Cell phones vs. MagicBands: Which offers more for theme parks and their fans?
Written by Robert Niles
Starwood Hotels' Aloft brand soon will enable visitors to use their cell phones as their room keys at two of its hotels, allowing guests to bypass the check-in desk entirely. (Which also means that those hotels can do away with maintaining and resetting electronic room keys.) By the end of next month, visitors simply will tap or scan their smartphones to enter their rooms.Tweet
Disney and Universal both are developing alternates to the traditional room key for guest access on their properties. Disney's already started rolling out its MagicBand system, which integrates a room key, theme park admissions, charging privileges, and reservation management in an RFID-enabled wristband. Meanwhile, Universal has filed a patent application for a system that could use cell phones and/or wristbands to replace theme park admission media and reservation tickets. (Universal Orlando's hotels are operated by Loews Hotels.) SeaWorld's also begun enabling the use of cell phones for theme park admissions.
But here's the question: Would theme park fans rather have a dedicated "thing" for admission access, such as Disney's MagicBand, or would they prefer simply to use their cell phones for those tasks? It's literally a billion-dollar question, as Disney's said to have invested that amount in its "NextGen" project, for which the new MyMagic+ access system is the centerpiece.
The answer to that question will help resolve whether Disney made a costly mistake in pushing ahead with MagicBands, rather than waiting for the hospitality industry to develop a industry standard for the use of cell phones as room keys. If Starwood's trail works well, the chain could move to implement the system at its other brands, including Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, and W Hotels, which likely would push other major hotel operators to introduce the same functionality at their properties.
After all, the upside for hotels in supporting phone-based key media is to get the hotels out of the business of maintaining physical key media, as well as to reduce the amount of labor hours devoted to checking in guests at each of its hotels. Hotels would need to maintain some on-site personnel to handle problems and other customer service, but much of check-in support could be automated or handled by a central office, as airlines now do.
Switching one form of hard media (room keys) for another (wristbands) minimizes that payoff for hoteliers. You can still handle some of the check-in arrangements in advance, as Disney does with MagicBands, but you're still paying for all those wristbands. Why would Disney spend a billion dollars to do this?
Let's go to the medicine cabinet and pull out Occam's razor. Either Disney is impatient and/or foolish… or MagicBands are intended to support much more than admission and key media, justifying the extra expense in developing this custom system.
That's a hypothesis we've offered before, but that sometimes get lost in fans' complains about MyMagic+. Sure, you could use a cell phone to get into your room, or a theme park, or to confirm your reservation time at a ride, restaurant, or show. But what if a theme park wanted to enable something to react to you, without requiring you to do anything more than enter a designated area?
Mobile technology experts long have predicted that manufacturers would equip mobile devices with RFID and NFC tags, and release programming structures to enable their use in applications. But who will makes the rules and exercise the control over that access? The manufacturer? The user? The application developer? The manufacturers, developers and/or users collectively, via government?
By developing its own system with MagicBands, Disney becomes the manufacturer and developer, consolidating its control of the use of the system. And Disney's limiting its users ability to control their MagicBands. You can make reservations, but can't turn them on or off or limit which readers can access them, they way you might with a cell phone-based system.
Fans can argue about privacy, though businesses long have tracked customers on their businesses property (say 'Hi' to the security cameras, everyone!), but fans also ought to admit that such as system opens immense potential for creative use by park designers. Imagine attractions, even landscapes, that adapt to the visitors within them. How about a Star Tours-like ride that, instead of selecting randomly from 54 potential ride combinations, is designed to deliver a combination that no one on the ride has experienced before? How about interactive park signs that change to point you toward the location of your upcoming reservation time? Or a Men in Black-like ride that offers more advanced levels of play for experienced riders? The gamification of theme parks could begin.
Would that be possible with an admission system based upon another company's cell phones, regulated both by industry convention and potentially more restrictive government rules? Maybe, but maybe not. That's something fans should consider as they look toward the future of theme parks, and vacation travel in general.
Let's get the conversation started:
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Planning a trip to Orlando?
Insider's Pick: Get all the best advice from ThemeParkInsider.com in one convenient book! Theme Park Insider Orlando 2014 offers you the insight, background, and how-to skills that will help you enjoy Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando like, well, a theme park insider. Save yourself time and money by learning how to visit the Orlando-area theme parks the insiders' way.
Top U.S. Theme Parks
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Other Top International Parks
Features, News and Advice
"Stories from a Theme Park Insider"
Connect with Theme Park Insider