The Stuff of Memories--Souvenirs : A Vacation Tan May Fade, but a T-Shirt Can Last Forever

Times Staff Writer

Standing amid shelves full of Movieland Wax Museum mugs, pennants and tin trays; surrounded on all sides by California salt and pepper shakers, key rings and ceramic ashtrays, Karin Edwards laughed.

"It looks like my son wants another snake," said the Palmdale mother of six, watching her son pick up a rubber reptile in the busy souvenir shop outside the museum in Buena Park.

"We were just in San Diego Monday, and we spent a good amount on souvenirs," said Edwards, noting that one of her daughters collects souvenir charms for a bracelet and another daughter has started a souvenir spoon collection.

When it comes to souvenirs, spoons are Edwards' own particular passion. She has close to 70 spoons in her collection.

"They're from states, cities, amusement parks," she said. "I've found when I look at the spoons, we sit down and talk about what we did. Being that the family's so big, we don't often get to go to these places."

Edwards was interrupted by her son, Travis, 15.

"What's the price range?" he asked.

"Reasonable," she said.

"I want a Marilyn Monroe picture," said the boy.

"Go ahead," Edwards said as her son went off to find the photograph.

Summertime Tradition

"We haven't even gone in yet; that's why I'm saying 'reasonable,' " Edwards explained with a laugh as two of her young daughters approached carrying a plastic drinking cup with a built-in curlicue straw.

"Can she get that?" asked the older girl, waving the cup in front of her mother's face.

"Look around some more, it looks a little flimsy," said Edwards, picking up where she had left off: "People are fascinated by my spoon collection. . . ."

Souvenirs: They're as much a part of the American summertime tradition of piling the kids into the family car and taking off for distant destinations as unfoldable road maps and unscheduled rest stops.

For visitors to Orange County, souvenirs are a relatively inexpensive way to keep alive those vacation memories of visiting Camp Snoopy, riding Space Mountain or dipping their toes into the Pacific Ocean. A summer tan may fade come September, but a souvenir is forever.

Of course, not everyone has such a romantic view of souvenirs.

"It would be nice to say a souvenir is something to remember a place by, but I think it's to show somebody you've been someplace," said Pam Kreinbring of Vancouver, Wash., who was among the tourists visiting the wax museum on a recent afternoon.

Shuns Typical Souvenir

Kreinbring shuns the typical objets de souvenir: "I don't want to dust them when I get home. I usually buy T-shirts that say where we've been."

Addy Hanselmann, a truck driver from Sydney, Australia, likes all kinds of souvenirs.

"I went to Disneyland yesterday and bought heaps of souvenirs--coasters, stickers, patches, spoons, a map of Disneyland," said Hanselmann while examining an "LA's the Place" baseball cap at Movieland.

"I buy them as a memento of being at a particular place. You get a lot of guys in Australia who say, 'You haven't been there. ' You can say, 'Here, take a look at this!' "

And just what sort of souvenirs are tourists buying in Orange County in the summer of 1985?

T-shirts appear to be the hottest item, according to a random survey of souvenir shops. But, for the most part, it's the same old schlock tourists have been buying for decades: drinking cups, beer mugs, salt and pepper shakers, place mats, serving trays, ashtrays, plastic wallets and purses, playing cards, pennants and bumper stickers.

Only Place-Name Changes

And whether they buy them at a souvenir shops in Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach or Laguna Beach, they'll find, by and large, the same items. Only the place-name changes.

One longtime souvenir staple, however, appears to have gone the way of nickel post cards and 35-cent-a-gallon gasoline: It's that classic of kitsch, the black velvet souvenir pillow with the shiny flock surface and the fringe on the side.

"I think that may get the tacky award," laughed Sue DiMaio, owner of the Capistrano Trading Post, a souvenir shop in San Juan Capistrano. She hasn't sold a black velvet souvenir pillow in 20 years.

"It was a really Coney Island look that is completely out," she said. "I don't think we could give them away today.

"It used to be," DiMaio added, "that we sold lots of auto decals for windows, and now we sell almost none. But kids still collect pennants for their rooms, beaded (Indian) belts remain unchanged in 40 years and the spoons with the shield on the top--they have to be totally timeless."

43 Years in Business

DiMaio speaks from the vantage point of 43 years in the souvenir business. She opened her 3,000-square-foot souvenir emporium across the street from the Mission in 1942, a time when Highway 101 ran directly in front of the store.

"I think the economy has changed people's attitude about what they're willing to buy," said DiMaio. "People are looking for something utilitarian. They're not looking for something that's just a throwaway when they get home."

A decade ago, "you wouldn't think I'd ever sell a T-shirt for more than $3," she said. "Now they'll pay $10, $12, $15 without thinking twice. The tendency is to go for better quality rather than a poor quality piece."

One of the shop's best sellers is a souvenir note tablet designed by DiMaio featuring color drawings of Father Junipero Serra, the Mission and, of course, swallows.

One of DiMaio's perennial best-selling souvenirs is the shot glass that says "Just a Swallow from Capistrano California." She's been selling them for 35 years.

'End of an Era'

DiMaio pointed to a rack laden with colorful silk scarfs adorned with swallows, mission bells and other San Juan Capistrano symbols. She bought hundreds of the scarfs 10 years ago and is now down to only what's left on the rack.

