Gregg at Long Last Visits the Magic (and Shops)by Gregg Jacobs, contributing writer
It finally happened! After 2 looong years of a Disney Parks drought, I finally made it to Walt Disney World. We typically do a long trip to Florida every November, a kind of Thanksgiving/my niece's birthday/Walt Disney World trip. We've done that routine for years, until the pandemic cut our streak short in 2020. For a variety of reasons, we haven't made it back to the sunshine state until now—but now, here we are!
For the Disney part of the trip, I want to do it all! I've never ridden Rise of the Resistance, Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, or Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway. I miss eating at our favorite spots—Hollywood Studios' The Brown Derby and Epcot's Biergarten. Last, but certainly not least, I miss the direct, in-person, in-your-face Disney shopping. I've done my sharing of shopping online, window and otherwise—but it's just not the same.
I want to go to Magic Kingdom's Emporium and see the variety. I want to check on Creations at Epcot and see how it's different than its predecessor. I want to see what changes time, COVID, the 50th and Bob Chapek have wrought on the Disney shopping experience.
So for this month's article, I thought it would be fun to take you on this experience with me, to give you a park by park version of my trip and what I'm seeing. I'll tell a story or two about each place we visited and then give some general impressions of what was found. So let's board that flight from Newark to Orlando and ride Disney's Magical Express to the most magical place on Earth!
We got to Walt Disney property in the afternoon—too late for park visit, so we checked into our hotel (Caribbean Beach) and boarded a bus bound for the Disney shopping mecca known as Disney Springs.
I have to start off with a happy shopping story. If you read my article last month, you know that I was jonesing for the 50th anniversary Citizens Eco Drive Watch. I collect lots of Disney items, but watches are my favorite. So in honor of the resort's big birthday, I really wanted this one. The problem is they sold out almost immediately and I haven't been able to find them anywhere aside from eBay, at the usual huge markup.
I came to Walt Disney World with a song in my heart, hopeful that I might stumble upon one, but those hopes were not high. I went to Disney Springs and stopped in at the Co-Op Marketplace, where the old 1923 store was converted to a shop for 50th anniversary merchandise from the Disney Vault Collection, the retro-style items that remind us of 1971, when the park was founded.
I browsed the different clothing items, including a great T-shirt that had a smiling Mickey holding his hand out to the state of Florida and the wording "1971." I passed on the shirt since it didn't really fit me properly… and I'm getting of the point.
They had a small display case under plexiglass, with a few of the items for sale, including—drumroll, please—the watch! This was just a display and there were no watches actually on sale on the shelves, in front of or behind the counter. I figured this was just a tease. But what the heck—I went to the cast member and asked if the watches were available.
He said he hadn't seen them in a long time, but made a big show out of opening and slamming the drawers behind the counter and looking. No watches. We talked for another minute or two and then he looked at one last drawer behind the counter. Lo and behold, there was one watch inside. He looked surprised. He pulled it out, said he had no idea how it got there and that he had to call to make sure he could sell it to me.
He called a manager on the phone and explained about the watch and park maps he saw in the drawer that he said had been sold out forever (wish I had asked more about the maps). He hung up and told me it was mine if I wanted it. Um, yeah! I used my hoarded and accumulated for two years rewards points, my Disney Visa discount and bought (my latest) dream watch.
Dreams really do come true, OK, in this case a relatively minor shopping dream, but the point of the story is if you want something, keep trying. You never know when you might get lucky.
Beyond that awesome get, here are a few of my impressions from my time at Disney Springs:
- I love Uniqlo in general and have gotten a bunch of Disney T-shirts there—both at the Disney Springs shop and the stores near my house. I even wrote an article about their Disney swag a few years ago. That said, the prices this day had gone up and the selection, honestly, was kind of meh (Simpsons fans will get that). They used to have T-shirts for $9.99 to $14.99. Today, they're at $19.99 and up, and there was a lot of Mickey in his standard pose. That's nice, but where are all the artistic and cool depictions of Mickey and Friends? They had a lot of other neat stuff there, but the Disney clothing was a bit lacking this time. Hopefully a blip on the radar.
