Let the Owners Beware: We Know Where You Live

ORLANDO, Fla.-The personal finance revolution certainly makes things easier for cranks, curmudgeons and other crackpots unhappy with the quality or cost of services rendered. Forget the middleman. These days, thanks to the miracle of Wall Street for the masses, you can complain directly to the ruthless, money-grubbing, exploitative ownership classes.

On a fine pre-Thanksgiving Day when children by the tens of thousands frolicked through the Magic Kingdom (Hey, what’s the point of taking pre-schoolers to Disney World if the schoolers are never actually in school?), I watched with some horror as cheerful “cast members” of the Disney empire insisted on the payment of $7 for a day’s rental of a wheelchair. That’s right: seven bucks for a wheelchair! Back in the bad old days when gigantic corporations were unaccountable and powerless working stiffs were forced to bear the brunt of customer dissatisfaction, to whom could the angry consumer complain? A minimum-wage cog in the great cash-collecting machine? That was never particularly satisfying or useful.

But now, thanks to the new economy that gives so many of us a stake in the way corporations conduct their business, one needn’t administer a tongue lashing to the servant class. So, when I sought to lodge my protest over the charge for wheelchairs, I ignored the cheerful “cast members” and turned my attention to several close relatives who rather gleefully boasted several years ago of the great paper riches they had made through the ownership of Disney stock. (For reasons that became evident to me only later, they have not been so gleeful lately.)

“How could you?” I asked them. “Is it not bad enough that for purposes of admission charges you consider anybody over 10- 10! -an adult; that children disembarking from rides are led directly into tacky gift shops, and that itinerant photographers attempt to fleece you as you stroll in front of Cinderella’s castle? No, that’s not enough for you with your plans for retirement condos and round-the-world cruises. Now you’re charging the parents of disabled children, or the children of disabled parents, seven bucks for a wheelchair rental! At long last, have you no shame?”

What satisfaction! How good it felt to know that I had registered my disgust with the people in charge! All hail the new economy!

My relatives assured me that they, too, were appalled by the blatant rip-offs and incessant selling, selling, selling, although they pointed out that those with really severe disabilities were welcome to use their own personal wheelchairs without recourse to the rentals. And they blamed “Mike” for the untoward state of affairs in the Magic Kingdom. How wonderfully intimate that these stockholders are on a first-name basis with the man who presides over the kingdom, Michael Eisner. Alas, my relatives are a little down on “Mike” at the moment, as they blame him for a great many things, including the shrinking possibility that they will ever own retirement condos and that I will ever have cause to fight with their immediate heirs over their shriveling estates. Not one to keep up with such matters, I was informed that Disney stock has taken a great tumble under Mr. Eisner’s watch in recent months, an assertion I found astonishing, for not since the beer companies set up shop in sports arenas has there been a greater and more efficient method of separating wages from wage-earner than the great one-way cash machines of Central Florida.

Those who complain about what they call, clumsily, the Disney-fication of Times Square not only have a curious nostalgia for mayhem, but also don’t quite understand just how good the Disney people have been for New York. After all, one can walk with impunity through the Disney-fied Times Square without paying so much as a penny to anybody. Imagine that! In this new, market-oriented economy that puts a price on everything from wheelchair rentals to the eggs of blond Ivy Leaguers, one can traverse one of the world’s most famous patches of real estate and not pay any money for the privilege! Amazing!

Surely this civic magnanimity cannot last long into the next century, which seems destined to see metro columnists from The New York Times arguing that slavery really wasn’t so bad after all because once you become a piece of property, well, you can expect your owners to treat you with great care. An investment is an investment, and those who don’t understand how the free market works simply don’t understand the real world.

For now, though, let us cherish the notion of a Disney-fied Times Square where there are no itinerant photographers looking to take your picture, where nobody is stamping your hand as proof that you paid your admission fee, and where the first wheelchair rental kiosk has yet to appear.

Wait until the stockholders hear about this.