By Robert Niles
Are you worried about your privacy while wearing a MagicBand around the Walt Disney World Resort?Tweet
Photo courtesy Disney
Some visitors — and would-be visitors — have expressed concern. They're worried that Disney will be tracking their movements around the park, including what they do and what they buy throughout the day, and that Disney could use that information in ways that those visitors won't like.
MagicBands are the RFID-enabled bracelets that Disney's issuing to selected hotel guests as part of its new MyMagic+ system for managing Walt Disney World vacations. Visitors can use the MyMagic+ section of Disney's website or apps to make advance reservations for attractions, shows, and restaurants during their stay at Disney World, then use the MagicBands Disney supplies to access their hotel room, enter the theme parks or be admitted to their reserved ride, show, and meal times.
Visitors tap their MagicBands on their hotel room door or at checkpoints at park and attraction entrances. But the RFID chips in each MagicBand can be read from up to 30 feet away as well, as Kevin Yee detailed this week. Disney's already using that functionality to take on-ride pictures of MagicBand users on selected attractions. But inside sources have told us that the technology will play a part in creating interactive "moments" elsewhere in the parks, such as in Animal Kingdom's Avatar land, now in development.
Disney had planned to have expanded MyMagic+ to more visitors by now, but bugs and glitches as Disney attempts to scale up the system have slowed the roll-out. Yet it's clear from Disney's statements that it envisions more aggressive use of MagicBands in the future.
Let's face it: If Disney didn't track its customers while they were on company property, that would put Disney in the minority of large retail corporations. Smile for the security cameras next time you enter a store — they're there. And those discount cards you get from the grocery and other retailers? They're tracking every purchase you make.
Heck, when you carry a Visa or Mastercard credit card, you might as well be wearing a GPS device, as the card issuer is tracking the location of your payments, as well as their amounts. If you're carrying a cell phone, you are carrying a GPS device — one that cell carriers (and even the federal government) have the ability to track.
Want to go through life without being tracked? Use cash. Ditch the cell phone, the credit cards, and the discount "club" cards and carry nothing but cash. Walk up to the ticket booth and pay cash for a one-day, one-park ticket. As soon as you're through the front gate, throw that ticket away. Disney won't know who you are and won't be able to track anything you do.
Of course, that means you won't be able to use the Fastpass system for ride reservations. Nor will you be able to park-hop. Photopass pictures are out, too. But Disney will collect no data about your whereabouts and activities throughout the day, save for noting that one more (anonymous) person's ridden each ride you board, or that the company made those extra dollars for the stuff you've bought.
Most visitors, though, would like to have the opportunity to reserve no-wait ride times. Or to get on-ride photos automatically. (Or to get discounts when they go to the grocery store.) Such benefits are the price that companies pay to entice us to use systems that allow those companies to track us. Companies make that money back when their tracking efforts lead them to tailor offers or experiences that cause us to spend more money with those companies than we would have without those deals and discounts. In fact, Disney's facing lower-than-planned revenue in its theme park division now because MyMagic+ hasn't rolled out to the point where it's led to the big increases in guest spending that the company had anticipated.
If customers don't like the benefits of participating in a tracking system, they won't stick with them. Right now, the hassles of navigating MyMagic+ in beta testing have led many Disney hotel guests either to decline to participate, or to switch back to more traditional admission and room key cards, plus paper Fastpasses. But reports from in the parks suggest that's more due to people being unable to collect the benefits of MyMagic+ due to lost reservation times or dysfunctional MagicBands than to privacy concerns.
Let's not completely dismiss those concerns, though. While corporate tracking of consumer activity has become the norm in America, consumers ought to know more about who else will have access to that tracking data. We've raised concerns before about Disney cast members using MyMagic+ data as a "stalking app" to find out where individual guests they want to meet will be later in the day, then showing up off the clock to "just happen to bump into them." Disney should be making clear that anyone who tries something like that will be fired on the spot.
