How Disney Parks Spent a Billion Dollars to Undercut its Core Product
In case you missed it: Part One
— How a Walt Disney World Bar Set a New Standard for Theme Park Attractions
Take a look at any attraction attendance report and you will find the same names near the top: Disney and Universal. Why do those parks draw so many more visitors than their competition?
Is it because they operate year-round? That helps, but other parks, including Knott's Berry Farm, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens Tampa, are open to guests all year and they still trail Disney and Universal in annual attendance.
Is it because of the popular characters and franchises that the Big Two offer? That also helps, but don't overlook that Six Flags owns the theme park rights to the wildly popular DC Comics and Looney Tunes characters, including Batman, Superman and Bugs Bunny. And Six Flags' top park could double its annual attendance and still not beat any Disney or Universal park in the United States.
So what is it that Disney and Universal consistently offer that trailing parks lack? The year-round operation and attractive IPs help, but it's a third key quality that puts Disney and Universal on top — immersive themed environments.
There might be no better collection of themed environments within a single park than at Tokyo DisneySea. Photo by David Weiss
We wrote earlier this week about Disney's old Adventurers Club and how it enveloped visitors in an ever-evolving story that made that destination a must-see for many Disney fans, many of whom continue to mourn its closing, seven years later. Disney's been creating alluring themed environments in its parks ever since the opening of Disneyland in July 1955. It's the "magic" of walking through a princess' castle into a fairytale kingdom that helps distinguish Disney's spinners, carousels and flat rides from those found in so many other parks around the world.
In our earlier post, we wrote about a "ladder of engagement" that allows theme park visitors to step up from simply feeling present in a fully-realized themed environment to participating in that environment through a progression of optional roles. In crafting these environments, park designers must take care to avoid including elements that break the theme and take people out of the atmosphere of the environment by reminding them that they are in the "real world" of a theme park.
Some distractions cannot be avoided, including the illuminated "EXIT" signs that fire codes demand inside buildings and warning signs at the entrance to attractions where people are restricted from riding due to certain health or physical conditions. But the best theme park lands find ways to conceal or theme other common distractions. The employee passageways inside the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride aren't marked with "Employees Only," or "Team Members Only." They say "No Muggles." Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean eschews the common back-and-forth, chained serpentine waiting area in favor of well-themed fortress passageways for its interior queue. You'll find dozens of other such examples in the Disney and Universal parks.
But sometimes, the best efforts of park designers are undermined by the others "up the chain" in corporate management. We're not just talking restricted budgets — creativity always is restricted by what artists can spend to achieve their vision, no matter the medium. We are talking instead about when a company's efforts contradict one another, and a company introduces products or offerings that weaken its previous efforts. You see that when a park replaces a store's collection of unique, area-themed merchandise with new inventory of generic souvenirs. Or when a company decides to earn extra cash by slapping billboards inside the park, marring the decor of a land.
But today, we are going to focus on one specific case where a theme park company's product has undercut the viability of its parks' themed environments. In case you haven't guessed already — we're talking about Disney's MagicBands.
Using a MagicBand. Photo courtesy Disney
A MagicBand isn't part of any character universe. In a themed environment, it's a foreign object, as are the ubiquitous "Mickey head" stanchions now found outside every Walt Disney World attraction. Tapping a MagicBand actively takes you out of any thematic role within a themed environment and returns you to the role of theme park guest.
Your MagicBand reminds you that you're at Walt Disney World, and not a pirate in a Caribbean fortress or a royal subject in fairytale kingdom. In doing this, the MagicBand effectively substitutes individual themes within the Disney World theme parks for the meta theme of Walt Disney World itself.
The MagicBand, part of Disney's billion-dollar-plus "NextGen" initiative, is the culmination of Disney's promotional efforts to make itself the focus of your vacation experience, rather than any of various characters or franchises found within the Disney parks. You visit Universal to spend time with Harry Potter, the Minions, Spider-Man, Transformers or inside Jurassic Park. You visit Disney World to visit Disney. Your MagicBand is an ever-present reminder of that. It's the difference between "Live the Adventure" and "Show Your Disney Side."
