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It happens so infrequently in the Disney universe that I did a double-take, blinked, checked again, and still didn't believe my eyes, but there it was: something for nothing. Starting several weeks ago, a new breed of gift card appeared on the shelves in several Disney shops (though it's more visible in the Emporium than in Mouse Gear): a gift card that you purchase for face value (always $50) which includes a free Disney pin.

The cards and the pins are themed around "celebrations" to match the current park promotion.

Maybe that doesn't grab you at first blush. Certainly over time I've heard passers-by who thought about it, then re-considered, apparently wondering if they could even spend $50. This is an absolute no-brainer to me, though, especially if you should buy these cards at the start of your vacation. Wouldn't you think a family of four might hit $1,000 in expenses for a week, considering all the food they need to buy? That's only $35 per person, per day, and if you're eating even one sit down meal per day, you'll easily hit that target. And if there's money left over, I've got to believe your average family buys a souvenir or three on a trip.

Well, that $1,000 could be purchased with twenty gift cards (each for $50), which would give you twenty brand-new Disney pins to keep or to trade away. That's perhaps TWO lanyards' worth of pins, handed to you for free. Or think of it this way: each pin is probably worth about $10 (if you were to buy pins at rack value), so that's $150 worth of merchandise. Free. For money you were going to spend anyway. It's like a 15% discount, just out of the blue.

In our case, we started buying and saving up these cards for a specific use: the renewal of our annual passes. It seemed impossible that we could use these cards (and keep those pins) for something we were all but certain to buy anyway, so I purchased one card as an experiment to use around the parks, and also showed it to a ticket-seller at Hollywood Studios to confirm that we could use those. Yes, she nodded, and I began purchasing cards whenever I could find them.

I didn't want to purchase $1,000 at once. It might lead to awkward questions at the cash register, and while I wasn't planning anything illegal, somehow it seemed safer to just buy "one of each kind" on each visit (there are five varieties, so this was $250 each time). I only made it to $750 before I needed to renew our annual passes, so I couldn't pay for the whole thing, but I got fifteen free Disney pins. I think I'm so enthused because it's so uncommon to get truly "free" things from Disney.

One assumes these cards – which are listed and advertised as "limited edition" and "for a limited time" – exist because they want people to spend more money. The Vegas effect takes over if you're using "house currency," be it casino chips or Disney Dollars or pre-purchased gift cards; psychologists have pretty much proven that our weakling brains spend more when the money is already a "sunk cost."

The cards do not appear to have expiration dates on them. For the skittish and the worried, a class of consumers that certainly includes me, there is comfort in the form of a receipt for each card activation. Buy five cards at once and get six receipts: one for each card, and one for your VISA bill. If you lose the gift cards, you can use the info on the individualized receipts to cancel the balances (and get replacement cards, if you act before the nefarious card-taker uses up the money).

Want a free pile of Disney pins that you can keep, collect, or trade away? Act soon!

Disney probably isn't losing much on the deal. Even though the rack pins sell for $9 or $13, these freebies probably only cost pennies (maybe a dollar?) to make, and if the $50 can encourage an extra $5 worth of purchases, Disney comes out ahead. Besides, all of this may work (on some visitors) as subtle indoctrination to pin trading. If you get a free pin or two from the gift cards, they are hoping, you'll jump headfirst into regular pin trading, and purchase the lanyard and a few other rack-price pins. Disney wins that way, too.

In short, I think we are looking at that rarest of promotions: a real and honest win-win situation, where both sides benefit. The notion of a win-win is hackneyed and thrown into countless PowerPoint presentations, but in this case, it's hard to be cynical. I suppose it's possible that if this program became truly wide-spread, visitors would start to expect free pins and then balk at paying rack rate for the other ones, and Disney wouldn't want to see those sales crimped.

Likewise, I could imagine a world where Disney banned such cards from use to buy tickets and renew annual passes (as restrictive and un-fan-friendly as that may seem), so I made sure to use my gift cards for pass renewal BEFORE writing this article. Check with me in a year to see if this program is still around, and if it's still good for tickets and annual passes.

Color Coding

Speaking of Las Vegas and casino chips, pin trading has borrowed another page from their playbook, in the form of less obvious purchase prices. The pins no longer display purchase prices directly on them; instead, they sport a color. You have to look around the pin display until you find the key to decipher how much you pin costs, based on that color code.

If you have to look up your color, are you ready to buy? Some of them get pretty expensive!

By making it a two-step process, Disney is exploring that hallowed space between first-sighting of a desired object and discovering its cost. If that discovery comes immediately after the sighting, customers are more likely to react logically to the price/value ratio. If there is a gap between sighting and price discovery, (some) customers are more likely to react emotionally (not logically) to the price and value, and a subset of those customers will have the desire for the object settle more deeply in their psyche, and will purchase the item. The extra seconds it takes to look up the price may be enough to allow "buyer's mentality" to set in.

Think of it this way: if you have 1,000 customers browse a pin display with prices listed on the back, let's say 213 of them buy pins. But if you have 1,000 different customers browse a similar display with the pins only identified by color codes, perhaps 217 of the customers will buy pins. There's just something about having invested time and emotional investment (by trying to find out the price) which makes (some of) us more likely to buy. The difference of four additional sales may not seem like much, but multiply it by ten stores in each park, or forty stores total, and you've got 160 additional sales (probably about $1,600). Every day. Besides, those numbers were imaginary and invented out of whole cloth; Disney's margin may be well above simply four additional sales per thousand visitors.

