A long deep dive into the business behind Disney’s multi-billion dollar MyMagic+ project by Austin Carr has been published by Fast Company. It’s a well written piece with a lot of sources and some “in the room” insights about the project that I’ve never heard before. This new information has helped me solidify some thoughts on exactly where MyMagic+ and Fastpass+ goes wrong, changing the Disney theme park experience in ways that aren’t better for guest experience.
It started with this bit of insight as to the reason behind the project:
— In the mid-2000s, however, Disney executives had reason to worry about the future of the business. Disney World, Parks’ crown jewel, seemed to be losing its luster. According to multiple sources, certain key metrics, including guests’ “intent to return,” were dropping; around half of first-time attendees signaled they likely would not come back because of long lines, high ticket costs, and other park pain points. Simultaneously, the stunningly fast adoption of social media and smartphones threatened the relevance of the parks. If Disney wanted these more tech-oriented generations to love it as much as their parents, who had grown up with fewer entertainment alternatives, had, it would have to embrace change now. “We were failing to recognize key consumer trends that were starting to influence how people interacted with brands,” says one former executive. Inside the company, Disney World became known as a “burning platform.” As the former executive explains, “If we miss out on that next generation of guests, suddenly our burning platform is fully on fire—panic mode.” —
Panic mode. That explains a lot. The result of that attempt to put out the potential firestorm of dwindling guest attendance at the parks is what we now know as MyMagic+ and its child progeny Fastpass+.
The park planners behind MyMagic+ had the right idea. The “Next Generation” technology that makes MyMagic+ work is closely tied to the future of theme parks and the type of connection and engagement future guests will demand on future vacations.
However, my concern after reading the whole article, is that some of the ‘pain points’ Disney was reacting to, were only perceptions by guests, not actual pain points. MyMagic+ actually does little to address those perceptions, it just shifts them slightly to different pain points. You can make the argument that in customer service, perception equals reality. However, in the long run, you’re almost always better off addressing the root causes of that “mis”-perception than trying to fix problems of a non-reality-based problem.
For instance, one of the key ‘pain points’ guests reported was a perception that lines were too long. The reality for most of the year, is that crowds are unevenly distributed throughout the day and that lines that are long now may not be long later. This mis-perception leads to the guest doing a cost benefit analysis similar to this:
I want to ride Space Mountain and I’m in Tomorrowland right now, but the wait for Space Mountain is 90 minutes long, if I’m in line for 90 minutes, that’s time I’m not doing other things in the park that I want to do, therefore the line is too long.
The correct perception is “we’re in Tomorrowland at the wrong time and should come back when the line are shorter.” The way to move the mis-perception to the correct perception, would be to time-shift that guest. Disney knows that after 7pm the lines for Space Mountain drop to an average of 25 minutes. If it could somehow tell that guest to not wait 90 minutes now when they could come back at 7pm and wait 25 minutes, the pain point would have been relieved.
There are any number of ways to solve that. For example, MyMagic+ style technology and a little gamification could reward guests for preplanning and listing the 3-4 must-ride attractions on their trip. MyMagic+ knows when they’re in the park and alerts the guest when the attraction’s wait reaches a reasonable length. The informed guest would know that if they want to go on Space Mountain, they should consider taking a mid-day break at a hotel (gamification would reward them with a discount on a hotel lunch or a meet and greet with a rare character as extra incentive) so they can go the distance and stay later in the evening at Magic Kingdom.
Instead, Disney created Fastpass, which as we know, actually creates longer standby lines full of those not savvy enough to efficiently use the system. But it does address the mis-perception that the wait is too long for the big attractions by creating a system that lets a subset of guests cut the lines.
Imagineering had a different solution to this problem. Starting with Roger Rabbit’s Toon Town Spin and Indiana Jones Adventure, Imagineers proposed that if you make the wait something guests want to experience, it would change the pain point equation to something more like this. Space Mountain has a 90 minute wait, but I can spend half of that time playing an interactive game and engaging in the story of the attraction, so the wait will really only feel like a more reasonable 30-40 minutes. That’s an analysis that would make more guests happy, but may actually increase the waits for attractions that have the next generation queues.
In today’s Walt Disney World system, you’re not waiting long for the few attractions you can Fastpass+, but you can’t get FP+ for the rides you really want and have to wait longer for those. Worse, the experience of those attractions hasn’t been upgrade to match the new longer wait times. The end result is the perceived value decreases per attraction experienced.
Here’s a key pain point MyMagic+ doesn’t address — Planning. First, there is the local/visitor dilemma. if you’re visiting from out of town and want to go on a ride with your family who lives in Orlando? Good luck coordinating your Fastpassess, if you can even find availability for the same attractions.
Second, are the guests who don’t like to plan ahead (or just can’t for whatever reason). A vacation for them is best when it’s unstructured and plans can be made ad-hoc. All MyMagic+ does for this group is create one big pain point after another.
Every time I visit a Disney theme park, I walk by long lines of people who are buying their tickets for the day at the ticket booths which, in Disney speak, are now called Vacation Planning booths. That is a bit of Orwellian Doubletalk, because, if you are a guest buying your tickets at a walk-up window on the same day you plan to enter the park, you obviously haven’t done any vacation planning. You won’t be getting any good attractions on your Fastpass+, won’t get many good dining reservations, and are paying the highest market price for your admission media (it’s cheaper to buy ahead online). Disney should really be staffing these booths with grief counselors ready to apologize for the third class experience these guests are about to ‘enjoy.’ Heck, Disney should offer a discount for walk-up tickets to make up for it.
