Sure, you know how to use Disney's PhotoPass service. You go into the parks, have a PhotoPass photographer take your picture, get your card or Magic Band scanned, and then the photos appear online. Easy, right? Well I can tell you that there is much more going on backstage.
I was a PhotoPass photographer for a little over a year and a half at Walt Disney World. In my time, I worked at three parks, four resort hotels, and with about 35+ characters (yes, I counted). And while the typical guest gets their photo taken and walks away, there are literally thousands of people making sure that your perfect Cinderella Castle or Mickey Mouse photo makes it from the camera to your photo album.
Editor's note: Like any Disney service, PhotoPass evolves at a rapid rate. Some things will have changed since Alyssa worked as a photographer, but we still think her recollections offer a fascinating insight into how much effort and technology goes into what seems like a relatively simple offering to guests.
A PhotoPass photographer's day starts when they make it to their backstage work location and clock in. They are assigned four pieces of equipment - a camera, a flash, a PDA, and a scanner, as well as extra batteries for each. It's each photographer's responsibility to set everything up and to make sure it's working. If you see a photographer in the park looking like they are loaded down with enough equipment to launch a space shuttle, you are half right. The camera and flash are connected to each other and have carefully approved setting for each location. For example, you need a lower shutter speed if you are photographing people at night or in dark areas. There are also different setting for some of the indoor character locations, depending on the lighting, although there is a general outdoor setting that works well in most locations during the day.
Another important part of the photographer's equipment is the PDA and the scanner. The PDA is connected to the camera by a cord and looks like a large Blackberry. It is then wirelessly connected to the scanner. When I started working as a photographer in August 2012, the PDA would be the piece of equipment that would scan the PhotoPass cards. However, in late 2012, as test Magic Bands began to appear, the scanner was added. Not only can it scan QR codes on the plastic PhotoPass cards (and most recently QR codes generated in My Disney Experience) but it can also scan the chip inside Magic Bands and the Memory Maker cards.
Once the equipment is set up, the Photographer has to sign into the PDA. Every photo that they take will have their name linked to it, although their name can't be accessed by the average guest. The Photographer will usually take a few test shots backstage to make sure everything is working correctly before receiving their assignment.
It may not surprise anyone familiar with Disney's keen attention to detail, but each photographer is assigned a specific location. There could be anywhere from a couple dozen to nearly a hundred photo locations designed by the Disney entertainment department for photographers to stand, depending on the park. The most important ones will always have a photographer, including popular character and icon locations (Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth, etc.). These are mandatory, and a photographer's schedule could be specifically made to make sure each location is filled. During peak seasons there are more locations added to accommodate the massive crowds, although they are spaced out so large groups don't accidentally become part of another group's photo.
Sometimes photographers are given the chance to roam around an area. For example, you may find some photographers walking around World Showcase in Epcot. However, they are usually assigned a specific perimeter. For the most part, each photographer has multiple assignments in the day organized by a computer system that looks at each Cast Member's schedule and when their assigned breaks are. It's most common to be assigned one location for a few hours, be given a break, and then assigned to a new location. This is great in the hotter summer months and the (few) freezing winter nights because the managers try to rotate people between outdoor and indoor locations. Sometimes, however, a photographer is only given one assignment a day and will return to the same location even after taking a break. An example would most of the photographers around Epcot's World Showcase or photographers who are in remote locations, like Rafiki's Planet Watch in Disney's Animal Kingdom.
So being PhotoPass Photographer can't be that hard, right? Get a camera, take a picture, get paid. Wrong actually. There is a lot of training that each photographer receives, especially if they are in a special location.
I had six full days of classroom training before being sent out on my own. The first day was the legendary Traditions orientation that every new Cast Member has to go through. In a way, it's a fairly basic company training class, although it did include some Disney magic, like when Mickey Mouse comes into the classroom at the end of the day to present the class's name tags to them (seriously). The next day was an introduction to the entertainment department. This was a smaller class and only included photographers, character attendants, character "friends," and any other members of the entertainment department. Both classes taught the importance of Disney customer service and the specific language they like you to use. Also, both classes were taught at Disney University and included a field trip to the Magic Kingdom via the Utilidors! Day One and you get to walk under Cinderella's Castle!
The next four days were PhotoPass specific training. This is where I learned the technical parts of the camera and how to set all the necessary settings. I also learned how to get the perfect icon shot. A quick definition - an "icon" is usually one of the park's landmarks, such as Cinderella Castle or Spaceship Earth. You'll also find photographers taking pictures in front of other secondary locations, like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Disney's Hollywood Studios or Expedition Everest in Disney's Animal Kingdom. To be truthful, there is a lot of skill in making sure that there is a good icon-to-guest ratio in the photo. You never want Cinderella's Castle to be too big or too small behind the guest, nor do you want a tall guest to completely block the icon.
