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How are theme park visitors are using their smartphones in the park?

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Published: November 11, 2013 at 4:41 PM

How do you use your cell phone when you visit a theme park?

The design pros over at Thinkwell Group have been asking that question of theme park fans. Today, Thinkwell released its first "Guest Experience Trend Report," detailing the results.

Thinkwell Mobile Theme Park Report

More than three of four survey respondents said that they'd brought a smartphone or tablet on their last theme park visit. Most visitors used the phone off and on throughout the day, rather than "actively engaging" with it. Only one percent said they spent more time with the phone than enjoying the park.

People took photos with their phone more than doing anything else with them, with talking, texting and checking email the next-most popular uses for the phones. About a third of respondents said that they searched for information about the park while visiting it.

When Thinkwell asked respondents to rank eight enhancements they might like to have for their mobile devices when visiting a theme park, "front of line access" came out on top, followed by checking queue times, and using GPS to locate family and friends.

Of course, parks are working on that functionality already. One of the big features of Disney's MyMagic+ system is using your phone (or computer at home) to access Fastpass+ ride and restaurant reservations. And many theme parks' existing apps allow you to find current wait times for attractions throughout the park.

(And you want to use GPS to find friends and family, well, several apps already allow you to do that, too.)

The big challenge to theme parks and their designers is to develop those new applications for interactive wireless technology that allow people to make use of the theme park platform in creative, engaging ways that visitors don't yet know that they'll end up wanting and loving. It's hard to express a demand for something that's not yet been invented. But the Thinkwell report further establishes that people are engaging on mobile devices in theme parks, and that the demand for an enhanced experience using those devices exists. The question is: Will that "enhanced experience" lead visitors to use their phones and tablets in ways that turn their attention outside the park, or further within it?

Readers' Opinions

From 162.230.57.253 on November 11, 2013 at 5:07 PM
NO, NO please NO why?
From Anthony Murphy on November 11, 2013 at 5:42 PM
Well, my Magic+ App really makes that a must at Disney

I have used Shazam to try and place some music too or look up what year The Demon opened up.

From 108.184.151.18 on November 11, 2013 at 5:53 PM
Need open WiFi in parks!!! :)
From Melanie Howe on November 11, 2013 at 6:40 PM
Umm... Does it make me a total Luddite that I have NO interest in using a smart phone in a theme park??

The whole reason I go to theme parks is to escape a bit from reality.... To completely let go of my normal over-scheduled, over-planned OCD life and just enjoy the MOMENTS as they happen. That's the magic of a theme park... and something that I think is lacking with Disney's current (and future planned) FastPass system.

But the bottom line is that I want to enjoy myself, and the people I'm traveling with, without being tied to a phone. I've actually been sorta creeped out by the amount of smart phone activity I've seen in theme parks lately.... Whatever happened to TALKING to the other folks you're vacationing with??

From Aaron Moore on November 11, 2013 at 6:40 PM
Yes seriously Open Wi-fi Multiple Wi-Fi spots, because if there's alot of people in a park I won't get a regular 3G signal
From 98.17.118.95 on November 11, 2013 at 8:59 PM
Paying to get into a park to take a break and have fun so you can walk around looking at your phone in a sea of other people with their face in their phone. Sounds like a blast.
From Eric G on November 11, 2013 at 10:53 PM
Just what we need another environment where the majority of people are face down looking at a connected electronic device.

Theme parks are supposed to be immersive environments, an escapism from every day life! Screw this idea of tying smartphones and tablets into the experience.

If anything people need to learn to put away their damn wireless devices. How many of you miss the days when you could watch fireworks, a concert, or some other entertainment show without hundreds of LCD screens glowing back in our faces!

Trust me, most of you have no business taking photos or videos and are just wasting your time trying, plus you're missing out on the experience that's right before your eyes. Just because you have a camera doesn't mean you know how to use it well.

If people can experience the same level of escapism with their smartphone then what's the point of even going to a park?

From 70.197.198.88 on November 11, 2013 at 10:34 PM
I wrapped up a five-day vacation at Disney World and Universal two weeks ago and used my iPhone repeatedly throughout the day to access reported wait times. It saved my family tons of time where we could be on rides or doing things other than waiting in long lines. Also looked at menus while waiting to get seated at restaurants. Technology itself isn't bad. Just a tool to help live better (and vacation better).
From Kenny Vee on November 11, 2013 at 11:14 PM
I'm not at all bothered by the concept of people using smart phones/tablets in the parks, and the parks using them as tools to augment the guest experience.

But when I was in Disneyland last week and the person in front of me on Pirates of the Caribbean spent the entire ride texting, that tells me that -- at least for that particular person -- the park just isn't interesting enough for their tastes.

I think the very last thing that any theme park should strive for is to have people continually checking their smart phone more than they are actually experiencing the environments around them (that would be silly, like playing clips from Finding Nemo for people riding the Submarine Voyage -- I can watch the movie at home; in the parks, give me something I can only see in the parks, not a movie clip or a phone app that requires my constant attention), but that doesn't mean that they should ignore the functional possibilities which smart phones provide.

The key is to draw the line to where any smart phone use augments the theme park experience without replacing it. Otherwise people may as well just stay home and play on their phone and save $90 or so.

From Sylvain Comeau on November 12, 2013 at 12:31 AM
I've used it to arrange a meeting in the park, or to call someone when I'm stuck in an endless queue. Other than that, I put the damn thing away and try to enjoy the experience around me as much as possible. Why go to a theme park if you're just going to play on your phone all day?
From Mike Gallagher on November 12, 2013 at 10:14 AM
Smart phone? Tablet? Whazzat?

