Home » The Billion Dollar Bet Disney Made to Get Rid of Lines at Walt Disney World

    The Billion Dollar Bet Disney Made to Get Rid of Lines at Walt Disney World

    Main Street

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    That’s a quote from British science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey” and wrote many other award-winning pieces. Clarke’s sentiment, one of his three “laws” for predicting the future, can surely be applied to MagicBands, those colorful bracelets that are literally a key to the Magic Kingdom and much more.

    Read on to find out the interesting story behind how these bands got their start and what’s ahead for this pioneering technology in the near future.

    One little spark of inspiration

    Main Street

    Several years back, a team of five Imagineers and executives were given the task of eliminating any friction that guests experienced at Walt Disney World. Annoyances such as long lines for rides, losing tickets and waiting at park entrances could be avoided somehow, and this group just needed to find a way to make that happen. The team first delivered a drawing of the Magic Kingdom that no longer had turnstiles, and from that single idea, a cascade of others followed.

    While the vision of overhauling the entire park was met with excitement from some and fear from others, the team pressed on. The group was especially entranced by an up and coming form of wearable technology – particularly the Nike SportBand, which is similar to a FitBit. The SportBand collected information from a heart-rate monitor and pedometer and fed the information to a display on the user’s wrist. Nike used the SportBands to track runners’ results in events such as the virtual 10K global Human Race, and the Disney team thought that maybe a band could be the key to unlocking everything at the parks too.


    The team wasn’t immediately sold on the band being on a wrist, though. Members first considered lanyards and even Mickey Mouse ears, but wristbands were ultimately agreed upon and in early 2010, the team’s vision began to get off the ground. The team’s lab was a former theater in the backlot area of Hollywood Studios, right next to Toy Story Midway Mania. The theater appeared to guests to be closed, with blacked-out windows, but inside, the team worked feverishly on their big idea while an oblivious public just kept on walking past. (The building was also freezing cold – probably from the ride’s air conditioning system next door – and the team bundled up in sweatshirts and blankets given to them from the park’s gift shops.)

    In 2012, the space was turned into a showcase for the MagicBands. A full-scale demonstration of the brand new Walt Disney World experience was presented to Disney’s board of directors, with each step in the form of curtained-off “rooms.” In these rooms, the board got to feel what it was like to pick out rides from home, take Disney’s Magical Express to a hotel, check into a resort, bypass the standby line at Space Mountain and book a restaurant. The immersive demonstration worked, and participants such as Disney CEO Bob Iger and Pixar board member John Lasseter loved what they saw. Disney’s board approved the $1 billion cost of rolling out the entire MyMagic+ system, which contains the MagicBands and their readers, plus the ride reservation web portal.

    Much more work followed in order to take the prototype into the real world, and in 2013, the first MagicBands were brought out for public tests. And while the rollout wasn’t without its hiccups – technical issues, outages and limited capability plagued the system when it was first started – most guests quickly adapted to the new technology.

    So how do they work?


    Inside each rubber wristband is an RFID chip and a transmitter, sort of like what’s in a cordless phone. RFID stands for “radio-frequency identification,” and it’s used all over the world in common items such as credit cards, keyless car entry remotes and video game controllers. Walt Disney World has used the technology for several years to control rides and parades, as well as to provide costuming services for cast members and laundry services for guests.

    The band’s battery will last for two years and the bands can be used on multiple vacations. The bands are synced up to a huge system of sensors throughout the parks, and the technology could at first seem intrusive and overwhelming, but Disney makes sure that it’s not.

    Standard, single-color MagicBands are free for guests who book a stay at a Disney resort hotel or have a Walt Disney World annual pass, and cost $12.95 plus tax for all other guests. The MagicBands are waterproof and they are easy to deactivate if they get lost. The company says that people who have pacemakers should typically keep their medical device 9 inches away from the MagicBand transmitters, and they say that people who have other medical devices, such as insulin pumps, hearing aids and neuro-stimulators, should check with their device manufacturer and physician before putting them near a MagicBand. 