The question facing Disney now is... does that matter? Will theme park fans in the years to come accept the role of being a Disney World visitor over other potential roles that they could play (to whatever level) in a park where the theme takes precedence over the brand, and not the other way around? Or are fans okay with playing two roles at once — as a Disney visitor as well as whatever role they might accept in a specific environment within Disney World?
The pushback that many fans have shown Disney, in person and online, suggests that some fans aren't happy with more than just the logistical snafus surrounding the roll-out of MagicBands and Disney's MyMagic+ reservation system. For some of these fans, the intrusion of MagicBands with Disney's theme environments weakens the magic and takes them out of the roles that they've paid to play. But are those fans the exception... or the rule?
What do you think?
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I think this is a great question to ask, but I don't think the scanning posts are the issue. They're not all that much different from the turnstiles you walk through in a queue. Hopefully there are more ways to balance the opportunity to have both experiences in the future, because there is definitely value to be gained from both the piece of mind of planing your day and the excitement of a spontaneous immersive adventure.
So the Magic Band is a distraction that intrudes on the immersive environment but the guy with the NASCAR shirt in Diagon Alley is congruous?
My MagicBand experience is the quintessential Disney Magic. Certainly, it did fail for some people and I hope they work out the kinks. Nonetheless, I completely enjoyed it and hope they make the experience a bit more thorough for my next trip.
I, personally, always imagined there being an invisible barrier and the only way that you could pass through was by scanning your MagicBand. Basically, I always thought of them as your own personal Keys to the Kingdom, so to speak.
The Magic Bands aren't exciting to me, but they're really just a minor symptom of the larger issue for me. Disney is focusing on fixing problems that weren't really broken and aren't investing in what made people love the parks in the first place - the attractions. That's the miscue, and they just keep doubling down at this point.
Mr. Niles' intent here raises a point ... But it's really one of those minor "fanboy" issues that (what I would guess) the majority of all theme park guests never even consider.
"But I'd be willing to bet that nine guests out of ten don't even know that they should be paying attention to theme or story."
When you use MagicBands with Fastpass+, you're not immersed in the theme as much. With the traditional queue lines and the long pre-shows, a guest is more likely to be immersed in the theme and storyline. So the concept of role playing depends on how much Disney wants the guests to stay in line or skip the lines. Plus the guests can eat in the fine table service restaurants or merely have a quick service meal. More immersion is realized when Disney has special events like Halloween and Christmas Parties where there is more tailoring of the experience. These experiences suggest guests' prior knowledge is important to achieve full immersion. Disney is much better with this, but Universal has caught up to some degree.
I agree 100% with Anon today... I think that once you get the idea, the magic bands really feel like "magic wands" (and better and cheaper than the ones in the Harry Potter Lands lol). I do agree that some guests just care about the rides and not about the whole experience but for some of us it is important too. That was my complaint about Universal 10 yrs ago, that is wasn't as "themed" as Disney but now they have come a long way and they are actually getting better than disney in some cases... I only wish Universal develops some kind of magic band as well!
In April, I had my first experience with FastPass+ at Disney and Express Pass at Universal. The experience was AMAZING! I was able to use my laptop, tablet and smartphone to make ride and restaurant reservations, in advance, as we were walking through a park, when we felt frustrated in line for a ride or as we exited a ride.
The immersion went out of the window at the point you are expected to plan you day in the park 6 months in advance. No exploring, not doing what you feel up to at the moment but creating a bucketlist that you are going to check off 6 months later.
The issue for me begins before I get there. The micro-managing of my vacation grates on me. The MagicBand doesn't change my experience at all. Getting it set up changes my excitement level and downgrades my anticipation for the trip about 1000%! Wearing and using the bands is neither an enhancement nor a distraction. It just is. From the beginning of Disneyland, we had tickets and after you have used up your Fastpass+ you will be back in the queues enjoying the story. The casual visitor isn't going to have issues. It is those of us who return time after time to re-immerse ourselves in the Disney universe.