Prices, another perceived pain point, definitely haven’t decreased at all. In fact, they’re higher than ever. Even multi-day passes don’t do much to lower the pain involved in a 3 or 4 day vacation. At $77 a day without park hopping, that’s $1232 for a family of four for 4-day tickets. When you add in the increase in dining prices that the Disney Dining Experience has mandated (in short prices were raised so DDE purchasers feel like they’re getting a value), the pain point of paying for a Disney vacation rises again. Finally, there is the ‘tax’ you pay for staying on property. it costs considerably more to stay at a Disney Resort than for the same class hotel just down the street.
Disney has admitted, a large motive to spend all this money on MyMagic+ is to provide another reason for guests to stay on property. The ability to plan your three Fastpass+ 60 days ahead means they’re the only ones getting the full benefits of the system. With around 32,000 rooms on property, that’s a lot of guests who are now effectively standing in line in front of you at every Disney attraction if you’re a local or staying off property.
In the past, park admission meant no matter what you paid to get in the park, you were treated the same as every other guest (VIP tours, being an understandable exception, of course). Disney has quietly created a new class of guests, those who can afford to pay the toll to stay on property. This is beginning to sink in to more and more guests who aren’t staying on property creating a new ‘pain point’ that Disney will have to figure out how to address at some point.
I’ve said before, that while the technology behind MyMagic+ is fantastic and will let Disney take storytelling in new directions (meeting the needs of more tech savvy younger guests), the Fastpass+ improvements should have been the cherry on the top, not the leader. Something Disney could roll out when everything was working wonderfully and guests felt immersed in the magic to unprecedented levels.
The unspoken problem in this Fast Company article, and similar articles, is that demand has increased (there are something like 5 times as many “middle class” families in the world now than just 25 years ago) and capacity hasn’t kept up. Whether you believe the announced cost of $1.2 billion or the rumored price of $2.6 billion, it’s clear a larger portion of that should have gone to capacity building. Fastpass+ actually has the exact opposite effect. It reduces capacity by moving people from queues to walkways, restaurants, and stores.
Now, Disney execs have said that MyMagic+ has actually increased the capacity of the Magic Kingdom by 5,000 people. This may be true, but it’s not because there are new experiences to hold those guests, it’s just that on the peak attendance days, they don’t have to close the park quite as early in the day because MyMagic+ means 5,000 more people are in two queues at once. True capacity building comes from actually adding new shows, rides, and entertainment.
I also find it interesting that the sidebar to the article blames fans on the internet for ruining the original Fastpass; causing longer lines by learning how to game the system. I prefer the term optimal usage and I promise you any longer lines were the result of how Fastpass works, not from guests using the system efficiently. After all, an attraction can’t give out more Fastpass per hour than it’s programmed too. That sort of “Blame the Guest” for our bad program design is another example of Disney reacting to the wrong things and ending up fixing something that was never broken.
Honestly, parts of the article feel like a hit piece on Walt Disney Imagineering. For example:
“Imagineering is an incredible organization but it has become as institutional as the rest,” says a former high-level Disney leader. “They dream of building these big icons of their creative expression, but when a capital budget shows we’re going to invest in changing the established guest experience rather than spend on a big fixed asset, that doesn’t get met with love.”
That might be because Imagineering was able to see that it would be more effective to correct mis-perceptions than to build a multi-billion dollar system that would just shift the pain points around.
It’s interesting to point out that almost none of the MyMagic+ experience has made its way beyond the borders of Walt Disney World. Some is on the way to Disneyland Paris to help unify the hotels and theme parks under one magicband like device, but notably, it is still not even testing at Disneyland over in Anaheim, CA.
Here’s my advice to park managers at Disneyland, Tokyo Disney, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Don’t implement advanced reservations with Fastpass+. Instead, focus on the next-generation part of MyMagic+ for those parks and tie everything into increasing capacity through better story-telling and creating new attractions that have the technology built into its bones. This is where Imagineering can really help. Attractions, don’t even have to be $100 million roller-coasters, it can be a walk-around animatronic that knows guests names because of MyMagic+ or a new stage show where guests can interact via MyMagic technology in the seats. The possibilities are nearly endless.
Despite everything I’ve written above, I’m optimistic for the future at Walt Disney World. While development on MyMagic+ has been slowed down by recent layoffs in the divisions that created the the program, the technology is now core to the Disney experience. That’s a sign that the parks will be here for at least another generation or two to explore.
What we don’t know is the opportunity cost for not building capacity as demand grows. Walt Disney World (and Disneyland) are both way behind in adding capacity to keep up with demand. I know there are a few projects in the works to fill that need, some we’re hoping will be announced soon. Expansion not come fast enough for the liking of fans like me, but it will come. In the meantime, we guests must learn to make the best of a system that never really manages to address the our problems because it only addressed perceptions, not the root causes behind them.
What grade would you give Walt Disney World and it’s MyMagic+ and Fastpass+ systems?