Disney’s latest experiment with technology: MagicBands

11/23/2013 12:00 AM

11/27/2013 3:03 PM

The box arrived via express mail about three weeks before the family trip to Disney World — four plastic bracelets inside, each stamped with the Mickey Mouse logo and inscribed with a family member’s name.

The Mouse had spoken. We had our MagicBands.

That’s how a middle-aged guy (me) came to wear a bright yellow bracelet in public for three days.

MagicBands are the centerpiece of Disney’s massive MyMagic+ initiative to elevate the amusement park experience. Billed as an “all-in-one” device, each MagicBand contains a radio frequency device and a transmitter that allows the bracelet to act as your hotel room key, your ticket and your wallet. It’s also your FastPass for rides and connection to Disney’s PhotoPass.

Disney World quietly has been rolling out the MagicBands the past year, with the bracelets now available to guests at all the Disney World resorts. Disney World officials say, though, the MyMagic+ program and MagicBands are still in the testing phase. They have declined to give any time frame when the program will be considered a permanent feature.

My verdict: At this point it’s an added convenience, but Disney World clearly is ironing out some kinks with the MyMagic+ program.

By way of background, I’m what would probably be described as a reluctant visitor to Disney World. I go because I married into a family that used to go to Disney World at least once a year and my two boys, ages 2 and 6, have grown up on a steady diet of all things Disney. The little one sleeps with two Mickey Mouse dolls, while the older one watched the movie Cars so many times that the lyrics of Life is a Highway are etched into my soul.

The biggest enhancement with MyMagic+ over our previous trips was being able to schedule up to three FastPasses before setting foot in a park. In one morning at Magic Kingdom, we were able to hit Dumbo the Flying Elephant, The Barnstormer and the Tomorrowland speedway in quick succession. We moved faster through Fantasyland and Tomorrowland than ever before.

The FastPass was especially helpful at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where we got an early afternoon time for Toy Story Mania. If we had gone to the ride and tried to get a FastPass there, we would have waited at the park until at least 6 p.m. for our turn. Standby was not an option, with the wait peaking at 130 minutes mid-afternoon.

My wife liked being able to schedule everything through the My Disney Experience account, giving us a schedule for rides and dinner reservations. We could have scheduled meet-and-greets with characters, but the 2-year-old is terrified of them, a byproduct of a bad encounter with Chuck E. Cheese.

I also liked being able to go to the pool without having to worry about taking my wallet and hotel room key. To pay for things, all you need to do is hold up the MagicBand to a sensor and enter a pin number.

We did, however, have problems using one of the MagicBands to open up our hotel door. It also seemed that my MagicBand didn’t work when I tried to use it to FastPass a ride, but Disney World employees waved me through after my wife and my older son’s MagicBands worked. Whenever we had questions about the MagicBands, cast members were extremely helpful and understanding.

The one major hassle for us was that as Florida residents we weren’t able to connect our tickets to the MagicBand until we got to the first park. We don’t have annual passes to Disney World, so we bought three-day Park Hopper tickets at the discounted Florida resident rate. But on our My Disney Experience account, there was no way to connect the exchange tickets to the MagicBands until we had a ticket number.

So before we could link our tickets and book our FastPasses, we had to first present our exchange tickets — the green cards you exchange at the Disney ticket window once you show proof of ID — and get actual tickets. Then we went to guest relations to link the Magic Bands to our tickets and my wife booked the FastPasses at the guest relations kiosk.

That effort took about 20 minutes, which in antsy kid time seems like a lot longer. A cast member at the kiosk told my wife it was an issue that Disney World was working through.

But a friend of mine, also a Florida resident, already has scheduled FastPass times through the My Disney Experience weeks in advance of his December trip. It’s not clear, though, if Disney World has fixed the glitch we experienced or if he booked his tickets differently.

We had one practical concern about the MagicBand, worrying that the 6-year-old would lose his bracelet. It stayed secure around his wrist the whole time, but I could see parents getting paranoid over losing it and dealing with the hassles of getting a new one. My 2-year-old’s MagicBand also stayed on the whole time, even though it was non-functional because he didn’t need a ticket.

Some people have voiced privacy concerns over the MagicBands with Disney World being able to track all your purchases. Yup, if you knock back a few too many, the Mouse will know if you use your MagicBand.

If you don’t want Disney to track your purchases, there is a simple solution — use cash. I think that for the vast majority of the people who go to Disney World, convenience will trump privacy issues.

It’s obvious that the MyMagic+ upgrades are just the first part of a plan by Disney World to allow visitors a more personalized experience with less hassles. Anything that eliminates wait times is a good thing to me.

But as I sat in the Enchanted Tiki Room, what struck me was the contrast of having an impressive piece of technology around my wrist, yet watching animatronic birds chatter and sing like I had 30 years ago at Disneyland. That, I think, will be Disney World’s challenge in the coming years — retaining the nostalgia that keeps my father-in-law coming back every year, but offering enough new to hook the iPhone generation on the Disney experience.

I’m not too worried about Disney World staying in business, though. A week after we got back, my 2-year-old was talking about The Barnstormer and wearing his MagicBand around his wrist.

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