A guest taps the MagicBand to enter an attraction at Walt Disney World Resort. Disney’s new electronic bracelets will allow its theme park visitors to pay for things as well as guide them to their favorite attractions, but the bands also will give the company access to valuable information about its customers.

KENT PHILLIPS, Disney via New York Times

Wrist bands to build the brand

  • Article by: BROOKS BARNES
  • New York Times
  • January 22, 2013 - 8:56 PM

Imagine Walt Disney World with no entry turnstiles. Cash? Passé: Visitors would wear rubber bracelets encoded with credit card information, snapping up corn dogs and Mickey Mouse ears with a tap of the wrist. Smartphone alerts would signal when it is time to ride Space Mountain without standing in line.

Fantasyland? Hardly. It happens starting this spring.

Disney in the coming months plans to begin introducing a vacation management system called MyMagic+ that will drastically change the way Disney World visitors -- some 30 million people a year -- do just about everything.

The initiative is part of a broader effort, estimated by analysts to cost between $800 million and $1 billion, to make visiting Disney parks more amenable to modern consumer behavior. Disney is betting that happier guests will spend more money.

"If we can enhance the experience, more people will spend more of their leisure time with us," said Thomas O. Staggs, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts.

The ambitious plan moves Disney deeper into the hotly debated terrain of personal data collection. Like most major companies, Disney wants to have as much information about its customers' preferences as it can get, so it can appeal to them more efficiently. The company already collects data to use in future sales campaigns, but parts of MyMagic+ will allow Disney for the first time to track guest behavior in minute detail.

Did you buy a balloon? What attractions did you ride and when? Did you shake Goofy's hand, but snub Snow White? If you fully use MyMagic+, databases will be watching, allowing Disney to customize its marketing messages.

Disney is aware of potential privacy concerns, especially regarding children. The plan, which comes as the federal government is trying to strengthen online privacy protections, could be troublesome for a company that some consumers worry is already too controlling.

But Disney has decided that MyMagic+ is essential. The company must aggressively weave new technology into its parks -- without damaging the sense of nostalgia on which the experience depends -- or risk becoming irrelevant to future generations, Staggs said. From a business perspective, he added, MyMagic+ could be "transformational."

Aside from benefiting Disney's bottom line, the initiative could alter the global theme parks business. Disney is not the first vacation company to use wristbands equipped with radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips. Great Wolf Resorts, an operator of 11 water parks in North America, has been using them since 2006. But Disney's global parks operation, which has an estimated 121.4 million admissions a year and generates $12.9 billion in revenue, is so huge that it can greatly influence consumer behavior.

"When Disney makes a move, it moves the culture," said Steve Brown, chief operating officer for Lo-Q, a British company that provides line management and ticketing systems for theme parks and zoos.

Disney World guests currently plod through entrance turnstiles, redeeming paper tickets, and then decide what to ride. Food and merchandise are bought with cash or credit cards. (Disney hotel key cards can be used to charge items.) People race to FastPass kiosks, which dispense a limited number of free line-skipping tickets. But gridlock quickly sets in and most people wait. And wait.

In contrast, MyMagic+ will allow users of a new website and app -- called My Disney Experience -- to select in advance three FastPasses before they leave home for rides or V.I.P. seating for parades, fireworks and character meet-and-greets. Orlando-bound guests can also register ahead of time for RFID bracelets. These so-called MagicBands will function as room key, park ticket, FastPass and credit card.

'I understand it's your birthday'

MagicBands can also be encoded with all sorts of personal details, allowing for more personalized interaction with Disney employees. Before, the employee playing Cinderella could say hello only in a general way. Now -- if parents opt in -- hidden sensors will read MagicBand data, providing information needed for a personalized greeting: "Hi, Angie," the character might say without prompting. "I understand it's your birthday."

Guests will not be forced to use the MagicBand system, and people who do try it will decide how much information to share. An online options menu, for instance, will offer various controls: Do you want park employees to know your name? Do you want Disney to send you special offers when you get home? What about during your stay?

"I may walk in and feel good about giving information about myself and my wife, but maybe we don't want to give much about the children," Staggs said. Still, once using the MagicBand, even if selecting the most restrictive settings, Disney sensors will gather general information about how the visitor uses the park.

The logistical challenges involved in pulling this off are extensive. Disney has 60,000 employees here and many must be retrained to use new technology. Already, Disney has installed free Wi-Fi at Disney World, a 40-square-mile area, so smartphone users can access the My Disney Experience app more readily. And all of the new procedures must be communicated to Super Bowl-size crowds daily.

What happens if your MagicBand is lost or stolen? Park employees will be trained to deactivate them or guests can use the My Disney Experience app, a Disney spokeswoman said. As a safety precaution, Disney will also require guests to enter a PIN when using the wristbands to make purchases of $50 or more. "The bands themselves will contain no personal identifiable information," Staggs said.

Disney expects MagicBands to turn into a big business in and of themselves; the company plans to introduce collectible sets of MagicBand accessories and charms.

Some cosmetic changes to the parks are included in the initiative's cost. For instance, eventually guests will no longer enter the parks through turnstiles. Instead, they will tap their MagicBand on a post. Staggs explained that research indicated that guests -- particularly mothers with strollers -- viewed the turnstiles as an unpleasant barrier. "Small, subtle things can make a big difference," Staggs said.

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