We've also wondered if Disney could use MagicBands to track alcohol sales more closely. Imagine getting cut off at Epcot because MyMagic+ has recorded that you've bought enough alcohol over the past couple hours to get an average-sized person to his legal limit. One of the challenges for tracking system is to ensure they don't feel creepy to the people who use them. While cutting off a drunk might be good practice (one that servers are supposed to be doing already), have a computer make that call automatically probably fails the "creepiness" test for many visitors.
Throw such concerns onto the pile of bugs, glitches, and challenges that Disney must overcome to make MyMagic+ scale to the level where it earns the company enough money to justify the billion-dollar investment. But if Disney fans and visitors object to the idea of Disney tracking their activity while on Disney property, well, they're going to have to do much more than refuse to wear a MagicBand to prevent Disney and other companies from tracking where they go and what they do.
By Robert Niles
Since I live in the Los Angeles area, we've long relied on readers around the country and the world to help us cover theme parks beyond Southern California. I used to live in Orlando, and still have family there, so I travel to Central Florida every few months. Several of our "Team TPI" correspondents also file reports from the Orlando parks throughout the year. But that's no substitute for having a reader living in Orlando who can cover events at the theme parks for us on a more regular basis.Tweet
So we're looking for an Orlando resident to write for Theme Park Insider as a freelance correspondent.
If you're interested, as we said, you'll need to live in the Orlando area — preferably on the southwest side of town, nearest the theme parks. And you have to be a theme park fan, too — someone who'd be visiting the parks on a regular basis whether you were writing for a website or not. We all came here to avoid reading professional travel writers who don't like theme parks, after all. Since you're reading this site, though, I'll presume that being a theme park fan isn't a problem for you. ;^)
If you have a "9-to-5" weekday job with no scheduling flexibility, this probably wouldn't be the right fit for you, though. Many theme park press events happen on weekday mornings (usually on Thursdays or Fridays), and we need someone who will be available to cover them for us.
We're looking for someone who can connect with their fellow Theme Park Insider readers, as Amanda, Russell, Derek, Bryan, and the other writers on the front page have over the years. So I'd love to call on someone who's already part of the TPI community, participating through the comments or the discussion board. Or, if not that, someone who at least gets what clicks with people. In other words, we're looking for someone who can write something about theme parks that you would want to read.
The pay's not huge, but I will offer a small amount per article. And if things work out, and you're willing and able to write more frequently than covering just the occasional press event, I can help out with covering the cost of renewing your Disney and Universal Florida resident passes, as well.
Finally, and this is usually the killer for us, if you work for a theme park company, you need to be able to write for us without losing your day job. I don't want to get anyone fired, so I won't let Disney cast members write for us about Disney, or Universal team members write about Universal. Maybe they can write about the other company, but I'd prefer to avoid that potential mess by sticking with people who aren't currently working for a park. Past employment at a park is a big plus for us, though. (I'm a former Walt Disney World cast member, for example.)
If you'd like to step forward, please send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org. Introduce yourself, then tell me why you'd like to become part of Theme Park Insider's front page team, and what you could do for your fellow readers by taking on that role. We've got a couple of press events coming up this month that I'd like to get covered, so I'm hoping to make a decision soon. Thank you for considering this, and thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!
