Jason McInerney and his wife, Melissa, recently tapped their lunch orders onto a touchscreen at the entrance to the Be Our Guest restaurant at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort and were told to take any open seat. Moments later a food server appeared at their table with their croque-monsieur and carved turkey sandwiches.
Asks McInerney, a once-a-year visitor to Disney theme parks: "How did they know where we were sitting?"
The answer was on the electronic bands the couple wore on their wrists. That's the magic of the MyMagic+, Walt Disney's (DIS -0.30%) $1 billion experiment in crowd control, data collection, and wearable technology that could change the way people play -- and spend -- at the "Most Magical Place on Earth."
If the system works, it could be copied not only by other theme parks but also by museums, zoos, airports and malls. "It's a complete game changer," says Douglas Quinby, vice president for research at PhoCusWright, a travel consulting firm.
That would suit Disney just fine, as it expands its global empire of theme parks and kicks up efforts to fend off rivals. The most formidable is Comcast's (CMCSA -0.39%) Universal Studios, which this summer will unveil a massive expansion of its hit Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at its parks near Walt Disney World.
One hitch for Disney could be if devotees such as the McInerneys find MyMagic+ confining, confusing or even a bit creepy. Some have lit into it with such vigor on Facebook (FB +2.89%) and blogs such as micechat.com that Kevin Yee, a former Disney World employee who operates the travel website UltimateOrlando.com, called their grievances "a rolling boulder . . . and it's going to be difficult to stop completely."
Change is always tricky for Disney, especially at its parks, where introducing a new brand of coffee can spark a revolt by fans. Unhappy mouseketeers last year began a petition drive to keep Disneyland in January from pulling the Billy Hill and the Hillbillies show after 21 years (it didn't work). Others marched on the park's City Hall in 2004 after recalibrations made to the Mad Tea Party ride in the name of safety slowed it down.
MyMagic+ promises far more radical change. It's a sweeping reservation and ride planning system that allows for bookings months in advance on a website or smartphone app. Bracelets called MagicBands, which link electronically to an encrypted database of visitor information, serve as admission tickets, hotel keys, and credit or debit cards; a tap against a sensor pays for food or trinkets. The bands have radio frequency identification (RFID) chips -- which critics derisively call spychips because of their ability to monitor people and things.
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