I am a little late posting this as my Walt Disney World trip is now nearly three months in the past, but I do want to give my thoughts on the MyMagic+ system that is now rolling out property wide. For those of you who may be unaware, MyMagic+ is the “Next Gen” system that incorporates your park tickets, room key, FastPasses, and payment all into one central place. The various paper and plastic keys and tickets have been replaced by the MagicBand, a wrist worn accessory that activates simply by touching against a receiver, and by the mobile app.1
FastPass – Take One
I remember when the original FastPass first launched for testing back in 1999. We used it at Animal Kingdom, the only park that had it available at the time. We take line skipping programs for granted now that they have invaded virtually every theme park on earth, but this was a pretty radical idea at the time. Disney was attempting to solve the problem of excessive wait times. Many guests, particularly those who had never been there before, could often find themselves in multi hour waits for the most popular attractions. FastPass was an attempt to solve that.
And it frightened a lot of people. The fear was that this would destroy the casual nature if a visit, forcing you to excessively plan your trip around FastPass return times. Keep this complaint in kind for later. There was also a fear that Disney would start charging for the privilege to use the system, creating a class system in what was supposed to be a great equalizer of entertainment (for those who can afford the ticket in the first place anyway).2 Every single other park in the world has done this. Their line skipping system is a revenue stream. But Disney has stayed true to its original idea. Anyone with a ticket can use FastPass. No extra cost required.
Those of us who traveled to Walt Disney World frequently became very, very good at using FastPass. We all had our strategy to get in, get the passes we wanted in the order we wanted, and hop around the park like mad avoiding nearly every line we could. This was great for the experts, but if you had never encountered FastPass before, you probably didn’t get nearly the use out of it as you should have. You didn’t know that the “right” way to get a FastPass was to send the fastest member of your group to run to the most popular attraction before the passes ran out.3 You didn’t know that you should get your next pass as soon as you could, even if you had to cross the park to get it.
It was messy. Groups split up, people ran from end to end of the park trying to plan around available windows like some kind of massive real world board game. Something felt very wrong ditching my parents the moment we walked in to Studios to run to Toy Story Mania, everyone’s ticket in hand, to secure that very difficult to get FastPass. Not really the way your vacation was supposed to go. Meanwhile technology started to move in. And Disney decided it was time to change.
So Disney put a lot of money into a complete overhaul of the system. For the past several years they have been installing RFID readers at every attraction, hotel room, check out counter, and even their bus station at the airport. The key to all of this is the MagicBand, a small wrist band that acts as an RFID transmitter. Simply tap it on any receiver to activate. Your reservations, tickets, and credit card all work through the band. The idea is that once you arrive, this one device will do everything for you. It is managed through either the website or the mobile app.
For the first time, FastPass times can be booked in advance up to 60 days. Previously the system was purely first come first served, day of only (with a few minor exceptions).
This frightened people even more. Now not only would you need to plan your day when you walk into the park, now you had to do it two months in advance. Dining reservations already suffered this years ago with the addition of the Disney Dining Plan. No longer could you walk up to a restaurant and get a table, now you had to make a reservation very early, in some cases a whole six months in advance.
Much digital ink has been spilled on Disney fan sites on both sides of this particular debate. I finally got to try out the system in January for marathon weekend. What follows are my thoughts on how well the system worked.
My first encounter with MyMagic+ was before I even set foot on Disney property. The MagicBand is now your ticket to board Disney’s Magical Express. No issues here for me, I just tapped the band and got in line for my bus. But I wonder how many people don’t read that you should carry on the band and end up with it in their luggage. Since Disney gets your luggage for you if you use Magical Express, you wouldn’t have the band on at this point. I am sure they have a way around this, but it is something to keep in mind.
Then I got to the Contemporary check in, and this is where the glitchiness of the system first became apparent. Now it should be noted that this year was a more difficult check in due to the weather conditions here in the frozen northeast. The room reservation was under my mother’s name, but my parents’ flight was canceled and they were not rebooked until a much later flight. So she called and changed the reservation to my name. This worked well enough but did seem to confuse everyone’s credit cards for the rest of the trip.
So I got to check in and things seemed to be moving forward fine, until suddenly everything stopped. Everything. Apparently the computer system had crashed, and they were trying to get in back up and running. This was not a fast process. It ended up taking over half an hour to check in to the room. Yikes. Not a great intro to the system.4
Once I finally got checked in I went to the room and got in with no issue. Then off to he parks. I honestly was holding my breath when trying to enter hoping the MagicBand would recognize my ticket. This was the first time I bought in advance in a while to tie it to the MagicBand in order to make FastPass+ reservations. Thankfully it worked fine. Breezed right in. The new turnstile-free entrance seemed slightly faster than the old way, but not a night and day difference.
This is probably the most visible feature of MyMagic+ and was perhaps the most worrisome for frequent vacationers. Do I really want to plan my entire day two months before I go? Actually, let’s go back two months to when I tried to make the reservations. I was successful, mostly. The one snag was for my father. He intended to buy an annual pass when he got down there. So he didn’t have park admission yet. Unfortunately this meant he could not reserve ride times. I was able to buy my ticket and not activate it’s first day until I got down there, but he was not. He either had to buy it now and lose two months on the pass or wait to get down there and not make ride reservations until then. There needs to be a way to address this. Lots of people get annual passes strategically, not always renewing at the end of each if the next trip is months off.
But aside from that FastPass+ worked very well. I was able to get in to each attraction without issue. The most immediate benefit is that the mad dash just after the entrance was a thing of the past. We walked in together and stayed together. Vacationing like its 1999!
