Big Data Creates Big Magic at Walt Disney World


I’ve grown up going to Walt Disney World in Orlando every few years for practically my entire life. So, I’ve seen a lot the changes and improvements they’ve made over the years. I remember when they moved from printed tickets to ticket cards and then the introduction of the FastPass system in 1999 – but my all-time favorite technology has been the MagicBand and MyMagic+ system they launched in 2013.

I remember the absolute uproar over these when they were first launched. Everyone was so concerned that Big Mouse (- vs. Big Brother) was watching their every move and many couldn’t get around that discomfort. Cut to 2017 when my husband and I took our trip to Walt Disney World in September, practically every single person in the park was wearing one. Given the ubiquity of trackers like FitBit, Garmin, and the Apple Watch, this new openness to the MagicBands makes sense.

In fact, they’re so popular now that you can actually buy bands with custom designs on them rather than just using the free ones provided to guests staying in a Disney-owned resort.

If you’re not familiar with what the MagicBands are, they act as your keys to the kingdom – literally. Guests can use them as their room key, credit card, park admission, photo collector, and ride FastPass holder. They also offer a TON of data to Disney in the form of a long-range radio signal that lets them know where visitors go in the park and how long they stay there.

A little creepy? Maybe, but also very awesome in terms of offering personalized experiences that make each trip to Disney that much more magical.

For example, on this most recent trip, my husband and I checked into the park by tapping our MagicBands on the RFID reader at the gate and after our tickets had been accepted, the cast member manning the entrance looked up, smiled, and wished us both a happy anniversary. How did she know that? It’s a fact I provided to our hotel when we booked our reservation and they then linked to our MagicBands. Later that evening, during the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, we stopped to get our pictures taken, and as the photographer was putting together our photos to link them to us, she asked which characters we were dressed up as – very casually – and from that point on, anytime a cast member saw me or my husband the radio frequency from our bands ID’d us as our respective characters and they responded to us as such, asking things like “slaying any dragons this evening?”. I think my husband maybe got a little TOO used to being called Sir and Prince during our candy pilgrimage that evening.

Fun Fact: Disney hands out over 250 TONS of candy during 32 Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Parties (and I think we had a combined 1 Ton ourselves).

Later that night, we took a ride on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and our car stopped during the ride to let a handicapped passenger exit. This is a normal occurrence, but this time we stopped right in front of a “high value target” on the ride, allowing my husband to rack up, a normally unprecedented, ONE MILLION points on the ride.

This information was, of course, linked to our bands and we ended up with this rather hilarious picture where I’m still trying to get points and he’s just being annoying and steering the car away from the targets. Marriage.

Our trip went on like that for the weekend, every time we interacted with a cast member, be it at the front gate or as we were checking in to use a FastPass for the new Avatar ride, they used the information gathered on our MagicBands to add moments of unexpected magic to our journey.

This ability to create custom moments is incredible, especially when you consider that just one of Disney’s four parks has annual visitors in the range of 20 million people, that means they’re creating unique memories like this for around 55,000 people per day in just ONE PARK. That’s mind-blowing.

The “What Ifs” this kind of data brings are nearly endless:

  • What if Disney could use your MagicBand for interactive displays in shops and other areas of the parks?
  • What if they could ensure more accurate wait times by reading the movement information on MagicBands in line?
  • What if they could then notify you when the wait time is at a certain range for your favorite rides?
  • What if you could get a customized list of food/restaurant recommendations based on places you’ve already eaten in the park?
  • What if photographers could take candid shots of you enjoying the parade or sharing a Mickey Ice Cream bar with your kids and link those to your account for you?
  • What if Characters could greet you by name as well as Cast Members?
  • What if Disney could optimize the design of pathways or increase cast member presence at specific locations based on the density of Magic Bands in the area?

But then… what if this kind of big data collection started spilling into the real world? How would the shopping experience be different if we let them know more about us as we walked into the store? What would the restaurant of the future look like if they were able to know our food preferences and visit habits as soon as we sat down? Can you imagine walking into a store and having a personal shopper who already knows your size and can see what your purchase and return history to help you find your next favorite outfit?

Some might see this level of big data as intimidating, but if the information is used to make our lives better and maintain some level of personal privacy – isn’t that what technology is all about?

After all, one could argue that the first automobile was greeted with the same level of trepidation, but I’d rather ride in a car than on a horse for my daily commute.

Photo Credit: Disney Press Kit

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