dollars have been produced every year since 1987 except 1992, 2004, 2010, 2011, and 2012. For instance, the 2014 versions were the "Mountain series" featuring Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

For the 20th anniversary of Disney Dollars in 2007, the bills featured Ariel, Aurora, and Cinderella. In 2007 Disney also issued an additional set of three $1 notes bearing Pirates of the Caribbean designs, each commemorating one of the first three POTC movies. The first two were officially released on March 18, 2007, and the third was released on May 15, 2007 (to tie in with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End).

However, every Disney Dollar ever issued in nearly three decades included Scrooge McDuck's signature as Treasurer and an image of Tinker Bell on the front side.

In addition, Disney Dollars were meant to diminish guests from using actual money (just like the original A-E tickets) so they would not consciously be aware of how much things were costing. In a larger sense, Disney Dollars are more like gift certificates than actual currency.

However, parents soon discovered the thrill of giving their children a handful of $1 Disney Dollars to spend on snacks and gifts, even if their change was always in U.S. currency. Or slipping a $1 Disney Dollar in a card like a lottery ticket.

The whole concept of buying the money because it was "fun" to use was parodied in the "Itchy & Scratchy Land" (October 1994) episode of the animated television series The Simpsons where Homer discovers his thousand dollars' worth of Itchy & Scratchy money is virtually worthless.

The popularity of the money inspired other places including Dollywood "Dolly Dollars" and Universal Orlando Florida Harry Potter's "Gringott's Bank Notes" to issue similar currency restricted for use at the entertainment venue.

No one expected Disney Dollars to be such a hit with Disney park fans, but even from the first day they were issued, the Disney Company could see that people were intrigued.

On Tuesday, May 5, 1987 at 1 a.m., Buena Park hairdresser Dale Castillo came to Disneyland to be the first in line to buy Disney Dollars. Two hours later, Tom d'Arcy was also in line, having flown down that morning from New Town, Pennsylvania, with the intention of returning home the next day.

At 9 a.m., both men, along with other guests there for the opening of the park and cast members saw the official ceremony where a Brink's armored truck, escorted by four Anaheim motorcycle police officers, arrived with sirens blaring at the Main Entrance.

The officers opened the back door of the armored transport vehicle and a costumed Scrooge McDuck emerged carrying the first bag of Disney Dollars and waddled down the sturdy three-step wooden staircase placed against the opening.

After the truck pulled away, Castillo exchanged $75 in United States currency for Disney Dollars. A costumed Mickey Mouse presented him with a framed plaque, signed by Treasurer Scrooge McDuck, officially declaring him to be the first person to buy Disney Dollars.

The plaque read: "Disney Dollars. First Disney Dollar Exchanged May 5, 1987. Disneyland. Scrooge McDuck. Treasurer" and had the first Disney Dollar embedded in it.

"It was worth the wait," said Castillo, who had heard about the event on the local Channel 2 news. "I come to Disneyland about seven times a year, but this is my first Disney collectible. The minute I heard about Disney Dollars, I knew it would take off because everyone loves Disney."

Next in line, d'Arcy exchanged $2,300 in U.S. currency for Disney Dollars, and then went to the Disneyana Shop in the park where he was able to purchase the first artist's proof sheets of the Disney Dollars design.

When asked what he was intending to do with such a large purchase of Disney Dollars, d'Arcy stated that he would keep a $1,000 for himself, distribute $300 to his friends, and give $1,000 to his 6-month-old son.

"I got some for my son because they're sure to be collector's items," he said. "I think it is something unique that we can hand down in our family."

Lindquist remembered that roughly $60,000 in Disney Dollars were sold just that first day.

"Part of my thinking when I started this process," wrote Lindquist in his autobiography In Service to the Mouse, "was that the public would have more fun using Disney money in Disneyland and they could turn the money in when they left the park, or they could keep it to use anytime they came back. We didn't count on some of the hotels, restaurants and shops accepting Disney Dollars as currency, but they did and that added to the impact."

Like vintage attraction tickets, the souvenir value of Disney Dollars, since they are no longer being produced, now exceeds the face monetary value of the actual bill and eBay listings in the last few days have these collectibles at several times their original cost.

