Disney: Getting to Know You

| March 3, 2013

As Disney rolls out their new paperless Magic Kingdom experience this Spring, reporters in the tech world have been asking if this development presents a positive, tech-savvy future or a Big Brotherish nightmare. (Including an InfoWorld article here, and an excellent NYT article, here.) MyMagic+ is Disney’s new vision for a digital present: customers will be given wristbands on entry to the park–a wristband loaded with customers’ credit card information, personal details, and any pre-bought Fast Passes, which allow customers instant entry into pre-chosen rides as a way of dealing with otherwise nightmarishly long lines. Customers can use their wristband to purchase everything they would have used cash or credit to buy: stuffed animals, t-shirts, lunch. Rather than a two-tiered system of acquiring a paper pass for a ride, then presenting it and pushing through a turnstile, wristbands would allow for one-stop smooth entry. Clearly there are ways in which digital wristbands would ease the flow of traffic, and make the Disney experience more seamless for the user. But the wristband also stores and announces one’s personal information as one strolls through the park: scan your wristband and the dancing mermaid sings a song to you, with your name in it; Mickey will have a data feed pushing customer details, like names and birthdays, allowing him to announce, seemingly like magic, “Hi little Jimmy! Happy birthday! Would you like to make a wish?” or whatever it is that Mickey usually says. Are these the details that make a magic kingdom a little more magic, or a little more creepy?

About once or twice per year, my friends and I go to Spa Castle in Queens, a three-story spa wonderland complete with whirlpools, saunas, steam rooms, massage tables, swimming pools, and hot tubs. It’s a day experience. After you pay at the entrance, they give you a wristband that you then use to purchase sushi or a foot rub; you also use it to open your locker. (They also provide you with an asexualizing pink or blue outfit to wear, which makes everyone look like a Teletubby.) I always thought of the wristband as intelligent technology, especially since the last thing you want to do while moving from a 120 degree stone room to the ice room to the waterpool jets is worry about your wallet. The band collects your purchases, and when you check out, they scan the wristband to determine your fee. The wrist band doesn’t know my name, though, nor is it tracking my every movement, which seems key to a mutually trusting and beneficial experience.

It’s been a long time since I last went to Disney World. I don’t recall paper tickets at all, for instance, nor do I remember being able to cut in line with a pre-ordered Fast Pass. My memories are a little quainter than that: figuring out which rides to hit when, intelligently patterned around other people’s behavioral patterns (hit the hot rides before breakfast, or during the firework show). Even as a kid I found large stuffed animals frightening; my parents tell me stories about how loudly I wailed the first time I met Mickey Mouse when I was about three, so we always steered clear of him, even when I was young. If I were three now, and I met Mickey while wearing a magic wristband, Mickey would greet me by name. Would I find that comforting, as a kid? I’m not sure. There’s nothing ordinary about meeting a seven-foot tall mouse, but it is part of life’s conditioning process to ask someone his or her name during an initial greeting (when you’re a kid, life is a long, non-stop lesson in socialization) and so it’s unclear to me why parents would want Mickey to already know their children’s names, but perhaps some customers really do want to be transported to a wonderland not-of-this-earth, and maybe the wristbands will help with that.

Aside from Disney’s claim that MyMagic+ will enhance user experience, Disney is explicitly using the device to data mine, a concept any user of social media software is getting increasingly used to. The idea behind data mining is basically the more a company knows about its users (how long do they look at each website, what do they click on the website, and when, what ads do they like, what types of information do they tend to search for, who are their friends, etc) the better they can cater ads to those same users, while increasing sales with advertising partners. The digital TV channel, Hulu.com, for instance, asks users to choose which ad they’d prefer to see, with the implicit argument that personalized ads heighten user experience, and the advertisers use the collected data to create more targeted ads. If you care about personal privacy you likely find this argument creepy; if you don’t, you might look forward to watching ads whose products you care about. The three biggest tech companies compete for our personal data: Facebook knows what we “like,” what social groups we travel in, what movies we watch, what we take photos of (they recently bought Instagram) and more, while Google knows what we search for, what websites we view, what keywords we type in our emails, who our friends and colleagues are, what our house looks like, and where we travel. Apple can track a lot of similar information through our cell phones and apps (not to mention, our maps). As our expectations for personal privacy erode bit by bit, I think we, as a culture, are less and less likely to find these practices creepy. For now, Disney is making the wristbands optional.