If MyMagic+ officially launched in late 2013, then we now stand less than a decade from the debut of Disney’s industry-resetting infrastructure system. To look back now at Disney’s billion-dollar investment is to see it equally as a much-needed and still-used system and a pretty massive failure.
To understand why, it's important to know that Disney’s quest to modernize was well-intended, but MyMagic+ isn’t the vast technological system it appears to be; it’s an umbrella under which a half-dozen smaller-but-still-massive systems reside. Park tickets, hotel reservations, FastPass picks, Magical Express times, restaurant reservations, Dining Plan allowances, and PhotoPass collections are all separately managed systems that, through the MyMagic+ initiative, became intertwined by way of the My Disney Experience app and its web-based counterpart.
The takeaway? Disney’s 21st century technological solution is really yet another piecemeal fusing of many eras, visions, and systems, just like Disney Springs or World Drive. And now, looking forward to looking back at a world post-pandemic, it’s easy to see that Disney World’s operations have been fundamentally changed by COVID, by a decade of technological advances, and by changing priorities once more. One-by-one, most of the revolutions brought about by MyMagic+ have faltered. Here are the two core tenets that MyMagic+ was built on, and our short explanation for why it’s time has come… with or without COVID.
1. Pre-planning (FastPass+ & Dining Reservations)
There’s no doubt that for much of its modern history, Walt Disney World has been about the least relaxing “vacation” you can choose. If MyMagic+’s quest was to make a Disney vacation back into a vacation – that is, effortless, relaxing, and smooth – it succeeded in part… but the law of conservation of stress says that to simplify your time in Orlando, you’ve got to put that planning somewhere.
For Disney guests, it came in the form of outrageous pre-planning. Planning a visit for October? If you want to eat at any of Disney World’s most sought-after restaurants, you’d better reserve it (and by extension, the park you’ll be at that day) in April; secure your FastPass picks in August or you’ll spend a lot of time in stagnant “stand-by” queues. Incarnate via the My Disney Experience app, planning a Walt Disney World vacation became a job in its own right, requiring 6 AM Eastern Time wake-up calls at least twice in the six months’ lead-up to arrival.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney famously disabled dining reservations and FastPass+ altogether, reverting the resort to, y’know, just, like, lines. So yes, you don’t get three “freebie” skips… but every line you do wait in moves quickly and continuously. Similarly, dining reservations eventually returned to Disney World mid-pandemic, but with a much more reasonable (yet still largely unreasonable) 60 days out timeline.
So as we approach a full year of seeing Disney Parks without FastPass, is it possible the veil has been lifted? Have folks recognized that the feeling of skipping the line on one major E-Ticket isn’t worth the reality of waiting in stalled stand-by queues in every other anchor attraction for the whole rest of the day? We’ll see… Realistically, it seems likely that Disney will use the “hard reset” of the pandemic to fundamentally change FastPass for good...
2. Personalization (MagicBands)
Ah, MagicBands. The heart and soul of MyMagic+. Remember, MagicBands were Disney’s Swiss army knife of technology; the inexpensive and accessorizable tool that would turn the somewhat disagreeable job of data collection into an experience guests would pay for. MagicBands made Walt Disney World’s largely-invisible upgrade a tangible, visible thing. They indeed offered the assurance of a frictionless transaction, be it at a park’s entrance, a FastPass queue, or a cash register. And (if you ignore Mom’s studious vacation research and reserving six months earlier) receiving a box of MagicBands hand-selected and labeled for each family member was the definitive start of a Disney World trip for the better part of a decade.
And while Disney’s billion-dollar investment in RFID across its resort was a bold step forward, it arguably wasn’t the best one. Frankly, MyMagic+ probably deserves to fall into the same category as EPCOT’s Future World as having suffered from the dreaded “Tomorrowland Problem,” dooming any of Disney’s attempts to actually, accurately, scientifically predict the technologies of the future.
When MyMagic+ was imagined, "apps" didn't exist and just 18% of Americans had a smartphone. When it launched, a majority of Americans did. It’s telling that Shanghai Disneyland – well into design when MyMagic+ launched – opened in 2016 with no MagicBands at all, instead relying on smartphones to do all the same jobs day-of. (Again, no overplanning.)
Today, smartphone use in the U.S. has reached well over 80%, meaning very, very, very few guests who visit don’t have someone in their party with access to the guest-facing My Disney Experience app. And given the U.S. has easily reached a similar saturation of smartphones as China, that leaves the MagicBand a curious "middle man" process between, say, selecting a FastPass and redeeming it. Holding up a barcode on a phone works just as quickly... and doesn't cost Disney's theme park division the price of manufacturing, shipping, or an internal company "green tax."