But the biggest benefit came at the end of the trip. On my last day I went to Animal Kingdom to buy my Everest race photo from the marathon the day before. My FastPasses were for Magic Kingdom. The bus from Animal Kingdom to Magic Kingdom was was being incredibly slow of course, and I wasn’t going to make it in time to use my FastPass. But then it occurred to me, use the app. I took out my iPhone, rebooked my ride time for later in the afternoon, and that was that. That alone made it worthwhile for me.5
This made me realize that I had been thinking about FastPass+ all wrong. It’s not about booking in advance as much as it is reserving the option. When 60 days rolls around, book your rides. But when the day of comes around, be sure to use the ability to edit right from your phone to make adjustments. It’s not about being on time to your attractions, it’s about picking attractions once you are in the park.
The downside to all of this is that there are limits. Way more than before. You can only get three passes per day. They must all be in the same park6, and in the case of Epcot and Studios, you are forced to choose by grouping, meaning you can only get one of the top tier at those parks for the day.
One final note on this. I did get to experience a breakdown at Toy Story Mania. I knew they would have to have a plan for this, and they did. I got an email letting me know there was a problem. The message gave me two options. Either wait for the attraction to reopen, at which point my FastPass would be usable for the rest of that day at any time, or choose a different attraction. I choose to wait, and indeed about an hour later Toy Story was back.
Overall I really enjoyed FastPass+. This was a big area of concern, but so far the system seems to be working well and mostly as advertised.
Not nearly as big a deal, at least in the public consciousness, but using your MagicBand as a room key is awesome. Well, when it works anyway. I loved being able to walk right up to the door and just tap it to go in to my room. No need to fumble for a wallet.
The downside is that when there is a problem, you pretty much have no choice but to go back to the front desk. And this happened a few times. My parents could not get in when they first arrived. I could, except that a few days later it randomly stopped working. No idea why. It was fixed easily enough, but it’s a pain having to go back to the front desk to fix.
Another big feature of the MagicBand is the ability to attach a credit card to it for purchases while on property. This is both great and terrifying depending on your viewpoint. To be clear, the only new thing here is the MagicBand. You have always had the ability to charge back to the room. This is actually better as different members of the family can have different cards attached to their own band.
But this is where we found the most glaring bug in the system. Somehow my credit card got attached to my mother’s band, and she inadvertently charged a purchase back to me. Now it’s my mother, so no big deal. But I could see it being a very big problem with groups of friends who may not realize what is happening until they get their bill weeks later. This one absolutely must be fixed. I am now weary of using the band for payment due to this experience.
Tinfoil Mouse Ears
Of course, no discussion of MyMagic+ would be complete without mentioning the fact that Disney is, supposedly, tracking your every move throughout the property. Because…marketing or something. I have two answers for this.
1) If you have a problem with a large company marketing to you, what the hell are you doing at Walt Disney World in the first place?
2) While data from the system will no doubt be used for research, it’s not like they will be following you personally. This data is useful only in aggregate. Individual data points actually have little value otherwise. And the computing power and infrastructure that would have to be in place to track minute to minute movements would be obscene, with nearly no benefit to actually doing it.
Parents have full control over children’s information. And for adults, unless you travel under pseudonyms and pay only cash, they and everyone else have already been collecting data before this existed. And you know they have security cameras there right?7
Of all the data about me I would want to keep secret, my FastPass times ranks pretty low. Credit cards are a problem yes, but that information is not stored in the band. It’s stored in a central server that you don’t have access to. The band is merely the key to this information.
I like the MagicBand. I really do. This is something I love about Disney. They try to incorporate new technology into the parks in a way that truly can enhance the experience. And at no additional cost by the way. Other theme parks would have used this as a way to sell you on a whole separate ticket. Kind of like how they all jumped on FastPass but warped it into a money pit for their guests. I applaud Disney for keeping this a free service.
If I had to label any part of this a failure it is that I was not able to simply leave my wallet in the room. I didn’t trust the system enough to not have my credit cards, cash, and ID on me. And my sister actually ran into this when trying to buy an annual passholder pin. Turns out she needed the actual pass as the MagicBand could not be used for this purpose.8 There is still work to do if they want this to outright replace our overstuffed wallets.
There are bugs to work out for sure. And those uncomfortable with technology are admittedly at a disadvantage. But I think they did as good a job as can be asked at keeping this relatively simple. The real test will be in a few years after the dust settles and we have lived with it a while. Personally I think we will look back at paper tickets the way we look back at the pre smartphone days. A simpler time perhaps, but I don’t want to go back there.
- The downside to the MagicBand for someone like me is that it caused a bit of wearable overload. I was already wearing a Pebble and Fitbit. Not to mention those wrist bands to prove I finished every race in the Dopey Challenge. It was a lot for my wrists to handle. ↩
- The class system has unfortunately emerged anyway, just along the lines of Disney Vacation Club and Annual Passholders. ↩
- On the other hand, way too many people “knew” that they should send one person for a group of 30. And of course, you always ended up behind that guy in line at the FastPass kiosk. ↩
- The poor cast members have all joined the IT department whether they like it or not. ↩
- This is the new strategy really. Just grab any three for the day, then change as you need. ↩
- This seems especially odd since they charge a premium for park hopping capability. ↩
- And security staff. Eyes are on you at all times no matter what. Whether or not you think it’s creepy, it is the reality of the world that Disney needs to take extreme caution at such a high profile, high capacity place. ↩
- Although they ended up selling them to us anyway. ↩