Inside Disney's radical plan to modernize its cherished theme parks.
June 2, 2015 6:53 AM   Subscribe

The Messy Business of Reinventing Happiness. The story behind FastPass+ at DisneyWorld.

"The Frog industrial-design team really pissed off the Imagineers, stepping all over their toes and fighting turf battles," explains one insider. The Imagineers pushed back; at one point, multiple sources confirm, they demanded the individual résumés of each Frog designer assigned to the project, a move that some perceived as a personal attack.
posted by blue_beetle (40 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
We covered this in March, too.
posted by knownassociate at 6:58 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


"On one early flight, Padgett, who looks as open and eager as the Toy Story character Woody, had a breakthrough. Flipping through a SkyMall catalog..."

I can't even.
posted by honest knave at 7:02 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


This great so far, but "as MacPhee, who has the look of a Division II offensive coordinator, admits, Disney World was on the verge of becoming "dangerously complex and transactional." The team soon presented its ideas to Rasulo..."

My brain is doing that head tilt dogs do when they don't quite grok the meaning.
posted by notyou at 7:06 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sandberg interjected at one point to ask whether MyMagic+ could be used to track her kids at the park, since she always worries about losing them in the crowds. "Sheryl, first of all, we don’t lose anybody’s kids," Franklin responded, wryly, as he recounts for me in a recent conversation. "And I can promise that we’ll never lose your kids."

The room erupted with laughter
What the hell? There are so many levels at which that interaction is bizarre and creepy.
posted by schmod at 7:11 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


When reading this, I highly recommend imagining every quote being read aloud in Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy voice.
posted by schmod at 7:32 AM on June 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


The tone of the article makes it evident that the author's trying to build a hero story of the MyMagic+ revolution, but ends up much closer to he-said vs she-said.
Every corporate rule-breaker has to figure out a strategy to combat naysayers, the keepers of these traditional flames. The rebels of NGE knew that secrecy was critical if they were to build out the vision without interference from the broader organization.
...
The infighting grew intense. "Look, let’s put it crudely: People were protecting their jobs!" says one VP–level NGE source. Uncertainty about the consequences of MyMagic+ raised the stakes—that’s what new technology does to the status quo. For example, if ticketing were to get digitized, many jobs held by traditional ticketing folks might become irrelevant.
I don't know how the reporter decided to write the story on this topic. Wouldn't be surprised if they were pitched it by Disney PR.
posted by pokoleo_runs_with_wolves at 7:34 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Whenever I read these stories about big technological initiatives, I'm always hoping to hear from the engineers involved--the technical hurdles, the political roadblocks, the funding battles, the bureaucratic obstacles--rather than a bunch of C-level people talking about their vision.

I'll lay you green money that every single thing that these execs are taking credit for was bandied about by some frustrated engineer years before dickhead picked up his SkyMall.
posted by Ickster at 7:38 AM on June 2, 2015 [31 favorites]


It's not like the scales fell from my eyes while reading this article or anything, but it really spells out in minute detail how, beneath the veneer of Magic (TM) and Whimsy (TM), visitors to these parks are just units to be managed as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, like any other revenue-generating item on an assembly line or supply chain.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:48 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


This great so far, but "as MacPhee, who has the look of a Division II offensive coordinator, admits...

Read this as: Traditionally masculine, old-school, fussy, clipboard-toting, taskmaster concerned with min/maxing an experience. But the fact that the author calls out "Division II," implies: "All the aspects of a normal person of this kind, but at a lower level of accomplishment and resentful of it."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:52 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sheryl, first of all, we don’t lose anybody’s kids

That's actually a point of pride at Disney parks. No kid has ever been truly lost, meaning "lost and never seen again," at a Disney park. Which is kinda pretty amazing for amusement parks that opened in 1955.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:57 AM on June 2, 2015 [17 favorites]


The drama-factor is cranked up to 11 in this article, but in some ways, this sounds like a pretty healthy process in a big organization. There should be conflicts to resolve when a new idea is proposed -- otherwise Disney wouldn't be able to maintain its coherency as an idea. It should be hard (but not impossible) to change the Constitution. It's incredibly difficult to maintain a consistent experience across such a huge operation -- especially one that is supposed to feel fun and magical and alive.
posted by the jam at 8:09 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