The PhotoPass trainers also stressed that there are a specific series of shots you should take. If you ever look back at your PhotoPass Photos and are surprised to see three to four photos every time you stop, there is a reason behind it. When a guest approaches a photographer for a photo, the photographer is supposed to first get a primary photo, which is a portrait photo of the guest from the mid-calf up, including the icon. The second photo should then be a landscape, with just the family from the waist up. The third is an action-type photo, where the photographer will ask the family to pose in a certain way. For example, at Disney's Hollywood Studios the photographer might ask the guest to make a scared face in front of the Tower of Terror. The idea is that the family will have several photos in that one location, which is especially great if they choose to only print a few and want a variety of choices.
It is in those four days of training that new photographers get to go into the parks and practice taking pictures under the eye of their trainer. This field work is also great in training the photographers how to troubleshoot for equipment problems that may occur in the parks. It also helps them get comfortable with taking photos and interacting with guests in a low-risk situation.
After all that training, the photographers are sent off into the world on their own for the first time. However, their training is far from over. Soon the photographers are scheduled for another training session (usually for a few hours as part of a longer shift) that combines night-time photography and tripod use. While it seems fairly basic, there are certain techniques for getting a photo to look good at night, as well as setting up the tripod correctly. Next comes training on the view station and on the Magic Shots. While it may seem easy, Magic Shots do require some training, as the photos need to be taken in a very specific way. What's nice about this training is that the trainer is constantly sending the photographer backstage to a computer so they can see how their photos look with the Magic Shot imposed. While it may seem simple, it can also be very easy to mess up a nice family photo, so the training is necessary. The view stations can also be occasionally challenging, so a thorough training session is appreciated.
Another important training session is the day-long character training. Until then, the photographers can only be "in the streets" and take icon photos. Most character training is in Epcot, where there is a good mix of face and fur characters. The first part of training is in the classroom where photographers learn that there is in fact a method to the madness. The photographers, characters, and character attendants are taught a specific system of getting the guests in and making their interaction the best it can be. First, the guest should walk in and go right in for a character hug. Second, they should get their autograph book signed. Third, they interact with the character in some other way (like if a character notices a birthday button and wishes them a happy birthday). Finally, it's time for the group photos. The photographer should be snapping away the whole time, although not being aggressive or taking too many. Of course, the photo interactions don't always work that way. But when the Cast Members subtly encourage the guests to go in that order, the whole process goes quicker and smoother.
After that, the average PhotoPass Photographer can be scheduled a shift in just about every location in every park. In fact, just because a photographer is assigned to one park doesn't mean they can't pick up an extra shift in another park. There have been times when I've taken photos of a family in Disney's Animal Kingdom just to see them the next day at Epcot! However, each park does have one or two extra locations that need special training.
If a photographer wants to work or is scheduled at any of the water parks or at a resort with character dining or a dinner show they do require extra training. For the resorts, there is a whole other system in place, from greeting the guests, to arranging them in front of the backdrop, to actually taking the picture. The same is true for character meals in the parks where photos are taken, like Cinderella's Royal Table in Magic Kingdom and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot. Other areas with special training include both Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique locations, Jedi Training Academy at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Magic Words with Mickey Mouse at Magic Kingdom. Although you may not be able to notice, each location requires the photographer to do specific things in order to get the pictures just right. For example, if you ever look at the photos taken during the Jedi Training Academy, you may notice that there is a certain rhythm to the photos. When each kid goes up to fight Darth Vader, the photographer always takes a close-up of the kid's face and then a few photos of them fighting. This is done so the parents can tell, when looking at the hundreds of photos taken during the show, which kid is actually fighting and when their child is done with his or her turn.
Just like Facebook, every photographer needs to "tag" in where they are and who they are with. After a photographer signs in on their PDA, they get a screen listing every park and resort. After picking their park, they then tag in their assigned location. After their location, they also have the option of tagging in a character they are photographing or a Magic Shot.
For example, let's look at a photographer working at Disney's Animal Kingdom. After clicking on Disney's Animal Kingdom, the next page has every photo location possible in the park. Each photo location has a nickname assigned to it. So a photographer who is standing in the middle of the bridge connecting the Oasis to Discovery Island will click on "Bridge Middle." If they then move to the area between Asia and Africa where there is a great view of the Tree of Life from behind, they would click on "Tree Backside."