It is a shame that Disney didn't want to maintain them until the 30th anniversary, just a year away, but now they are part of the growing number of extinct things at the Disney theme parks. It was nice that the father of Disney Dollars died before his saw his creation eliminated.

 

Comments

  1. By danyoung

    Very interesting, Jim. I never purchased any Disney dollars, as I saw them for what they were - a way for Disney to make that 100% profit from folks who purchased them and never redeemed them. But now I wish I had a few - I'd be making a fortune on Ebay!

  2. By DaLoon

    For a while at least, In Service to the Mouse when purchased from Lindquist (through Amazon if I recall correctly, but advertised on some unofficial Disney sites) came with a Disney Dollar which was autographed by Lindquist. Unusual as most times an autograph is in the book itself.

  3. By Dave1313

    Interesting. I knew vaguely of their existence, but never remembered to pursue picking up a few while I was actually on a trip. I didn't know about the various special designs done for Pirates, Princesses, park anniversaries, etc.

    I was just down in WDW for a few days, I could have been one of the masses trying to get some on Saturday! Oh well....

    Oh well, I am sure there is no shortage of people trying to hawk them on eBay if I decide I do want to get one or 2 someday.

  4. By cstephens

    I worked at Disneyland the summer that Disney Dollars were introduced, and I worked as a ticket seller, so I got to know them very well. We got trained on what they were and what to say about them, and we were required to ask each person who came to our line if they wanted to buy Disney Dollars. Since no one had ever heard of them before, we had to give a whole spiel about them, mostly to push them as a fun way to further enjoy the Disney spirit in the parks. Most people looked at us like we'd grown three heads. Some people thought it was a good idea. I remember at one point, they had some kind of supervisors going from booth to booth to listen to the ticket sellers, to make sure they were giving the spiel to each person and to make sure the spiel was correct (it wasn't a script, just talking points) as well as to hear the guests' reactions. I know that part of the reason for the introduction of Disney Dollars was the hope that people would forget to trade them back in for regular money and would just go home with them, and then maybe forget to bring them the next time. Under the right circumstances, I did start to suggest to guests that it would make a nice, inexpensive souvenir, which I did and do still think. For $1, you get a pretty souvenir with a Disney design, and it doesn't take up a lot of room, which could be a concern if you had to fly home. There aren't too many Disney souvenirs that nice that you can get for such an inexpensive price. I know I bought a few that first summer. I know I have a $1 and a $5 from the first issue. I can't remember if I bought the $10. People also liked the pretty Tink envelopes that we'd put the Disney Dollars in - another free souvenir.

    I know that in recent years, they had problems with people trying to basically do a free cash advance by buying Disney Dollars with their credit card (they rang up as merchandise), and then turned right around and wanted to trade them in for U.S. currency. They implemented a rule limiting how many Disney Dollars could be returned at one time, and over a certain amount - maybe $50, I can't remember - they actually required you to show a receipt and they would credit your credit card for the amount that you returned. We used to buy more Disney Dollars when the ODV carts didn't take credit cards, since we get points on our credit card. Since almost all of the carts take credit cards now, we haven't really bought Disney Dollars anymore.

    Some of the restaurants and their servers along Harbor and nearby Anaheim weren't very thrilled with the Disney Dollars because patrons would pay their bills or leave tips with Disney Dollars, and the restaurant management and/or server would have to then go to a Disneyland ticket booth or otherwise to exchange them for U.S. currency. Definitely a hassle for them.

  5. By adriennek

    Quote Originally Posted by cstephens View Post
    I know that in recent years, they had problems with people trying to basically do a free cash advance by buying Disney Dollars with their credit card (they rang up as merchandise), and then turned right around and wanted to trade them in for U.S. currency.

    We *sort of* did this. There were times we needed cash at Disneyland and did not want to pay ATM fees.

    But. We never cashed them back into U.S. currency (unless/except when we used a larger bill and received our change back in currency, I suppose.). We would get the Disney Dollars and spend them at Disneyland - for example, ODV carts didn't take credit cards then and if we went to a sit-down restaurant with a group of people, it was often easier to just pay cash than throw too many credit cards on the pile.

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