There’s a black market of limited-edition Disney park merch — and Disney is cracking down on it

For die-hard Disney fans, there’s no limit to the amount of money they’re willing to spend on anything mouse-related. Aside from shelling out hundreds of dollars to visit the parks multiple times a year, people will buy anything, from park swag and collectibles to Smellitzer machines that literally pump the aroma of Disney theme parks into your home, to experience the Disney magic. Now, however, Disney is starting to crack down on some of these mega-fans for flipping their limited-edition merch.

According to the local newspaper the Orange County Register, the company has started revoking annual passes for park-goers, which can cost up to $1,149 per person, without warning after finding that they had used their annual pass holder discounts (which range from 10 to 20 percent off) to buy limited-edition merchandise in bulk at the parks and then sold it for a marked-up price on eBay or Etsy.

One annual pass holder said she received a letter from someone associated with the company who said that the park had canceled her annual pass for the year, but she still has to make monthly membership payments of about $71 per month. The representative said she could contact the guest relations department to contest the company’s decision. (Disney did not respond to Vox’s request for comment.)

Disney has been selling limited-edition merch at the park for years, from Toy Story alien-themed popcorn buckets to rose-gold Minnie ears (which were supposedly inspired by similar fan-made merch on Instagram). Traditionally, such items have been sold exclusively at the parks and for a limited period of time; as a result, they tend to inspire massive consumer demand, particularly among the Disney fandom, with people waiting in line for hours for a crack at buying them.

This high demand for limited-edition Disney park merch has spawned a black market of such items on eBay and Etsy, with annual season pass holders buying items in bulk and then selling them online at a marked-up rate. Limited-edition Funko vinyl heads of secondary characters from the Disney attraction the Enchanted Tiki Room, for instance, which were released to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the attraction, are currently available for purchase on eBay for $79.99, or three times the original price.

According to Jim Hill, a veteran entertainment journalist and co-host of the Disney podcast The Disney Dish, flipping Disney merch has been going on for years. While the annual pass holders’ code of conduct officially prohibits buying items with the intention of reselling them, the company had previously turned a blind eye to — or even implicitly encouraged — the practice by releasing such items at big-ticket events like the D23 fan expo, where fans pay top dollar for early access.

“The people who pay the [highest-tier] Sorcerers’ packages at the expo are paying $2,500 to get into that event, and to be honest, 90 percent of those folks are there to get the material, hike back to their hotel rooms, and put it up on eBay,” says Hill. “So I do find it kinda bizarre that this is a hill that Disney has chosen to fight on.”

It’s also of note that the Disney company appears to have targeted annual pass holders, or people who buy annual passes to make multiple visits to the park per year, specifically. Annual pass holders in Anaheim, where Disneyland is located, tend to be locals who are willing to spend hundreds of dollars per person per year (the highest tier costs $1,149) for access to the parks. (Annual passes are also available at Walt Disney World resort in Florida, but due in part to its larger size and the number of high-end resorts on the premises, the East Coast park tends to cater more to out-of-town guests than to locals.)

Disney has what Hill describes as “a weird love/hate relationship with annual pass holders, especially on the West Coast.” Part of this is because locals tend to spend less money at the parks than out-of-town guests do, eating at home instead of buying food at the parks while simultaneously taking up valuable resources like parking. But annual pass holders have also been known to bring Disney negative press due to their unruly behavior.

Earlier this year, for instance, a member of a Disneyland “social club” (a term for groups of annual pass holders who wear denim jackets featuring Disney-branded logos and hang out at the parks) filed a lawsuit against another social club member, which was subsequently covered in the press as a Disney gang turf war. Most recently, an annual pass holder was banned from Walt Disney World after waving a Trump 2020 banner on Main Street, then doing it again on Splash Mountain. (The parks’ code of conduct prohibits “unauthorized events, demonstrations, or speeches.”)

As a result of such behavior, as well as the Disney company’s contentious relationship with the city of Anaheim in general, the Disney company tends to harbor an attitude toward annual pass holders that borders on elitist. “[Pass holders] treat Disneyland like it’s their living room,” says Hill. “To Disney’s point of view, it’s like, ‘All right, we really enjoy the money you spend here, but …’”

To complicate matters, the upcoming spring 2019 opening of Galaxy’s Edge, a Star Wars-themed area of the park that is projected to attract record numbers of guests, has park operations teams concerned that locals will flood to the park and edge out the out-of-town guests. “If you look at this from the Disney corporate side of the fence, they really do want to thin the herd because they want to be sure that when Galaxy’s Edge opens, the average day guest who comes in from 100 miles away gets to experience that, that they’re not frozen out because all of these annual pass holders have gotten there first,” explains Hill.

As a result, Hill says, Disney has been gradually driving up the costs of the annual passes (a Disney World Silver Pass, for instance, now costs $479, a 9.1 percent increase), angering fans and arguably driving them to try to make up for the rate hikes by reselling theme park merchandise on eBay in the first place: “In their minds, that will help mitigate the rising price,” he says. With this latest crackdown on annual pass holders, many die-hard Disneyland fans feel personally betrayed by a company they’ve not only given thousands of dollars to but have built something of an emotional relationship with since childhood. Some are even speculating that Disney is cracking down on merch resellers to drive customers to its Shop Disney Parksapp, which sells many of the limited-edition items at a cheaper price.

This view isn’t universal. Some Disney fans are pleased that the company has started to crack down on black-market merch resellers, arguing that flippers ruin the fun for other fans by buying the items in bulk, thereby ensuring that they’re sold out before others can get their hands on them. That aside, the recent crackdown, combined with the number of fare hikes this year, has prompted some fans to question whether they will have their annual passes revoked if they buy, say, five or six limited-edition items and give them to friends.

But in truth, even though Hill says the Disney company is actively testing fans’ threshold for what they’re willing to pay (and what sort of treatment they’re willing to tolerate) to gain access to their beloved parks, for a certain tier of Disney fan, there’s little that the company could actually do to edge them out.

“If the Disney company said, ‘We need a kidney,’ there’s a certain subset of annual pass holders who are like, ‘Well, we’ve got one for you!’” he says.