If a photographer is taking pictures of characters, or if they are in a photo location that allows Magic Shots, they then have one extra step to complete. After choosing their location, there is another screen that lists almost every Disney character imaginable, as well as all the Magic Shots. So if a photographer is at "Bridge Middle" and they decide to take a Stitch Magic Shot, they will tag in "Stitch Ground" (this is the Magic Shot of Stitch popping out of the ground or a box). If that same photographer is taking pictures of Mickey and Minnie, they would pick "Adventure Outpost" as their location, and then tag in each character.
Tagging locations and characters has a number of purposes. First, it's easy for a manager to quickly look at photos in that one location to make sure everything looks good and the photographer is taking the picture properly. Also, it's a great way to find a lost photo. If you go online or to a park's view station and discover a photo is missing, it's easy to find your photo if you can describe to a Cast Member the location and time the photo was taken. When a photo is tagged with a character, it's another easy step to finding a photo. It's also a nice way for the characters to look back at the photos they were in, to make sure they look nice (princesses especially like to make sure that their hair and makeup looks presentable).
The digital journey
Like Alice's journey into Wonderland, a PhotoPass Photo goes through quite a journey. First, the image is captured on the photographer's camera. After the photo (or group of photos) is taken, the photographer uses their scanner to associate the photo with the guest's Magic Band or PhotoPass card. In a perfect world, the photos would then be wirelessly uploaded from the PDA to the Quality Assurance team. However, even Disney isn't perfect.
Have you ever seen a PhotoPass Photographer standing in the corner, looking frantically between all their pieces of equipment and apologizing that they can't take a picture or their camera isn't working? This tends to happen a lot to photographers, especially if they are taking a lot of photos in a short period of time, like when they are with a popular character. It takes a few seconds for each photo to move from the camera to the PDA, and a few more seconds for those photos to move from the PDA and connect to the wireless network. Occasionally, a photo or two will get "stuck" on a piece of equipment. Photographers are trained to wait a few seconds between scanning a band and taking pictures of the next family. However, when you are with Donald Duck and the line is thirty families long, everyone gets a little rushed. That's why you may find a photographer standing around staring at their equipment. There is a good chance that they are waiting for all the photos to upload before they take more.
After a photo is uploaded it goes to Quality Assurance, or QA. Essentially, QA looks at every PhotoPass Photo taken. So yes, your family photo was seen by a stranger. However, they are there, as their title states, to make sure every picture is of Disney quality. Sometimes photos are way too dark or too bright to be seen properly, or they may be cloudy or blurry. While Disney tries to keep as many photos as possible, they will occasionally delete photos that are totally indistinguishable. They will also delete photos that are inappropriate. That's right, if you flip the bird in the photo, Disney will delete it. That's a warning for those of you who think it's fun to flash the Splash Mountain camera on the way down the hill.
Another interesting job the QA team does is insert the Magic Shots into photos. Remember how every photo is tagged? Well QA can see what the photo is tagged as and they are the ones who digitally insert it. Let's say that a photographer takes a picture of a family cupping their hands with a Tinkerbell tag. QA will select Tinkerbell (which is like a digital sticker), size her correctly (she about the size of a child's head) and drag and drop her into the correct spot. It's very important that each photographer takes the picture correctly because the Magic Shot needs to line up in a certain way. For example, when taking an Olaf Magic Shot, the photographer needs to make sure that there is enough room on either side of the guest for him to stand, and if there is a balloon Magic Shot there needs to be enough room at the top of the photo for the balloons to float. Rumor is that these specifications may be the reason the Baby Simba Magic Shot disappeared from Disney's Animal Kingdom. Because of the many factors needed to make Simba look just right (the angle and width of the guest's arms) it was always difficult to make the photo look just right. It is always a balancing act between the photographers, the guests, and QA to make the Magic Shots look perfect.
The view stations
Eventually, your photos make their way to the view stations. The view stations are the areas in the park where you can buy and view your photos. They are all located in the front of each park, on your right side as you walk in. There are also view stations at Disney Springs, Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, and Disney's Beach Club Resort, although the resort locations may have odd hours, especially off-season. It usually takes a few hours for the photos to upload and make their way though QA to the view stations, although I've seen them move though the system in about forty-five minutes occasionally.
