It had been several years since I had stepped into Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) Magic Kingdom. I'd been to the theme park dozens of times as a child, but it became less of a desired destination as my brother and I became young adults.
On a recent trip to Florida, however, my family returned to it for a full day of nostalgia. While the two minutes I spent riding through the galaxy of Space Mountain was still exhilarating, my biggest thrill was the investment thesis I walked away with.
There are several ways to experience the Magic Kingdom. As a kid, it's the place you ache to go to, where cartoon and movie characters you love come alive. From a parent's perspective, it's about giving your child an experience full of wonder that they'll never forget.
And then there's the investor's standpoint -- admittedly, I'm probably the only one who falls into that category (except for Rick Munarriz, of course) -- where walking down Main Street on a midafternoon, even on a weekday, makes you think the park is generating money faster than a government minting machine.
Mickey wants your money
At $80 per entrance ticket and $4 per Mickey Mouse ice cream bar, a family of four could rack up a bill higher than a monthly mortgage payment (at least an interest-only one) in one day. That made me ponder quite a bit (and I had plenty of time to do that in the long lines). There I was, in the middle of what some are calling one of the worst economic times in decades, waiting two hours in line to ride "It's A Small World."
And to think I had assured my parents the park would be empty because so many Americans are plagued with debt and homes they can't afford.
In fact, the massive crowds spurred my non-investment-savvy parents to mention how boggled they were by the volume of visitors, considering the economic climate these days. We talked nostalgically of the days when a $20 bill admitted you into the park, lines were not nearly so long, and getting the chance to visit Disney was truly a special treat.
But times have changed so much it seems parents are willing to dish out whatever it takes to give their youngsters anything they want, even if they don't really have the means to do so.
Of course, this bodes well for Disney, who, not to my surprise, reported quite a magical quarter recently. From my observations, I concluded the company is very resilient to slow times. Granted, home-packed PB&Js were a common sight, helping families save a few bucks. But the hundreds of little girls primped in head-to-toe princess attire eagerly waiting to meet their Cinderella idol made me realize parents are willing to indulge their kids outrageously, whether they can afford to or not.
Where'd my paycheck go?
I can't say I was all that shocked. I've noted before that recent trends show that companies targeting kids are fairly indifferent to recessions.
Toy manufacturers such as JAKKS Pacific (Nasdaq: JAKK ) , and Mattel (NYSE: MAT ) (in spite of the recall setbacks they endured last year) have been holding strong. Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK) has been selling a heck of a lot of Wiis, and a recent study conducted by Piper Jaffray suggested that 6% of high school students already own an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone and iPod. Market share among that age group reached 86%.
In this economy, it's tough to find stocks -- especially ones that sell unessential products -- that can withstand penny-pinching consumers. But in many situations I've read about, it's splurging on the little ones that drives families into debt. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a family of four with an average income spends $7,493 per year on each child. Emotions take over for judgment, and parents will reorder priorities and rack up bills to ensure that their child "fits in" in our materialistic world.
Toyboxes full of investment ideas
While that's a problem from a financial-planning perspective, it does make a great investment thesis. When I witnessed money pouring out of strapped parents' wallets into the cupped palms of Disney's cash flow statement, I knew I was seeing a great investment idea manifested right in front of me.
It's not easy to find companies that thrive in this environment, but looking no further than your kid's closet or your next family vacation hotspot might lead you to a stock that survives tough times.