I agree, this is just how things get done. The only really crazy part was they thought they could role it out in a year. Once again the estimate * π = reality equation is proven again.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:04 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sheryl, first of all, we don’t lose anybody’s kids

Where do you think those $8 hotdogs come from?
posted by blue_beetle at 9:27 AM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


"We were failing to recognize key consumer trends that were starting to influence how people interacted with brands"

Are people who talk like this actually human? I mean, I assume they are ordinary examples of H. sapiens and not some sort of evil cyborg or shapeshifting alien, but from an ethical perspective, can they really be counted as people?

Whenever I read these stories about big technological initiatives, I'm always hoping to hear from the engineers involved

I wasn't involved myself, but I worked for Synapse while my coworkers were developing the magic band. It seemed like a fairly ordinary wearables project, to be honest, except for the bit where we rented out an extra floor of the building and set up a miniature theme park in it.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:53 AM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


...but it really spells out in minute detail how, beneath the veneer of Magic (TM) and Whimsy (TM), visitors to these parks are just units to be managed as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, like any other revenue-generating item on an assembly line or supply chain.

In many ways, Disney parks pioneered several of those techniques.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:59 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Since my next trip to Disney has to wait until little ones are a bit older, I haven't visited the Disney boards in some time.

How is this system playing out?
Does it actually make things better for everyone or just the micro-managers?
posted by madajb at 10:11 AM on June 2, 2015


-Sheryl, first of all, we don’t lose anybody’s kids

--That's actually a point of pride at Disney parks. No kid has ever been truly lost, meaning "lost and never seen again," at a Disney park. Which is kinda pretty amazing for amusement parks that opened in 1955.


Also, whenever kids are separated from their parents, they discuss it in terms of the parents being lost rather than the children. Here's the old "Lost Parents" sign at Disneyland's City Hall. It makes it into a kind of joke that's less scary for the kids.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:35 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


It seemed like a fairly ordinary wearables project

Funny, that's what I thought. As I was reading the article, all of the "insights" the head honchos were having were serious "Well, duh" moments for me. Basically someone finally realized that all of the moving parts (resort, park tickets, payments, etc.) weren't integrated, and they decided to do so with a wristband instead of a swipe card. Perfectly worthwhile idea, but nothing that isn't blindingly obvious to anyone who actually has to deal with any aspect of it on a regular basis.
posted by Ickster at 10:40 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


...spells out in minute detail how, beneath the veneer of Magic (TM) and Whimsy (TM), visitors to these parks are just units to be managed as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, like any other revenue-generating item on an assembly line or supply chain.

Here's an interesting article on the same theme from the magazine Institutions/Volume Feeding, October 1972. The link is to part 1 of 4.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:51 AM on June 2, 2015


OMG!OMG!OMG! I have been waiting so long for a Disney wristband discussion on the Blue!

No, seriously, I was. Because my fave book of all time is Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, set in a dystopia where everyone wears a bracelet that they touch to scanners to see if they're allowed to go in there. The irony is killing me. :)
posted by Mogur at 11:08 AM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


Yeah what they actually managed to do was spend a gazillion dollars on a combined ticket, room key, and payment token, but called it a whole new experience in an attempt to mask the many years they treated the parks like a cash cow and refused to build anything new. It's unclear just how much they really had a bigger vision and were blocked by politics vs. how much they were just deluding themselves as to how new the whole thing way.

It's certainly not useless, but it's also no different from something every self respecting resort or cruise ship has done for years. Rolling it out on such a large scale is tricky to be sure, but really shouldn't be fraught with so much peril.

And having tracking wristbands that record your every step through the parks is just too creepy.
posted by zachlipton at 11:30 AM on June 2, 2015


Your ticket/hotel key/payments had been integrated into a swipe card for a while, depending on your ticket. I think what makes this different is that it is also tied into a online system and smartphone app that pulls in reservations for restaurants (which you could always make in advance), and reservations for the actual rides, which you had never ben able to make in advance. That's a major change - now instead of turning up at the park early in the morning to ride some rides before the queues get long, or getting a paper ticket to come back and ride later on in the day, you can sit at your computer 30 days before your visit and start booking your photos with Anna and Elsa. (Or 60 days before, if you're staying in a Disney-owned hotel.) It's maybe not a revolutionary change, apart from the ride reservations, but that is a pretty big change in philosophy and rewards advance planners, and the size and scope of the IT and infrastructure project it took to get this working means it was far from a completely obvious move to make.