By Derek Potter
On the evening of July 17, 1955, Walt Disney sat down to dinner with friend Art Linkletter in his apartment above the Main Street Fire Station. They sat on the patio and watched the fireworks display signaling the end of the first night for his brand new playland. The grand opening of Disneyland, the park that would forever change the industry and permanently embed itself into the American lexicon had not gone smoothly at all.Tweet
In fact for Walt, the embattled first day was nothing new. The whole project had been a struggle from the start. Practically everyone thought that he had lost his mind. Critics and friends dismissed the idea. The amusement industry predicted it would be a colossal failure. Even his brother Roy thought he was nuts, so much so that he flatly refused at first to support Walt's project. But Walt had grown weary and somewhat discontented with the company he had founded 30 years before. He was tired…not as inspired as he once was, he was participating less in studio projects, missing the old days of creative collaboration, and growing more and more indifferent. The idea of opening an amusement park rekindled the fire. It had been with him since he was a boy visiting Electric Park in Kansas City and listening to his father's tales of working the 1893 World Columbian Expo in Chicago. All throughout his life the idea had stayed, through visits with his children to the Griffith Park carousel and other amusements, to train rides, to his plan for a small park in the back of the Disney studio. Now it had grown to something much bigger and grandiose, and he was ready to see it through.
The inception of Disneyland was a battle. Faced with going it alone, Walt Disney formed his own company and set to work. Using his small reserve of resources and mortgaging himself to the hilt, he founded WED Enterprises, rented a bungalow, and hired a small staff to work on his dream. He borrowed from his past, his hometown, his films, and other parks, obsessing about three things…control, cleanliness, and immersion. In place of the chaotic boardwalk would be an orderly, family friendly environment. Buildings were designed to make the children feel taller; rides were designed to completely remove people from reality. Everything, down to the trees, flowers, and grass, would be part of the story. Walt had earned a reputation for success in the past, so his plan eventually won some allies. After learning that investors were taking interest, Roy Disney jumped on board, and together they fashioned a deal with the brand new ABC television network to help finance the project. In May of 1954, the official Disneyland announcement came, and ground was broken two months later in July. The TV show that promoted the park for months began airing in October, and shot to the top of the ratings.
Construction of the park was a battle. It was frenzy of activity, brought on by Walt's highly ambitious one-year deadline and one of the wettest spring seasons in years. Walt the perfectionist made the deadline even tougher. He was constantly tinkering with, expanding, and changing things, sometimes after they were already built. On one occasion he ordered an already planted giant tree moved just a few feet because he thought it was too close to the walkway. Other times it was a fence being moved a little to improve the view, or changing details on a Main Street building after the buildings had been framed. There were also problems with several of the union crews. Some would strike; others sabotaged finished work so they could redo it themselves. Even the soil wouldn't cooperate. The Rivers of America kept running dry because of the sandy bottom.
As time passed and the project grew, so did the budget. It ballooned from about 5 million dollars into 12 million. To help pay for it all, Roy enlisted several major corporations eager to get in on the action to act as investors and sponsors for the rides. True to form, Walt didn't hesitate to quickly spend every penny coming in. His uncompromising vision had no room for sparing expense. As opening day approached though, the 12-million dollar budget had long since been passed, eventually topping out at 17 million. They were almost out of money and running short on time. In the end, Disney had to leave details out and some of the attractions unfinished for the sake of the deadline. Weeds were left to grow in some places, and other places encouraged by water in order to cover barren land. Tomorrowland was unfinished, leaving a path to nowhere that would confuse guests for a short time. A plumbers strike towards the end of the project left him in a particular bind. He had to make a choice between having running toilets or water fountains for the opening. Up until the last minute, Walt was working. On the eve of the opening, he stayed up all night with a crew with a spray paint can in his hand, helping to finish the giant squid.
And then there was opening day. July 17th, 1955 was a hot one. Invitations printed for the media, celebrities, and other chosen ones had been sent out. The printed tickets however, had also been counterfeited by someone. Instead of the park's designed capacity of fifteen thousand, a crowd of almost thirty thousand people showed up. Almost immediately the problems began. Uncured asphalt was still steaming from the 100 degree temperatures, and high heels became trapped. The hot temperatures also shed light on the lack of drinking fountains, as hot and thirsty customers were led to buy sodas instead of going thirsty. The overloaded Mark Twain vessel nearly tipped over on its first run. With twice the anticipated crowd, food shortages inevitably happened. A gas leak that afternoon closed much of the park. People tripped over the giant runs of cable from the TV cameras covering the event. The live TV broadcast was also full of glitches and miscues. At one point, co-host Bob Cummings was caught on camera kissing one of the dancers. At another point, Walt's Tomorrowland dedication had a false start. The magic that Disneyland would later become famous for wasn't there yet.
