The Vacation Kingdom of the World: A MagicBand Reportby Tom Richards, contributing writer
A few weeks ago, I reflected on my experience using the new MyMagic+ as a planning tool for my family's upcoming visit to the Walt Disney World Resort in March. Today, I'd like to share some reflections on our experiences actually using the system throughout the Vacation Kingdom of the World. I am happily surprised to report that there are many things to like about MyMagic+ (I say surprised because so much of the reporting on MyMagic+ has been very, very negative). While I still cringe at the amount of money Disney spent on this system—funds that could have been used to build new attractions—I am glad that there are some very positive aspects to the whole "MagicBand" concept. There are, however, some frustrating aspects to MyMagic+ as well, things that Disney can certainly address as the program continues its massive rollout.
We registered our annual passes prior to departure, so our MagicBands arrived in our mailbox weeks before our visit. This saved us time once we arrived at Disney's Beach Club Resort. We also checked-in electronically—a first for me—and that also helped make our check-in quick and painless. The MagicBands are incredibly convenient at the resort for charging food and for opening the room door. It might sound like a little thing, but the fact that I no longer had to get the room key out of my wallet was great. Juggling backpacks, strollers, luggage, or bags no longer complicated the whole "getting into the room" routine. The ease of the MagicBand is a definite plus here. Because the Beach Club Resort has strict pool-use rules, the MagicBands also helped identify us as resort guests and put an end to the "show your resort key to get into the pool" routine. This was also a big plus.
MyMagic+ also made getting into the theme parks much easier. While I miss the turnstiles and the old paper/plastic tickets, nostalgia only goes so far. With a simple swipe of the MagicBand and a quick fingerprint identification swipe (for adults, not kids), we were able to breeze into the parks even during the extremely busy spring break season. The lack of turnstiles was wonderful for those of us who are still pushing strollers as well. I know it sounds silly, but there was a special kind of thrill waiting for the MyMagic+ Mickey light to turn green to signal our entrance into each Disney park.
Another positive aspect of the MagicBand is that when an attraction is down—as Maelstrom was for most of our day at Epcot—the system adjusts and allowed us to use our Fastpass at any time later in the day once the attraction was up and running. In addition to this perk, we appreciated the fact that we didn't have to start our Future World visit with mad dashes to Test Track or Soarin' to get Fastpass tickets before they were gone for the day. Securing our times for these high-demand attractions ahead of time enhanced our enjoyment of the park.
There are, however, some bothersome drawbacks to the MyMagic+ system. Some of the problems, no doubt, will be resolved either by Disney as the testing process continues or by guests as they become more familiar with the way the new Fastpass system works. One issue we encountered was a lack of flexibility. When the forecast called for rain, we considered changing our itinerary by switching a planned day at Disney's Animal Kingdom to a day at Disney's Hollywood Studios because so many of the attractions at the Studios are indoor experiences. Because we had already booked a block of Fastpass tickets for Animal Kingdom, however, we hesitated. The official Disney response would be that all we had to do was simply change all our Fastpass tickets; the problem is that takes time, a lot of time, on tedious tasks that feel more like work than vacation. While "playing on the computer" or playing with technology may be fun for some, for many of us, our careers demand that we spend an increasingly large part of each day in front of a screen of some sort. I don't know that I want to spend more time "on-line" while on vacation.
This leads to another issue: the necessity of access to email during vacation. While I dearly love my career, I value the time away from the pesky interruptions of email. The last thing I need on a vacation, especially a vacation spent in one of Disney's worlds, is an interruption that might break the carefully constructed and artfully crafted "scene" created by Disney Imagineers. In creating Disneyland, Walt Disney instructed his artists to remember that he didn't want guests to see the outside world. Email, and text messages, and planning on an iPad all smack of the "outside" world that many of us want to avoid while on vacation.
Another frustration for us was partly our own doing. We "wasted" many of our three Fastpass tickets on attractions that would not have needed them at the times we selected. For example, the kids love the Finding Nemo attraction at Epcot's Living Seas as well as the accompanying Turtle Talk with Crush. On previous visits, we found that the lines for both of these attractions could be very long indeed. As a result, we used two of our three Fastpass tickets on these attractions only to find that at the time of day we had selected, there were virtually no lines. Again, we could choose not to use the passes and use them for other attractions later in the day—but that necessitated a break in the "flow" of our day, would take time and attention away from the kids, and would depend on the availability of Fastpass tickets for other attractions. As we become more familiar with the system and as Disney hopefully listens to guest feedback, these sorts of issues will be sorted out and addressed.
One major problem with the system is the amount of cast members needed to man the many MyMagic+ kiosks scattered across property. Theses kiosks not only clutter pathways and take over entire shops—like Sid Cahuenga's One of a Kind Shop and the Heritage House—but they waste valuable vacation time waiting in a line for help to avoid lines. It's really sort of crazy.
The worst part of the MyMagic+ system, however, is one that is difficult to articulate. As we looked around the parks, theaters, restaurants, busses, monorails, even attractions themselves, we continuously observed guests looking down at their devices, be they phones or tablets. So many guests, I would estimate up to a third of them, seemed more engrossed in their electronic devices than the beauty of the theme park around them. It is, of course, difficult to assign a cause for this phenomenon. Is it a reflection of our culture or is it due to the new MyMagic+ dependence on technology? More than likely, it's a cultural trend. But the MyMagic+ concept almost demands, and at times requires, guests to consult with their phone continuously throughout the day. It seems to me that with this technological intrusion, many of the simpler pleasures of vacationing are irrevocably damaged almost beyond recognition. Surely experiencing the Disney parks is more stimulating than checking wait times or reading trivia on an electronic device. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I would much rather sit on one of the many inviting porches scattered throughout the Disney World property and visit with family, people watch, or enjoy the view than look down at my phone.
I must admit that despite all the stories of doom and gloom I've read online, the MyMagic+ system does have its merits. Nonetheless, the basic philosophy behind it all, and the dubious corporate motives for the system in the first place, continue to bother me. Thus far, however, MyMagic+ has not tainted our enjoyment of the Vacation Kingdom of the World. As of April 2, 2014, Disney announced that improvements to the system - including more than three Fastpass tickets a day as well as the ability to Park Hop and make reservations at multiple parks - are in the works. Let's hope that as Disney continues to refine the system, it might eventually add to the enjoyment of the experience of Walt Disney World.