Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom just debuted the most popular meet-and-greet in the park’s history, when guests waited four or more hours to spend a few seconds with the stars of Frozen. And as this article is hitting newsstands, Mickey will unveil the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train family roller coaster, cornerstone of the long-in-development New Fantasyland expansion, to invited media (present company excluded; there’s room at the press preview for mommy bloggers and fan websites, but apparently not Orlando Weekly).
But if you turn on the TV, you won’t find either of those attractions trumpeted in commercials. Instead, lately Disney has been broadcasting national advertisements for their MyMagic+ program – featuring MagicBand tracking wristbands and FastPass+ ride reservations – which was recently rolled out for all off-site visitors, who have finally joined hotel guests and annual passholders (as I detailed in my March 26 column) in a brave new world of pre-scheduled, computer-monitored fun. Unfortunately, the ad now running makes Disney guests look like oblivious idiots who can’t unlock a door or buy a cup of coffee in the real world, but it does demonstrate the dramatic difference between how Disney and their Universal competitors are leveraging technology to make “magic.”
Since I last covered Disney’s billion-plus-dollar IT experiment, I’ve received my personalized MagicBand (which proved surprisingly comfortable and convenient, for an Orwellian shackle), and experienced the luxury of FastPass+ reserved viewing sections for fireworks and parades, allowing me to finally enjoy those shows without feeling like a sweat-soaked sardine. Also, a recent upgrade to the system also overcame my two biggest beefs: You may now reserve additional FastPasses after using your initial three and hop to a second theme park to retrieve additional FastPasses there.
Most recently, FastPass+ helped me make some magic for my 5-year-old niece in Pennsylvania. I reserved an appointment to meet the psychotically popular Anna and Elsa in their new Fantasyland digs a month in advance, and despite the 210-minute standby queue, I was in and out of Arendelle with autographs in hand in under 10 minutes. This story isn’t entirely happy-ever-after, though. Three days before my visit, my reservation mysteriously vanished from my online account (a fact I only discovered because the same thing happened on Easter Sunday to Inside the Magic blogger Ricky Brigante), and it required a phone call to Disney technical support to resolve.
The disappearance was blamed on a buggy iOS app, and I was advised to use the MyDisneyExperience website instead – an opinion reinforced by the survey takers inside the park interviewing guests about their issues with the app. And I couldn’t help but feel my expedited encounter came at the expense of hundreds of miserable-looking children stuck in the sluggish standby line, whose only crime was being born to parents who didn’t book a FastPass+ 30 days earlier.
While Disney uses its expensive new infrastructure to shuffle guests around in hopes of eventually increasing per-guest spending while reducing labor expenses, Universal Orlando is rumored to be using its own next-generation technology to create an innovative new entertainment experience. Most major aspects of Diagon Alley – the new London-themed Harry Potter expansion at Universal Studios Florida – have already been publicly announced, save for the official opening date (which is expected to fall in mid-June, around the four-year anniversary of the original Wizarding World’s premiere) but there are still a few final secrets left to spill.
One feature that until recently remained under wraps has now risen to the top of the rumor mill, thanks largely to posts on Central Florida Top 5 by Ken Storey, revealing details of the interactive wands Universal will reportedly introduce with the new area. While a MagiQuest-esque system whereby guests can “cast spells” to trigger hidden special effects was whispered about as far back as 2008, my sources say that Universal is indeed aiming to implement it around Diagon’s debut.
The new electronic wands have embedded Wii-style gyroscopic sensors to distinguish between swishes and flicks, and can be tracked by Kinect-like cameras. By gesturing correctly at selected window displays secreted around both Wizarding Worlds, guests will be able to levitate quills and quaffles, animate cakes and cauldrons, and assemble skeletons and suits of armor.
As a Potter fan, I’m beyond excited to see such an attraction put into action, but as an observer of amusement operations I’m understandably apprehensive. How can Universal prevent long lines at every interactive location (as seen at “portals” for Disney’s Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card game) without charging a price that would make Gringotts’ goblins gag? If they can solve that supply-and-demand dilemma, they’ll truly be wizards.
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