High-tech solutions make magic happen for Disney customers
Disney bills its theme parks as the “Happiest place on earth,” but they can also be among the busiest on the planet, too. And each time the company adds new attractions, whether it’s a Star Wars Stormtrooper parade or breakfast with the characters from Frozen, the lines grow even longer.
It’s been an ongoing issue for Disney, which has implemented a succession of solutions in an effort to streamline people through the park.
Each new program uses the latest technologies available, but at the same time, the company has to retain the “magic” of the experience for visitors, without any hint of the digital nuts and bolts that make it happen.
Walt Disney made his fame and fortune with cartoons and movies, but his dream was to build a place where families could come for both entertainment and education. He wanted more than a simple amusement park, and when Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Calif. on July 17, 1955, it was the world’s first theme park.
Although Disneyland had been planned for more than 20 years, it was built in just one. Despite everyone’s good intentions, opening day was a disaster.
Disney had sent out 15,000 invitations, but between counterfeit tickets and people finding ways to sneak in, more than 28,000 people crammed in. Rides broke down or hadn’t yet opened, food ran out, and the weather was so unseasonably warm that women got their heels stuck in the softened asphalt.
But it eventually all came together. Disney then began planning an even larger park in Florida, which he announced in November of 1965. He died 13 months later, before construction even began on the site. But the plans went ahead, and Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971.
The parks are a collage of diverse themes, all of them carefully segregated to the point that employees, each costumed for a specific area, get there through underground tunnels. It was an integral part of the park, legend has it, that Disney insisted upon after he spotted someone dressed as a cowboy from Frontierland walking through the futuristic Tomorrowland.
Disney grew up in a small town, and park sections were dedicated to an idealized view of this simpler way of life, along with carefully-sanitized American history.
But behind the scenes, it definitely wasn’t old-fashioned. The company is credited with the first use of audio-animatronics, creating such robotic characters as singing birds and bears.
Disney says it also pioneered 360-degree motion picture technology, the first tubular steel roller coaster and the first computer-controlled thrill ride. One ride had random programming to give riders an unpredictable experience, trackless ride vehicles, and voice-activated, real-time animation so that cartoon characters can have unscripted conversations with visitors.
In the past, if you wanted to see all that, you would buy a paper ticket.
Today, Disney is using high-tech solutions that maintain the magic while getting people through the parks more efficiently, and, once they’re there, make it easier for them to spend more money.
In 1999, Disney introduced its FASTPASS ride reservation system. Instead of standing in line to get on a popular ride, visitors would go to machines located by each one, which spit out tickets stamped with a reservation time. Go away and see other things, come back at the indicated time, and get right on Space Mountain.
It wasn’t flawless, especially when visitors discovered loopholes to get around wait times and the number of reservations they could make, but it laid the groundwork for more technical systems to come.
It was replaced in 2014 with the paperless FastPass+, which lets visitors reserve their rides online, with a mobile app, or at kiosks in the park. This can be done up to 60 days in advance, but the technology allows visitors to make changes right up to the reservation time.
FastPass+ still exists, but Disney has since added MyMagic+, estimated to have cost $1-billion to develop and roll out. The key is a battery-operated wristband, dubbed the MagicBand, that contains a radio transmitter and RFID chip.
All of a visitor’s preferences are loaded into the wristband, and there’s a lot crammed in there. The band gets the visitor into the park and onto rides at reserved times. If he or she is staying at a Disney resort, the wristband also works as an electronic door key, and can be used on payment readers to buy merchandise.
Beyond that, anything reserved in advance can be loaded into the wristband. Characters can call children by their names, or dinners can be delivered as soon as visitors arrive at their restaurant table.
The company also offers a full service package, called Magical Express, that takes over as soon as travellers check their bags at the airport on their way to Florida. At the Orlando airport, they board a shuttle to the resort, while Disney employees collect their tagged luggage and take it directly to the room.
From the visitor’s point of view, it is magic: shorter lines, no paper tickets, no cash, and Mickey Mouse greeting children individually by name.
From Disney’s viewpoint, it’s an investment that streamlines its processes while improving the customer experience. It can also make visitors more open to add-ons such as character-themed meals or visits to the gift shop.
It’s also a tip of the iceberg technology, because it can ultimately give Disney the ability to track visitors at any point in the park. Employees could proactively tend to guests who need assistance, or divert crowds when areas get too busy.
It can also provide real-time information on the people that come in — more than 20 million went to the Florida park in 2015 — including where they go, what they do, and when they do it.
People who might normally protect their privacy will gladly give them that information in return for the convenience. Many companies talk about leveraging Big Data, but in many ways, it looks like Disney might be the first of a new generation of retailers and experience providers to actually make it happen.