Whether you're looking for mouse ears and wizard wands or the latest and greatest in designer labels, you'll find it in Orlando (ranked fourth among the top shopping destinations in the country, falling in behind New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas). Walt Disney World itself is home to an almost endless array of shops spread throughout its parks, resorts, and Downtown Disney. The House of Mouse, however, is not the only game in town. If you venture beyond its boundaries, you'll discover first-rate shopping malls, outlet centers, and charming boutiques.
But before you break out your credit cards, do remember to keep your shopping wits about you. The malls and their upscale stores, at times, can charge extremely outrageous prices that you'll easily better at home. And the outlets, which once offered tremendous bargains, now at times discount only marginally. The key to getting the best possible deals is to know what is and isn't a bargain.
And now, a note on souvenir shopping. If, after exercising your credit cards elsewhere, you've still got energy (and money) to burn, the parks and entertainment districts at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld feature some of the most distinctive souvenir shopping you'll find anywhere. Sure, many of the stores are filled with trinkets and T-shirts, but some offer more unique merchandise that you won't be able to find anywhere else -- Orlando or otherwise.
The Shopping Scene
The hottest spots for tourists to shop are at Downtown Disney, CityWalk, and the larger themed shopping centers scattered along International Drive. Kissimmee, though a very busy area, has little to offer shoppers other than seashells and T-shirts that, at three for $10, are a good example of the old saying "you get what you pay for." I do, however, admit that I have on occasion found a hidden treasure or two among the trinkets, so if you're in the mood for a bargain and are willing to take the time to hunt for it, you may just get lucky. There are, of course, more than just a few of the same tourist traps located along I-Drive (mostly at the northern end) as well as along S.R. 535 in Lake Buena Vista. But don't despair; if you stick to the places listed in this guide, you'll find plenty of quality merchandise.
If you're looking for a quieter, out-of-the-way shopping experience, the quaint tree-lined streets of Winter Park -- Park Avenue in particular -- are filled with one-of-a-kind boutiques, well-known shops, and antiques stores. Closer to the action, yet still far enough off the beaten path to remain quaint and quiet, is Market Street in Celebration, which is home to a small collection of tiny shops. Downtown Orlando has its own unique shopping spots, with Antique Row (along Orange Ave.) and nearby Ivanhoe featuring antiques dealers, collectible shops, and better gift stores. If you're in search of a quiet retreat or an afternoon of simple indulgence, these shopping side trips should provide just the sort of peaceful experience you're seeking (you won't even mind coming away empty-handed).
Many Orlando area stores, particularly those in malls or other shopping centers, are open from 9 or 10am until 9 or 10pm Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 6pm on Sunday. It is always best to check before you go, as shopping hours, like those at the parks, can change during the holidays, as well as seasonally. Sales tax in Osceola County, which includes Kissimmee, the U.S. 192 corridor, and all of Disney's All-Star resorts, is 7%. In Orange County, which includes the International Drive area, SeaWorld, Universal Orlando, most (but not all) of Disney World, and most of the lesser attractions, it's 6.5%. In Seminole County, about 40 miles north of Walt Disney World, the rate is 7%. No matter where you are, plan on adding a few extra dollars in taxes to your bill when you get to the cash register.
One thing that's no different here than the rest of the country: If you arrive during the holiday season, from the end of November to January 1, it's best to avoid local shopping malls, especially on weekends. They're just as crazy and crowded as those back home -- maybe even worse. And no matter what time of year it is, don't leave your good judgment at the door when you're shopping the outlet malls. Although there are some bargains to be found, the prices on many items aren't really much better than you can find at home in many cases. The selection, however, may be much larger than you're used to -- especially if you're from outside the United States. Remember, though, that you still have to get it home with you somehow, so if you can buy the same item at home, do you really want to have to carry it all the way from Florida?
Ship It -- Because Orlando is geared to travelers, many retailers offer to ship packages home for a few dollars more (Disney definitely does). So, if you're pondering an extralarge purchase, or even just one you would rather not have to carry (especially in the age of outrageous airline baggage fees), simply ask. If a retailer doesn't offer such a service, check with your hotel. Many a concierge or business center staffer can arrange a pickup by UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, or another carrier -- or, at the very least, point you in the direction of the carrier located closest to the hotel. Anything's better than dragging that 6-foot stuffed Pluto through the not-so-friendly skies.
Homegrown Souvenirs -- Oranges, grapefruit, and other citrus fruits rank high on the list of Florida's top local products. Orange Blossom Indian River Citrus, 5151 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando (tel. 800/624-8835 or 407/855-2837; www.orange-blossom.com), is one of the top sellers during the late-fall-to-late-spring season.
A Disney Bargain? The World's Best-Kept Secret
From a pink Cadillac to a 4-foot beer stein, tons of wacky treasures are regularly put on the auction block at Walt Disney World.
In addition to castoffs from the theme parks and WDW resorts, there are more routine items available, from over-the-hill lawn-maintenance gear to never-been-used stainless-steel pots and pans. If you're looking for a unique piece of Disney, the auctions are held six times a year. Some of the more unusual items sold in the past include a motorized surfboard and furniture from Miss Piggy's dressing room. The auction takes place on Disney's back lots. Call property control (tel. 407/824-6878) for information, dates, and directions.
Bigger yet are trinkets sold at www.disneystore.com (what was once www.disneyauctions.com is now under the Disney shopping umbrella). Mainstream items, including artwork, figurines, cookie jars, pins, and snow globes (as well as other modest merchandise), are available on a regular basis (and sold at a set price).