museums&MORE Fall 2010
Have a Magical Day

Walt Disney World’s gift shops booming thanks to constant innovation

By Wendy Helfenbaum

When you go to Walt Disney World, pretty much everything starts with a line and ends with a cash register: You get off a ride and you walk directly through a gift store. And that’s just one of the ways the resort attracts customers to its shops, said Erin Catalano, Disney’s merchandise coordinator.

“When you’re on vacation, you tend to think differently than when you’re at home. And for many people, Disney is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so they want to remember that as much as possible,” explained Catalano, who promotes and markets new Disney store locations, merchandise and big projects.

“Walking out of an attraction with your family is when that memory is top of mind,” he continues. “‘We just had the best time on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (at Disney’s Hollywood Studios Theme Park)!’ It might be your first time going on it, or your 15th, but you want to remember exactly what you’re feeling at that moment.”

That’s what merchandise does: it’s a tangible memory. When you wear that T-shirt, you remember your overall feeling.

More than Mickey
One of Disney’s magical secrets lies in the huge assortment of stock it carries in its nearly 400 shops.

“Not everybody wants something with a big Mickey Mouse on it,” Catalano said. “That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on; the variety and uniqueness of product that we offer here at the resort. So whether they’re traveling as a family, as newlyweds or as college students here on spring break, we’re going to have something that suits them and brings out their personality.”

Catering to every guest – from toddlers to seniors – may seem daunting, but Disney’s got that covered. “In what we call big-box stores, located at every Disney park and the Downtown Disney area, there are specific rooms: the Princess Room for young girls to enjoy, and a room for boys with pirates and Pixar characters where they can create their own treasure chest. We also have jewelry rooms and a kitchen room.”

Disney’s three best-selling items are customized Mickey Mouse ear hats, souvenir T-shirts and Disney trading pins, which were introduced 10 years ago as a one-time millennium celebration of the theme park, but then grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Special annual Disney Pin Celebrations are held at Epcot, where thousands of guests gather to trade pins; they’re also bought, sold and traded online year-round.

Another Disney product has also sparked collector fever: vinyl designer toys shaped like Mickey Mouse that feature hundreds of different motifs.

“Vinylmation is the newest Disney fad in merchandising; it has just exploded,” Catalano said, adding that Disney held its first Vinylmation trading event in August.
“What’s fun is we release a collection of 12, and we show you what 11 pieces of the artwork are, but the last one is a complete mystery. You don’t know what you’re going to get, so there’s that thrill of the chase behind it.”

From Small to Super-sized
Stores like The Emporium are as large as department stores and stretch all the way down Main Street. Others, such as Tren-D in the Downtown Disney marketplace, are small boutiques that carry trendy, pop culture-inspired apparel, such as a recently launched line of custom-created Dooney & Bourke handbags showcasing Disney artwork.

“You won’t find these bags in Dooney & Bourke flagship stores, or anywhere else that sells them; they’re just here at Walt Disney World,” Catalano noted. “We like to develop products that you can only find here, something that’s unique to your experience here at Disney. A lot of people want to stand out, so we create merchandise that makes them a little bit different from the crowd that they’re walking around in at the Magic Kingdom.”

Catalano noted that guests are spending “across the board, so we’ve been creating higher ticket items as well as value lines. Our boutique stores in Downtown Disney are doing very well. Our new D-Street boutique is so different from all our other stores: it’s urban, it’s hip and it’s very eclectic. We’re seeing that the more uniqueness we offer, the more people tend to gravitate towards it.”

Similar to other retailers, there’s usually a spike in sales around the gift-giving season. And Disney events, such as The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival held each spring, draw more crowds and feature special merchandise.

“We created a special line of gardening tools, statuary, painted flower pots and shirts, things that are very specific to flowers and gardening,” she added.

Dazzling Displays and Décor
Perhaps the most striking elements in Disney gift shops are the spectacular, life-sized design features.

“Disney’s all about theming and making you feel like you are immersed in the culture or the story of what you’re walking into,” Catalano explained. “Disney isn’t about looking like everybody else. Everything you do or see at Disney is telling a story, from the attractions to the queue line you walk through to get to the attraction. We do that in the merchandise shops, too. We want to tell the story of the Briar Patch in Frontierland so it feels like you’re immersed and truly a part of it.”

To further maximize the popularity of its best-selling products and themes, Disney pays special attention to its merchandise windows. Catalano explained that they are a window into the world of Disney. All of the store windows are different from each other, and each supports a different initiative or a different line of business to entice the guests to come in and find what they’re looking for.

“When we wanted to promote The Princess and the Frog at our Emporium store,” Catalano said, “we did a great store window where we had a bust form of Princess Tiana, but instead of having the bottom of her dress made out of fabric, we made it out of Princess Tiana dolls. It was absolutely beautiful.”

The dress took more than 60 man-hours to create and four hours to install. More than 80 dolls were used to create the dress, which was covered in more than 400 rhinestones.

Despite Disney’s enviable success, Catalano said at the end of the day, they’re like everyone else. They have budgets, and it’s about finding creative ways to make the most out of them.

“It might be utilizing things you already have,” she said. “Sometimes people go to places like flea markets where they find those items that might be extra-special, items that you wouldn’t find in a normal fixturing store. When it comes to what we do at Disney, if it doesn’t wow us, it isn’t going to wow the guests. So that’s the biggest thing: wow yourself, blow yourself away to get that feeling you’re looking for for your guest.”

Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based writer and television producer who owns a hat with Mickey Mouse ears. Visit her at

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