Disney's new vacation management system could improve the park experience and boost sales and loyalty, or it could create bad feelings with princesses whose parents don’t pay top rates.

Laurianne McLaughlin, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek.com

January 9, 2013

6 Min Read

InformationWeek Now--What's Hot Right Now

InformationWeek Now--What's Hot Right Now

IT and business leaders at Disney are betting big on a new approach to customer convenience, loyalty and purchasing at Disney Parks. Disney will soon roll out a "a vacation management system called MyMagic+ that will drastically change the way Disney World visitors -- some 30 million people a year -- do just about everything," the New York Times reported Monday. Included in the program are MagicBands, RFID-powered bracelets that will let visitors enter the park without today's paper tickets, buy various items without cash, and share information with park employees -- so that a child is greeted by name, for instance. There's also a companion mobile app. It's important to note that the new system is optional for guests.

As my colleague Chris Murphy wrote in a follow up column Tuesday, Disney's experiment has a powerful lesson for CIOs: "Disney's MagicBands plan provides a pixie-dust-sprinkled reminder that CIOs in 2013 need to focus on technology that's relevant to customers."

Yes, they do. But let's not stop at relevant. Let's go all the way to personal. Disney leaders, solve my problems. And don't create new ones for me. That standard is how every one of we 30 million guests will size up this initiative.

I have been to Disney World in Orlando four times in the past decade with grandparents and small children in tow, so I know the delights -- and disasters -- that can shape this trip. I used, and liked, a mobile smartphone app last time that had ride wait times. That's one feature of the new mobile app. But after I read the NYT article, I still wondered: What other problems might this RFID bracelet technology solve for me as a Disney traveler?

The Disney execs note it's easier for stroller-pushing moms to wave a bracelet than insert paper tickets in a reader and fumble through turnstiles. But I have pushed a stroller around Disney and I never thought dealing with the turnstiles was a big deal.

The big potential turnoff for me, and I suspect many others, could be if this optional vacation management system helps Disney turn the parks into even more of a class system. While the bracelets will be optional, it may become necessary to have a quality experience.

For instance, I assume Disney will want to offer special new perks to people staying in the most expensive of Disney hotels. As veteran Disney World travelers know, Disney offers everything from luxury resorts to bargain resorts inside the park -- with room size, transportation conveniences and hotel food options matched accordingly. Stay at the pricey Polynesian resort and you can eat at a sushi bar and take the fast and pleasant monorail to the Magic Kingdom; stay at the All-Star Sports resort and you can eat at a food court and take the crowded bus. (Stay off property and you're really not special.)

The bracelets could help Disney take this tiered system to another level, perhaps even make those not using the tech system for a premium experience feel like second-class guests. Stay at the Polynesian resort and your bracelet gets you the best parade seating or gets you whisked to the front of certain character meet-and-greet lines. But if you have chosen the bargain resort, how crummy will you feel as a parent when your little kid asks you why some kids are jumping the line to meet a princess? Very unmagical.

One problem at Disney that this vacation management system could try to address is the need to over-schedule your vacation today. It can be quite hard to be spontaneous at Disney, unfortunately. And I have had precious few good sit-down meals at Disney because you have to make reservations, sometimes months in advance, or face unpalatable waits for a table.

I'd rather eat pizza on the hotel room balcony than have to plan my whole day around getting the whole crew to restaurant x by hour y for dinner that night. What if the kid wants to spend an extra hour in the pool? What if the kid is tired and you want to reboot your plan halfway through the day? Tough to do.

The new system encourages even more advance planning, such as asking you to pre-select Fast Passes for rides prior to your trip. As the New York Times article notes: "More advance planning will also help lock visitors into Disney once they arrive in Orlando, discouraging people, for instance, from making impromptu visits to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter." For Disney, lock-in is good. For me, not so much.

I had similar class-system qualms when I heard Virgin Airlines discussing personalization technologies at the most recent Salesforce Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. Virgin is working on systems that will, for instance, help them know when a frequent traveler is on a plane that is running late and the traveler is destined to miss his or her connection. Virgin's goal is to rebook this customer and let him or her know, via a seatback display, before the first plane lands. Sounds great, right?

But the flip side of this equation is that if you're not a great Virgin customer, you're going to feel bad when you see the notification pop up on the guy's seat if he's sitting next to you. And there's little question that you will get shoved further back in the line of people hoping to make the new connection flight.

Thinking bigger, could Virgin treat all its customers with kid gloves with these technologies? Now that would be cool. And if Virgin did, and United didn't, that would be a big differentiator.

Now I know, companies must take special care of their best customers. But I urge you, IT and business leaders, to think like human beings too. Think about how the changes you make with technologies and programs like this are going to make the rest of the customers feel. Because we're not all special to every company every time. Think big.

One highlight of our last Disney trip was when my son got spontaneously picked to have a sword-fighting lesson with Jack Sparrow outside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. That is a bit of magic for the kid -- and the parents. If my kid had been picked because he had the fancy-level bracelet, that would have been a lot less magical.

About the Author(s)

Laurianne McLaughlin

Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek.com

Laurianne McLaughlin currently serves as InformationWeek.com's Editor-in-Chief, overseeing daily online editorial operations. Prior to joining InformationWeek in May, 2011, she was managing editor at CIO.com. Her writing and editing work has won multiple ASBPE (American Society of Business Publication Editors) awards, including ASBPE's 2010 B2B Web Site of the year award for CIO.com. Previously, McLaughlin served as a senior editor, online for Business 2.0 and as a senior editor for PC World, where she started her technology journalism career in 1992 as a news reporter. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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