I have 89 days to go to my trip, according to My Disney Experience. I have drunk deeply of the Disney kool-aid so I am pretty excited to have a single wristband that replaces my room key and ticket, especially if I want to go to a water park.
posted by penguinliz at 11:30 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


madajb -

We were there in April. 2 families, 1 one 2 bedroom villa. Kids aged 18 mos, 5, 5, and 8. Overall, I thought the MagicBands worked extremely well.... and my general mantra with anything involving Disney IT is "Don't expect much." We were able to use it as a room key, park admission, payment method, tied it to our photo package (and it automagically captured our ride photos for a few of the more recent rides - older rides we needed to claim them on the way off the ride)... overall, it made things better for us.

The FastPass changes to FastPass+ weren't as bad as we anticipated. Yes, you had to pick which day you were going to MGM (I still won't call it Hollywood Studios) and about what time you were going to ride Toy Story Mania. But once we got there and it was planned out, it wasn't a big deal. The way WDW is going, especially around dining, planning ahead has become a necessity. Ride reservations was the next obvious expansion, at least to me.
posted by neilbert at 11:31 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wonder if you get to go home the (deactivated) wristband as a souvenir?
posted by harrietthespy at 11:37 AM on June 2, 2015


I wonder if you get to go home the (deactivated) wristband as a souvenir?

Yes. You can reuse them, though it appears that they will give you a new one each time if you want them to. And of course you can buy special, expensive ones in the parks.
posted by jeather at 11:43 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


It would be better if the attractions that actually NEED a Fastpass were spread out more evenly through the four parks. As soon as you get out of the Magic Kingdom with its multiple headliners, then you get into a tiering system where you get a pass for one attraction that actually has a long standby line and two for attractions that rarely do. Sure, it's great to know that you won't have to make that mad dash to Soarin' at rope drop, but it feels a bit silly reserving a spot on a walk-on like Journey into Imagination. (Animal Kingdom doesn't have enough attractions to fill up two tiers.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:45 AM on June 2, 2015


How is this system playing out?
Does it actually make things better for everyone or just the micro-managers?


We went in October and it worked very well. It was nice to have the all-in-one functionality, especially at the aforementioned water park.

Sure, it's great to know that you won't have to make that mad dash to Soarin' at rope drop

People do that? I've never been so disappointed in a ride. I called it Snorin' after the one and only time we went on it.
posted by Fleebnork at 11:58 AM on June 2, 2015


I called it Snorin' after the one and only time we went on it.

Yeah, that ride has the misfortune of really long load times, which causes an increase in anxiety & anticipation, which in turn demands higher levels of excitement/pleasure, or else you're left with disappointment. (Imagine if you had to wait in line for 40-60 minutes to see the Hall of Presidents.) As a result, they're adding a third screen to Soarin' to shorten the wait times.
posted by nushustu at 12:10 PM on June 2, 2015


"We were failing to recognize key consumer trends that were starting to influence how people interacted with brands"

Are people who talk like this actually human?


Maybe it's because I work in a bureaucracy, but that sentence made perfect sense to me and wasn't even all that jargony.

Seriously, how would you rephrase it to convey the same information, and be "human"- whatever the hell that means?
posted by happyroach at 12:58 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've been using fastpass over the last six months to explain digital asset management (DAM) systems. People are assets that are checked in and out of a workflow with all their metadata attached.

That's how you interact with brands now. With all your metadata stored on a "preferred customer card", attached to your credit card number (which also has your billing addy attached), or soon through wristbands that carry even more metadata.

I know it's scary in some ways, but part of me is thrilled. of course, what I *really* want is all my medical info on wristbands like this in hospitals, where the information could be of true benefit.
posted by EinAtlanta at 1:06 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know what it means, happyroach, it just reflects a grossly dehumanized perspective on the world.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:21 PM on June 2, 2015


madajb: How is this system playing out? Does it actually make things better for everyone or just the micro-managers?

Before we went last August, I viewed it very skeptically, as a vast invasion of privacy and an obvious ploy to pick my pocket. I left entranced with the simple thought that it took a lot of friction out of the trip: my room keys, ID card, etc., all were combined into a not-bad-looking wristband, and I even got a Star Wars-themed thing to stick in one of the unused holes!

As an IT guy, I was amazed at how they used this opportunity to tie very tightly together all of their back office systems -- and THAT is what blew me away. The mobile app's backend can talk to the system storing Fast Pass reservations and also the one tracking wait times as well as query your current location, and then suggest rides you might go on that very minute. Totally awesome. No more map, no more damn guidebook, no plastic card to lose. (And if the Band did fall off, they can remotely disable it and just give you a new one.)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:25 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was fortunate in how I timed my trip to Disney World (late 2013) — they were starting to roll out MyMagic+ to more and more people. My girlfriend and I were staying at the Contemporary, which was one of the resorts that got the MagicBands before the wide launch.

First of all, it's fair to say that MyMagic+ is only an incremental improvement over what they had before. Previously, if you were staying on park grounds, you'd be given a Key to the World, a plastic card with a magnetic stripe that served as your hotel room key, your park pass, and your method of payment at souvenir shops and restaurants. In one respect, then, the MagicBands are just a slight improvement in convenience.

Of course, they also overhauled the FastPass system. Before you'd go to a kiosk to "reserve" a fixed time slot to return to a given ride; and, roughly speaking, you couldn't hold more than one FastPass at a time. Now you can truly reserve up to three rides per day, you can pick which time slot you want, and you can do it far in advance or at the park.

Technically, they could have done this with the legacy Key to the World cards. Perhaps that would've resulted in bottlenecks at the beginnings of ride queues, as whole families dug in their wallets for cards instead of putting their wrists against terminals. But I'm prepared to credit MyMagic+ for it. People really did figure out how to game the old FastPass system a long time ago, and this new version seems fair. In our experience, only a few attractions per park had long lines in the first place. On our EPCOT day, we reserved Test Track, Soarin', and Captain E-O. Every other ride we went on barely had a line. (When we went to Captain E-O, there was no line at all, and we felt like schmucks going through the theatrics of MagicBands when both sides of the line were completely empty.)

Be Our Guest is quite the experience, too. If you want to eat food at Disney World, your typical options are to book a restaurant in advance or prepare to wait in long lines for more casual dining. Be Our Guest is more like a swanky restaurant at night, but at lunchtime it's just casual dining that gets booked in advance. You choose what you want on a website beforehand, and then once you get there they scan your MagicBand and tell you to sit wherever you like; your food arrives a few minutes later. This is something they couldn't do with Key to the World. Most notable to me was how it affected the design of the space; they were free to build three large, beautiful dining rooms, and were able to move the implementation details of ordering and queuing to other areas. One line instead of many; one cluster of ordering kiosks instead of many cashiers; and so on.

There is nothing about the technology that is inherently creepy to me. If a government were to want to use it, or if Disney had ways to track me while I wasn't on their property, then it would skeeve me out. And they'd be wise to keep the experience on the magical side. I don't know why they think it's a "feature" to use MagicBands to figure out which kids are at the park on their birthday; they already have the buttons for that, and to try to replace the buttons would feel like they're grasping for a way to remind people, "Hey, we know certain facts about you, even if you don't advertise them!" Plus, without the button, only certain cast members would know; it was cool when at least a couple children wished me a happy birthday as they passed by — me, the just-turned-31-year-old — because it was also their birthday and they were apparently on the lookout for other birthday-button-wearers.

Amazingly, I don't recall there being any technical difficulties. The only weirdness I saw was that different restaurants had slightly different versions of the payment app that runs on their iPod Touches. When you pay with a MagicBand at a restaurant, the server brings an iPod to your table, scans your MagicBand, and has you put in a PIN. On most of the screens, the dots (representing the masked digits of the PIN) were slightly misaligned with the squares they were supposed to live in. But about 10% of the screens had that bug fixed. So every time I saw this screen, I couldn't help but think about how much of a nightmare it is to have to deploy your updated app to thousands of devices across an entire park.

