A Walt Disney World vacation is meant to be magical, where families take a trip to see Mickey Mouse and pals. But many Orlando vacations turn frustrating as long lines persist for just about everything - rides, shows, even finding somewhere to sit and eat.
This week Disney has revealed a high-tech innovation aimed at solving this unpopular problem. It's called MyMagic+, a program announced to act as an "umbrella" under which a variety of technologies unite to help visitors plan vacations - including reserving FastPass times for attractions, booking dining reservations and paying for things such as theme park entry, items at shops and pre-ordered food.
Walt Disney Parks & Resorts chairman Tom Staggs explained in a statement the need for an overhaul. “Over the past few years, we’ve continued to build on our legacy of innovation to take the entire Disney guest experience to a new level. Our goal is to deliver a more immersive, more seamless and more personal experience to each and every guest who spends time with us.”
That personal experience will unfold over the next few months with a launch date currently set for spring 2013. Walt Disney World hotel guests and those who purchase photo packages will be among the first to experience MyMagic+, ultimately available to all guests by the end of 2013.
Guests visiting Walt Disney World today will already see a few new perks. Disney spokeswoman Angelia Bliss noted, "Some examples of elements we have already available to our guests are both the free Wi-Fi throughout our theme parks and the My Disney Experience website and mobile app."
Available at no extra charge, vacationers can hop online to the new My Disney Experience section of the Walt Disney World website for advanced trip planning, linking family members and friends to share itineraries. The highlight is FastPass+, a new version of Disney's award-winning system that allows guests to skip lines for rides and shows.
The "plus" in FastPass+ adds the ability to reserve spots for parade and fireworks viewing for the first time - all in advance of stepping foot in the park. Guests can plan as little or as much as they'd like, even choosing specific ride times up to 60 days in advance, but leaving a window open to change plans on the fly after arriving. For those needing a little help, Disney's system can auto-magically offer a three "FastPicks" as suggestions on what to reserve.
While FastPass+ has already been tested among groups of Walt Disney World guests, another aspect of the program Disney introduced this week also includes an upcoming feature called the MagicBand. A simple looking, reusable wristband will feature embedded technology with radio frequency identification (RFID) capabilities enabling guests to simply tap these bands against - what else? - glowing Mickey Mouse heads throughout theme parks and hotels to activate a variety of functions.
MagicBands will serve as hotel room keys, simply tapping them against the lock to open. At theme park entrances, guests will tap to gain admission, never having to wait in a turnstile again. At retail and dining locations, guests may tap to pay if they've linked their MagicBands to a credit card. FastPass+ and Disney's PhotoPass system will too be accessed via MagicBand.
Disney's original FastPass system has received much acclaim since it was launched in in the '90s, and MyMagic+ is expected to do the same when it debuts this spring. Yet, other companies have already been employing similar technologies. Universal Orlando Resort's nearby Wet ’n Wild Orlando water park has used GO branded RFID wristbands since 2006 to allow its guests to easily make payments, and have cited an increase of food, beverage and merchandise sales by 15 percent to 20 percent per capita. In the same year the Great Wolf lodge in Wisconsin began using RFID wristbands for many of the same purposes Disney has in mind, including hotel room access, also adding interactive storytelling experiences and even the ability to share vacation photos on Facebook.
Disney's decision to invest in RFID now, part of their multimillion dollar "NextGen" project, stems from their core business model of always pleasing their guests.
"Disney cast, crew and Imagineers constantly ask themselves, 'How can we take what we do and do it even better?'" said Bliss. "We think that these enhancements and tools will enable our guests to have more control and make it easier for them to make the most of their time in our parks and resorts."
Making the most of their time means spending less of it waiting in line, more of it enjoying rides and, more importantly for Disney's investment, spending money in shops and restaurants, more easily than ever before.
Though many audiences will appreciate this high-tech approach to vacation planning, embracing MyMagic+ won't come easily for everyone. Disney acknowledges concerns regarding the security and privacy of information linked to their new MagicBands and say they are prepared.
"Guests will have the opportunity to choose what information they share with us - everything is opt-in - and nothing is more important to us than protecting that information," emphasized Bliss. "Guests should also know that the band does not store personal information." When asked if guests' every movement will be tracked throughout the Walt Disney World Resort, Bliss simply responded, "Not at all."
The MyMagic+ program is designed to evolve over time as Disney carefully watches how guests interact with it during its phased debut. For now it's planned only for Walt Disney World, not Disneyland in California or other parks worldwide. But the possibility is there for the future. Bliss added, "While we don’t have more to share right now, the way we think about these experiences will vary based on the unique ways guests enjoy each of our parks, resorts and other vacation experiences."
Also, Walt Disney World visitors won't be required to participate in MyMagic+ to enjoy a trip to Orlando parks, but those who do should find a little time spent planning ahead will result in big benefits and more free time to enjoy a Disney vacation.
Ricky Brigante is a theme park expert and fan who edits InsideTheMagic, a blog focusing on Disney and theme park news and entertainment. He's also host of the award-winning "Inside the Magic" podcast.