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A long, long time ago, on February 17, 2011, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs spoke at the Disney Investors Conference and made a few comments that caused quite a stir within the Disney Internet community. I penned an article referencing those comments and if you'd like to see how good a prognosticator I am, you can read it here.


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Mr. Staggs' comments referenced Disney's new concept, the Next Generation Initiative, and he spoke of several of its promised components. We can already see evidence of the initiative in the interactive elements added to a number of attraction queues such as the Haunted Mansion, Soarin', Space Mountain, Dumbo, etc.


Part of the interactive queue at the Haunted Mansion. Photo by Steve Russo.

We can also see the initiative at work in the not-yet-complete Fantasyland expansion, as well as the re-imagining of Downtown Disney as Disney Springs, where the construction is now underway.


Part of the Fantasyland expansion. Photo by Steve Russo.

In this article, I'd like to focus on two distinct and related components of the initiative: MagicBands and FastPass+. I would be negligent to discuss these two features without also delving into the program called MyMagic+ and another of its components, My Disney Experience. I know there's probably a great deal of confusion with these new terms and programs, so let's see if we can sort some of it out.

Before we do, let me explain where I'm getting my "insider" information. As part of a Disney-themed newsgroup, I've had the opportunity to interact online with a Disney Imagineer. Debbi goes by the online name of Admiral Boom (AB for short), and has been wonderful at dispelling misinformation and providing the straight scoop in many areas where, frankly, there's not a lot of detailed information available. I will point out that Admiral Boom will only share information that is not considered proprietary or "Disney confidential," so we'll not incur any corporate wrath here.

Boom has given me the go-ahead to share some of this information here on MousePlanet, provided I issue the following caveat: "These systems are still in test mode and will undoubtedly be tweaked and changed as Disney learns from the testing process. I can provide information on how things work today as long as you understand that tomorrow may be different."

Got all that?

Let's begin by identifying and clarifying the new buzzwords:

MyMagic+

This is the term used to identify the program that includes many new features such as My Disney Experience, MagicBands and FastPass+

My Disney Experience

My Disney Experience is an online (Web site) and a mobile app that helps you manage all aspects of your Walt Disney World vacation. You can find the Web site on the menu bar of the official Walt Disney World Web page. The mobile app is now available free for IOS (Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch) and Droid devices. I'm hearing that additional technologies will be rolled out in the (near?) future.

In My Disney Experience, you can manage all your vacation plans in one place. This includes your travel group, hotel reservations, ticket media, dining reservations, FastPass+, Disney PhotoPass and more. As you link in members of your travel group, they can see all these plans in action and view updates as they occur.

The mobile app will sync with the Web and provide all your vacation details on the mobile device you carry into the parks. The mobile My Disney Experience also contains tons of park and resort information detailing park hours, attractions, restaurants, shows and more. As an added bonus, the app offers current attraction wait times and the current time window being offered for FastPass distribution.

MagicBands

MagicBands are wristbands that contain RFID devices. These MagicBands will identify the wearer and link to several databases that will contain your reservation, ticket media, FastPass+, dining reservations and more. We'll discuss the technology later but, for now, just know that the "radio frequency" signal transmitted from the device can be read by a receiving station, which may be located:

  • At Disney's Magical Express (DME) location in Orlando International Airport, allowing boarding of a DME bus to a resort;
  • On a resort room door allowing guest entry;
  • At a theme park entrance where ticket media may be verified and entry allowed;
  • At the FastPass+ queue in an attraction, verifying the existence and timeframe of a FastPass;
  • At checkout counters for shops and restaurants throughout Walt Disney World allowing for charges to your resort account.

FastPass+

FastPass+ will allow you to lock in FastPasses for select attractions before you leave home. Currently, the limit is three attractions per day in a single theme park. I know this feature has caused a lot of consternation as people have voiced concerns over planning their entire vacation "months in advance." As one who has just begun using FastPass+, I really think it will be a positive for most of us.

What's the technology used in the MagicBands?

First, it's important to note that Disney World has, for some time, been issuing Key To The World (KTTW) cards with RFID chips imbedded. If you've been to the resorts in the past 10-12 months, you've probably noticed that you can open your hotel room door by tapping the card against a plate. Likewise, you can tap against a Mickey-head reader to charge items to your room. You probably also noticed the conversion of the entry turnstiles at the parks to these new Mickey-head readers. The MagicBands are simply a different, and hopefully easier, way to carry the RFID device.


You can customize your MagicBands.

Per Admiral Boom:

"We have several types of MagicBands in test. One of these (internal testing only) has a near-field device on-board. This device can be both a communications device and a power transfer device, allowing a MagicBand to be recharged. The range for the RFID device in a card or MagicBand is approximately 4 inches, on a good day. The RFID device is powered by the radio signal sent to it by the station in use—it has no power source of its own. This is important because we don't want the cards or MagicBands to supply any information to a device unless you very much intend that to happen. The RFID devices cannot be turned off but they do wear out over time.

The MagicBand contains additional devices that the (KTTW) cards do not have. These devices are powered by an internal battery. The core of these additional devices operates using a Wi-Fi signal (on a different band than guest cell phones do) and thus has a bigger range. The range actually depends on the type of MagicBand (which translates to 'type of antenna' for the technological types). The MagicBands we have been testing should have a 20-meter radius (minimum), at full power."


Park entry with MagicBands. Image by Disney.

How long will they last?

Per Admiral Boom:

"The cards and MagicBands are reusable on future visits, of course. The cards could theoretically last 10 years or so. I'm not sure what happens internally as they deteriorate but our spec (and price point) was for a 10 year lifespan (minimum). The MagicBands have a shorter life but that is because of the battery. The MagicBands are potted (filled with a hard foam, which makes them waterproof and not easily reverse-engineered) and sealed, so the battery is not replaceable. They pretty much shut down when there is no matching equipment in range so they will have a good shelf life—but if you are in the parks every week, expect to replace the MagicBands on the order of once per year."

