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The Most Magical Way to Learn Economics
There are more than twice as many people working for Disney World (77,000) as there are in the entire US coal mining industry (36,500). The Walt Disney Company is one of the largest media conglomerates in the world and has expanded beyond animated cartoons and movies into TV networks, production studios, theme parks, cruise lines, resorts, and more. The scope of Disney is so vast that it presents an interesting opportunity to teach a variety of concepts using references to the Disney empire.
Last week I presented to a group of economics educators on ways to incorporate Disney references in their classrooms. The presentation was based on a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Economics Teaching with Mike Jaeger but expanded to cover a broader range of applications. There are familiar components of the Disney empire, like Walt Disney Cruise Line, Walt Disney theme parks, and the Disney Channel. What’s surprising to many people are the number (and variety) of Disney-affiliated subsidiaries. The Walt Disney Company controls ABC, ESPN, Marvel, National Geographic, Pixar, and 20th Century Fox, just to name a few.
There are a lot of resources available that highlight different economic concepts using material Disney subsidiaries like ESPN, Pixar, Star Wars, and even Marvel superheroes. One of the perks of using Disney examples in class is that the company is well-known internationally with theme parks in Europe and Asia, and the Disney+ streaming service is available internationally. While our paper focused on teaching particular concepts using Disney music, there are a lot of great examples from other sources as well. Here are just a few that I presented at the conference:
Opportunity Cost & Little Mermaid
A great scene for introducing opportunity costs and tradeoffs comes from Little Mermaid. After making one of her forbidden trips to the surface, Ariel falls in love with a human prince. In the scene below, Ariel makes a deal with the evil sea witch Ursula to become a human for three days.
An opportunity cost is what someone gives up when they make a decision. Ariel must decide whether to give up her voice in order to become human. At one point in the scene, Ariel realizes that if she becomes a human forever then she will never see her family again. She must consider if she wants to give up being with her family to be with Prince Eric and if she wants to give up her voice in order to turn human for three days.
Demand Shifts & Frozen
Demand shifts are one of the easier topics to teach, but this scene from Frozen demonstrates what happens when prices both adjust and don’t adjust to those shifts in demand. Anna is in need of some winter clothes, and she stumbles into Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post:
The shopkeeper is in the middle of a “big summer blowout” and offers Anna half-price swimming suits, clogs, and sun balm. Since it’s so cold out, the demand for those items has decreased and prices are adjusting to the new equilibrium. Anna, and others, are in need of winter gear, not summer items. Based on the remaining selection, it doesn’t look like the shopkeeper has adjusted his prices upward to account for the increased demand. When prices don’t adjust after an increase in demand, a shortage is likely to occur.
Skill Biased Technological Change & Monsters at Work
There are some very specific topics that I teach in which it’s hard to find a good pop culture reference. For example, skill-biased technological changes. This occurs when there’s a shift in the desirability and productivity of certain skills compared to other skill sets. The issue with this shift? What happens when people invest in skills that are no longer in demand? This trailer for the first episode of Monsters at Work is helpful in starting that dialogue:
Tylor was one of the best young monsters to graduate from Monsters University and always dreamed of becoming a scarer. Once he lands a job at Monsters, Inc. he discovers that scaring is out and laughter is in. Tylor’s skill set is no longer in demand, even though he was the best in his class. While scaring was previously seen as a good-paying job with a bright future, the world has changed and those skills are no longer needed.
Should Monsters University (and higher education more broadly) be responsible for training graduates to handle a wider variety of jobs? Is it Tylor’s (and other students’) responsibility to ensure they have a diverse skill set that is adaptable in a changing workplace? What role does the government play (if any) in helping workers whose skills are no longer in demand? These are the sort of topics that can be really fun to talk with other people about and just one of the ways economics can be such an engaging subject.
Real vs. Nominal Wages & Disney Park Tickets
There are more learning opportunities beyond just scenes from television shows and movies. A recurring contention among Disney fans is the price of a ticket to Disney World. Disney does engage in multiple types of price discrimination to expand their market, like offering discounts to Florida residents or discounts on multi-day tickets. As of this writing, however, a single park ticket for most adults would cost $109 per day. Back in 1971, tickets were just $3.50 per day. From a teaching standpoint, most people understand that $3.50 back in the 1970s is not the same as $3.50 today.
Thankfully, there are resources available to help us make the conversion from old dollars (in this case, nominal values) to current dollars (real values). We could make the conversion the other direction if we wanted to, and see how much $109 would be worth back in 1971. In this case, it’s a little easier to talk about how much something costs in “today’s dollars” since we know what $109 would feel like to us. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an easy-to-use inflation calculator on their website that can handle the heavy lifting for us. If you want to know the answer, check out the Facts & Figures section below!
Framing Opportunity Costs & Donald Duck
Disney has been around for a long time, with its first fully animated film released in 1937. Thankfully, the ubiquity of the Disney Company means that even older references are still relevant today. Take, for example, this Donald Duck comic strip from 1971:
Uncle Scrooge shows up late to Donald’s house after deciding to walk instead of taking the bus. He’s framed his decision as a cost-saving choice and rationalized the walk was worth it because he “saved” a quarter. Donald is quick to point out that if Scrooge had framed his decision by giving up a cab ride then he would have “saved” even more money. How decisions are framed can change the behavior of people making decisions.
This is a brief introduction to the ways that educators can use Disney references in their classrooms. It doesn’t actually display any of the work Mike and I did for our paper, but you can learn about that by visiting our SSRN page. The paper was recently accepted and will likely undergo some inevitable formatting and copyediting. Hopefully, we’ll be able to share an updated link on social media in the coming months.
I only mentioned a few examples of how Disney can help you teach (and learn!) economics, but if you have a favorite example that I missed, please share it with the community by leaving a comment on the website:
The Walt Disney Company earned $2.024 billion in net income (profit) during their 2021 fiscal year [The Walt Disney Company]
According to Themed Entertainment Association, the Walt Disney World resort attracts nearly 250,000 visitors per day [The Orange County Register]
Disney+ has 42.9 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada and has 41.1 million internationally [Hollywood Reporter]
The #1 rated Disney animated movie is Pinocchio [Rotten Tomatoes]
A $3.50 ticket in 1971 would be equivalent to a $24.72 ticket in 2022 [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
Scrooge McDuck has an estimated worth is $44.1 billion, making him the wealthiest imaginary character [Reuters]