This is a letter to my Zaid (Yiddish for grandfather) Norman Schlaff on what would have been his 95th birthday on June 4, 2023. Zaid died in 2012.
We went to Disney World with my in-laws last year for my father-in-law’s 80th birthday. While we had a wonderful time, there’s something that really bugged me. When you used to take us to Disney World, we all trusted Disney to create new and exciting adventures to surprise and delight us. After my last visit, I realized that Disney has lost its courage to invent, deciding instead to join the hoard of technology fanboys.
Disney has gotten a lot more corporate. And when I say corporate I don’t just mean that things are more expensive. I know that you never really cared about things being more expensive as long as you got a wonderful experience. I remember when we would go to the restaurant “Taste by Eli Zabar” on the Upper East Side with its vastly overpriced sandwiches. But the food was good, the people were very nice, and we had a great time. Or the times that Bubbie would go to Il Viola and order fresh fruit for dessert. They didn’t have fresh fruit on the menu. I still don’t know where that fruit came from. My best guess is that they cut up the sangria fruit or ran to the grocery store across the street. But 5 minutes and $20 later Bubbie had her fruit.
By “corporate” I mean that Disney World has become less authentically Disney. When Walt started Disneyland he said, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” It was a magical place. Now, like every other big company. It’s trying to be more like Google and Facebook. Walt would be disappointed.
Here’s one example. Remember what it was like to walk into the Magic Kingdom? We would walk into the front gate clutching our immersive color-filled maps. The map split the Magic Kingdom is split up into 5 lands, each in different colors. Each land has a major attraction or hero ride, like Space Mountain, that you can see from the gate. While the hero ride was what drew you to the land, there was plenty to experience while you were there including themed rides, food stands, and gift shops. When I went to Disney as a kid, I’d run to Adventureland for the Jungle Cruise but stay for the Dole Whip.
But the wonderfully colored maps have gone away. Maybe it was because of Covid or maybe it was cost-cutting but it’s really hard to find maps now. They’re there but no one really uses them. Now we have the “My Disney Experience App.” Here’s what the app looks like:
It’s a poor version of Google Maps, that helps to plan your day and shuttle you from ride to ride. Instead of focusing on the larger conception of the parks and the experience of being there, the app is all about efficiency. Because you choose each ride separately you’re going from hero ride to hero ride, you skip all of the stuff in between. It’s like they’ve decided that having a great Disney experience is about seeing the most stuff and waiting in the shortest amount of lines. You just put your preferences into the app, and the AI Genie will figure out the ultimate plan for your day. In the end, the AI Genie fails at its task because everyone wants to go on the same rides that still have very long lines.
I texted my friend Ross who used to work at Disney. “What’s up with this place? I feel like Disney has lost its soul. Am I crazy?”
“Oh!” he texted back, “You’re seeing the fight going on between the Disney Digital corporate types team and the Imaginaireers. It’s detailed in this 2015 article called The Messy Business of Reinventing Happiness. It’s a bit of an old article but it’s fairly unique for the tight-lipped Disney. This was right after a bunch of Disney Digital guys were fired and wanted to tell their story. Even though they left a decade ago, their legacy lives on.”
Disney has always been a technology company. Since the early days of talkies when Walt was pushing the envelope of animation and sound technology. Even before Disneyland, at the World’s Fair, he built audio-animatronic characters that somehow skirted the uncanny valley. Disney has always used technology to drive the experience of the visitors in the theme parks—to better put its guests in the movies. As Imagineering Chief Creative Executive, Bruce Vaughn, said in the article:
We want to take experiences that are more passive and make them as interactive as possible… We never want to do it just because we can.Bruce Vaughn in The Messy Business Of Reinventing Happiness, Fast Company April 15, 2015
Then, sometime around 2010, Disney got frightened. Keeping with Disney’s story-telling philosophy, I imagine a young up-and-comer in a white linen suit and blond hair. He personifies the things that have bugged me about the new corporate Digital Disney. He’s tried making it in the movie business but couldn’t tell a compelling Disney-esque story. But he did go to business school and was able to tell a different story—a story of fear and technology that prompted the organization to change. Helpfully, I have a quote from a former Disney Executive that’s perfect for my blond-haired linen-suited villain.
We were failing to recognize key consumer trends that were starting to influence how people interacted with brands. Inside the company, Disney World became known as a “burning platform.” If we miss out on that next generation of guests, suddenly our burning platform is fully on fire—panic mode.Anonymous Former Digital Disney Executive Quoted in The Messy Business Of Reinventing Happiness, Fast Company April 15, 2015
It’s About the Experience
Visiting Disney World is like being in a movie. Zaid once told me that “Every great vacation should have 3 great moments and no bad ones.” I later learned that he’d borrowed this quote from the film director Howard Hawks.(1)Hawks famously said, “A great movie has three great scenes and no bad ones.” On each trip we’d have a few new wonderful and glorious things to experience, building on what came before. New rides like Splash Mountain would appear. Maybe a new roller coaster would appear. Or Splash Mountain would be a little less racist. Each time, Disney was telling a story and we were along for the ride.
Every great Disney experience needs to be part of a quest. It’s not just about the final payoff but also the anticipation and often the arduous journey to get there. One of the most magical experiences we had at Disney was getting up for the opening of the Magic Kingdom. We needed to wake up at 6:30, grab a quick breakfast and head out to the park. Then, at 7:45, just before the park opened, all of these guests would be huddled around the outside by the opening gate. Then a train would arrive with Mickey Mouse, his friends, and the Mayor. They performed a wonderful little song and dance number thanking you for coming to the Magic Kingdom and at the end of the number, they opened the gates with a celebratory plume of confetti.
