Inside Theme Park Connection, the Treasure Trove Disney Guests Rarely See This Orlando, Florida store sells everything from Disney hotel art to pieces of the attractions CARLYE WISEL
There’s more than one Magic Kingdom in Orlando. Nineteen miles from where families pose for Christmas cards with Mickey and enjoy the fireworks bathing Cinderella castle in light sits a nondescript warehouse, nearly 17,000 feet big, packed with just as much Disney magic. It’s part safety deposit box, part archive, part souvenir shop — and all of it is open to the public.
Theme Park Connection isn’t just a memorabilia store or a collectibles gallery. It’s an empire. Since it got its start 17 years ago, TPC has sold and continues to sell souvenirs, props, decor, figurines, artwork, relics and, rather unbelievably, bits and pieces direct from Disney park attractions.
Making a purchase here holds the promise of taking something better than a balloon or stuffed animal home with you — a promise General Manager Brian Ramsey tries each day to make a reality. Having spent 18 years in the business and seven of those at Theme Park Connection, he’s a bona-fide king of keepsakes, running both day-to-day operations and a company with a dozen employees. There are things you find out from spending an afternoon with the memorabilia middle man, like that John Stamos personally owns a Space Mountain vehicle. Or that Johnny Depp supposedly had a set of doors formerly of the Pirates of The Caribbean attraction installed on his boat. (So meta.)
How exactly does his team dig up these kinds of Disney goods? "A lot of work," he says with a laugh. They’ll dabble in the construction business, subcontracted to do whatever it takes to clear out the pieces of redesigned hotel rooms or demolished attractions. They’ll become thrift shop denizens, pouring through specific Florida second-hand shops that happen to turn up with racks of staff uniforms, known within the Disney bubble as cast member costumes. They’ve even played real estate agent, brokering the sale of a full-scale replica of the much-beloved Haunted Mansion.
To bring customers the best memorabilia possible, Brian will buy in bulk, purchasing estates, clearing out failed businesses and even scouring Disney outlet stores; he’ll zig-zag the country to visit conventions or buy massive collections that, for one reason or another, a Disneyphile has finally decided to get rid of. "We basically have traveled the world to get stuff," he remarked, and means it. Once, to get a gigantic lot from the northwestern corner of Canada back to Orlando, Brian filled up a 26-foot truck and drove it through narrow cliffs and across the country himself. If a rare and interesting Disney item pops up elsewhere, even, odds are it passed through Brian Ramsey’s hands first.
Still, plenty of items come TPC’s way directly from Disney, either from the studios, through auctions or via contracted gigs, avoiding legality issues by going through official channels while simultaneously keeping treasures out of landfills. They’ve gone in and cleaned out shuttered attractions, like the Robin Williams-helmed Timekeeper. They’ve subcontracted jobs at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge to truck in new furniture while lugging out the old bunk beds, blankets, and decor to sell. When Walt Disney World refurbished their railroad station in Magic Kingdom, naturally, Theme Park Connection was there. "We took out all the old lockers underneath the station and had all the artwork and train photos," Brian said. "They were cutting up the concrete from Main Street, so we got a bunch of chunks of it. And I got a piece of it, so…"
You’ll never know what you’ll find where, like the boxes of extremely rare Figment souvenirs in a fellow Disney collector’s estate, to the surprises inside the secretive vender-only store they visit on Disney property. Sometimes there will be restaurant equipment to bid on, other times, perhaps an elephant-shaped Dumbo ride car.
They’ve sold a Mickey Mouse Mini Cooper to a pair of Brazilian Disney obsessives, even sent glass spears from Epcot’s front fountain to a car dealership in Arizona. Though the vast majority of studio props are Disney’s, items from Universal Studios have supposedly been sold to Disney creatives and vice versa, solidifying it as the holy middle ground of all things theme park.
The lengths they go to in order to grab some of this stuff seems so over the top — who wants a used woodsy bunk bed anyway? — but people go nuts for it. As far as selling from the hotels, artwork is popular, often sold off to couples who married or honeymooned in the rooms. To a Disney fan, these items aren’t just pre-owned sheets or lamps, they’re a piece of the magic. "That’s what we’re about," says Brian. "If somebody really wants something and we can bring joy to them, that’s what we’re really in business for."
And, from the look of their store, they’re brimming with joy. Part industrial complex, part shop, part office, the hangar-like space is a mish-mosh of everything that makes a theme park run, only now disassembled in fragments and strewn about on shelves and counters. They sell artwork, figurines, and toys; kitchen dishes, decor, and vinyl records; costumes, clothing, and watches, the ever-rotating collection reflecting that Theme Park Connection never knows what’s going to come in the door, nor do shoppers of what surprises they could unearth.
