Uncle Walt's wild ride: teaching finance to kids with 'The Great Piggy Bank Adventure'

Well, isn't this rich? Walt Disney World has opened a new attraction dedicated to teaching kids some rudimentary -- and I do mean basic -- lessons about saving money.

Days after Walt Disney World slammed their parents by hiking gate fees at its water parks by as much as 15%, it gave kids another money lesson by opening The Great Piggy Bank Adventure at Innoventions, a lesser-patronized section of Future World at Epcot stocked with a rotating slate of exhibitions sponsored by big corporations -- in this case, financial biggie T. Rowe Price. Companies pay around $1 million a year to Disney to sponsor exhibitions at Innoventions, so the Mouse is demonstrating some money savvy already.
It's not a ride or a movie. The 3,800-square-foot, hands-on exhibition, in the works since 2006, plays more like a bubbly exhibit in a well-heeled science museum -- fun to play, kind of like a video game, but not substantial. The only real take-away notion, if there is one, seems to be to hold onto your coins.

Kids choose one of four goals (such as, in a cruel joke for parents, paying for an expensive vacation) and are given their own plastic pig, which they carry to and insert in a series of three video-based stations.

One game has kids directing falling coins, pachinko-like, into buckets that represent either saving or spending. Another sends their pig riding to the ceiling in a clear tube while kids move levers to stop the "evil inflation" wolf from shrinking coins that fly in the air. (Do the levers represent Ben Bernanke? Is the wolf a stand-in for interest rates? It's not explicit.) And a third station has kids hiding money all over a bedroom so that the wolf can't find it -- something the game calls "chances to hide and grow your money." By the end of the exhibits, kids find out whether they've "saved" enough money to be considered a winner.

I am impressed by the symbolic wisdom behind making subtle use of the anthropomorphic motifs from that great Disney ditty from the Great Depression, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", and the design is chunky and bright and uplifting. But like most of Epcot's attractions, you don't really learn anything. You only have fun.

Grill the average park-goer about what they learned at "The Piggy Bank Adventure" and they won't be able to tell you a single thing about inflation or the mechanisms of personal finance. In fact, kids may start believing that if you stuff money under a chair cushion, it will grow.

Families will have already learned the biggest lesson about the perils of saving money earlier in the day, when they paid hundreds of dollars to get into Disney World.

You can preview the attraction by visiting its rather more fanciful website, which does better than its theme park cousin by delving substantively into concepts such as asset allocation and diversification. In fact, the web-based virtual adventure game seems to be where the real lessons are. Teachings there include learning to make food at home instead of going out to buy it, and not throwing money away on silly things like shinier cheerleading pom-pons. Which brings us to an inadvertent savings lesson from Disney: Sometimes, you don't have to pay a thing for an education.

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