NEW YORK (AP) — The season finale of ABC's comedy "The Middle" proved the power of corporate synergy: the network owned by the Walt Disney Co. gave prime-time attention to an idyllic family vacation at Walt Disney World on the eve of the summer travel season.
The episode that aired Wednesday night showed the squabbling Heck family children bonding over rides at the Orlando theme park, their parents enjoying a meal at Epcot Center's Paris exhibit and the family upgraded to a spacious suite at a Disney-owned hotel when smaller rooms were sold out.
It proved popular with viewers. The Nielsen company said Wednesday's episode was seen by 7.5 million people, the comedy's strongest showing in four months.
In the episode, the Indiana-based family of five won a Disney World vacation in a contest. When they arrived, the Hecks learned their tickets were instead for Disneyland in California. They pleaded for help from a customer service representative.
"There's just no way we could ... not let you have a great time at Walt Disney World!" the representative said, letting them into the park.
Once inside, teenage daughter Sue was nearly breathless from excitement. "It's more beautiful than I've ever imagined," she said. "I've dreamed of this my whole life."
Then she fainted, requiring medical assistance.
After their first day, the family finds out the "garden view" hotel room they were promised wasn't available — only to be ushered into a swanky suite. The Hecks swoon over a large flat-screen TV, a television built into a bathroom mirror, huge bed — even the plush toilet paper, which they stuff into suitcases. They sleep until 3:30 p.m. the next afternoon.
"I can't believe we slept the day away," the mom, Frankie Heck, said. "Damn comfortable sheets."
Their short last day in the park was undeniably sweet: plenty of rides for the kids, a relaxing time in Epcot for their parents. They unite in the evening to watch a fireworks display. "If you can survive a family vacation, you're doing OK," Frankie said.
After the scene, ABC ran a commercial for Walt Disney World. Hal Boedeker, TV critic for the Orlando Sentinel, called it "redundant, because 'The Middle' had done a fine job of selling Disney World."
Boedeker called the entire episode a "bracing valentine" to the park.
Product placement in entertainment programs isn't new. In the past few years, television networks have increasingly sought creative ways to get commercial messages across at a time digital video recorders allow viewers to fast-forward through ads.
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said viewers should at least be told they are getting a marketing message in such instances.
There was no fee paid by Disney World for the episode, said Tammy Golihew, spokeswoman for the show's producers, Warner Bros. Television. She said the show creators had been looking for a way to do a show where the Heck family was removed from the usual setting, at the same time Disney reached out to see if they would consider visiting a park.
It's the second time in two years an ABC family comedy has taken its cast to a Disney theme park: the "Modern Family" cast visited Disneyland in May 2012.
David Bauder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder .