An Unexpected Shopping Place

You can shop around the world at Disney's Epcot.
Valerie Fraser

At last, the truth can be told. I am an undercover power shopper. My latest target: Epcot. I know what you're thinking. It's a theme park. Doesn't that guarantee only overpriced, cheesy souvenirs? Not necessarily.With nearly 70 shops, Epcot offers a mind-boggling variety of merchandise from around the world--Mexican silver, French perfume, Italian glass... Whether you're shopping with $12 or a gold card, you'll come home happy.

Step one was to rendezvous with my contact, Disney insider Paul Bugge. Paul agreed to be my personal shopper for a few hours, pointing out some of Epcot's best-selling items and teaching me how to spot the discreetly labeled bargain shelves. Then he turned me loose on unsuspecting sales personnel.

In case you're still a novice, Epcot is divided into two areas: Future World and World Showcase. Future World features all manner of new technology. Stop by Innoventions to see new products demonstrated by Sony and other tech-savvy companies long before those gadgets hit the market.

"Epcot invites our guests to experience the latest in science and technology, and the Internet generation loves the technology," Paul says. "Sega had the hot toy for Christmas this year, but that toy was demonstrated at Epcot two years ago. We're now exploring the possibility of arranging for our guests to preorder some of the new products that demo at the park."

Even Web-surfing kids like an occasional low-tech thrill. Paul pointed out an enormous pylon hat in road-crew orange. "Kids love these," he says with a who'd-a-thunk-it shrug. "They'll walk around the park all day with big ole pylons on their heads."

Tempting, yes, but I passed on the hat and headed to Mouse Gear, the largest in-park character merchandise store in the world. Even if you aren't hankering for a Dopey ball cap ($19), step inside to see the handiwork of Walt Disney Imagineering architects and designers.

SHOPPING TIPS
Among Paul's shopping picks were the $18 Mickey-shaped candles and the embroidered Mickey hand towel. I bought a $5 embroidered washcloth and some $3 Donald Duck breath mints, then headed to World Showcase.

Here 11 countries--Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, France, Morocco, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom--are represented through shops, restaurants, music, film, dance, and more. The pavilions encircle a lagoon, which you can either stroll around or ferry across.

Even the "cast members" (that's Disney for "employees") within World Showcase are natives of the countries they represent. So while your salesclerk is ringing up that pearl you fished out of an oyster tank your very own self, you can ask her what the weather's like back home in Tokyo.

At the Mexican pavilion, a personal favorite, you walk inside a replica of a gigantic Mayan temple to discover a lively street market, not to mention a waterfall and boat ride. For another open-air market experience, visit the Moroccan pavilion, which has some of the most exotic architecture at Epcot--and the only restaurant where you can see a belly dancer perform. It's also home to some of the most unusual items in the park: leather camels, $10-$25. (They can't keep them on the shelves.)

Then there are the exclusives. Guerlain sold its Philtre d'Amour perfume exclusively at Epcot for a year before making it available to other retailers. Barton and Guestier's Beaujolais Nouveau premieres at Epcot each year. During the holidays, Steiff creates limited editions for Epcot's Doll and Bear Convention.

Unless you're heading to England, Epcot is one of only a few places where you can buy Wimbledon tennis gear, and it's a good source for pieces of Royal Daulton's popular Old Country Roses china pattern. While that charming chap is wrapping your teapot, research your family tartan and buy a necktie in the appropriate plaid.

I loved having those colorful shopping bags arrive at my Disney door. And I couldn't believe I'd scampered away with so many deals, totally undetected by the Epcot team. Then again, as I crammed a mountain of treasures into my trunk for the trip home, I had to wonder: Is that Paul guy a double agent?

For more information: Call (407) 824-4321 or visit disneyworld.com.

BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW...
It costs $150 to paint one trash can at Epcot, and there are more than 600 of them on the property. Each area of the park has its own color scheme, which the trash cans must match. So paint is custom mixed and applied by hand.

The World Showcase has a buying team that generally visits each country at least once a year. Because Disney is such a huge customer, Epcot buyers and cast member recruiters are often accompanied by heads of state and government officials when they visit abroad. They've even been escorted by armed guards on occasion.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Merchandise includes a "consumables team" whose sole function is to choose Disney-themed foods, such as Mickey macaroni and cheese, for company stores.

About 90% of Epcot's fireworks show, "Illuminations: Reflections of Earth," is controlled by computers.

Besides the fun factor, power shoppers will also love the convenience that Epcot offers. Take their complimentary package pickup service: As you shop, you can have all of your purchases sent to a pickup area at the front of the park. Better still, if you're staying at one of the Disney resorts, they'll deliver the goods to your room. Either way, you don't have to schlepp around the whole park lugging that electric monorail and track, complete with a miniature of the Contemporary resort (a steal at $95).

This article is from the August 2001 issue of Southern Living.Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.