One of the first things I noticed about Orlando when I was a tourist were those gift shops along the street next to Walt Disney World. That street is US-192 (also called Irlo Bronson Highway), and the gift shops were memorable for their oversized decorations on the storefront: a mermaid, a wizard, or giant animals.
I’ve been in a few of them over the years, but I’ve never taken a closer look until this weekend. I wanted to investigate if there were any differences between them, or if they all sold the same junk. The answer is mostly the latter, but there ARE some ways they specialize. The items they ALL seem to carry include t-shirts (especially Disney ones), swimsuits, swim gear (goggles, flippers, etc), luggage, keychains, magnets, and towels. Many of them also carry knicknacks, especially things that say “Orlando” or “Florida” on them. All of them also carried preserved heads of real gators, and I used this item to compare the shops to each other (some were more expensive than others).
To help clear up how the shops differ and who should visit which shop, I’ve made the following guide to the gift shops:
Main Gate Factory Outlet
The closest gift shop is actually one of the least visually striking. This shop doesn’t sport an oversized character out front, and in fact looks like a warehouse. It DOES have characters painted on the side, some looking accurate (and thus probably illegally displayed here) with others looking intentionally far from the Disney original, presumably to avoid lawsuits.
Larger gator heads here are $30 and the smaller size are $16, which is on the expensive side of the spectrum, as we’ll see. This shop is bare-bones in a lot of ways when it comes to design and layout, but it does have the largest clothing variety of the shops on this street, and the amount of throwaway Disney merchandise. It’s also got the biggest collection of upscale Disney merchandise, such as carved figurines. The common items (magnets, towels, luggage, Florida junk) are contained in smaller sections than in rival shops. It feels like the sort of discount store it actually is, when you’re inside it. That’s no surprise, of course, but several of the competitors take measures to make the environment more welcoming.
If you’ve driven the street before, you’ve noticed this store–it really stands out with the unmistakable mermaid. Inside, you’ll find a two-story shop that feels a bit cramped and overstuffed. It’s probably best described as a “balanced” approach–all the common items are here and in reasonable numbers, with no immediate area of specialization. Gators here are $25 for the big size and $12 for the small.
Upon closer examination, I decided the store did in fact have a strength, but it was so subtle that it took a while for me to find it. This is probably the best shop for clothes for little kids. They had the biggest selection available and the most variety. This was also the only place I saw t-shirts for Universal and Harry Potter along US-192. The majority of the stores cater to Disney products only.
Studio 1 Gifts
The USA-themed exterior has a lot of bald eagles, but inside you’ll find just Florida and theme park stuff. This two-story shop is one of the better ones for feeling comfortable and raising the experience beyond the typical thrift-store atmosphere. They pump in music and everything feels clean.
Gators here are also $25 for the larger ones, meaning the store isn’t overpriced. This is the place I would go to buy Disney toys, Disney pins, Disney coloring books–everything non-clothing that is Disney branded. They certainly have the other common stuff, too, but they seem to specialize in the toys.
Another noticeable exterior can be found at the Magic Castle, where a wizard beckons cars passing in the street. There’s also another wizard shop on the other side of Walt Disney World (and the other one is arguably more famous). Inside the Magic Castle, you’ll find something unique among these gift shops: an actual themed prop that ‘eats’ up valuable sales floor space. In this case, the prop is a giant castle (how fitting!) and it gives the store a nice visual pop.
This store also has the cheaper gators $25 large, $12 small, but it doesn’t have much of a specialization that I can detect. It has fewer knickknacks in general and seems vaguely be more clothing-oriented, but it wasn’t easy to detect one thing that really makes it stand out. Perhaps that makes it balanced?
Fun Time Gifts
This store has giant animal heads poking out over the entrance, which helps lure in customers. Perhaps they need the lure, since prices here are elevated (they only have the larger gators, and they cost $30). They may advertise $5 towels, but the majority are $14 ones and the truly cheap ones feel impossibly thin and useless.
This shop sometimes had a general sleazy feeling. However, they do have a comprehensive selection of Florida-themed tchotchkes and junk. If you want a souvenir that screams (or actually even “says”) Florida, this is the place to come.
The first gift shop you come to on the other side of Walt Disney World is named Studio East, and it is decorated the same way that Studio 1 was on the other side of WDW–with American colors and an emphasis on bald eagles as a motif. Given the name similarity, it’s a good bet they are owned by the same entity.
That would make sense also from the point of view of the merchandise. Everything said about Studio 1 above would apply here, too. The store isn’t a carbon copy in terms of layout, but in terms of specialization and pricing, it’s just about the same. Come here for the Disney toys.
Best Price Gifts
A store with a giant painting of Elvis on the outside can’t go wrong, can it? I’m here to tell you that it can (and does). This place feels like Goodwill, except that it’s much dirtier than the thrift store. I saw litter and scraps of paper all over the floor, and the entire shop honest to goodness had a slight odor which was unpleasant (maybe mold?) There was a gigantic selection of t-shirts, and almost no Disney branded stuff, so I suppose this is their specialization. But without much more attention to the shopping experience (how about piping in some music like your competitors?!) this place definitely should be avoided.
The “other” wizard store, this one is small and clean, with cheerful music and a lot of Disney stuff. It’s everything you expect in a tourist-trap gift shop near Walt Disney World, and if your goal is cheap merch meant for a friend at home (or for your kids to “use up” while here on vacation), this will easily fit the bill.
Main Gate Factory Outlet – Largest clothing variety.
Mermaid Gifts – Best shop for kids clothing.
Studio 1 Gifts – Best selection of Disney toys.
Magic Castle – Clothing oriented, midrange selections.
Fun Time Gifts - Biggest knicknack selection; a bit sketchy in look/feel.
Studio East – Like Studio 1, great selection of Disney toys.
Best Price Gifts – Feels like Goodwill, only dirtier. Avoid.
Wizard Gifts – Clean, small, emphasis on Disney stuff.
Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.