The Walt Disney Company’s latest self-described “collection of magical tools” is designed to lift customer experiences like Tinker Bell’s pixie dust and Aladdin’s flying carpet. The tools fit under the umbrella of a real-world vacation management system called MyMagic+ that Disney says will provide “an even more immersive, personalized and seamless Walt Disney World Resort experience than ever before.”
MyMagic+ is being steadily rolled out at the Florida resort, but officially the technology platform is still in a “test and adjust” phase. More than 200,000 guests have been invited to give it a go over the past year, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them – not as a journalist but as a mom on a fall family trip to the resort’s Orlando theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.
My husband and I were intrigued about the chance to get a sneak peek of the new initiative that to us looked like a massive data-gathering effort. We both spend a lot of time professionally thinking about how data can be used to improve marketing efforts, so we were curious about how Mickey & Co. would use our information to market to us more smartly or offer us an even better customer experience.
The letter we received inviting us to participate in the test says we could get a bracelet called a MagicBand that we could use to enter our resort hotel room, get into the parks, and purchase food and merchandise. We could also use it in conjunction with a website and mobile app called My Disney Experience to reserve and access guaranteed ride times or better spots for shows.
The letter doesn’t indicate in bold letters that in exchange for all these benefits, Disney would be gathering data about us and our visit. But it doesn’t ignore that squishy detail either. In much smaller type there’s a link to a website with information about Disney’s privacy and data collection policies. That site explains that Disney would be collecting information from us online and when we visit the resort.
The website also describes some of the technology involved: Inside each MagicBand is a radio frequency (RF) device and transmitter that sends and receives RF signals through an antenna inside the band. Throughout the properties there are short-range readers that can detect MagicBands, like those at park entrances and on hotel doors, and long-range readers, like those used to deliver certain attraction photos. (Disney also explains that MyMagic+ participants can instead opt for a card that can’t be detected by the long-range readers.)
The site assures readers the RF devices are not GPS-based and can’t collect continuous location signals, and that the bands don’t actually store personal information. Rather, they contain a randomly assigned code that securely links to an encrypted database. The code enables Disney to associate a device with a person’s purchases and to collect data about interactions they’ve had with readers. “Your interactions provide us with information about the products and services you experience in the Parks; your wait time for rides, restaurants and other attractions; and similar types of information,” the site says.
So who exactly might learn from short-range readers that we rode Space Mountain three times and ate Mickey Waffles every morning? I’m not sure. Disney’s site says it may share information about participants’ experiences with other members of the Walt Disney Family of Companies. As for data read by long-range readers, Disney says it won’t share it with other Disney companies or third parties for marketing purposes unless participants give permission.
Bracelets Designed to Drive Revenue
Disney declined to comment for this story because MyMagic+ is still being tested, but at a September 2013 conference, Jay Rasulo, Disney’s senior executive vice president and chief financial officer, shared some insight. He explained the initiative will drive revenue because people can use it to plan more of their vacation before they arrive, and that’s key because the company has learned those who plan in advance tend to spend more during their stay.
Disney will also derive revenue from services it can offer on a personalized basis, he said, “because we know who you are, where you are and, if you tell us, why you are coming to Walt Disney World for this vacation, whether you’re a first-time visitor, a fiftieth-time visitor, it is your child’s fifth birthday, it is a graduation, it’s an anniversary.”
In an earnings call in May, Robert Iger, Disney’s chairman and chief executive officer, said MyMagic+ will give the company “somewhat of a competitive advantage.” Indeed, Disney is the largest U.S. company to integrate RFID into fan experiences, according to Jen Ohs, founder of the data-driven experiential technology firm Ohsome Interactive in Alexandria, Va.
But it’s worth noting that Disney isn’t the first live entertainment company to use RFID chips to enhance the visitor experience. Guests of some Great Wolf Lodge properties, for instance, can use their RFID wristbands to get into its indoor waterparks; open resort hotel rooms and lockers; and charge food and beverages. Likewise, the Washington Nationals baseball team offers season plan holders an RFID card they can use to enter Nationals Park, redeem special offers, and make purchases with money they’ve loaded onto it.