    MyMagic+ essentially turns Walt Disney World into a huge computer, with real-time data streaming on what guests are doing and where they are. The system is designed to anticipate guests’ desires – often before they even know what those desires are themselves. Disney is leading the way on this technology, which Google, Apple, Facebook and other companies would love to employ as well (imagine going to a grocery store and having every item you put in your cart instantly scanned – you’d no longer have to wait in line to check out because all of your purchases would be debited from your bank account immediately). Though many appreciate technology that makes life easier for them, MagicBands (and MyMagic+) hasn’t been without its critics too. The bands can be read by long-range readers on rides, so what’s to stop them from being read by anybody with their own reader in the parks? What exactly will Disney do with all of this data? 

    MagicBands in use

    Disney says that the MagicBands let them authenticate a user and the benefits assigned to them by a randomly assigned code that links securely to an encrypted database. The company says the bands aren’t made to store any additional information about each user.

    Guests who are concerned about the technology can opt to forgo the bands in favor of the old plastic credit-card-like system, but Disney points out that some features, such as the instant delivery of ride snapshots to PhotoPass, won’t be available to those who aren’t wearing MagicBands.

    And guests who find it hard to enter their room with the bands on their wrist can simply snap them off before holding them up to their room door sensor – which is pretty practical since the bands will likely be coming off at the end of the day anyway.

    The system’s incoming data also lets Disney know where it needs to place more employees, and guests and workers spend less time on transactions that previously required cards and tickets.  The company has gained a new way of looking at the business and can focus on keeping supplies up and the customers who are continuously flowing through the park happy.


    Despite the fact that the technology is still relatively new, the MagicBands don’t really stand out on anyone’s wrist. They’re everywhere at the Florida parks, as common as wristwatches (before everyone started checking the time on their cell phones, that is).

    While some guests don’t like the fact that the bands make them do too much pre-planning before their trip (such as selecting rides and restaurants far in advance), Disney takes the position that, by guests pre-selecting the “big things” they want to do, it actually allows them to be more spontaneous in the park, without worrying about checking off each thing on their list. The choices of things to do are almost endless at Walt Disney World, and by making the choices easier, Disney hopes to inspire more guests to come back year after year. And guests aren’t required to pre-plan everything; there are still standby lines. But MyMagic+ takes some of the guesswork out of the dizzying array of options.

    MagicBand couple

    If Disney installs the same sensors that are available at Be Our Guest throughout Walt Disney World, even more personalization could be possible. Instead of guests rushing around trying to find Mickey and Goofy, those favorite characters could find them, even wishing a guest “happy birthday” by name. Cameras throughout the parks could capture a family’s candid adventures and weave those moments into a personalized movie. (Developers are already calling this the “Story Engine.”) Opportunities to improve customer service and leave positive impressions on guests could abound as well, as data could show that a guest has waited too long in a restaurant line and he will be emailed a coupon for a free Mickey ice cream bar, for example.

    Moneymaking Magic

    Mickey MagicBand

    The MagicBands have proven to be a big moneymaker for Disney as well. The extra funds that the company is raking in are helping to offset the spending that’s occurring before the company’s newest park, Shanghai Disneyland, opens.

    Some guests consider the bands to be collector’s items, and they race to get one in every color and design possible. Disney has made a noticable effort to pump out new character-focused MagicBands every few months, and limited edition bands exclusive to upcharge events have become quite the incentive for guests to pay that extra money to get an exclusive band.

    However, Disney isn’t the only one making money off of the MagicBand craze. Some enterprising Disney fans have also started their own businesses to make stickers and other embellishments for the bands.

    Disney: The company that’s leading others into the future

    Walt Disney

    Walt Disney was a man who seemed to always be focused on the future and what new ideas would come into focus. In 1955, Walt Disney dedicated Tomorrowland in Disneyland with the following words: “A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements … a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals: The Atomic Age, the challenge of outer space, and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.”

    And when he created the concept for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, toward the end of his life, he probably didn’t imagine the idea of a wristband replacing ride tickets, money, room keys and more. “EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are emerging from the forefront of American industry,” Disney reportedly said. “It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed. It will always be showcasing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.”  

