Disney World (and I can't believe I'm writing this) was once the ultimate family destination for many of my friends. I can specifically enumerate examples of friends for whom a Disney World vacation was such an important life event, they planned future childbearing and other major personal decisions around the family trip -- and, what's more, planned the trip more than a year in advance. Disney World has been, for many families, truly a signal that they've arrived as consumers of American culture.

For this year already, 10% fewer families have arrived. Disney earnings, released a few weeks ago, indicated that visits to its iconic amusement parks were down 10% this year. And, indeed, the stock has been depressed as investors expect "Armageddon at the parks." The fact is that families strapped for cash to heat their homes and buy groceries are probably going to avoid the indulgent and expensive family vacations. The coming credit card meltdown is sure to put a dent in families' ability to use credit card points for "Disney Rewards," as well as reducing the main way many people finance their magical vacations. And these days? Conspicuous consumption is over; and enjoying your family is coming back.

If Disney World is out, public parks are in.

Why pay thousands for having fun with your kids when plentiful public spaces are within walking or biking distance? At your local public park, you can pack a picnic lunch of your favorite food and enjoy the sun (and you can plan your "vacation" around a sunny afternoon: it's better than vacation insurance!); go on the "rides" of your children's imagination on the play structures and century-old trees; and explore the wild wonder of squirrels, blue jays and horse chestnuts without having to pay for a separate admissions fee. Like adventure? Take a hike in a wooded nature preserve near your city. Discover a waterfall. Pick up unusual rocks and pinecones; they'll last just as long as the merchandise sold at Disney resorts, I promise you, and you won't have to buy the DVD of the movie tie-in.

Make a little magic of your own. Show your kids a mushroom growing under a log, or a bird's nest in a tree, or how to make a daisy chain. Best of all? No waiting in line to ride the swings, and you don't even need to take vacation time. Instant, VIP access to a paradise in your neighborhood: now that's a sign you've arrived.


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