04/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Magic of Disney

To me, Disney World is like giving birth. It's a really painful experience, but you have to do it once for your kids. I went last weekend and realized, though, it has a lot in common with one of my favorite places to visit -- Las Vegas. There's the obvious -- two destinations based on unadulterated entertainment of tourists, with themed hotels, people in costume, and wildlife roaming out of their natural habitat. But from a business perspective, I also noticed some interesting marketing commonalities:

Fantasy Exploitation -- The Bippety Boppity Boutique is a new addition to Disney World (since I was last there 20 years ago). Just like Cinderella's fairy godmother, they take little girls who dream of being princesses and transform them with shiny costumes, hair extensions, hair spray and glittery makeup. Other little girls see these princesses and want the same look for themselves. The next thing you know, these little princesses are everywhere you look. The thing is, it's not hard to picture them in 10-15 years with the same shiny costumes, hair extensions, hair spray and glittery makeup, only as cocktail waitresses and showgirls in Vegas. And then it's their dreams of being an actress, singer or model that are being exploited and used to exploit men who have entirely different fantasies on their mind. It's disgusting, but it works.

Shameless "Exit Strategy" -- It's a well-known fact that the interiors of casinos are designed to make it as difficult as possible to leave. There are no clocks or windows, so you have no idea how long you've been at that craps table. The elevators are way in the back, so you pass black jack tables begging you "just one hand!" before you can get to your room. The décor is busy and the paths to outside are indirect, making it easy to get distracted by clanging slot machines and spinning roulette wheels. Similarly, you get off a ride at Disney, you're a little disoriented, and they deposit you smack dab in the middle of a gift shop! There are rainbow colored lollipops, cherry shoelaces and Mickey Mouse t-shirts everywhere you look. And the light outside is so blinding, you have no choice but to bounce around from tchotchke carousel to tchotchke carousel like a pinball until you get your bearings. Maddening, but genius.

America's Playground - Everyone from Santonio Holmes to Bobby Jindal comes to Disney World to play. Even my 25 year old sister drank the Kool Aid. "Isn't Disney World the happiest place on earth?!" she squealed. No. No, it's not! It's either too hot or too cold. It's miserable in the rain. The lines are long. The kids are throwing tantrums. But try telling that to the grown woman who waits in line to meet Cinderella, giggling with excitement when it's finally her turn. (Really, I saw this happen.) It's the same thing with Vegas--people go to drown their worries in all-you-can-eat buffets and hopes of winning enough money to pay off their mortgage. That woman in line for Cinderella? I'm sure I've seen her parked in front of the Merlin slot machine at Excalibur, dumping in quarter after quarter. The guy with the short shorts and black socks in line for Space Mountain? He and his friends were definitely up all night in the Texas Hold 'Em room at Mandalay Bay. They are like kids let out for recess. When they return home, it doesn't matter how much money they wasted. They think about how happy they felt for a week or a weekend and start dreaming about a return trip.

So, between Vegas and Disney, which employs these strategies more successfully? Well, my gut wants to root for Vegas, because I actually like going there. In the dozen or more times that I've been, I've paid more than I expected for a hotel room and enjoyed some over-priced, but remarkably good meals. I've probably won as much as I've lost, so the casinos are break-even with my gaming money. Disney World, on the other hand, has way overpriced hotels and glorified cafeteria food, and I am highly reluctant to go back.

But here's why Disney World wins -- Their money is not made on the admissions ticket sales, it's in all the residual branded souvenirs. I am a cynical, Scrooge McDuck mom, who does not have a hard time saying "no" to her daughter. Furthermore, we are a family of four in a two-bedroom apartment, with very limited space for useless crap. I am not totally evil, though, so I had planned to allow my daughter two or three souvenirs. Following is an inventory of what we returned with:

--one pair of Minnie Mouse flip flops (that my daughter can't even walk in)
--one glittery purple mouse "antennae" headband (I think I had one in the 80's too)
--silver sequin mouse ears
--pink sequin princess shoes (are you sensing a theme?)
--Tinkerbell coloring book
--Princess coloring book
--Tinkerbell twist crayons (of course, to go with the coloring books)
--Dr. Seuss book on insects (educational, right?)
--a princess baby sunhat
--a generic Mickey hat/t-shirt combo
--an adult Mickey Mouse sweatshirt (alright, it was colder than I expected!)
--a tie-dyed princess hoodie
--a princess baseball hat (which was signed by all the princesses, so this is the only real keeper)

How did that happen?? It's like I was roofied by Mickey Mouse. After all that, can you imagine the merchandise an actual fan might walk away with??? That is the real magic of Disney.