She said the scarfs, which still sell for $4.50, "would be impossible to get today--we'd be looking at a $25 scarf with the writing on it and everything. And when they're all gone, it will be the end of an era.

"The big change I find from having been in it so long," observed DiMaio, "is that it's difficult now to get a good souvenir at a good price. In the last 10 years souvenirs have really become expensive. The Orient is so expensive now that there are domestically produced items now that are competitive.

"In general, people like classier things now. They like a sterling silver spoon even though it's $40, or a 14-carat gold charm. It's more of an affluent society, and people have more money to spend on luxuries.

"Another thing is people don't realize it's a big business; it's a multimillion-dollar industry. The souvenir business itself is a little sleeping giant out there."

Industry a 'Sleeping Giant'

The "sleeping giant" is wide awake and roaring at Orange County's most popular tourist destination: Disneyland, where last year nearly 10 million visitors spent more than $79 million on Disneyland merchandise.

"I'd say about 65% of our (merchandise) business is in the souvenir line: character or logoed items," said Chuck Ousley, Disneyland's director of merchandise.

The Magic Kingdom's yearlong 30th anniversary celebration has made a major impact on merchandise sales.

"One thing that makes it so popular is you'd have to be in a far corner of the U.S. not to know Disneyland is having an anniversary this year," said Ousley. "There's so much emphasis on Disneyland merchandise it's just phenomenal."

Among the dozen different 30th anniversary souvenirs are T-shirts, sweat shirts, visors, bumper stickers, buttons, tumblers, pennants, key chains, a watch and a commemorative coin.

By the end of June, Disneyland's 56 merchandise locations already had sold more 30th anniversary items than were sold during the entire year for the Park's 25th anniversary.

'Unbelievable' Sales Volume

So far this year, Ousley said, Disneyland has sold more than 400,000 stuffed Disney characters, more than 670,000 T-shirts, more than 506,000 sweat shirts and more than 125,000 anniversary buttons.

"It's just unbelievable," said Ousley. "Our No. 1 seller, unit-volume wise, are the Mickey Mouse ears. We've sold 277,000 so far."

That's compared with 360,000 Mickey Mouse ears sold last year and, predicts Ousley: "We're just going to blow those figures out of the water.

"The hardest part of the job," he said, "is keeping things in stock."

With nearly 5.5 million visitors a year, Knott's Berry Farm has the same problem of keeping many of its popular souvenir items in stock.

Among Knott's biggest-selling souvenirs over the years, according to its merchandise department, have been pennies in miniature bottles, western hats and gun belts and--its biggest-selling "classic" souvenir--the Knott's Berry Farm garter.

Novelties Scooped Up

Visitors to Knott's also tend to scoop up souvenir novelties, including the ever-popular "invisible dog on a leash" (more than 150,000 sold a year), plastic glow-in-the-dark necklaces (about 50,000 a year) and Knott's Berry Farm visors with flashing colored lights (about 30,000 a year).

And, since Knott's opened Camp Snoopy two years ago, sales of Peanuts character merchandise have taken a substantial bite out of visitors' souvenir dollars: About 20,000 Snoopy dolls alone--priced from $15 to $300--are sold each year.

At Movieland Wax Museum, retail manager P-Nhut DeLeon has found that if a souvenir carries the California logo, chances are it will be a big seller, particularly if it's a T-shirt.

T-shirts, in fact, are Movieland's leading souvenir item: 50% of the wax museum's souvenir sales come from T-shirts--primarily those that either say California or have the Mickey Mouse character imprinted on them.

Magic of 'California'

And, said DeLeon, "most of our hard-goods souvenirs that sell are basically ones that say California on them."

Just as she discovered that souvenirs with a California logo are big sellers, DeLeon quickly learned that souvenirs that say Hollywood or Los Angeles tend to remain on the shelves.

"I think," she observed, "that it's basically because a lot of people who visit Movieland also visit other cities in California, and they find it's better that they buy a souvenir that says California than buying one for every city they visit."

Buena Park also fails in the popularity poll at the cash register.

"I've tried T-shirts and a couple of plates that say Buena Park, and they didn't sell at all," said DeLeon. "I even had a Mickey Mouse T-shirt that said Buena Park, and it didn't really sell."

Movieland souvenirs that bear the wax museum logo--clapboards, megaphones, hot plates and snow balls (or water globes)--don't fare much better.

"The biggest merchandise we have in the Movieland (items) are mugs with the Movieland logo and a person's name on it or plates and mugs that have an actor's face like Marilyn Monroe or John Wayne on it. These sell very, very well," DeLeon said.

Rule of Thumb

The rule of thumb, she has found, is "it has to have a star on it to sell."

For DeLeon, a souvenir is something visitors "can bring home to their family or friends that reminds them of their visit to Movieland and California. Everyone likes to keep a souvenir of somewhere they visited."

As the Capistrano Trading Post's DiMaio observed: "I think we're compulsive about wanting to keep a memento of that experience we've had--even though it may be inexpensive."

Outside the Movieland souvenir shop, a man sat on a bench waiting for his family to finish shopping.

"Had enough?" asked his wife, breezing through the door bearing several bags of souvenirs. She was trailed by her two young daughters, each clutching their own shopping bags.

"Let's hit the road," said her husband.

"How are we going to get this stuff on the plane?" the woman mused as the family walked back to their car.

"We're going to need a truck," said her husband.

"And," sighed the woman, "we still gotta go to the San Diego Zoo . . . ."

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