Few things are so iconic that a simple silhouette is instantly recognizable to anyone in the world.
That’s the power of Disney and its cool symbol Mickey Mouse, which has grown from cartoon mouse to corporate emblem. When Disneyland and California Adventure reopened Friday for the first time in over a year, a quick scan of the crowd showed just how ubiquitous that 93-year-old mouse really is.
In the six decades since Disney opened its first theme park, the company has fostered a distinct culture within its amusement venues. From how the cast members are instructed to perform their jobs to the atmosphere of the various lands that make up the park, everything Disney does is intentional and in the service of creating an unrepeatable experience.
Perhaps the most common example of this is the shape of wearable Mickey and Minnie ears.
Mickey earplugs have been an important souvenir in Disney parks for decades. The classic black Mickey Mouse ears were created by Roy Williams for the Mouseketeers on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s. Buying a pair with custom embroidery has been a ritual for many park visitors since Disneyland opened in 1955.
In the mid-80s, Disney began offering a headband version of these hats. However, it wasn’t until the park’s 50th anniversary that product developers redesigned the iconic ears. In honor of the milestone, Disney offered a line of gold ears.
The golden hat became such a phenomenon that it inspired the company to create other versions for special occasions and holidays. Over the years, these classic keepsakes have evolved into coveted fashionable and Instagrammable accessories.
Ears are a bestseller in the parks and Disney has worked hard to keep up with the demand. The company has designed dozens of different pairs, from simple sequined ears to pairs that honor fans’ favorite characters and attractions. Most ears in Disney’s collection cost about $30 a pair. However, due to the popularity of the headbands, Disney has partnered with a number of designers to create special limited edition ears that can cost closer to $100.
These ears have become so popular that hobbyists have turned to Etsy to create and sell their own designs. In preparation for Disneyland’s reopening, many guests are looking for special ears and masks to wear in the park.
Disney isn’t the only theme park to rely heavily on merchandise, of course. Universal Studios sells Hogwarts robes and Minions T-shirts in its parks, and Six Flags has licensing agreements with Warner Bros.’ the Looney Tunes brand. Still, there is something distinctive about Disney’s Mickey ears that makes them stand out from other keepsakes.
These ears have become more than just a singular memento. They are great collectibles for fans of Disney parks.
Krissy Reynolds, a 35-year-old restaurant manager from Virginia, has a collection of more than 40 Mickey ears. The collection started with a pair of Minnie Mouse ears with red and black sequins that she acquired during a study trip.
She said her family usually spends five days at Walt Disney World. She takes two or three ears from her collection to wear on the trip and buys a few new pairs when she’s in the parks.
“We make outfits that match the park we go to every day and then match each other,” Reynolds says. “Like Hollywood Studios, we do ‘Toy Story’ outfits with shirts and ears and hats or accessories.”
In Magic Kingdom, Reynolds, her husband, Wesley, 43, and son Cayson, 8, focus their outfits on classic Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie. At Animal Kingdom, the theme is usually ‘Lion King’.
Since Disney doesn’t allow adults to wear costumes in the park, older guests who are still kids at heart have resorted to other ways to celebrate their favorite Disney characters, movies, and moments. If you look closer, you can see someone wearing an outfit reminiscent of Peter Pan, Rapunzel, or Snow White, a trend known as “Disney bounding.”
“I’m a sucker for everything ‘Sleeping Beauty,'” Reynolds said. “I also like sequins and unique things like when [Disney does] special food or holiday [ears].”
For many, like Reynolds, who spends several days in the parks in Florida or California, one pair of ears isn’t enough. And while Disney has a great selection of Mickey ear designs, the demand for unique headbands has grown so much that independent sellers have come into the picture.
Etsy, in particular, has become a hub for small business owners to sell customizable ears and ears based on niche characters. In the weeks leading up to Disneyland’s reopening, these vendors have seen a significant increase in sales.
“Sales have come and gone during most of the pandemic,” said Rachel Vega, owner of Etsy shop Enchanted Story Ears. “It really picked up in January, I think when we started to see things move forward, both with… [Disney World being] open and the hopes of Disneyland will open at some point.”
Vega, a high school orchestra teacher, has been selling handmade Mickey ears on the e-commerce site for about a year. Her best-selling product is a set of graduation ears with a small black academic cap and can be customized with the graduate’s school colors. Her ears retail for between $35 and $40.
“I fell in love with making custom ears when I made them for a sister trip and decided to open the shop to sell the ears I make,” she said. “I love having ears that are unique and comfortable when I go to the parks and know that there are many who feel the same. It is definitely a method of personal expression in the parks.”
Searching for Mickey ears on Etsy turns up thousands of results, from dainty fairytale headbands based on popular characters to fabric-patterned ears with big bows and glitter.
The sellers must ensure that they follow specific rules so as not to infringe on Disney’s intellectual property. That means following guidelines, such as not using specific Disney characters or fabrics that feature Disney’s copyrighted images in their designs or in their stores.
Arisa, a student turned entrepreneur, has been selling her version of Mickey ears since March 2019. In two years, she has made over 900 sales in her Ears by Arisa store.
Currently, her best-selling ears are based on Loki, Wanda Maximoff, Baby Groot and Rapunzel. Her ears sell for between $24 and $31, depending on the style.
“Since California lifted the theme park ban, more people have left me a note saying how excited they are to wear my ears for their upcoming trips,” she said. “I’ve even received a few custom orders to have their ears matched with masks they have.”
During the Covid pandemic, Disney-themed masks were also a major profit engine for small businesses. Those who frequented Disney’s parks during the pandemic have embraced the mask requirements and used it as an opportunity to proudly wear their favorite fandoms in public.
When Debra Dix isn’t working as a case manager in Goodwill’s human resources department, she sews and sells masks. She started her shop in December 2020 and already has nearly 500 sales.
Most of the fabrics she uses for these masks are Disney themed. Her two current bestsellers are a pattern with snacks from the Disney parks and an animal print Mickey design.
“I’ve definitely sold more masks in the past 2 months,” Dix said. “In most cases, customers buy one mask, but lately my average is three to five masks per order.”
These masks and ears are part of the Disney experience and can help park visitors create lasting memories.
Meagan Remmes, 30, of Asheville, North Carolina, bought a set of bridal Mickey ears this year to wear on her honeymoon to Disney World.
“We knew we wanted something special to commemorate our honeymoon, and while the buttons are free, they’re not exactly a statement maker,” she said of her decision to pick up a pair of veiled white ears.
“It would be either Mickey ears or custom T-shirts, but everything we looked at didn’t quite feel like us,” she said. “Mickey ears were a simple solution that made us feel special in the most Disney way possible.”
Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.