Although I think magic bands are rediculous and I would never pay 30 dollars for a band that does the same thing as my park ticket, I don't feel it is a major distraction to immersive themeing. Thinking about it, there are countless such examples of distractions i.e. trash cans, haveing a janitor walking by, having an employee photographer asking for your pic, using your smart phone, buying a coke in themed lands where coke couldn't exist. I think magic bands are on the same level as those. Yes a distraction but not nearly enough to ruin the experience.
I honestly don't get Fastpass+ and the magic bands. From what I understand, you get fastpasses on your phone rather than putting your ticket in a machine like they do here in So Cal. This kind of sucks for a guy like me, who doesn't have unlimited data. It seems confusing to have it all digitized and that you have to wear some weird band all day. I don't see what was wrong with the old system, it worked really well. I really hope Fastpass+ never comes to Anaheim.
Ooops I didn't realize I wasn't logged in, this comment is mine! :)
Juan there is free wifi in the parks and you can also get the fastpass in the kiosks around the parks. You can get the first 3 up to a month in advance or 2 months if you are staying at a Disney resort. Also, if you stay at a Disney resort or you are a passholder you get the magic band for free. If you dont get it but don't want to pay for it, you can just use your ticket and the kiosks.
This question has a simple answer: it enhances the experience.
I posted: “But I'd be willing to bet that nine guests out of ten don't even know that they should be paying attention to theme or story."
How is swiping a Magic Band any less immersive than stopping by a Fastpass kiosk, getting a Fastpass then returning later to show that Fastpass to a castmember as you enter the queue?
The MyMagic+ system and Magic Bands from what I've been able to observe since it's inception has the Disney theme-park fan base divided just about 50/50. There's not much middle ground on this one. Some love it. Some absolutely hate it. My family falls into the latter category. We were very disappointed in the MyMagic+ system. We did not see it as an improvement or enhancement. But I would agree with the comments made earlier by Mr.Heaton in that this is a minor symptom of a much larger issue concerning Disney. As he correctly points out Disney is trying to fix something that wasn't broken. What made my family love Disney was their innovative attractions, their immersive environments and attention to details. That's what brought us to their parks...NOT MAGIC BANDS. I can only speak for my family but our last visit to WDW in Oct.2014 was our least enjoyable and most stressful ever...especially involving the TIME factor. How is this better??? How is this an improvement??? We understand and accept the fact that NextGen and MyMagic+ is here to stay but my family would have been much happier with 1.5 billion spent on improvements to existing attractions and new cutting-edge attractions. In fact our last visit to WDW was so stressful and disappointing that we're actually...for the first time ever...considering not including WDW on our next trip to Orlando. We might go back for Avatar in 17' if it actually opens by then but the verdict is still out on that one. It's really sad when almost every major theme-park in the country can open a new ride/attraction this season but the GIANT DISNEY CO. can't even open a new attraction for their life-long fans to celebrate Disneyland's 60th birthday. That's shameful. Oh and one last thought...what ever happened to the major announcement that Disney was supposed to make in May(2015)about their proposed STAR WARS projects planned world-wide??? Did I just miss it or did it just not happen??? I guess the budget got cut on the announcement. Someone commented earlier about ROI's and stockholders. I guess if you're a major Disney stockholder these days you ought to be on cloud-9 and dancin' in the streets...but if you are just an average Joe theme-park fan wanting some cutting-edge attractions from Disney it's absolutely the dark ages!!! C'mon Disney you can do better...your life-long fans deserve more than wrist bands!!!
Disney's wasting over one billion dollars necessitating me to plan out what E-ticket to ride six months in advance already ruined the magic and themed immersion. Disney spent a ton of money to "fix" a system that already worked fine, instead of creating some great new rides, attractions and shows. And it's done nothing to help Disney's bottom line (i.e. guests are going to buy dinner and souvenirs whether it's on a credit card, cash or Magic Band anyway).
Tony Perkins writes: "As for the absurd comment that 9 out of 10 guests don't get the theme anyway so theme doesn't matter except to the hardcore fan boys ..."