These kinds of programs are part of a larger trend. “These days fan experiences are all about making things easier for fans and more customized to what the fans are looking for,” Ohs says. “RFID’s a really great way for brands like Disney and concert venues to help drive personalization and customization and ease of use.” She adds, “[Disney’s] integration with their mobile application and money system show some best practices in how to fully utilize RFID for a more complete experience rather than just a simple ‘check-in,’” she says.
To Orlando We Go
We, meanwhile, were ready for whatever complete experience awaited us by the time the richly produced box arrived with our waterproof, hypoallergenic rubber MagicBands. The three of us each had our own colorful band with our name inside.
We had entered our color choices for our bands as part of the setup process for the My Disney Experience app and website, to which my husband, as the primary contact, linked our reservation information and gave his birthdate. The app and site would prove to be popular for us and other guests because it offers park maps, attraction wait times, and the ability to make dining reservations at Disney properties; it also can help big parties make plans together. (Disney offers free Wi-Fi throughout its parks and resort hotels.)
But since we were participating in MyMagic+, we could also use the app to choose our three FastPass+ selections for the theme park we were visiting each day. With a FastPass+, we could breeze past ride lines that snaked around for more than an hour, or get into prime viewing areas for shows. Disney has long offered same-day, free paper versions of FastPass, but they can add stress to the day if available times aren’t optimal.
We greatly appreciated the ability to get the enhanced passes and to modify our choices throughout the day. We also used our MagicBands to open our hotel room, purchase meals and merchandise – a pin was required for purchases – and to enter the parks, where our finger was scanned after we tapped the wristband to a reader. As we would later answer in a Disney survey, we “strongly agreed” participating in the test made our trip better, more hassle-free and carefree, and more relaxing than it would have been otherwise.
But from what we saw, the benefits of the test ended there. We thought there were missed opportunities to use some of the data they had about us in a more customized, consumer-facing way. Yes, a “cast member” greeted us by name on our way to the bus from the airport because our names popped up on a screen when we tapped a nearby reader. But when Goofy passed by, he gave our son a simple wave rather than a personalized hello.
And, though we gave Disney permission to send information about products and services that may be of interest to us, we didn’t receive any on our trip. We also thought the technology presumably could have given us a warning when our reserved times for rides were about to expire.
Ohs of Ohsome Interactive has ideas about MyMagic+’s potential applications, too. “Imagine if as you walk around the park, your mobile device buzzes to suggest a quick visit to a new experience or to let you know when Snow White is nearby,” she says. “The use of RFID and the mobile app allows the information to flow both ways. Not only is Disney able to get better data on how their parks are being used, but users can get better information on what’s available to them in real time and proximity.”
The Privacy Question
Of course, these kinds of personalization ideas may one day come. Iger said in a February 2013 earnings call that “in effect, a lot of the features of this product will actually be rolled out over a long period of time. We want to make sure that we get this right before we go too fast with it.”
Iger didn’t address privacy concerns in the 2013 earnings calls, but he did in a letter dated January 28, 2013 to Sen. Ed Markey, then a Massachusetts congressman. Markey had sent his own letter to Iger dated four days earlier in which he voiced concerns about how Disney will use its data trove, particularly as it relates to children.
Among the points in Iger’s response: Disney doesn’t use personal information to market to those under 13, doesn’t personalize or target advertisements to an individual child, and doesn’t share kids’ personal information with any third party for their marketing purposes. He also explains that participating in MyMagic+ is optional.
Mark Roberti, founder and editor of RFID Journal, knows Disney is conscious of privacy implications because he has fielded questions from the company’s management about issues relating to RFID that could be “potential negatives,” he says. “They don’t want to do anything that would cause their customers to have a negative feeling about their brand,” Roberti says. “Most people think of Disney and think of happy things.”
They do. And MyMagic+ helped add to those thoughts for this early user while leaving me wondering what enchanting features will delight us on our next visit.
Home page photo of Mickey Mouse at Disney World by Richard Stephenson via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.