Some of the critics were pretty harsh. One reporter's account:
Walt's dream is a nightmare…I attended the so called press premiere of Disneyland, a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in thirty years of show life. To me it felt like a giant cash register clicking and clanging, as creatures of Disney magic came tumbling down from their lofty places in my daydreams to peddle and perish their charms with the aggressiveness of so many curbside barkers.
Others who were unaware of the plumber's strike pointed to the lack of fountains as a money making scheme. Some weren't pleased with paying an admission price only to be charged again for the rides. Still others complained about the park was too clean and absent of real life. The crowd and the heat coupled with all the problems surely would have made for some unhappy guests. One wonders what a website such as this one would have written about what was later called "Black Sunday” by Walt and the management. Not all of the press was negative though. Many saw through the problems and looked to the potential and the ideas that were represented.
For his part, Walt was full of pride and joy the first day. During the opening festivities, he had a giant grin on his face and a tear running down his cheek. Oblivious to most of the chaos happening around the park, he was cool headed and carefree as he hurried from one location to the next for the cameras. His daughter Diane later remarked that she had "never seen a happier man.” Perhaps it was just the emotions of realizing a childhood dream, or maybe because he knew what his creation would become. In any case and despite the mess, the park known as the "world's biggest toy for the world's biggest boy” was open. As Walt sat with Art watching the show that evening, he was back to work taking notes, counting the number of fireworks being shot off to make sure they were all there. The rest as they say is history.
By Robert Niles
Thank you to USA Today for featuring Theme Park Insider in its travel section this morning, in the newspaper's list of 10 great theme parks for the holidays. We helped the paper put together the list, and provided several quotes about these Christmas and other other holiday celebrations.Tweet
We drew upon several Theme Park Insider reader discussions in offering our recommendations for the list, so your voices were heard! Some of the events featured in the piece include: Christmas Town at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood, and Holidays at the Disneyland Resort.
Busch Gardens today uploaded a video of its "O Tannenbaum" light show from Christmas Town, to give fans who haven't visited the park a taste of what they can expect from its holiday celebration.
We'd also like to thank US City Traveler for including our new Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 guidebook on its list of "must haves" for travel-related holiday gifts. We're planning to join US City Traveler on its podcast to talk about the book, later this week.
By Robert Niles
Editor's note: The following is the first chapter to Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014, our first guidebook, now available in paperback and eBook from Amazon.com.Tweet
Congratulations on starting a most exciting part of your next vacation — the planning.
I love planning vacations. Every moment I spend planning my vacation, mentally, I'm already there. Vacation planning takes my mind out of the office, away from staff meetings, out of the carpool and lets me think about a time when I can be enjoying every moment of my life. And I'm not limited to imagining just the place I'll end up visiting, either. Vacation planning allows me to think about traveling to an unlimited number of places around the country and the world, spending as much time and having as much fun as much as my imagination allows.
So enjoy this moment. Even as many families cut back their vacations — or stop traveling altogether — reading and dreaming about travel is a joy that anyone can afford.
But this book isn't about all of those wonderful destinations that await you around the world. It's about one, very popular vacation destination — Orlando, Florida. Even though Orlando is one of the world's most popular cities, it doesn't inspire a lot of love from travel writers. If you read a lot about travel (and as a writer, I certainly do), you'll find many books and magazine articles that look down on visiting theme parks for a vacation. You can almost see the writers crinkle their noses as they sneer at anyone who would think about visiting a place as, well, unnatural, as Orlando.