I can even see a perk for the Cast Members on the ground: when prices go up, they don't have to re-label the hundreds of pins on the shelf; they just change the color key around, and the job is done!

Pocket Pins

One thing you can't help but notice if you live in Central Florida is the weather. And the summer heat and humidity argue against carting around your pin lanyard on a daily basis if you live here (tourists may be more willing to tolerate it, since the vacation will soon enough be over).

So in my family, we recently hit upon a solution I'm sure many of you already do: we carry around a "pocket pin" that isn't really on display, but is meant to be traded away in case we discover something we really want while touring the parks. I collect Disney Cruise Line pins (not in a serious way; I wouldn't pay for them on eBay but will snap up anything I see in the parks) and have been burned before by leaving my pins in the car, but seeing a DCL pin in the park that day. So I try not to leave the car without at least a pocket pin.

In fact, my wife and son also take their own pocket pins. It's happened more than once that we've needed to "borrow" temporarily, if one person discovers more than single pin he is currently collecting. Family power to the rescue!

I once observed a Cast Member reach into her pocket to offer us additional pins for trade because my son was trying to unload something unique (presumably rare) and couldn't find anything interesting on the CM's lanyard. She pulled out a handful of stuff I've NEVER seen before (confirming my belief that the majority of the stuff in circulation is the "boring" stuff) and specified which ones my child could have, and which he couldn't. This was her personal collection, not the CM-lanyard, so we were OK with her rules (however, I bet park management would frown on it). It was a win-win; she got what she wanted and my child received a different unique pin he was happy with.

But it pointed out to me that Cast Members themselves often have pocket pins. And I wondered if that meant some of them snapped up rare pins when Guests traded them. If I were a CM, I'd be tempted to carry a personal pocket pin, and trade it with my lanyard when a Guest gave me something unique. But this kind of activity only further removes unique pins out of circulation, right?

My child was given this special, free, "magical moment" pin by a caring Cast Member.

Pin Trading: My Knowledge Base

With apologies to the long-standing readership, I'd like to dedicate a bit of space at the end of these pin trading articles to a list of things I've learned about the process over time. I'll update the list each time. There may be a person or two reading who is new to pin trading, and who could benefit from hearing my list of things that were not intuitive (at least not to me) when starting out for the first time.

  • Start on eBay rather than in the parks. While you might pay $9 to $13 per pin in the parks, you can get them for $1 (or perhaps $2) each if you buy in bulk from users on eBay. Arrive at the parks with your pile already in place; now you just have to trade your way to greatness throughout the vacation!
  • Purchase locking backs for your pins. The default metal clasp of yesteryear is beyond useless, and even the rubber Mickey Ears on purchased Disney pins is not adequate to protect against a week's worth of movement and friction. Buy "locking backs" at the pin trading kiosks (they have mixed reviews from users) or head again to eBay to buy a different kind of locking backs (or buy them from Condor Creations: at this link). We've been delighted with them.
  • Choose a specialty to collect early. If you plan to keep pins (rather than consider all of them ripe for trading), then identify early what you want to collect. All Figment pins? Just Kilimanjaro Safari? Only Donald Duck? If your subject matter is too broad, there are hundreds of pins available, which may result in frustration. (Hint: Tink may run into the thousands). Even highly specialized topics have dozens of pins.
  • Green lanyards are for kids only. Cast Members wearing green-colored lanyards are instructed to trade only with kids, not adults. Is this stuff written down in a rule book somewhere? Nice for the kids to feel special, though.
  • Pins facing the wrong way on a CM's lanyard are "mystery pins". They will only agree to show you the pin after you've done a trade, so you are trading while completely blind to what you'll get. This bit of mystery is nirvana to kids, and frankly, it's engaging even for adults. Even if you hate the pin, you can trade it away to the next CM, no questions asked, so there's nothing particularly at stake.
  • Pins with Hidden Mickeys on them were never for sale. Small Mickey-shaped designs on a pin are a giveaway that these pins are CM-only pins; they've never been on the rack and are only available by trading. A masterstroke.
  • Pin Boards appear and disappear on schedule. At places like the shop in the Contemporary Resort, or the cart next to Pin Central in Epcot (as well as probably lots more I don't know about), they have corkboard displays of dozens of pins available for trade, but the boards only come out every so often. It's surprisingly fun to peruse the pins, poring over them like greedy ten-year-olds examining baseball cards. Curse this hobby!
  • Family games add value. One reader wrote to me that his family does a daily challenge. "Let's all trade for Winnie the Pooh today," they might say, and the winner will be whoever can end the day with the most Winnie the Pooh pins. A wonderful idea, I say.
  • Pin trading can teach politeness. Kids learn to ask politely "May I see your pins, please?" and learn to always say "thank you" after a (non-) transaction, so the game becomes a stealth way of enforcing manners. My own child benefits from the "virtues of waiting" until a CM actually becomes available!
  • Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally.

    2009 Kevin Yee

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    Kevin's Disney Books

    Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

    • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
    • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
    • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
    • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
    • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
    • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

    More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link. Kevin is currently working on other theme park related books, and expects the next one to be published soon.