The view stations are great for buying and viewing photos, as well as asking questions about the Disney Photopass service. Personally, I always recommend that guests stop by at least once to view their photos, especially around the end of their trip. Why? Because it is not uncommon for photos to mysteriously disappear. No one likes it when this happens, but just like anything in life, no system is 100% perfect. In most cases, the photo hasn't totally vanished. As mentioned, it's common for photos to occasionally get "stuck" on a photographer's camera. In that case, it just requires some time (and occasionally the help of a PhotoPass supervisor) to get them "moving" thought the system at the end of the day.
In other cases, the photos turned out perfectly but get scanned to the wrong card or Magic Band. Think of a time when you met a character in a high traffic area. People may have been moving though the line quickly, handing the photographers a handful of PhotoPass cards, cameras, and phones. Sometimes a photographer may scan the wrong party's card, or they scanned the card but it didn't associate correctly it gets merged into the next party's photos.
In any case, a lost photo can be easy enough to find. Remember all the photo tagging? They come in handy. The photographers at the view station have the ability to search for photos by park, day, time, location, and character. Just tell the photographer that you took a photo at Magic Kingdom in Tomorrowland with Buzz Lightyear between 1:00 and 2:00 and with that all the photos taken in the time period in that location with that character can be retrieved on the screen. Then it's easy to spot your family and get the photos added to your account. However, this solution can have a few flaws.
If you don't remember exactly when or where your photos were taken, it can get complicated. This is especially hard when you know you took a photo on Mainstreet, USA but you don't remember exactly where you were standing, which is hard considering there might be ten photographers up and down the street at one time. Occasionally, photos do just disappear. I was once helping a women find photos her family took with Pocahontas the day before in Disney's Animal Kingdom. I did a search in a specific time period and nothing came up. We kept expanding the time until I just did a search for all of the Pocahontas photos taken in the entire day, yet no photos showed up at all! Luckily, photographers can take down a guest's information and a description of their photos and pass it off to the QA team, who have a better chance at recovering the photos.
While in the view stations, guests can add some fun additions to their photos, like digital stickers, borders, and even character signatures. Check in around the holidays and you can find a couple of seasonal borders. But then the big questions come in - if you didn't get the all-inclusive Memory Maker package, should you print your photos in the park or download them at home? The answer all depends on you. The photographers never receive a commission for the photos they take or sell, so while some may encourage you to spend the most money, most of the good photographers I know are more interested in helping the guest get exactly what they want. There are many articles out there about the pros and cons of Memory Maker, but if you decide not to get it, don't stress! There are still many decent print and digital options for all price ranges.
Finally your photos make it to the Disney PhotoPass website, and the My Disney Experience app. If you take a picture and don't immediately see it on your computer, don't panic! It usually takes twenty-four hours for them to appear, although I have heard from guests that it occasionally happens sooner. It is here that guests can view their photos at their leisure without waiting on a line in the parks. Just like the parks, you can add borders, stickers, and character signatures. However, online there are many more products offered.
One of the most fun products is a photo book, which currently costs $79.95. The book contains 20 full color pages with a variety of covers, page layouts, and other options. The book allows you to put in as many photos as you can fit, including photos taken from your own device and uploaded onto the Disney PhotoPass website. You may see a few sample books in the parks, but this has to be done online because of all the pages are so personalized and unique.
There are also other personalized products that are only available online, like calendars, greeting cards, phone cases, mugs, magnets, mouse pads, and Christmas ornaments. One of my PhotoPass co-workers always recommended a fun hint to guests who wanted to buy prints but not spend too much money - make a calendar online for $24.95, add your photos, and then pull it apart when you get it. The calendar has thirteen pages (one for each month plus the cover), so pulling apart the product give you up to thirteen photos with a cool background. In fact, some of the pages allow for two photos per page, so you get more bang for your buck! Also, if you want a gift for your Disney-loving friend and don't know what to get, go online! You can upload your own photos and make a nice gift, even if you haven't been in the parks in a while.
Another perk of using the Disney PhotoPass website is the online support. The email and phone number listed online goes right back to the QA department instead of some general Disney phone operator. They truly are wizards when it comes to helping with the tough problems, like combining photos from different parties or looking for lost photos on their system. They even have an online form where you can fill out information about your lost photo, including descriptions of each member of your party. You also have the ability to attach a photo so QA knows who to look for. The website also has a ton of FAQ questions so you can attempt to solve the problem on your own.
Just like any other department at Walt Disney World, there are lots of people working onstage and backstage to make sure your PhotoPass Photos come out perfectly. Using the PhotoPass service is free to everyone, but if you do use it remember that there are many steps between seeing a photographer in the park and holding your printed photo in your hand.