I wonder if those same writers look down upon watching movies, going to the theater, or even reading novels. Because, at its heart, a theme park is fictional entertainment, just like those other forms. But instead of reading a book, watching a movie or sitting through a show, Orlando's theme parks invite you into a world of immersive, interactive storytelling. Here, you walk through scenes from around the world and throughout time. You become part of the show that a cast of thousands of talented theme park designers, performers and employees have created just for you.
And Orlando's theme parks are among the world's best. Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld are to theme parks what Harry Potter is to novels, Star Wars is to movies, and Cirque du Soleil is to live theater. They're beloved by millions of fans around the world. Perhaps it's not surprising that Harry Potter, Cirque du Soleil and Star Wars are all featured in Orlando's theme parks, too. Excellence attracts excellence, after all.
So welcome to that club. By reading this book, you're stepping into the world of Theme Park Insiders — people who love theme parks and have taken the time to learn enough about them to find the very best of the best around the world. This book draws upon the experience of tens of thousands of ThemeParkInsider.com readers, who have been submitting ratings and reviews of the Orlando-area theme parks since 1999. After you've enjoyed your Orlando journey, we hope that you'll join us online at http://www.themeparkinsider.com and submit your thoughts about your vacation, too.
But for now, read and discover all that awaits you in Orlando.
We'll start by introducing you to each of the major Orlando-area theme parks. We'll take you on a written tour of these parks, looking at each of rides, shows and restaurants you'll find there. Some travel books jump right into the nuts-and-bolts of planning a trip - booking flights, hotels, buying tickets and so on. I think it's more important to take the time to select the very best destination for you and your family, first. So I want you to get to know the Orlando theme parks the way we Theme Park Insiders do. Yes, you're going to have to make some choices about your vacation, eventually. But we at ThemeParkInsider.com want all our readers to make informed choices.
Because the Walt Disney World theme parks attract the most visitors each year among the Orlando parks, we'll start with them. That's right, I said "them," not "it." Walt Disney World isn't just one theme park — it's four. And that's not all. Disney World also offers two water parks, a huge outdoor shopping center, campgrounds, golf courses, and dozens of resort hotels — from themed motels to five-star luxury spa resorts. It's enough to keep a theme park fan entertained for months! (If only you had that much time for your vacation.)
But you're missing worlds of delightful entertainment if you never venture beyond Disney on an Orlando vacation.
SeaWorld opened its Orlando theme park in the early 1970s, and for years it was the only other theme park in town, outside Walt Disney World. Today's SeaWorld has expanded into a world-class destination of its own. In addition to its namesake theme park, SeaWorld now offers one of the nation's most popular water parks, as well as an exclusive all-day destination called Discovery Cove — where visitors can get close to birds and marine animals while a staff pampers you with top-quality cuisine and service. You can even get into the lagoon and swim with dolphins!
Universal Studios joined the mix in 1990, with the opening of its first theme park outside the original studios in Southern California. Today, the two theme parks of the Universal Orlando Resort are the hottest in town, with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter land at Universal's Islands of Adventure drawing millions of new visitors to the Universal parks. But Universal offers much more than Harry Potter. This is the Orlando home of Transformers, The Simpsons, Jurassic Park and Spider-Man (ironically, the Spider-Man character is now owned by Disney, but Universal locked up the Orlando-area theme park rights long before Disney bought Spidey and the rest of the Marvel comic book empire).
So where do you want to visit? Disney? SeaWorld? Universal? Or all of them? We'll get into the details of how to plan your dream Orlando theme park vacation in the later chapters of this book. With so many options offered by the Orlando-area parks, you'll have plenty of chances to find a plan that fits your family's budget — and inspires your dreams.
Might I start with a few words of advice? Don't keep all this fun to yourself. Getting your family or your travel companions involved in the planning can help you avoid major headaches and conflicts down the road. This is especially true for children. It's great to surprise a child with an unexpected vacation. But once you've made the big announcement, why not keep the excitement flowing by involving your children in making your day-to-day plans? Parents who load their kids in the car or on an airplane without letting them know what's happening are parents who are going to spending a lot of time answering the kids' questions when they could be enjoying the wonderful destination they're visiting.
