My wife and I were sitting in front of the computer writing out our bills a few weeks back. It's a ritual we go through twice a month and we've turned it into a sort of detective game. We look at my W2 and then look at our checkbook balance and try to figure out what the heck happened to all the money. It's a lot of fun and while Quicken takes some of the mystery out of it, we can always count on a couple a great surprises like "You spent how much on kids clothes last month? Are you out of your mind?"The unwritten rule of bill paying time is that my wife is under no circumstances to discuss new expenditures until I have had a day or two to recover from the last month's excesses.Apparently, that rule will need to be written after all...So as I said, there I was in front of my computer writing check after check to those nice people at the bank who let me live in my house and those good guys who provide me electricity, water, heat, and a telephone all the while watching the little "current balance" column get smaller and smaller when my wife piped up..."You know, Cameron's school vacation is coming up...""Oh really", I responded, focused on the bill writing and not really paying attention."Yes", she replied."That's nice.", I said, "she'll enjoy the time off.""Yeah", she responded. The word hung in the air for several seconds...something told me there was more to come. "Her friend Emma is going to the Bahamas"Uh-oh, I thought, alarm bells going off all around me...This is a set up."Oh", I said, "Good for her.""Yeah, and Leo from her class is going to Aruba and Brinley is going to Aspen""Well", I replied, "How nice for them. Now, can you hand me the cable bill." I was desperate to steer the conversation away from expensive vacations and back towards the task at hand - giving all our money to strangers. I held out hope that she would see growing pile of paid bills, cross check it with the declining checking balance, and drop the whole line of thought.Of course, I should have known better. This was the woman who invited Barnum and Bailey to stage my daughter's 3rd birthday party. There was no chance she was going to let a little thing like economic reality stand in the way of a vacation."Here", she said, handing me the cable bill. She let the subject drop for a bit and we went back to writing out bills. For a brief shining moment I thought I had dodged a bullet. Naivete apparently suits me.We finished up the bills and went down to the living room to watch TV. My Cousin Vinny was playing on one of the movie channels. It's one of my favorite movies and I still enjoy it even though I've seen it about a dozen times. The movie was just getting to one of the funny parts when my wife piped up..."So, I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the kids for the two weeks she's out of school. It's too cold and wet to go to the park and I hate the idea of keeping them cooped up in the house...""I'm sure it will be fine", I replied, intently and deliberately focusing on the movie.Realizing that subtelty wasn't going to carry the day here, my wife switched tactics...She blurted out "I want to take the kids to Disney World for her vacation."There it was...Out in the open for all to see. No more pussy footing around. I had to think fast..."No.", I replied, satisfied that I had resolved the matter. I focused more intently on the movie."No?", she asked, "Don't you even want to discuss it?""Umm, okay", I said, "let's discuss it... We can't afford it at this point, or more precisely, we could afford it but it would be a stupid use for the money given the state of the economy. Therefore the answer is still no."I realized I had just exchanged a pleasant evening watching one of my favorite movies for an evening of protracted, if subtle, arm twisting. I resolved not to cave in. The facts were the facts, and spending money on a vacation just wasn't a priority right now.The evening wore on and eventually my wife realized that she wasn't going to win the day, or so I thought.Long hours at work over the next week coupled with a sneaky trick by Mickey himself conspired to bring the issue back to the forefront. You see, that "sale of a lifetime" I described a few months back is in the early deployment stages right now and since I hope to see a lot more money from that customer in the near future, I have been obsessed with making sure everything goes smoothly down to the last detail. My wife hadn't really complained about the hours required because she knew that the commissions from the sale would be substantial and she knew that complaining wouldn't make a difference anyway.However, when life gives you lemons you can either make a sour face or make lemonade. My wife sensed in my long hours at work an opportunity to bring the vacation idea back to the forefront. The catalyst appeared in the mail one day - a special offer from that rat Mickey offering us significantly discounted rates at one of the resort hotels provided our stay happened by a certain day. The last day of the offer, suspiciously enough, fell just after the end of my daughters school vacation. I came home from work that night around 10:00, exhausted from a grueling but largely successful day of operational testing in the customer's lab to find the pamphlet from Mickey prominently displayed on the kitchen table. Great, I thought, here we go.I went upstairs and found my wife reading in bed. I got ready for bed and got in, planning to be asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It was not to be."You daughter was asking about you today.", she began. I thought it was an interesting opening gambit, given that I knew where it was heading."She was?", I replied."Yeah. She was asking how come you haven't been around that much lately. I told her it was for work and that you didn't want to be away, but she said she missed you anyway. Spud (my son's nickname) misses you too.""Well", I said, "The installation at XXX will be done before too long and I'll go back to working normal hours.""You should find a way to spend a bit more time with the kids. Maybe you could take some time off after the installation is