I see the point, but I do not think is breaks the theme, but I do think the concept was spawned more from a concept of how they can help Disney more than how they can help the guests, and that is where the problem for the bands lie with me. At this point all the evidence and my experience points to the fact that they make lines longer. Maybe not for all attractions, but definitely for attractions that did not traditionally have long lines. That being said, having to wait in lines is less fun than not; therefore, it diminishes my overall experience. Disney as a company prided themselves on the customer comes first. This has clearly slipped in recent years. I will say the arm bands can be damned convenient, but the Fast Pass Plus that comes with them is not.
Oh my gosh... People can't we all just get along. They are theme parks. Places that we all love. Some more than others, but they are all good at the end of the day. Yeah Disney parks are not as good as they once were, but they are still amazing. Universal is now pushing the bar to another level, and that's amazing... Let's be lucky that we have two awesome places to go to. They are both winners in their own ways. They are both places that I wouldn't mind going to in a blink of an eye. So let's just all take a chill pill and ride on and make new awesome memories at whatever theme park sounds good for that day. I woke up two days in a Univeral IOA mood.Today, I'm in a chill at Epcot day. I'm just real happy that both exsist to satisfy these moods.
The immersive experience at Disney was gone a long time ago when they refused to expand their offering of attractions in proportion to the attendance increases in their parks. The Disney “magic” was also degraded by the changing of special experiences like breakfast in the Crystal Palace before Adventureland opened into a horrid and expensive character breakfast filled with ill-behaved children and adults and the revamping of the unique shops on Main Street into a glorified Disney Store.
Note to Tony:
The $1 billion that Disney spent on Magic Bands could have paid for 10 brand new E-ticket attractions.
The MBs were only a distraction when I had to try a number of times before I got the green light. But for the most part, you forget about it and just get into the line. Most people don't need 100% immersion in order to get into the spirit of the attraction.
I was at Disneyland a week ago. I met a really sweet grandma traveling with her family from the midwest. She preferred the ease of use of the Magic Bands and told us all about it. I don't see how the magic bands would take away from the experience? It just sounded like a more convenient way to experience the parks. Especially with the sprawling property in Orlando. Nobody can get inside my brain, when I am at a theme park and want to get "into" it. So I don't understand all the word battles on this forum. The experience is what YOU make it. All the rest is just extra. I will say however that I am pretty much done visiting Disneyland. After spending a small fortune for 2 days in the park and hotel, we had the New fireworks show cancelled after waiting for over 3 hours, 4 attractions were broken. We spent much of our days running back and forth between broken rides and waiting in line. Very tiresome and anticlimatic. It seems as if in the last several years this is the norm. I mean come on...They are in the middle of a highly advertised 60th diamond anniversary and they can't get all rides up and running during peak summer season. Sorry Disney. I don't get it. I am with the person above who has suggested they add some new E ticket type attractions but also maintain those you have. With their money they can afford a few ride engineers. Looking forward to Universal Studios West Coast Harry Potter Land.
Sorry, but with 2 young kids, backpacks, strollers, sweating like a pig .. the whole immersion thing is what you make of it. There are moments where it happens, but in our case, that's far and few in between. But we love Disney, and have for the many many years my family has been going. We don't stay on Disney property but we bought the MagicBands and our experience has been just fine. FastPass+ is working out well for our style of planning. Yes, I'm bothered trying to plan everything out so far in advance and never knowing what will really happen when you get there with changes in plans and, of course, the weather. But when things work out, which is most of the time, we enjoy ourselves. Yes, I'd like to see a billion dollars spent on rides, but I also want Disney to develop technologies to help them improve their bottom line, know their customers better and succeed. New investment is happening and will continue. Not everyone will be happy with Disney's pace but I choose not to dwell on it. We have a great time every year, sometimes twice a year that we make it from Pennsylvania and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
Magic Bands worked great for us. I'm baffled by people who say Disney isn't investing in new attractions. We just bought into DVC because of all the new attractions coming. They may have been announced like Avatar and they may be in the drawing stages like Star Wars but they're coming alright. Buckle up!
Just wait until you use your Magic Band to open doors and move stuff around at Star Wars Land! It's coming people and it's going to be glorious!!! Disney is going off and I'm all in. Can't wait!!!!