- Disney Days of Christmas, once one of my favorite shops, continues to be 90% ornaments. Again, those are nice, but where are the Disney trees, the table runners and tree skirts? They used to have a lot more variety and interesting items.
- Art of Disney continues to be creative and awesome. Greg McCullough, one of the talented Disney artists whose work I've admired over the years, was there signing his artwork. That artwork included original paintings, not just prints of his works. As original animal cells stopped being available years ago, Disney has had to keep getting creative in producing artwork, and through original works, limited giclees and canvas items and prints, they've done just that. I also noticed across property that Disney has gotten very big on limited editions of 95. Anyone know why 95?
- I've always enjoyed the Coca-Cola store, and there were some nice items there, but again, maybe a little less unique stuff than in the past (where were the Coca-Cola Canimals)?
- Still a big fan of Goofy's Candy Company, and it was one of our first stops to get "hotel room snacks" to devour of the course of the trip. Only sad thing was they no longer do the made-to-order pretzels due to COVID restrictions. Hopefully that's only temporary.
- Last note on the food front—we ate at the Polite Pig near the lime parking garage and absolutely loved it. We also had a couple of drinks at Wine Bar George. It had a great atmosphere and a big selection of wines and cocktails.
One other general comment is that aside from the Vault Store at the Co-Op Marketplace, there wasn't a ton of 50th anniversary merchandise around. World of Disney had a smallish display, but I didn't see much else. It seems Disney has decided to concentrate the items in a few locations for the most part.
So our trip had a great start and I got a major score! Let's see what trouble we can get into next.
The next day, it was on to the very under-the-knife EPCOT—with a big hole in the middle of what used to be Future World. It will one day be the new festival center and the Moana Journey of Water area, both of which I'm excited about.
I love all four parks, but for some reason, I always feel a special pull for EPCOT. There's a lot of family nostalgia here, and since I love to eat (and shop), taking that walk around World Showcase—especially during the Food and Wine Festival—has always been a favorite Disney experience.
As far as merchandise, the big new experience that's there now is Creations, otherwise known in my family circle as the new Mousegear. This one has big shoes to fill, as Mousegear has been a favorite stop for a long time.
I liked Creations, even if I wasn't bowled over with joy. The space itself is beautiful. It's very bright and open in a way that its predecessor never was. The Mickey murals all over the shop give the space its theming and make it very inviting. It has a wide selection of merchandise, featuring everything from clothing items—some generic, some specific to EPCOT—to kitchen goods to toys.
That said, for lack of a better phrase, it seemed like it had less stuff than its predecessor. This may be a temporary symptom of COVID, but I found this in a lot of shops here. There were fewer displays, maybe to improve flow through the shops and help avoid people congregating for too long, which I understand.
I liked Creations, but it's too early to declare my love and renounce the dearly departed Mousegear.
Here are my other general impressions of the EPCOT experience.
- Half of what was the old Communicore was gone, and so was Art of Disney Epcot, another one of my favorites. I cried with despair when I couldn't find a replacement location, until I did, at the American Adventure (and then remembered that I read somewhere that Art of Disney Epcot was moved to the American Adventure in the old shop space there). Again, there was less stuff here than at the old location, but there was some neat and creative artwork—definitely worth checking out.
- Pin trading and sales are alive and well at Walt Disney World. The large location behind Spaceship Earth is still there, and there were large displays of pins all across the property.
- Mitsukoshi in Japan has always been one of our favorite stops in World Showcase (we were actually able to visit the flagship store in Tokyo). When we walked into the store, the entire front section had been given over to toys (Hello Kitty, anyone?). Still a lot of cool Japanese items in the back, though the show where you would pick an oyster and they'd cut it open for you and present a pearl was gone (again likely due to pandemic concerns).
- They are pushing D23 hard! There were displays in at least three different locations showing the D23 membership with information about the club.
Lastly and most importantly, there were a lot of closed storefronts. We saw this particularly in World Showcase. The bazaar in Morocco had very little actually open. The storefronts were still there. They were just closed. I observed the same thing in Germany. The toy store and clock shop were still there, they just weren't open. It's possible it was my timing, though I passed by at several different times during the day and saw the same thing. It could also again have been related to COVID. It made me wonder, though, if Disney is having the same issues a lot of others in the hospitality industry are having, the difficulty in getting people (pure speculation on my part).
