Technology at Disney

Last week’s vacation was primarily at Disney World. Thanks to a long-ago recommendation from Ernie, Robin and I knew about the villas on property at Disney — part of the Disney Vacation Club (Disney’s time-share system), they’re available to guests when space permits. We each ended up staying in 2 bedroom villas, which gave us full kitchens, separate bedrooms for the kids and us, and a little bit of space when kids were napping, sleeping, etc.

The trip itself was wonderful — lots of memorable moments with the kids, some great meals — but what really stood out for me was Disney’s embrace of technology to make the experience better. Some things that worked, some that didn’t:

  • Disney’s Magical Gatherings software. Designed to be a social software app to help plan the vacation, this was a bust. In theory it’s great: everyone who’s involved in the vacation can maintain a calendar, take notes, share a web browser… but in execution it’s a few rungs short on the ladder. Since our vacation had an ID associated with it (to streamline the confirmation process), it wouldn’t have been hard for the Magical Gatherings software to actually show us what had been reserved on our confirmation #. In addition, a number of scripting errors (something to do with IE) repeatedly caused the app to crash (or at least hiccup), and e-mails to the Disney web team were not effective in fixing the problem. I think this will be a great tool in another year, right now it’s just not ready.
  • PAL Mickey. We didn’t do this, but I saw it in use throughout the parks and it’s pretty cool. It’s a location-aware stuffed animal that will tell kids things about where they are. Kids will learn things about the attractions nearby, which characters are due to show up around the corner, that kind of thing. Great use of the technology, and something the kids can enjoy after they get home (when it turns into a “normal” stuffed animal that the kids can play with).
  • Memory cards. My laptop died on the first day of the vacation, leaving us unable to download pictures off of our memory stick from the digital camera… which meant that after a couple days we were almost out of room. My sister-in-law was behind someone in line at a camera store and overheard the register clerk mention burning a CD… turns out that every register has a stand-alone device that reads 10-15 different memory card formats and burns the data directly to a rewritable CD. As you take more pictures, you can just bring the CD in and they’ll add the new pictures to the CD. $12.95 to buy the CD and burn the initial set of pictures, a few additional bucks to add new pictures to the CD. Only complaint? Nobody seemed to know about this — definitely a convenient service that more would take advantage of if they knew about it.
  • Disney Photo Pass. Talk about a great idea: have Disney photographers roam the parks taking pictures of guests who ask for it. They’re stationed in front of the obvious locations: Cinderella’s castle at Magic Kingdom, Mickey’s hat at MGM Studios, in front of the dome at Epcot, the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom, as well as at various other spots. After your first set of pictures, you get a magnetic stripe card, which the photographers swipe at each subsequent shoot. All photos are tagged with a unique ID code and then uploaded to, where you punch in your ID and see all your photos. Any that you like you can order hard copies of, or just share the electronic copies with friends and family.

  • Disney Fast Pass. My brother (the MBA and logistics whiz) spent the better part of two days trying to understand the math behind the Fast Pass, a line management system that is really rather remarkable. Take a popular ride (my boys’ favorite, the Buzz Lightyear ride) that might generate lines of an hour or more. Since Disney knows how many people are in the park, and on average how many people go through each line per day, they can manage the queue by telling you when to return. So if you get a fast pass at 10am, you might get a window of 11:30am to 12:30pm — once you return, you bypass the “standby” (aka “the regular line”) and go right to the front, where your wait is usually less than 5 minutes. There’s a set number of fast passes per day, and you can get a second fast pass once the window for your first fast pass has started (in the earlier example, that means you could get a second at 11:35am). This is a marvel of crowd management and statistical modeling that I don’t pretend to understand, but the end result is you can generally do more in the park while spending less time in the lines: when you’re with a 3 and a 5 year-old, that’s a beautiful thing.

We were at Disney two years ago and were quite impressed with Disney’s attention to detail, the mastery of the minutiae that ensures that the park visitors don’t need to deal with problems or unexpected occurrences. It’s obvious that the Disney folks continue to ask how they could improve the overall experience, and use mostly transparent technology (the best kind!) to just make it easier to enjoy the day and get the most out of the park.

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