Previously, on Progress City, U.S.A.: For the start of the new year, I had hoped to do one of those “top ten” lists of things I’d like to see happen in the Disney parks – and especially Walt Disney World – in 2009. Not that I would deem any of my wishes likely to be fulfilled, but as a fan of lists and unsolicited criticism I can’t help myself.
Here’s the next item on my agenda for the Disney parks in 2009:
#8 – Overhaul Park Merchandise
“Shopping and browsing in the fascinating and unique shops of the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom will always lead to the discovery of many surprising gifts. The most special are the ones that have some personal value, reminding you of a memorable experience… or those that have a wonderful story relating to their discovery. It may be a rare, handcrafted item acquired from an artisan in a far-away land; or it may be a simple, colorful vacation souvenir that sparks memories of a wonderful trip. Often the most treasured gifts are found when you aren’t searching for anything in particular. Throughout Walt Disney World, finding these previous things for special people is a serendipitous experience.”- Disney News, Summer 1985
To someone unfamiliar with the situation, it might seem strange. With the image that’s been created over the years of the Disney corporation as avaricious and grasping, one might not expect a problem that’s constantly bemoaned in fan circles – there’s nothing in the parks on which to spend our money. Check any Disney discussion group and you’re likely to find the complaint somewhere; the fact is that we want to spend money but Disney refuses to sell things to us. Thus this entry on the list: Disney should completely rethink their in-park merchandising strategy and offerings.
Of course there are things to buy in the parks; former parks head Paul Pressler came from the world of retail and it showed. The problem is that while retail square footage exploded under his reign, the stores themselves became as homogenized as your local chain store. Pressler did this so well that he left Disney to run, of all things, the Gap stores, which he promptly ran into the ground as well.
The end result of these years of product line consolidation, and of Pressler successor Jay Rasulo’s alarming “One Disney” policy, is that while there are more places to buy things in Disney parks, there are less actual things to buy. If you’re a fan of a specific park or attraction you’re mostly out of luck, as aside from a few major E-ticket rides most merchandise is of a most generic nature.
This wasn’t always the case. Disney parks used to feature a array of merchandise targeted at a wide variety of potential customers. Forget about park-specific merchandise – in the early days of Walt Disney World you could get land-specific merchandise. A visit to eBay unearths a slew of vintage park-related items – trinkets far more evocative than merchandise branded generically to “Walt Disney World” or – shudder – “Disney Parks”. Sponsorship deals led to merchandise featuring even the most wonderfully obscure features of the Magic Kingdom, such as the much-missed Little Orange Bird.
The range of options available to past Disney guests wasn’t limited to merchandise selections. The stores themselves were once quite different from each other. Where now you can walk from one end of Main Street to another without leaving sight of a mountain of plush, and a store in Tomorrowland features the exact same selections as a store at Downtown Disney (or even your local mall), Disney stores used to offer unique experiences specially themed to their surroundings.
It’s almost shocking to look back and realized the variety once offered to guests – one can imagine some family in the 1970’s returning home with a carload of new décor for their homes. Putting aside the number of now-unthinkable shops in Disneyland’s history, visitors to Magic Kingdom could stop in at the Liberty Square Silversmith, shop for antiques, mix their own perfume, or head down Main Street to the beloved Magic Shop. In EPCOT Center, guests to Future World could shop at the Centorium for gifts that were – brace yourself – futuristic! This seemed to be a point of great pride, as illustrated by this article in the Fall 1985 issue of Disney News (click to enlarge):
Even the Disney-MGM Studios, which came late to the game, at one point had some stores that actually offered period-themed or classic film memorabilia. Today the only park that maintains an overall unique merchandising identity is, perhaps not surprisingly, Animal Kingdom. In the marketplace of Harambe one can find something to take home that’s not emblazoned with Mickey or Pooh, something I wish I could say the same of for Future World or Frontierland.
The fact is, one person only needs so many stuffed Tweedles or generic Walt Disney World t-shirts. While WDW, unlike Disneyland, makes its bank by drawing on a large pool of first time visitors, the way the merchandise is structured now there’s precious little of interest to buy on a second trip, much less the twentieth. What’s worse is that many of the items on sale in the parks can also be bought at the local mall, making a visit to an in-park retail location doubly redundant.
The side effect of a merchandising overhaul would be that stores would once again match their surroundings, offering a more immersive themed experience and not drawing guests out of the illusion. The clash of themes that’s apparent when modern marketing creeps into carefully designed and themed areas is obvious even to the layperson’s eye. Blatant cash-grabs like pirate merchandise in Future World (and Crocs, and rubber balls, &c. &c.), or High School Musical detritus taking over Tomorrowland, simply show that Disney isn’t even trying anymore to create a themed space and can no longer distinguish their own parks from a local carnival midway.
The Disney parks need unique, specific and creative merchandise that appeals to a wide audience. Walt intended the parks to appeal to adults as well as children, and the merchandise should too. Fan-targeted merchandise for adults shouldn’t be limited to jarringly high-dollar special merchandising “events”, either. I should be able to walk into a Disney park and find something appealing to buy with all that money burning a hole in my pocket. And if there’s not something I want in one store, that’s OK. Something for everyone, right? But if I walk in the store next door it ought not to have the exact same selection as everywhere I’ve already been. Homogenization might make it easy to run that centralized, bi-coastal “One Disney” experience from a single office in Burbank, but it sure doesn’t make me take out my wallet.
UPDATE: Another post, another thoughtful response from the Web Gangsta. The piece does a better job than I did at expressing the sheer frustration of actively looking for something to spend your money on in the parks, only to find that there’s absolutely nothing of interest or targeted to adults. If you’re not interested in the handful of characters that marketing has decided appeal to your demographic, or – imagine – you want something character-free, you’re out of luck.
It also contains the all-time classic question, “how many Duck Butt hats does one family need?”
This goes beyond whether I can find something interesting to bring back from vacation, or whether all Disney marketing thinks people want are “bratty” Tinkerbell t-shirts for the ladies and “I’m a Grumpy jerk” t-shirts for dads. The fact is, what’s embarrassing about the west side of Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, with the destruction of Center Street’s ambiance and the creation of, essentially, one long mall, is that it causes Disney to become what people who don’t know anything about Disney think Disney to be. There’s a long history of backlash against Disney, whether it be intellectual or anti-corporatist in nature. Often this sprang from misunderstanding or unfamiliarity with the actual product Disney was providing its guests. But those mountains of plush point to the fact that for a few years, Disney came perilously close to becoming what many incorrectly have always assumed it to be.
One last thing: although this issue is something that’s bothered me for a while, it really crystallized for me at one event, and I’m shocked I forgot to include it with the original story. In October of 2007 (was it really that long ago?), I went to EPCOT for its ad-hoc 25th anniversary celebration. In that crowd of guests, all obviously committed fans who had a great deal of time and money sunk into their Disney-related habits, there was naturally a lot of merchandise and Disney clothing on display. But what stood out to me was that I saw many, many people that day wearing EPCOT and Disney themed clothing that they had actually made themselves.
Think about that – these people, obviously willing to throw loads of money at Disney for any form of ephemera, had been so unable to find something in the stores to their liking that they actually went to the time and expense of making their own merchandise. What’s more, I would wager that current Disney park merchandise ran a distant third that day behind homemade items and vintage EPCOT items from before 1990. That event, more than any, made me realize how out of step Disney has become with their most devoted customers. I’m grateful to see that I’m not the only one who has noticed this, and maybe the excitement that crops up online whenever some nifty retro merchandise randomly pops up in the parks holds some hope for the future.
Now where’d I put my Duck butt hat…