I like to get kids involved not just with picking and planning activities, but in budgeting for the vacation, too. My single least favorite moments on vacation were when my son or daughter would pick up a souvenir, run up to me with it, and beg, beg, beg for me to buy it. Why not use the vacation as an opportunity to teach a sneaky lesson about money, instead? Either give or help your children earn some money before the trip, so they have to spend their own money on souvenirs. Not only can that help put a stop to the begging (and believe me, all theme parks are designed to encourage you to buy, buy, buy), it gives you the chance to watch your children develop into little bargain hunters before your eyes, as they try to stretch their money as far as they can.
Talk with your children about safety, too. Now, don't alarm them. Theme parks are among the safest places in the world — if you follow the rules. Your children might be familiar with the safe way to cross a street. But I doubt that their kindergarten teacher told them about the safe way to board a spinning teacup. Please wait to board a ride, or to get out of a ride vehicle, until you've been told it is safe. Each ride at the Orlando theme parks will have posted safety instructions either at the entrance or in the line. And ride attendants are there to help, if needed.
Some families have special needs, too. The Orlando theme parks provide some of the world's most accessible destinations. Many rides and almost all shows can accommodate guests in wheelchairs, and many restaurants also accommodate visitors with special dietary needs. Travel shouldn't be restricted to young adults in perfect health. The Orlando theme parks make the joy of travel available to anyone.
That's why these theme parks have become some of the world's most popular vacation destinations. When I was finishing school, some of my (okay, really rich) classmates were planning post-graduation trips to Europe and Asia. I couldn't afford anything like that. I couldn't afford to go see the world. But I could afford to go someplace where the world would come visit me.
I went to Orlando.
After graduation, I spend more than a year working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I drove rafts to Tom Sawyer Island, welcomed visitors to the Country Bear Jamboree and even did a stint as a Pirate of the Caribbean. During my time at Disney, I met people from all over the world — extended families from India, little old ladies from England, tour groups of Brazilian teens — people I might never have encountered in many communities across the United States. Chatting with visitors from all over helped make that job into, well, a vacation — an opportunity to connect with people around the world.
So even when you get to Orlando, your journey's not complete. Don't be shy. Start some conversations. Find out where your fellow visitors are from. Travel the world as you travel the Orlando theme parks. It's like getting multiple vacations for the price of one.
That's what the Theme Park Insiders do.
That's why we visit Orlando.
* * *
Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 includes more than 200 pages of Theme Park Insider's reader ratings, tips, and advice for visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld. We've included our analysis of ticket options, dining plans, and front-of-line passes, as well as our tips on safety, budgeting, and navigating the parks. It's the best guidebook you'll find, from the best theme park community online!
If you're looking for another great Christmas gift, for yourself or another theme park fans, please consider our original book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider, a warm and funny look at what it's like to work at Walt Disney World. It's the highest-rated "cast member memoir" on Amazon and the Apple iBookstore — discover for yourself why so many readers love our insider stories by ordering a copy. ($2.99 for Kindle and $6.99 in paperback, from Amazon.)
Finally, we've signed up both our books for Amazon's "Kindle MatchBook" program where, if you buy the paperback from Amazon, you can buy the Kindle eBook version of the same title for just 99 cents. Amazon's already activated the MatchBook offer for "Stories from a Theme Park Insider." Since it's a new title, the MatchBook option for "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" should go live within the next few days. But paperback purchases now will qualify for the 99-cent Kindle purchase when it does. Thanks for being part of Theme Park Insider, and we hope that you love these books!
Keep reading: December 2013 Archive
Theme Park Insider Guidebooks
Top U.S. Theme Parks
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Other Top International Parks
Readers' Top Themed Rides
Top Roller Coasters
Top Theme Park Shows
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