The underground economy of Disneyland pin trading

Road Journals Blog—After you’ve gone on the rides, met the princesses, seen the shows and fireworks, ate at the character breakfast, and bought the t-shirt, you might think you’d properly “done” Disneyland, right?

That’s what I thought—until one morning in the lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel. While my son watched classic Goofy cartoons on TV in a pint-sized lounge chair, I observed a man approach one of the hotel employees and—like the guy in Times Square selling fake Rolexes—open his jacket and flash her a sash laden with Mickeys, Cruellas, Tinkerbells, and Cinderellas.

Disney pin collection | woofiegrrl/Flickr

The employee nodded (a little covertly, I thought), promptly removed her pin-covered lanyard, and handed over what appeared to be a Captain Hook in exchange for one of his Donald Ducks. The two parted with nary a word spoken.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I approached the hotel employee to ask about their little exchange. Turns out I’d witnessed Disney pin trading—a huge and not-so-underground industry at Disney parks around the world.

Pin trading rules | Loren Javier/Flickr

What began in 1999 for the Millennium Celebration has since become an ongoing collectibles market between park visitors and Disney cast members. As with all trade markets, there are rules of etiquette involved:

  • Cast members are obligated to trade with guests if they ask, but guess are limited to two trades per cast member, per day.
  • Visitors must offer something for trade that is not already on the Disney employee’s lanyard.
  • There are three designated pin-trading areas in the park where guests can bring bags and binders of their collections for trading.

Collectors often begin with starter sets sold on the Disney Store website or with pins purchased inside the various park stores.

How seriously do these people take pin trading? The Grand Californian employee told me the gentleman who’d traded with her that morning owned thousands of pins, visited the park frequently, and came each time without children.

And I thought I was pushing it by going solo on the Dumbo ride.

Bonnie Wach’s “Disneyland Attractions” story appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Via.

This blog post was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.