[Editor's note: Shuttered shops can be a sign of the difficulty in hiring in general, but young international people in particular. Travel bans were only recently lifted, and many from overseas simply weren't allowed to enter the U.S.]
Overall, it was a great day at EPCOT, even if I didn't actually buy anything.
Blizzard Beach and Caribbean Beach
The next day we hit the wave pool at Blizzard Beach. If you haven't been to a Disney water park, I highly recommend it. The theming is great, they're a lot of fun, and they provide a break from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks. I'd more highly recommend you go in the off season. We've been in the summer, and while it's nice and cool there, it's also packed. You wait forever to get on each slide. Our November visit, however, was amazing! The park was mostly empty and we went on everything with little to no wait.
That said, Blizzard Beach isn't exactly a shopping mecca. They do have a large shop, however, and it's filled with a ton of appropriate items. These include all the sundries you need for a day at a water park, but also a lot of Bizzard-specific merch, which is great. You can get clothing and fun oversized beach towels depicting Disney characters with the park logo.
While we're on the topic of beaches, I'll also call out the shop at our resort, Calypso Trading Post. Again, it had all you would need for a great hotel stay, but also had Caribbean Beach-specific merchandise. You could by a variety of clothing, holiday ornaments and home items all with the resort logo. I love these as they provide good variety from generic WDW items and also give happy memories of your stay.
Hooray for Hollywood. This has gotten to be an increasingly fun park to visit, particularly with the additions of Toy Story Land and Star Wars Galaxies Edge (read Todd King's latest for a great take on this one).
Through Genie+, we were able to score a spot on Rise of the Resistance (though it gave me a heart attack and broke down for half an hour before finally allowing us to ride). This one really does live up to the hype. Wow is all I can say! We were also able to ride Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway, which I also absolutely loved and was a ton of fun. In general, i'm loving these rides that use the trackless technology. These 2, along with Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, all take advantage of this to provide incredible experiences.
In terms of shopping, with the exception of a few smaller shops scattered around the park, it remains concentrated on Hollywood Boulevard. One shop, in particular, caught my eye for an interesting reason. Keystone Clothiers has long been a favorite stop. They had a great variety of T-shirts and interestingly, golf gear in the back of the store. Now, it's all about Star Wars and Marvel. There's nothing wrong with that at all, it's just odd to have a shop, still called Keystore Clothiers, filled with items from those two franchises, including toys, water bottles, etc. There's a pretty good selection of all that there, so if you're a fan, make sure you check it out.
On to the bullet points:
- The 50th merchandise headquarters at Hollywood Studios is in the five-and-dime space on Hollywood Boulevard. They have a lot of the 50th items we've been talking about, as well as the home goods it's featured of late. I bought a large pillow with a castle image and the word "home" across the front (that will likely make me cry every time I look at it:-)
- A trend I saw all across the resort was that they were limiting the amount anyone can purchase of a given item to two, which I think is great. This is to prevent resellers from hoarding hard-to-get items to resell for a markup online. I don't want to sound holier-than-thou. I've bought items on eBay myself, but I think it's great that Disney is addressing this. They make money whether people buy for themselves or to resell, but it's sad when the average person can't get certain things because others are hoarding them.
We had a great day in Hollywoodland. We got to hit the new rides we wanted, and the stores are alive and well.
I've always loved this park. It's beautiful, and I've missed walking around and just taking it all in. We, as Disney folk, have a tendency to just run from ride to ride without stopping to smell the roses or see the kangaroos. This is a park that was meant for meandering, and we did a lot of that on this visit.
The kangaroo comment wasn't meant to be a joke. If you wander through the Tree of Life Garden, on Discovery Island right across from the Pandora entrance, you can see a large group of kangaroos. I'm a Disney veteran and have been to this park more than a dozen times, and I didn't know that attraction even existed until pretty recently. Please make sure to take some time and check out the Oasis at the entrance, the Tree of Life Garden, the Gorilla Falls Trail, and Maharajah Jungle Trek in between running on Everest and Flight of Passage. You'll be very glad you did.
