Far beyond the costumes and the characters, there are parts of the Magic Kingdom that feel like you're exploring a living, breathing time capsule. Rides and attractions are immaculately preserved slices of Americana, reminiscent of simpler times, holding the same wonder for today's digitally-bombarded children as they did for kids half a century ago.
Just recently, rides like It's A Small World, with its dozens of all-singing-all-dancing animatronic dolls, have borne witness to a very modern tech infusion, one which seamlessly augments the enchantment without detracting from it. This quiet revolution comes via the MagicBand and new MagicBand 2 wristbands, coupled with a vast network of interconnected long-range sensors and short-range RFID touch points installed around the park.
Disney is the fourth largest purveyor of wearable tech in the world
Walt Disney World has distributed over 30 million MagicBands, amazingly making it the fourth largest purveyor of wearable tech devices on earth. In just a couple of years, this tech has come to underpin almost every aspect of the trip-to-Disney experience. It's your hotel room key and payment device, it houses your park entry ticket and your pre-booked FastPass selections; it unlocks multiple interactive experiences around the park and ensures all photos are synced, seamlessly, back to the other key element, the My Disney Experience mobile app.
In the case of It's A Small World, which has been a fixture in the park since it opened in 1971, FastPass+ holders enter the boat ride by tapping their MagicBand on a contact point, summoning a green lighting effect. Some riders will even see their names appear on a display before disembarking. Yet this is only a small selection of its capabilities.
It's the photography ecosystem that's unlike anything I've experienced at a theme park before. Shortly after a meet-and-greet with none other than Mickey Mouse, the photo simply appeared within the app, ready to be saved or shared on social media. The official snappers, roaming the park with high-end DSLRs, will simply scan your MagicBand to identify your account and deliver the precious memory to the app almost instantly.
On classic rides like Space Mountain, it's even smarter. Longer-range sensors communicate with the RFID chip inside the MagicBand to pinpoint your carriage, allowing delivery of those embarrassingly awesome in-ride snaps. While casually checking the app to plan our next steps, photos from three different rides were waiting for me. No more crowding around screens, no more waiting in line to buy the photos or having to decide on the spot whether they're worth the money. It just works really well.
Of course there could be the danger that the MagicBand makes everything too slick - sometimes hiccups and mistakes result in classic family memories. But just because official Disney photogs are capturing your son or daughter all natural, beaming and chatting to Moana doesn't mean you can't take your own posed smartphone snap, complete with thumb smudge.
One with the Force?
Beyond photos and FastPasses, one of the more fun MagicBand-centric experiences was the Pirates Of The Caribbean-inspired treasure hunt within Adventureland. You use a paper map to find clues and tap the MagicBand on various icons unlock audio and visual cues. Check it out in the video below.
This was a blast and it's obvious these kind of interactive experiences represent a big potential growth area for the MagicBands, now the infrastructure is in place. Dan Soto, Disney World's VP of Digital Experience, tells us as much. "This platform will never be complete. We are going to look at building things up in the future," he says.
Pandora, the World of Avatar (May 2017), and Star Wars Land (2019) are the next big arrivals. Thinking of Sphero's Force Band, I ask: "Can we expect some MagicBand experiences that enable visitors to *waves hand* "use The Force?"
"We'll always look for opportunities to integrate the MagicBand," he adds, coyly. "We're not prepared to divulge anything Star Wars-related yet, but your mind is going in the right direction. There's a number of cool things you can do with this technology over time."
Bah. You tease!
Introducing MagicBand 2
As recently as February, Disney refreshed the hardware line-up by releasing the MagicBand 2. The basic tech is the same, but the band is slimmer and the key components now sit within a pop-out core. Disney knows it is competing for wrist real estate with smartwatches and fitness trackers, so this enables a medallion to sit within new lanyards and carabiners called MagicKeepers. It also enables colour customisation, if wearers want to spice things up.
For guests at Disney's on-campus resorts, the MagicBand 2 is complementary ($12.95 to buy). It is sent out 5 - 10 days before the vacation commences loaded with all park tickets and FastPass reservations made prior to the trip. According to Disney, 99% of resort guests have adopted them, over traditional key cards.
"This also unlocks some pretty revolutionary use cases," says Dan Soto. "You can check in online using My Disney Experience and we text you your room location. When you arrive, there is no going to a front desk to check in. You already have your room key."
It's also totally waterproof, so you can take a dip and pay for a cocktail at the poolside bar by tapping on the payment terminal. Don't worry we tested this too. The lengths we go to‚Ä¶
Indeed, provided you've synced a payment method, this is also great for inside the park use. You can pay for all food, drink and merchandise using the MagicBand making it possible to leave your wallet and cash behind, all while making park entry and FastPass usage totally paperless.
MagicBand's next trick
There are loads of places Disney could still go with the MagicBand, an inexpensive but exciting piece of tech. Given its success, could a more premium upgrade be available in the future? I pitched them the idea of GPS to locate lost children (though the existing RFID network could probably assist with this) and a step tracker so visitors could see how far they'd walked in the park.
"We're always going to look for opportunities to innovate and make the experience better, but we're not necessarily trying to take over the wearable industry," says Dan Soto.
"Our goal is way more simple, way more pure. It's 'how do we leverage wearables to make your vacation experience as great as it can be'. If that means that someday there's a great use case for introducing fitness tracking or something more, then it's something that we may entertain."
After the interview, it dawned on me there are opportunities for Disney to be a force for good in this space. Perhaps a step-tracking MagicBand could be used to help tackle childhood obesity? Given the MagicBands are sent out to resort guests pre-vacation, such a tracker could be used to incentivise exercise. Perhaps something that allows children to work towards goals and build up rewards that could then be redeemed in the park? It would also given children a sense they were earning their vacation. Work ethic!
We all know the very best wearable devices are the ones that offer cast iron use cases. Disney's MagicBand and Experience app ecosystem arguably does this as well as anything we cover.
The app, updated on 31 March, is just as important. As well as hosting your photos, it also gives you timings for FastPass reservations (which can be booked up to 60 days in advance), allowing you to all-but eliminate long queues. You can track your position live on the map, see wait times, make restaurant reservations, pre-order food and even shop for merchandise and have items delivered to your hotel rather than lugging them around the park all day.
My time using the MagicBand and its mobile companion over a 24-hour period was precisely as advertised. A seamless, liberating experience that made it possible just soak up the atmosphere and lose myself in the childlike joy this place conjures, even in a 35-year old bloke, essentially at the park to work.
I can imagine those feelings of liberation are multiplied tenfold when you're on holiday with an army of excited-one-minute-screaming-the-next kids to contend with. Especially if you are one of those kids. Even as an impatient, easily-annoyed observer, my experience was more enjoyable for not having to wait behind people faffing about with 15 different FastPass tickets in the blazing Orlando heat.
No fumbling in pockets for tickets and passes, no need to carry cash or credit cards, no worries about losing hotel room keys‚Ä¶ and oh look, there's Tinkerbell on the back of a parade float.