...And what have we learned from this thread? Some people like FastPass+. Some people hate it. Big shocker. But I do have a couple things to say.
I don't see Fastpass+ as a much greater distraction than old paper Fastpass. You still needed to get your ticket out to get a FP.
"Nothing against your comment, but I wouldn't tell that to any of the thousands of Robe adorned guests and "non muggles" who attended opening day for Diagon Alley, not to mention the ever so slightly dramatic few who fell to their knee's and cried when they trode through the open entrance shortly after the ribbon had been cut. (or the many many many others who waited an entire day just to see the land."
It's a payment system. That's it... Any payment/reservation/entrance control system has to be provided, distributed, materialised. Why not calling credit cards and US dollar notes, along with a foldaway park map distractions in "role playing" ? Where is the difference ? I think, here, you hit a most total non-topic.
There is NO 100% immersion (anymore) with Disney. In the 1960-ies, 1970-ies and starting to fade out in the 1980-ies : yes. When food reflects "streetside US fast food almost anywhere), and merchandising reflecting NO themed land at all but China-import generic crap, and a fantasyland flat ride (Aladin) is brutally smashed in position in Adventureland (Aladin's "magic" KILLED the immersion of Adventureland), and roller coaster screaming is a FATAL disrupture with the theme and spirit of Rivers of America, and etc etc etc .. This list is endless. It's called "Six-Flag-i-Sation" of Disney, by Disney. It's a disease introduced by Eisner. It needs billions of dollars to get Disney back on the track of "total immersion". So, why is still everybody trying to say "it's there"????... No, it's gone ! Gone since about 25 years and not looking back. Am I a bit harsh? Yes I am. Truely, conceptualists and designers try to GET it again, here and there, then and now, in new projects, as long as top management is not interferring. Because a Fantasyland flat ride in Adventureland is a management descision, conciously concerned designers would start vomiting on such a commission. And so is it with all top management descisionmaking, because there are no "artists" anymore in that position, no theater people, no creativity. Only money. The real reason why Disney is thiving so strong, is (a) it's history and (b) the typical USA vacationplanning social reality, which favours short (3-5 day) packaged vacations on ONE destination, rather then 2 weeks travel around. For those people who do not understand this economic principle: The average # of vacation days in the USA is only half of that in Europe. (Or reverse: Double # of vacation days in Europe compared to USA..) but the total amount of vacation money spendable is very similar. This means, a double-spending-per-day reality in USA, compared to Europe. THAT and only that is thriving the 3-5 day WDW destination so high. Fly in, spend a huge amount of money, fly out.. and that was it for the year. It's compact "all in pampering". Immersion or not. The WDW busses are not an experience, they are horrible "packed sardines in a box" reference to any public bus in any city. It seems, it doesn't matter anymore. What matters is the % of total yearly vacation pocket money Disney can get from the crowd. So, f.i. having their own coaches operating from Orlando airport directly to the hotels, with baggage delivery service, (linked in with MB booking system starting at Orlando airport indeed) is MUCH MORE important to general business then a 200 million new attraction !
Immersion? With everybody around me starring at their cellphones? My definition of a holiday is simple: It´s time when I can shut off that damn thing. So the cellphone is, for me, a symbol of everything i want to get away from when i´m on vacation. Last year, there were 5 or 6 teens standing in front of me during the daytime parade at MK. None of them paid any attention to the parade - i saw facebook screens, 2 or 3 were obviously checking fastpass reservations, and one was *watching a video on youtube* (i don´t know what it was, i only saw the youtube sign - but i suspect it may have been a video of a disney parade...)
The last time we went down, we got the bands while staying at our resorts. Not once did I have an operational issue. The ability to use one object to get into my room, pay for things, and set up fasts passes made our trip so much easier. I liked being able to use my phone to alter passes on the fly. There were some issues with the phone app updating properly to show current choices when altering them.
^ Gibberish! ^
Are you saying going to a theme park is a bad thing, Herwig? If so, you're probably not preaching to the right choir.
You've gotta give Disney props: Magic Bands and MyMagic Plus went from pariah status to roughly half of people liking it.
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