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Nick Licata does Disney World

Maybe Mickey and his friends should take on health care next. Credit: Daniel Brace

President Obama’s Health Care Bill re-opened the debate as to which system can best provide not only health care, but services in general to the people: the government or the marketplace. This past week I gained insight on resolving this question, with the help of Mickey Mouse and his friend Goofy.

If the fall of the Soviet Union represented the failure of the ultimate big government approach to delivering a utopia on earth, then Disney World represents the success of the market economy in creating that utopia: a magical kingdom. After just my first visit, I now believe that if orderliness, clean streets and sidewalks, an efficient transportation network, and, lastly, cheerful service represent the ideal community, then that perfect place is Disney World — for a daily admission charge of just 72 bucks per person (the cut rate for Floridians), bed and board being extra. If Disney World were an actual city, the admittance fee alone would come out to $25,000 a year per family member. A bit steep, but hey, there’s no panhandling.

Disney World is not just some small patch of land: It is 43 square miles, half the size of Seattle. And it holds 15,000 employees and housing units. Of course, the workers live outside Disney World — they couldn’t afford to live there. The Soviet Union being over 150,000 times bigger, the Soviet workers had to live in their paradise — they couldn’t commute. Consequently housing had to be provided. It was much cheaper both in cost and quality than Disney World’s accommodations, but still a step up in comfort from Fort Wilderness’s trailer camp, where I stayed.

I visited the Soviet Union in its swan song days; everything still worked but looked a bit shoddy: stretches of barren grocery store shelves, rows of monolithic apartment buildings devoid of any architectural warmth, and dull monochromatic shades of apparel. It was totally owned and operated by the government, and in that way Disney World is identical: Everyone works for the boss, be it the state or the Disney Corporation. In the Soviet Union I happened to buy some treats from a roadside cart in a small Uzbekistan village. I asked the vendor if this was his own business. He said no, I work for the state. In Disneyland, you don’t have to ask: Every employee, whether a bus driver, a food cart vendor or Snow White, has a badge with their first name in clear bold type, and they are as pleasant as Mickey himself.

Having total control goes beyond employing everyone. You set the standard for a minimum quality of life. In the Soviet world, access to food was limited in both supply and variety, but everyone got by. At Disney World there is a cornucopia of choices, basically comfort food, high in fat and calories, but the portions are huge, so there is a satisfied stuffed feeling afterwards even if the price is excessive. As for distribution, you get what you pay for, but overall, everyone looks well fed, if not more than enough.

The Soviet world was as safe a place as Disney World. One could walk the streets without fear of being mugged or worse in either. Security cameras protect Disney’s occupants, just as police informers did for the Soviets. The penalty was more severe in the Soviet world; with no civil rights you could end up in a labor camp for a number of years. Disney’s punishment is soft by comparison — just expulsion from the Magic Kingdom. Their archipelago is the outside world, the state of Florida and beyond. Think about it: Unlike the Soviet Union, no one is trying to escape from Disney World. In fact 25 million people are paying to get in each year.

Disney has a proven pathway to success in the marketplace: Know who you want to serve, go after them, provide a dream and make it come true, if only for a day — and make sure they pay at the door. Any marketer will tell you to skim the cream off the top and let someone else worry about what’s left behind; you can’t make money off of them, or worse, they’ll cost you. It’s not the goal of that marketplace to serve everyone. That realization leads to the government taking care of those not being served, be it their health care or whatever, or they just don’t get served.

Mickey and the other cast of characters are always smiling in Disney World, but at the end of the day, the masks come off and the cast members leave that world for one in which they have to live — like the rest of us.

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