From 86.165.82.57 on November 12, 2013 at 7:36 AM
Great piece and thought provoking research. I'm with the Luddites. Theme parks are about escapism, relaxing and enjoying a fun time with your friends. Being in the park, the atmosophere is the buzz. I spend all my time in font of a PC at home and work, on the phone too, the last thing I need or want inside a theme park is a smart phone.
From Mark Fairleigh on November 12, 2013 at 7:52 AM
Gonna be a total curmudgeon here, but all I know about smartphones in theme parks is that they cause huge empty spaces in queue lines because someone has their nose buried in one. It's becoming a regular enough occurrence to irritate me. I can't say whether it actually slows the line down, but it's just annoying to see those gaps...I don't want gaps in my queue! ;)
From Anon Mouse on November 12, 2013 at 9:06 AM
A smartphone is more needed than not. It isn't to merely waste your time in a theme park. It isn't there to replace the enjoyment of a theme park. The smartphone is an add-on bonus.

When I do want to waste time like in the queue lines, my smartphone allows time to pass a little quicker.

A smartphone lets my kids pass time quicker because there is plenty of waiting in a theme park. It is much more mobile, which makes them easier for my kids to hold the phone.

A smartphone lets me plan the day while in the theme park. I know when the shows start and the nearby restaurants. I know the wait time for the rides. I highly recommend the Mousewait app for iPhone and Android.

It lets me plan the time after the theme park trip. I know the traffic patterns. I know where to eat afterwards to avoid the high prices restaurants in the park.

It is so lame to say "why bother to go to the theme park". Goodness, I can spend my money and time anyway I want.

From Sylvain Comeau on November 12, 2013 at 12:42 PM
Anon, you're making sensible use of them. We're complaining about the people who spend more time glued to that little gadget than they spend enjoying the sights and sounds around them. Yes, I will say it again, what's the point?
From Jay R. on November 12, 2013 at 3:09 PM
For many, staying connected is a part of their current lifestyle.....and society in general.

Ultimately, convenience will override any "escape reality".

Reservations, fast passes, even buying tix in advance are all examples of folks doing things for convenience...and for many, having / using a smart phone in the park is an extension of that.

People use smartphones at movie theaters, restaurants, etc. & a theme park isn't going to be any different.

One could argue the merits & just as Anon said, many of the millions of people who use them in the parks, use them for sensible & practical reasons. And there are others who do not.....However who is to say what's important for any one individual.

For some, sending a theme park inspired tweet or texting that theme park photo IS a part of their vacation experience....

From Anon Mouse on November 12, 2013 at 4:50 PM
While I would advocate the smartphone's use in the park, I would agree that text messaging and the use of the smartphones in an attraction is an extremely bad idea. Disney should announce that the use of smartphones is not allowed in the same breath when giving the flash photography notice. Alternatively, Disney should offer an app that works better in a dark environment. Thus, less distractions for guests. Either Disney adjusts to current trends or the trends will force Disney to adjust.

I do think Disney should offer free internet service. Co-opt the use of the phones. When you're on the ride, the internet service automatically stops. When this happens, do most users continue to use their phones? Maybe some will, but others like me might stop for a few minutes until the ride is over to conserve my data plan.

Disney should take full advantage of cell phone payments. That's what I do with my Starbucks account on my iPhone. One flash of my cell phone, I just bought a new mocha latte. Fast payment means faster service and bigger transactions.

From Eric G on November 12, 2013 at 9:29 PM
The problem with smartphones is that every time you pick it up the outside world, which is often your work and or problems, comes into view. Missed phone calls, voice mail, email, text messages, etc.

It's a shame that people can't turn them off and put these devices away for a period of time. When people go on vacation now days they don't really go on vacation. They bring their laptop, smartphone, and other connected devices and continue to check their work. How many jobs expect us to be reachable when we're using our earned time off?

Those damn devices are on at social events, when going out to dinner, bars, sporting events and theme parks. Kids are frequently seen by me watching movies on iPads at restaurants instead of socializing with Mom and Dad.

The entire thing is a disaster! It's really a nightmare.

I don't even buy the convenience argument. Some of the fun of a theme park is the unknown. I don't think wait times should be available on our devices. If Disney and other operators want to make this information more accessible then information boards (electronic or whatever) can be posted around the park.

Someone mentioned earlier that they use them with their kids while waiting in line. That's bad. Your children should learn to be entertained without an electronic device while waiting.

My three nephews have exceptional imaginations, social skills, and patience compared with their friends and other children their age. I truly believe it's because the three of them (5-year old, twin 3-year-olds) to this day are NOT ALLOWED to watch television, movies, or use electronic devices on a regular basis. Only on very rare, special occasions is this permitted.

From 216.2.166.17 on November 13, 2013 at 2:18 PM
Something else to consider is that some ride systems use Wi-Fi to connect across a distance. When phones are looking for Wi-Fi this can cause some of the more primative Wi-Fi connected ride systems to error out and shut down the ride. I've been on a ride when that has happened, I asked about the rpoblem and was given a very straight answer by the maintenance person at the ride.
I'm also of the opinion that the phone needs to be shut off, secured in your pocket (so it can't fall out on a ride - those things hurt when they hit you) or left at the car.
From 98.17.118.95 on November 13, 2013 at 11:17 PM
I'm cool with using your smart phone for finding out wait times and things like that. I just hope the smart phone thing does not get overly used as a part of the theme park experience.... I don't want to feel like I need it too much while in the park.

Plus, many families go to theme parks together to kind of reconnect or spend time with each other that they don't get to do always in their normal lives. It kind of takes you away from your group if your face is in a phone. It's just such a nice more rewarding feeling (and use of the time) sometimes to spend the time with the people you are there with and truly interact with them more than your phone..... it's fine to have the phone as a tool to enhance your trip.... just don't want the phone to dominate too much of my time with my family and friends.

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