Off my soapbox now. Oddly, not a ton to say here in terms of shopping. Not a lot has changed since my last visit. Island Outfitters at the Discovery Island entrance upholds its role well as the Emporium of Animal Kingdom. Again, it has a wide variety of items—a large number of which are themed to the park. There's also a smallish display of 50th anniversary items here.
- The shopping joys in this park tend to be the smaller shops scattered about. My favorite is still Mombasa Marketplace in Harambe. The hand-carved wood masks and animals still can't be beat and are very authentic to the tourist shopping experience in Africa.
- Windtraders, the main shop in Pandora: The World of Avatar, was still there, but had roughly half the number of items it did on my last visit. There were not nearly as many displays, which again, I suspect, is largely due to COVID. The walkways were much wider to encourage social distancing. Happy to report, though, that you can still adopt your own banshee.
I saved the big magilla for last. I'll tell you that walking down Main Street and seeing Cinderella's Castle for the first time in forever felt like coming home again. Seeing everything lit up, and particularly decorated for the holidays, gave me a shot in the arm after my extended Disney drought.
I went on as many rides as I could in a day, though, particularly with the crowds, there's much I'll have to save for next time. That said, it was nice to visit the 999 happy haunts, sing "yo ho" with the Pirates and take a space flight across the galaxy in the dark.
On the shopping front, there's always a ton to unpack at this park, but I expect your eyes are starting to glaze over at this point, so I'll keep it somewhat short.
Main Street USA was, well Main Street USA. Truthfully not a lot has changed since my last visit. In keeping with the theme above, the Emporium has definitely "thinned out" in my absence. There weren't as displays as normal, again likely keeping with the theme of improved traffic flow and less crowding during this difficult time.
The Main Street Cinema is the 50th anniversary merchandise headquarters for the park, featuring many items from the Vault Collection. I like the way they have it set up as a museum of sorts, dedicated to depicting 1971, the year Walt Disney World opened. The available items are set up in displays in a way that look like exhibits, with placards talking about this history of Disney Souvenirs and setting a nostalgic tone. I already got my watch and pillow, so didn't buy today, but loved seeing all that they had.
On to the fine print:
- My love of watches is obvious, so I've acutely noticed the Disney product shift in this area. They used to sell racks and racks of inexpensive watches geared towards everyone. Now they sell very few timepieces (to use the fancy term) that range from expensive to very expensive. I know the youngins' love their phones and don't need watches anymore, so I guess Disney is catering to the watch collectors among us as opposed to the masses. The display case in Uptown Jewelers has some great watches from Citizen and Bulova if you're interested, like I am.
- I continue to be bowled over by the continued Disney creativity in the field of T-shirts. After decades of the same WDW logo shirt, they've gotten increasingly creative with a lot of the sayings and images on the shirts.
Lastly, is it just me or is Disney missing a (literally) golden merchandising opportunity here? One of the main features in the parks of the 50th anniversary celebration are the golden statues. Found in all four theme parks, these icons, a few feet high, depict 50 classic and new Disney characters with the 50th logo in appropriate places through the property. Mickey and Minnie are in front of Cinderella's Castle, Simba is in Animal Kingdom and I discovered the Mad Hatter in front of the tea cups.
Why oh why did no one in Disney merchandising think to sell limited edition replicas of these? I was sure they'd have them and was ready to bring the 50th Mickey Mouse home, yet there wasn't one. Disney said they're going to keep rolling out new items throughout the 18 month celebration, so maybe they're still coming, but if not and you read this Bob Chapek, please feel free to use my idea.
That's all folks, a few meandering thoughts from the mind of a Disney fanatic who realizes how much he missed this happy place. Sure there were some glitches (Genie+ was, at best, a mixed bag for me; some rides broke down), but overall, I loved just being here after all this time.
On the shopping front, was so happy to have scored that watch, especially about 15 minutes after arriving. That expense probably kept me from going to crazy with purchases after that, but was fun to see what they had and glad to report there's still a lot to see on the merchandise front. As we go forward, curious to see what changes as the world continues to go back to normal and Disney's new management leaves their imprint.
As always, would love your thoughts, and thanks for reading!