All of that might be forgiven if MagicBands had lived up to their potential. One can imagine a world where touchpoints would activate gags around Toontown, customize character encounters, or create those much-hoped-for special moments on rides. And while we got hints of those magical moments of personalization a MagicBand can create (see again Be Our Guest Restaurant and Test Track), no other real, significant uses of the band in Disney Parks stuck around. Austin Car wrote of its integration into the then-leading project at Imagineering, Pandora: The World of AVATAR:
I ask where MyMagic+ will influence Avatar Land, and Rohde turns my attention to the model, which is the size of three Ping-Pong tables. He swirls his finger around a tiny section. This little spot is where MyMagic+ will be put to use, in “the most intensive, interactive moments.” What about the area’s two big attractions? “Less so,” he adds.
Largely, MyMagic+ and the MagicBand became invisible technology. In their place, focus shifted to (you guessed it) smartphones, where the Play Disney Parks app became the de facto way of interacting with queue minigames, best embodied by its use in STAR WARS: Galaxy’s Edge, where the app transforms into an in-universe “Data Pad.” Speaking of which, RFID beacons throughout Batuu allow custom-built Droids to interact with the land (based on their extra-purchase personality chips) but otherwise, you won’t find “tap points” in the land.
Put simply: Disney invested big in MagicBands at a time when smartphones weren’t a reliable requisite for visiting guests. Every other Disney Resort skipped the MagicBands entirely and went digital with reservations, scanning barcodes rather than bracelets. It’s worked just as well, so in a smartphone-infused society, the MagicBands have served their purpose. On June 19, 2020 (again, during the pandemic), Disney announced that MagicBands would cease to be sent to on-site guests beginning January 1, 2021. While they’re still available for purchase as collectibles (and no doubt, Disney hopes you’ll continue to collect them), your smartphone alone can handle park tickets, FastPass picks, hotel room keys, reservations, and more via the My Disney Experience app.
In that way, Disney’s tech upgrade was still needed and still in use, but the revolutionary wearable meant to propel the property forward ended up holding it back.
Circle One: Plus or Minus
Disney's billion dollar upgrade to their Florida resort, in retrospect, was neither the reinvention executives hoped, nor the failure fans feared. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Walt Disney World did need the kind of infrastructural upgrade MyMagic+ provided! For all of its shortcomings, the initiative did see the coming of the Information Age. It occurred to Disney well before anyone else that guests would be booking online and not with a travel agent. Seeing that change on the horizon, MyMagic+ standardized and organized vacation planning and provided a technology – the RFID-enabled MagicBand – to bridge the gap to smartphones.
Despite its massive cost and how much appeared to be riding on it, MyMagic+ never came to Disneyland, nor to any other Disney Resort... at least, not in name. But the advances made at Disney World's flagship property certainly influenced choices elsewhere. Were it not for FastPass+, Disneyland would not offer "MaxPass" – its upcharge service that allows for on-app FastPass reservations rather than paper return tickets, but keeps such reservations to the day-of rather than Disney World's preposterous pre-planning. And so it goes for Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, where Disney World's successes and failures in technology have been noted and influenced projects.
No one would be foolish enough to be thankful for the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the planet throughout 2020 and into 2021 (and likely, well beyond). That said, the monumental shift in operations at Walt Disney World has also revealed the monumental flaws of MyMagic+.... and given Disney World license to change it.
No more MagicBands. No more Magical Express. No more "walled garden." No more Dining Plans. No more FastPass. No more Annual Passes (forever in Disneyland, and temporarily in Disney World)... Once seen as essential and immutable elements of a Walt Disney World vacation, these tried-and-true features have been given the rare chance for a hard reset; for Disney to reimagine trip-planning, reservations, timelines, experiences, capacity, efficiency, and more.
MyMagic+ was meant to reimagine Disney World and keep its infrastructure reliable and relevant for a new generation. Did it work? For a time. But now, the pandemic has provided the opportunity to start from scratch, and with that new perspective, the core tenents of this billion dollar project – its focus on pre-planning and its promise of personalization – look like the elements that didn't quite work. In their place, it’s smartphones that’ll carry the legacy forward. Altogether, we can be thankful for Disney’s risky but required billion-dollar reimagining of “how” its Florida resort operates while also understanding why almost no one associated with it still works at the Walt Disney Company.