complete.""Sure", I replied, really wanting nothing more than to go to sleep."Listen", she said, "You've been away a lot for this customer and you haven't seen me or the kids all that much lately. I think you owe us. We got a great offer from Disney today and I think we should act on it. You'll be getting paid for XXX soon and we could use part of that money for the vacation."I don't know if it was because I was overtired and really just wanted to go to sleep or because I'm just a big softy, but I agreed. We would go to Disney for my daughter's school vacation.I made the necessary calls the next day to reserve a room, get park tickets, and arrange for air travel. When my wife let my daughter know where we would be going that night at dinner, her face lit up so brightly that it it made it worth it.Well almost anyway...See, I should clarify something...As I see it, there are two types of people in this world - those who buy into the "magic" of Disney and revel in the ambience of the parks and hotels, celebrating the simplicity of the stories and harkening back to a simpler time and those who see Disney World as a massively overpriced, overcrowded Six Flags built around 30 year old rides and schlocky merchandise.Sadly for me, my wife falls firmly into the first camp and my kids are being indoctrinated as the new generation of Disney acolytes. For myself, I am on the border. I want to believe, but can't quite get past the price gouging. I didn't used to be this cynical about Disney, but having had a chance to see the inside of Disney as a business, I've grown a bit jaded.You see, one of my customers is a part of Disney and I had a chance to go down there once to a meeting in one of their executive offices in the park in Florida. To get to the executive offices, you drive past the Contemporary Resort and continue down the road through the trees and around a curve. As soon as you get around the curve, it's like you are entering another world. Gone are the neatly manicured lawns and meticulously clean streets, replaced instead by a scene from "On the Waterfront". Piles of old, broken ride pieces are heaped up behind a chain link fence across from the power plant that provides electricity to the parks. Stacks of wooden pallets are scattered around a loading area infested with old, rusty heavy machinery. I half expected to see Mickey and Minnie back there sharing a needle.Inside the office building was quite a bit nicer, but seeing Disney being run as a business, coupled with the dramatic difference between the public face of the company and the dirty underbelly made it harder for me to buy into the "magic".Now this is not to say that Disney World isn't an interesting place...Not at all. In fact, Disney World is a fascinating place, both for kids and for adults. For kids, it's an opportunity to interact with the characters from their favorite Disney movies and to ride through scenes that let them feel like they are part of the movie itself. For adults, specifically jaded adults like myself, it's an opportunity to study economics.For my part, I've discovered that the basic unit of currency at Disney World is bottled water. On one level it makes sense, given the heat and humidity in the park, water is probably the best selling and most necessary commodity sold by Disney. In fact, I'm pretty sure that "Orlando" is an Osceola Indian word that means "Place where the horse died of heat stroke". I can't think of any other reason why people would have chosen to live in this climate. Anyway, back to the idea of water as currency, what I've discovered however is that everything else in the park is priced around the prevailing price for the water. Here is what I mean: A name brand liter bottle of water in the outside world will generally cost around $1.00. At Disney World, it costs $2.50. That same pricing model is applied to everything else as well. A dress up costume that would normally cost $20 will cost $50 in the park, the only difference being the application of a small plastic Cinderella logo to the dress. Of course, if you're a kid, the application of that small plastic logo apparently makes all the difference in the world.Now here is the interesting part - nobody seems to care. Well, nobody but me, that is...$50 for a dress up outfit? Why not, we're in Disney. $75 for a 3 item buffet dinner with a bunch of people in character costumes? Sure, sounds reasonable to me. After all...it's for the children. And so it went with every potential commodity sold at the park. I suspect that people internalized the price of the bottled water and reflexively inflated their preception of a reasonable price for everything else. It's something to consider if you are a Disney shareholder. Disney could reap enormous profits just by raising the price for water from $2.50 to $3.00. It would automatically raise the perception of the reasonable price for everything else 20% and Disney shareholders would get rich. Now, I objected to the prices at first on the grounds that as far as I could tell everything around us was a phenomenal waste of money. However, I quickly realized that I ran the risk of squandering whatever goodwill I had built up in agreeing to go on the trip in the first place and so I decided to just shut up and deal with it.Now the good news is that the kids had a great time. They were absolutely perfect on the plane, which was a huge relief, and they thoroughly enjoyed the parks. Even Spud, who is only 15 months old, went the whole vacation without a complaint, despite the fact that he never bothered to nap the whole vacation and woke every day at dawn. So the vacation as a whole was a success. The only one who wasn't completely thrilled was me. I added up the costs of the vacation and after thinking about what we got for what we paid, I concluded that I would have felt better about it if Mickey had just met us at the gate to the Magic Kingdom, demanded my wallet at knifepoint, and then put us on a plane back home. That might have spoiled some of my children's illusions, but at least I would have felt it was more honest.Steve
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