And as a programmer, I have to extend begrudging admiration to a company that even attempts an IT exercise as staggeringly ambitious as this one. The fact that they got only 70% of what they envisioned doesn't mean it was a failure. I do think they're wise to keep it a WDW-only thing; it makes far more sense as an aid to vacationers than it does for annual passholders at Disneyland who might pop in six times a year.

My only other critique is that the name “MyMagic+” is plainly awful.
posted by savetheclocktower at 3:05 PM on June 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


jeather: "Yes. You can reuse them, though it appears that they will give you a new one each time if you want them to. And of course you can buy special, expensive ones in the parks."

I read (maybe the last time we discussed this on mefi) that the battery inside lasts only two years. We still have our original MagicBands, but it sounds like we'll need new ones when we go back.

I don't think the bands themselves have more expensive versions, but you can buy little charms for them, or you can buy themed MagicBand… covers, I guess?… that slide over the unfurled band much the way that some compact umbrellas have that useless discarded-snake-skin thing to ensheathe them.
posted by savetheclocktower at 3:10 PM on June 2, 2015


Oh, one more thing: the FastPass+ system is also much different in the sense that any ride can be FastPass+'d, whereas the old FastPass system was in use for only the most consistently popular rides. Presumably because the old system required that they reserve space in an area near the ride for the kiosks that distributed the paper tickets, and for many rides that wasn't feasible.

FastPass+ lets people book stuff in advance, and for the people that don't there are now just generic kiosks in the park that let you reserve arbitrary rides, so it doesn't matter where the kiosks themselves are located.
posted by savetheclocktower at 3:16 PM on June 2, 2015


Plus, without the button, only certain cast members would know; it was cool when at least a couple children wished me a happy birthday as they passed by — me, the just-turned-31-year-old — because it was also their birthday and they were apparently on the lookout for other birthday-button-wearers.

Yeah! That's the best thing about birthday buttons! I was at the park for my birthday this year and a girl in line for Dumbo with me said, "Hey, happy birthday, I'm six!" and I said, "Same to you! I'm 30!" and everyone had a good laugh...but I feel like it's an exchange I'll remember for a while. It's great to get people talking to strangers in the park and I do feel like discouraging people from broadcasting these random things about themselves by way of tshirts and buttons because "the band just does it all" makes Disney parks a fundamentally less social experience.
posted by town of cats at 3:22 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't think the bands themselves have more expensive versions

They do. You can get charms, you can get fabric covers, and you can get themed bands which cost more (a Haunted Mansion band, a Cars band, etc). I didn't know about the battery thing.
posted by jeather at 3:35 PM on June 2, 2015


jeather: "you can get themed bands which cost more"

Weird; either that's new or I just didn't see it when I went. Seems odd, given the battery situation, since the fabric covers and charms can just be moved to the new band.
posted by savetheclocktower at 4:19 PM on June 2, 2015


I read (maybe the last time we discussed this on mefi) that the battery inside lasts only two years. We still have our original MagicBands, but it sounds like we'll need new ones when we go back.

There are two RFID chips in the band, one active and one passive.

The short range passive RFID functions like opening doors and getting admission to the park will essentially work forever until the circuitry fails. The battery powered active system is for broadcasting your location within attractions which allows for some interactivity with characters and locating you within the ride for onboard photos.
posted by mmascolino at 9:15 PM on June 2, 2015


Disney's technology group undergoing restructuring

Last Task After Layoff at Disney: Train Foreign Replacements:
The employees who kept the data systems humming in the vast Walt Disney fantasy fief did not suspect trouble when they were suddenly summoned to meetings with their boss.
...
Instead, about 250 Disney employees were told in late October that they would be laid off. Many of their jobs were transferred to immigrants on temporary visas for highly skilled technical workers, who were brought in by an outsourcing firm based in India. Over the next three months, some Disney employees were required to train their replacements to do the jobs they had lost.
posted by peeedro at 12:28 PM on June 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


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