“If we’re going to have a free-market capitalist society, we’ve got to give people the tools to not be victims” — John Cammack, T. Rowe Price

I get a lot of e-mail from PR firms. I ignore most of it, but occasionally something stands out. One recent message invited me to make a trip to Orlando for the debut of The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, a new financial literacy exhibit at Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center.

At first, I was skeptical of the offer. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m wary of crossing the line to publishing advertorials. But after verifying that there were no expectations of coverage at GRS, I agreed to attend the launch. I’m a huge advocate of financial education, and this seemed promising.

“If I like the game, I’ll write about it,” I told Kris before we left. “But if I don’t, I won’t.”

I liked the game.

The Great Piggy Bank Adventure
The Great Piggy Bank Adventure is located in the Innoventions pavilion at EPCOT. Innoventions features exhibits that explore the practical applications of technology in everyday life. Each exhibit features a corporate sponsor. (Waste Management sponsors a recycling exhibit, Liberty Mutual sponsors a fire-prevention exhibit, etc.) The Great Piggy Bank Adventure is sponsored by T. Rowe Price, one of the “big three” no-load mutual fund companies, and a long-time supporter of financial literacy.

The Great Piggy Bank Adventure features five stations, each of which allows kids to play on their own, or work as a team with other kids or adults. (We saw lots of parents and grandparents joining the fun.)

Setting goals
You start The Great Piggy Bank Adventure by interacting with P.I.G. (your Personal Investment Guide) via a touchscreen video monitor. This animated porker asks you to set a savings goal (vacation, college, retirement, etc.), after which you open a drawer containing a physical piggy bank. This is a clever move on the designers’ part; people seemed to love carrying around their pigs.

Saving and spending
You carry your pig to the second station, place him inside a cubbyhole, and then play the first of a series of three videogames. The initial game explores the notions of saving and spending. Coins (representing your “income” from allowances, etc.) fall from the top of the screen, bouncing down from seesaw to seesaw before dropping into buckets at the bottom. These buckets contain labels like “outfits”, “mp3s”, and “savings”. Your goal is to direct as much money as possible into savings.

Meanwhile, your nemesis — the Big Bad Wolf — sneaks in and switches the buckets. The money you thought you were routing to savings might end up in the “outfits” bucket instead. You have to do your best to avoid the unexpected. When the game is finished, your physical pig appears on the other of the game console, “filled” with the virtual money you saved.

Inflation
The next game addresses inflation. (Inflation! In a children’s game!) Your pig climbs into a hot-air balloon, which you pilot around the screen, rising and falling with the air currents. As you move, you collect coins — but you have to work quickly. Again the wolf is your nemesis, and he’s decreasing your purchasing power with his evil coin-shrinking machine.

When this game is finished, the total you’ve collected is added to the amount you earned in the first game. You grab your pig and move to the next station.

Diversification
The final game tackles one of my favorite personal finance concepts: diversification. This is the best of the three games. It’s fun and it conveys the concept well.

Your pile of earnings is placed on the floor in the middle of a bedroom. Your goal is to hide the coins around the room: under the bed, in the drawers, behind a picture on the wall, etc. Each location is labeled with a multiplier (x2, x3, x4, etc.) that indicates how much your stash will increase — if it’s not stolen.

After a few seconds, the big bad wolf sneaks into the bedroom, cackling gleefully. He looks around and then chooses two spots to steal coins from. After he’s left with his loot, your remaining money increases based on the multipliers for each hiding spot. This process occurs three times, and then whatever is left is yours to keep.

Achieving goals
When the diversification game is finished, you pick up your P.I.G. one last time and carry him to the final station. You place him on a platform (from which he is whisked back to the beginning for somebody else to use), and then you receive an evaluation of your progress toward your goal.

I’m sorry to say that Kris and I made multiple attempts to meet financial goals, but always came up short.

Note:As you start the game, you’re asked to choose your language, just as you can for many Disney exhibits. But in this exhibit, you can choose pig latin, which Kris and I found hilarious: iversificationday!

Behind the Scenes
During the opening ceremony, I spoke with several representatives from T. Rowe Price and Disney. In fact, during our first pass through the game, Kris and I were accompanied by Stuart Ritter (a T. Rowe Price assistant vice president as well as a certified financial planner), who talked to us about the process of developing The Great Piggy Bank Adventure.

“How did you decide to do this?” I asked.

“Disney reached out to us and asked if we had a story we wanted to tell,” Ritter said. “That was over three years ago. We had to sit down and decide what fundamental financial concepts we wanted to convey to an audience that was between 8 and 14 years old.”

Ritter’s colleague, Edward Giltenan, chimed in. “The idea of investing is not just to make money. How much you save has a much bigger impact than anything else. What you invest in isn’t as important as that you invest. Everything matters, but some things matter more. One thing that will always always affect your outcomes is saving more — and that’s something you can control.”

Ritter and Giltenan explained that the goal of T. Rowe Price was to produce a game that would introduce children to these concepts, and to spur conversation between kids and parents.

“Did T. Rowe Price actually design the game?” I asked.

“No,” said Ritter. “It was a collaborative process. Once we understood the concepts of the story, we began to work with the Disney Imagineers to figure out a way to convey these ideas.”

To learn more about the design process, I spoke with Anne Kelly, the Walt Disney Imagineer who led this project. Kelly, who trained under Randy Pausch, explained how her group tried to convey complex subjects like inflation and diversification.

“We tried to follow the fun,” Kelly said. “We asked ourselves how we could take an abstract concept like money and make it tangible and hands-on. For example, the wolf represents something different in each game. In the savings game, he stands for impulse purchases. In the inflation game, he’s, well, inflation. And in the diversification game, the wolf represents risk.”

Evaluation
I’ve encountered a lot of financial education products, but, to be honest, most of them seem rather lame. That’s not the case with The Great Piggy Bank Adventure. I think that T. Rowe Price and Disney have done an excellent job of introducing complicated subjects in a way that makes sense. However, I’m not sure they’ve reached their target audience. Over two days at EPCOT, Kris and I had a chance to watch many families play the game. Few of these families contained the targeted 8-14 year olds. Instead, the game appealed to younger kids. (These kids loved carrying their pigs.)

While these children are too young to understand the concepts explored in The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, Kris and I did observe an interesting side-effect. As the parents helped their youngsters play, the adults were gleaning information. (The diversification game, especially, seemed to cause some flashes of insight.)

“So is the game just a big pitch for T. Rowe Price?” our friends asked us at brunch last weekend. They were skeptical of the concept, just as we had been at first. “Are they just trying to get parents to buy T. Rowe Price products?”

“Actually, no,” said Kris. “In fact, I don’t remember seeing much about T. Rowe Price at all.”

“There’s a little bit of branding here and there,” I said, “but really it’s innocuous. You know how much we hate advertising. But we actually thought Disney should have been selling T. Rowe Price piggy banks or something.”

“Yeah,” Kris said. “EPCOT is filled with so much other merchandise. It would have been good to see kids buying a T. Rowe Price piggy bank instead of mouse ears or Goofy shirts. They’re missing a huge opportunity there. People who played the game loved carrying around their pigs!”

I had some trepidation about making this trip. I don’t want to cross the line to advertorials. Ultimately, I had to ask myself: “How would I have felt about this exhibit if I had stumbled upon it at random during a trip to EPCOT made at my own expense?” The answer to that is easy: I would have been delighted to find a bastion of financial common sense in the midst of this merchandising machine, and I would surely have written about it.

For more info on this new exhibit:

If you plan to be at EPCOT this summer, head over to Innoventions and check out The Great Piggy Bank Adventure!