Are there other uses for MagicBands?

A question about finding a specific person (or lost child) was posed. While this is not its intended use, Admiral Boom did address the issue:

"With that kind of range, and with mesh-cell antennas all over the place (in the parks anyway ...), we have the ability to locate (and track) a particular MagicBand, should the need arise. I should also add in here that when we do 'track' guest movements, the data collected is totally anonymouse (Author's note: "Anonymouse" is Boom's term but I like it), and for statistical analysis only. Locating someone using their MagicBand is considered an emergency situation and is treated accordingly."

How safe is my information?

In this age of rampant identity theft, I know many are concerned about the security of their information. Admiral Boom:

"On the other hand, the MagicBand does broadcast an ID of sorts and that ID, combined with select information, can be used at an attraction or restaurant to advantage. We are currently encoding a guest's first name, home resort, and medical (allergy) information in this 'packet', which is sent to receiving stations (at attractions and restaurants). The ability to do this (and what information to make available) is under the guest's control. In addition, the receiving stations can not record or track the information."

I will add here that using the MagicBand to settle a bill in a table service restaurant will have the server bring a mobile device to your table. You will then "tap" the MagicBand to the device to charge the bill to your room account. In my opinion, this is much more secure than handing a charge card to a server and having them disappear for 10 minutes with it.

How does My Disney Experience work?

I'll offer my personal experience here. The Web site is fairly easy to use although it could be a bit more intuitive (in my opinion, of course). You'll have to go through several steps to be positioned to use My Disney Experience to manage your vacation(s). These steps include creating and linking the members of your travel party, linking your resort reservations, ticket media and dining reservations. This isn't difficult but it is a bit time-consuming.


Begin by customizing My Disney Experience.

Once done, however, all your vacation information is available in one location and that information is automatically synced to the mobile app so, home or away, it's at your fingertips. Once you're set up, any additional reservations or changes that are made will be linked automatically. No longer will you need to be concerned about copying and re-keying lengthy reservation numbers.


The My Disney Experience mobile app contains lots of information.

How do I make FastPass+ reservations?

Again, this could change. In my experience, the ability to access FastPass+ became available 60 days prior to my check-in date. It was very easy to do but, again, a bit time consuming.

For each day of my vacation, I could select three attractions within a single theme park. I could also use a "Quick Pick" and Disney would select three attractions for me. The system returns with four sets of FastPass time windows—one recommended and three alternatives. I was allowed to choose any of the four options.

I will say that I wasn't always pleased with all the time windows—I might have a FastPass for Soarin' at 9:00, Mission: Space at 10:00 and Test Track at 3:30 when I knew I wouldn't still be in Epcot. I did find it easy to go back in and modify one of the attractions, either replacing the attraction or changing the time frame.

Do I have to use FastPass+?

In a word, no. FastPass+ will eventually replace today's FastPass system but you can use it, or not, the same as you could today. If you don't have access to a computer or mobile device, there will be stations throughout the parks for use in securing FastPass+. There will also be cast members outfitted with iPads roaming around to assist guests where needed.

What if I want to make changes to dining or FastPass+ reservations?

I know that I frequently change plans at the last minute and visit Epcot instead of Hollywood Studios (as an example). I will have the ability to change those FastPass+ reservations on the fly, within availability, of course. The same is true for dining reservations and, as evidence, last January I successfully canceled a dining reservation and made another—all from my iPod Touch while waiting for a bus at Animal Kingdom.

Will this mean I won't be able to get FastPasses in the parks?

I'll let the Admiral respond to this:

"The premise is that we can take some percentage of the FastPasses available in the parks and turn them over to the vacation planners, to be used as a perk for pre-planning one's stay (and/or for staying on property). The goal is to minimize the impact of doing that to the already successful, current program. In the end, one will still be able to walk into a park and get FastPasses, just like we can today. The FastPass is not a reservation. It does not hold up other guests or contribute to attraction loading unless it is used. The new "system" allows us to dynamically modify an attraction's loading pattern, right up to the last second. This will take some getting used to (for us) but it in no way means that we want to change the rules."

By the way, we don't expect pre-arranged FastPasses to be a major item. Studies have shown us that the majority of our guests don't want to pre-plan their vacations to that level."

Summary

So there you have it. I know there are probably tons more questions but I'm viewing this portion of Disney's Next Generation Initiative as a real positive. I've not been a heavy FastPass user but will likely create a number of advance FastPass+ reservations to keep "in my pocket" just in case.

The real benefit, at least to me, is the single location within My Disney Experience to house all my vacation information—to have it available on my computer back home, the laptop I bring to the hotel room or the device I carry in my pocket. And I also have the ability to easily share that with all members of my travel party.

Let me leave you with one final piece of advice from Admiral Boom:

"What did I forget ? Oh yes, the self-destruct device. Just don't push the little red button on the back of the MagicBand, OK?"



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(Send an email to Steve Russo)

Steve's a Disney Vacation Club member that has been planning Walt Disney World vacations since 1984. Along the way, he's tried to learn everything he could about the Disney World resorts, restaurants and theme parks. He brings you that knowledge via planning tips and insights, often delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

His three children are now grown but still vacation at Walt Disney World with Mom and Dad. The clan has increased to include a daughter-in-law, two sons-in-law and grandchildren. Steve is now retired and he and his wife, Barbara anxiously await their next visit to the World.

Steve is the author of So... You're Going to Disney World: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the planning process.