It all started with a mouse … watch.

Many of us have that one thing, that one thing we can’t live without: that one amazing souvenir from the Happiest Place on Earth. You may even remember which specific trip you bought said souvenir on.

Or maybe you have a souvenir category - that one type of item that you’re drawn to each a time just in case they came up with a new design. It may even be a collection of special Disney items that you’re obsessed with and add to each and every time you take a trip to Walt Disney World.

Maybe you’re the type that likes the outright, in-your-face Disney pieces with Mickey Mouse and other characters emblazoned on the side, showing your love for the Mouse loud and proud. Or maybe you’re into the subtle items, where you have to look a second time to tell what it is. For many, they love the movie and cartoon items. For others, it’s that key piece from a specific ride: that great item that only the tried and true Disney park visitors could pick out.

The world of Disney merchandise began a long time ago. In 1929, Walt Disney was approached by a man in New York to use Mickey’s likeness on school writing tablets. It’s said that he needed the money so he agreed, making this the first license for a Mickey Mouse product. But, the beginning of major Disney merchandise began in the hands of Herman ‘Kay’ Kamen, a Kansas City advertising man who became Disney’s licensing agent and began to envision different products for Mickey Mouse to be used on.

The popularity of Disney merchandise goes all the way back to the 1930s with the first Mickey Mouse plush doll created by a woman named Charlotte Clark. The doll soon became an instant must-have across the country.

Then, at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Exposition Century of Progress, a Mickey Mouse watch for boys made by the Ingersoll Waterbury Clock Company was introduced. The watch was a huge success with both a wrist and pocket watch offered. Both had a picture of Mickey on the dial with animated hands telling the minutes and hours. The watches also had a small dial at the bottom with three little Mickeys chasing each other as the seconds ticked by.

It’s interesting to note that the Ingersoll company was on the verge of bankruptcy but the success of the watch helped bring it back. (In the 1960s Ingersoll became US Time, which later became Timex.) The Mickey Mouse watch has been made continuously since 1933.

This photo appeared in LIFE magazine's special edition issue celebrating Mickey Mouse's 90th birthday in 2018.

Eventually, other manufacturers began making the watches as well in a variety of designs and styles including other characters. The timepiece has since evolved into alarm clocks, wall clocks, and everything in between and beyond.

One of the most popular Disney items ever began as a favorite in the 1950s when the Mickey Mouse Club aired on television and the Mouseketeers wore the iconic Mickey Mouse ears. These were created by Roy Williams, an adult Mouseketeer at the time, who was inspired by the 1929 Disney short, “The Karnival Kid,” where Mickey tips his ears to Minnie. In recent years, the style and look of these items have exploded into a new world of design and creativity on Disney’s part.

These early items were just the tip of the iceberg. Now Disney items can be found everywhere. They can be bought at their respective stores or other outlets. Disney items are sold across the globe. But, with the opening of Disneyland in 1955 and Walt Disney World in 1971, Disney was able to turn a normal merchandise item into something else entirely: the souvenir.

A souvenir is something we buy to remind us of a place or event. It signifies a special memory and a great experience, and let’s be honest, when it comes to Walt Disney World, most of the items are just downright cool.

Throughout the years, the look of Disney items has changed to match the style of the world around it. It seems they are always adding something new and spectacular to match what’s popular at the moment, and I’m always amazed that they literally have something for everyone: you’ll find Mickey Mouse with big glasses or Minnie dressed in a high-end fashion item. You may even be surprised at some of the items that are Disney related. With the cult followings of such characters from “Alice in Wonderland” and “Nightmare Before Christmas,” Disney is hitting all markets with their offerings, from girly to gothic.

At the parks, Disney has also turned the art of shopping into its own element of a Disney trip. Behind the wonderful turn of the century storefronts of American Main Street USA, there are shops filled to the brim with items to buy. And, many of the rides throughout the Disney parks exit you into a gift shop to take advantage of that pivotal moment of experiencing a favorite ride.

You could spend a whole day just checking out the theme details of the shops. From the giant trying to get in at Sir Mickey’s in Magic Kingdom to the actual turning gears of Mouse Gears in Epcot and the villainous look of (the now former) Villains in Vogue in Hollywood Studios, the gift shops are an extension of the land they’re in or the ride they’re attached to, adding to the moment of that special purchase.

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