Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Disney Dilemma

My daughter recently came up and asked if we could plan a vacation to Disneyland this year. My heart sank. I would love to take the family to Disneyland. Or better yet to Disneyworld. But we probably can’t swing it financially this year.

It costs a lot of money to take a family of seven to a Disney (or Disney-like resort). We are incurring a number of new expenses this year to provide opportunities for our older kids. Our investments still haven’t fully rebounded from the market downturn, so we have fewer resources to draw on.

We’ve done the Disney theme park thing a few times, and we’ve enjoyed each trip. My wife and I did Disneyworld before we had any kids. Nearly a decade later we did Disneyworld with four kids after I finished graduate school. It was a deal we cut with them for putting up with me being so involved with school. We’ve done Disneyland a few times, but my daughter was so young the last time we went that she doesn’t remember it.

I went to Disneyland with my family twice when I was a kid; once when I was nine and once when I was 12. One of the hot features back in those days was the Enchanted Tiki Room. Friends had raved about it. But the feature was closed for renovation or mechanical problems both times I was there.

I didn’t get to see the Tiki Room until I was an adult. By then, the technology that had made it spectacular was pretty retro. The show lasted way too long. And frankly, it was pretty lame. What was cool in the 60s was much less cool years later.  Some audience members simply walked out during the show.

The last time we went to Disneyworld, we spent very little time in the Magic Kingdom. We spent most of our time at Epcot, but we also enjoyed the Animal Kingdom and the Hollywood Studios. Although we quite liked the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios, I was pretty disappointed in the Backlot Tour. It literally looked like nothing whatsoever had been done to update or even maintain it since we had been there years earlier. Peeling paint, and all that. I hope they’ve fixed it up since then. I heard that poor theme park maintenance was Michael Eisner’s doing. He got the boot half a decade ago.

The last time we went to Disneyland, one son had me ride the Indiana Jones Adventure with him multiple times. Another son had the whole family ride Pirates of the Caribbean over and over again. That was before it was renovated to include features from the movie series.

Disney isn’t the only enterprise out there with theme parks in the Anaheim and Orlando areas. The last time we went to Orlando, we spent a day at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. It was a blast, but there are a couple of things you should know. One is that the music and sound effects are so loud in some parts of the park that you can barely communicate with the person next to you. Another is that you need to be prepared to get wet — very wet. There are so many features that are designed to get you wet that one reviewer quipped that you will get as wet as if you had participated in a full-immersion baptism. So wear swimwear (or something like it), and prepare some way to keep your electronics and valuables dry.

The last time we went to Disneyland, we took a trip to Legoland one day, and to Sea World another day. We had to do Legoland since two of my sons are true Lego maniacs. It was fun, but the park is really aimed at the under-12 crowd. It is not maintained or run at the same level you expect from a Disney park. Maintenance and management reminds me more of the Lagoon amusement park in Farmington, Utah.

It was quite rainy the day we went to Sea World. The shows were fun but were often wet even without sitting in the “splash zone.” One of our favorite features was the Journey to Atlantis ride. Since most park visitors had been driven away by the rain, there were no lines. So we rode the thing over and over again. Another fun attraction was the “4-D Theater.” The shows change from time to time. Just be aware that if you go to one of these shows, you will get wet.

When you go to a theme park with young kids, there is always the worry of getting separated. On our last trip to Disneyland, another family showed us their secret. One of the kids turned up his arm to reveal, “Mom’s cell #” followed by a phone number, written in bold characters with permanent marker from his elbow to his wrist.

We have found our visits to theme parks to be important family bonding experiences. Each time we have gone with the realization that everything you buy in a theme park — food, souvenirs, necessities — is horrendously expensive. We have tried to budget enough in advance that we could enjoy the trip without having to worry about every penny spent. When you add up these items with park tickets, transportation, lodging, and other meals, you run into a chunk of money. It’s just not something that we can afford to do very often.

On most of our theme park trips in the past we have avoided the summer season. While the parks have more features running during the summer, the crowds are unbearable. But then you end up taking kids out of school. We have generally worked around school holidays to minimize this impact. As our kids advance academically it becomes increasingly difficult to take them out of school for even a few days.

But we are also looking at the ages of our kids. The oldest two would likely find a theme park trip pretty lame at their current stages of life. But they would probably come with us anyway. The three younger kids are right in the prime range for such a trip. The longer we wait, the less suitable a theme park trip would be.

Unlike some families and institutions, however, our family is not prone to spend money we don’t have — especially for entertainment. Ah, dilemmas. You can’t have everything you want.

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