Sift through tubs of buttons to find a fun relic, or pluck an $8 Disney staff name tags from the alphabetically sorted drawers. On your left will be cargo shorts from a staffer’s work uniform, on the right, a Disney educational guide to safety processes with live animals. There are silver Epcot matchbooks and Disney hotel shampoo bottles, commemorative Barbies and spools of Mickey stickers. Framed photographs hang on the walls, an oversized pair of red sunglasses once used at Disney California Adventure dangles from the ceiling and below it, both souvenirs for families avoiding inflated park prices and die-hards hoping for something special.
Want extra tiles from Aladdin-inspired bathrooms? They’ve got them. Same with Haunted Mansion busts, popcorn vending machines, even wood signs engraved with the Seven Dwarfs’ adjective names. There’s stuff for a quarter, there's stuff that'll drain your bank account; it’s all here.
Items are posted to Facebook and placed in-store for about a week prior to being listed on eBay; Theme Park Connection employs a half-dozen staffers to support their four to five hundred weekly online auctions alone. Figment, Haunted Mansion, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remain the most popular themes and characters among fans, but the internet has been both a blessing and curse for the business. Shipping used to be burdensome for some of the unique, larger items they carry, but now thanks to independent companies, the prices have plummeted — but so have the value of so-called collectibles.
"eBay’s just a really weird fickle type of media. It’s not like it used to be," Ramsey explained. "You could put anything on eBay and it would all go through the roof." Once people saw how much their limited-edition Sleeping Beauty figurines and Beauty and the Best memorabilia were selling for, everyone put theirs up for sale and the value just dropped. Lenox, Precious Moments, Walt Disney Collectors Society figurines — all of that is now toast. It’s so bad that Brian has bought out companies that have gone out of business for this exact reason.
Though pin collecting is a massive hobby among Disney fanatics — yep, just like the dope ones on your jean jacket — the end is nigh for those, too. "There’s so many pins that you go and buy them for $12.95, three or four months later, it’s a $3 pin," he explained. "It’s not even worth putting it up online if it goes for $10 and it costs $6 to list."
Clockwise from top left: Disney pins in a basket, classic Clarabella Cow wall hanging, figurines shaped like Mickey Mouse, tumblers featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
It makes sense, then, that the hottest items at the moment are one-offs: unique things that haven’t been sold in stores or mass-produced. Whether it’s a temporary sign from a certain day stating the Hyperion Theatre is closed or panels from park construction walls, the demand has been steadily growing. Bidding wars were so high at Van Eaton Galleries’ Story of Disneyland auction earlier this year that the items brought in $1.7 million, close to double what was projected . The interest is so strong that Universal Studios themselves opened an in-park prop shop last fall, selling height restriction signs, costumes, and character masks direct to parkgoers.
Why so much interest? "Our business, in a way, brings back people’s memories," explained Brian. Something as nominal as a temporary dated sign for Captain E.O. has massive importance to the right person; the man who purchased it had his first date with his now-wife in that very spot.
It’s a business tied to memories, and the biggest and baddest way to feed off nostalgia pangs is by owning your very own ride vehicle. They pop up infrequently, but they’re out there, sold off when a former executive sells off their collection or someone passes away. Over the years, Brian has sold a multitude of them: three or four Skyway buckets, six or seven Astro Orbiter rockets, and a "slew" of the Snow White’s Scary Adventures carts, among others. He’s even sold the only privately held Monorail car, a Red Mark V, to a Disney fan and Burning Man regular who forked over $47,000 — the down-payment for his future home. (After unsuccessfully attempting to flip it for over three times the cost a few months later, he is now taking the monorail on a cross-country trip.)
The movie memorabilia game has been booming, too, probably because it raises an item’s uniqueness to a higher degree than your algebra class flashbacks could calculate. Want an original Jurassic Park velociraptor cage? He’s got it. How about a peacekeeper Hummer straight from the set of The Hunger Games? (He has two.) They’ve sold Katniss’ reaping dress and rest of her movie-wardrobe for up to five-figure sums, Superman costumes, sweaters off of Tom Hanks’ characters’ backs. There have been rumblings online about the legitimacy and wording of some items listed and post-purchase frustrations of park props, but when asked about this, Ramsey cited that people’s expectations naturally run high. "Some people see items and they look at them and think, ‘No way.’ The think everything from Disney is perfect, and there’s meticulous detail," he said, explaining the difference between seeing an attraction from far away as opposed to up close with the lights on. "If anybody has a problem with anything, we [have a] 100% money-back guarantee, so we’ve never really had any issues like that," he said.
If Theme Park Connection is a pioneer in getting up-close to Disney park items, Brian’s own office is a testament to how prolific the store’s movie collection has become, bookended by memorabilia like a license plate from Bowfinger or a leather director’s chair from The Lone Ranger. Also on display? A signed Cars Piston Cup, the movie he personally collects most of and fills his home with.
Whether it’s movies, memorabilia or just a little taste of Space Mountain, Theme Park Connection has made a name for itself offering something for everyone who’s fallen under the Disney spell. And, for as long as the sad, yucky feeling of yesteryear and pangs of nostalgia exist, they’ll be here with a syrupy medicine for it.