    Now, the Disney company is at the forefront of the technology that has other big corporations keeping their eyes on it, and is truly showcasing and demonstrating new systems.

    MagicBand display

    Walt Disney World itself had a birthday on October 1, when it turned 44 years old, and all kinds of things are on the horizon for it as well as the company’s other parks across the globe. Walt Disney Imagineering developed a new form of ride system technology that features a trackless Pooh’s Hunny Hunt ride, with sensors embedded in the ride’s floor, at Tokyo Disneyland, and the technology is also part of Tokyo DisneySea’s Aquatopia ride and Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor (a version of the Haunted Mansion). And who knows, maybe soon that technology will come to Walt Disney World and be synced up with MagicBands for a completely unique ride experience for each guest.

    More benefits on the horizon

    MagicBand limited edition bands


    Keeping with the spirit of making things easier for its guests, Disney company officials have said that they plan to roll out more uses for MagicBands and MyMagic+ in the very near future. One development that is now in the works pertains to park transportation. One of the confusing things about Walt Disney World, for brand-new visitors, and sometimes even park veterans, is the resort’s transportation system. Many guests have endured long wait times for buses, monorails and boats, and even figuring out which mode of transportation to take in order to get to a specific destination in time for a FastPass+ window or Advanced Dining Reservation can be a challenge. But fortunately, help is on the way. There are now plans in place to add transportation options into the MyMagic+ system, so that guests can select certain options just like they would with a FastPass+ and view route times, stops and stations. This should make transportation much more easy to navigate for anyone at the parks.

    And another bit of technology that’s sure to be welcomed will let guests have the ability to receive notifications about their transportation options too. This should allow guests to make the most of their time and spend it in restaurants, shops or rides, instead of waiting to board transportation to go to another park or attraction. For example, a guest could be at the Magic Kingdom and know precisely what time a bus will arrive to take them to Downtown Disney, so they could hop on Pirates of the Caribbean before they had to leave the park to line up for their bus.

    And just as Be Our Guest has embraced the MagicBand and MyMagic+ technology, other restaurants are expected to do the same soon. The ability to order meals in advance will likely come to busy counter-service restaurants such as the Electric Umbrella in Epcot first, but more sites will probably be added after that, and table-service restaurants could even get into the act too. If guests can order entrees, appetizers, drinks and desserts at sit-down restaurants in advance as well, meals might take less time and Disney could serve more guests throughout the day and night – especially at the most popular table-service restaurants with hard-to-obtain Advance Dining Reservations, like Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom and Le Cellier at Epcot.

    Maestro Mickey's

    Disney has also relaxed some of the rules about its own bands. While MagicBands can be purchased by anyone at Walt Disney World shops, guests used to have to present proof of valid theme park admission, a Memory Maker card or an active MagicBand so it could be in operation instantly. But last year, Disney rolled out a feature called “Link-It Later,” so MagicBands can be bought as gifts (or for the guests themselves) and linked to an account in the future. 

    Feedback on MagicBands and MyMagic+ has been mostly positive. Guests have said they appreciate not having to dig out a card every time they want to get a FastPass, buy a souvenir or get into their room. They say it also helps them better organize their trips. One drawback, however, is that plans aren’t always easily able to be changed with the MyMagic+ system. If a guest wants to change a FastPass+ ride reservation because of bad weather, for example, they’ll find that it can only be changed on a mobile phone or kiosk in the park if another time is available. And prime times for popular rides go quickly, as many guests reserve them as soon as they possibly can – up to 30 days in advance of each day of a park visit with the purchase of theme park admission, or up to 60 days in advance of a visit that includes a stay at a Walt Disney World resort hotel.  

    However, Disney appears to continuously be making improvements and tweaks to the system, so guests can expect some rules and other factors to change as the system evolves. 

    And parents might especially appreciate the fact that a MagicBand could easily help them find their child, if he or she ever wanders off. A cast member can scan the lost child’s MagicBand, then call the phone number listed on the hotel reservation. 

    The possibilities for the MagicBand technology are virtually endless, and they’ll help ensure that the parks stay magical well into the future.