The most magical moments often aren’t the most popular and sexy new things. My favorite quest on our most recent trip was to Club Cool. It’s a Mini World of Coke right in the middle of Epcot. A few years ago we visited the real World of Coke in Atlanta. It’s a $30 per person shrine that immerses you in the culture and history of Coke. But the real reason to go is to try 84 flavors of Coke from around the world, including Beverly,(2)Beverly is iconic enough to be featured in an April Fools prank. a bitter Italian soda. Trying Beverly is a rite of passage, pulling it into your mouth, pursing your cheeks, gagging at what you’ve done, and spitting out the awful mess. Well, you technically don’t have to hate it but almost everyone does. Club Cool cuts to the chase and cuts the hagiography, just letting you drink samples of 8 different global beverages for free.
On our trip, we found a few hours of downtime to take a mile-long trek from our hotel to Club Cool. We tried a cucumber soda from Asia and a sour cherry soda from China. And of course, the boys had to try Beverly and spit it out. Then they spent the next 20 minutes attempting to get other family members to drink it. There was no line and it wasn’t on an app, it was just pure adventure—being together and making magic.
The Tragedy of My Disney Experience
So let’s get back to our linen-suited Disney Digital Executive villain. He doesn’t understand the magical Magic Kingdom opening or Club Cool moments. He is looking at Disney World as a numbers game instead of as a story. I get it. This is one of the largest companies in the world, managing the world’s largest tourist attraction; however, the goal of these corporate overseers is to disperse as much magic to as many people as possible.
But the core of the Disney experience has now become the My Disney Experience app. In addition to transforming the experience to a Google Mapified wayfinding experience, Disney doubles down on digital. For an additional $15 per person per day, guests can purchase Genie+. This comes with additional benefits including Lightning Lane access, photo filters, and audio guides. All of these things suck but for different reasons.
When I gripe about My Disney Experience and Genie+ to Disney fans, they immediately think I’m talking about the Genie+ Lighting Lanes. This is a system that allows guests to reserve time when they can avoid the tortuous Disney lines. This is a clear downgrade from the previous Fastpass system. Fastpass was a free system that allowed a guest to receive 3 Fastpass reservation times for free. Under the My Disney Experience app, guests who pay $15 a day can reserve one ride at a time for a Lightning Line (which comes out to 1 or 2 a day). Even worse, certain rides are excluded and have their own charge for their Lightning Lanes.
I get it. Disney is a giant company that needs to make money. The parks are getting more crowded. But Disney positions Genie+ Lightning Lanes as an upgrade when it clearly isn’t. Lightning Lanes are just a hidden price increase and downgrade from Fastpass. By labeling it “Digital” and putting it on a phone, they think that people won’t notice. To paraphrase the old-world charm of Walt Disney, “Don’t tell me it’s raining when you’re peeing on my leg.”
But it gets worse. The other features of the My Disney Experience App aren’t about money but they manage to devalue the physical experience of being there. The magic of Disney World is about a community experience in a shared physical place. It’s a place where people come together where they can experience something truly unique. It’s a place to fully experience the world, get off of your phone, and be human. Instead, Disney has decided to put more things onto the phone and take us out of the real world.
Taking the Magic Out of Magic Photos
One of the most phone-centric features of the app is Genie+ photo filters. As part of your $15-a-day-per-person premium subscription, you can access special photo filters on your phone and post them to social media. While the filters are fine, they’re nothing special compared to what you’d get on Facebook or Snapchat. You get some cool animated filters that use Disney characters but it feels like you’re Instagramming “I’m at Disney World and I paid a lot for these filters!” You don’t have to go to a specific place in Disney World to access the filters. They’re all on your phone.
Compare that with the magic photos that are part of Disney’s Photo pass. Disney has photographers all over the park. Most of these photos are about getting a view of some Disney backdrop like the Eiffel Tower or Space Mountain. For magic photos, the photographer poses the guests in a specific way, like looking in the distance and acting surprised. The photographer won’t tell you what the final picture looks like. Then, after 15 minutes or so, the picture comes back with magic enhancements.
This differs from the photo filters in a few important ways:
- You need to go to a specific place to get your photo—sometimes waiting in long lines for special ones.
- You don’t see the photo right away. There’s an essential sense of anticipation about what the image will be.
- There’s a story behind the magic pictures beyond technology. It really does feel like Disney is taking my pictures and adding magic behind the scenes.
The difference is best expressed by a very friendly Asian Magic Photos photographer who we met in the middle of the night in Magic Kingdom. When we talked to her about getting our photo taken she said very strongly and firmly, “Is not Photoshop. Is not Photoshop. Is Magic.”
How Disney Should Be Using Technology
Genie+ also offers a feature an “audio guide” feature it calls Audio Tales. It’s not so much of a guide as it is 10 short (1-minute) YouTube-style videos throughout the park. Yet again, I could watch the same videos at home or in my hotel room and get about as much out of it.
When I saw that Genie+ had an integrated audio guide, I had a much greater vision in mind. I thought that Disney would integrate audio into my experience of the park, augmenting my overall experience using technology. It would be like watching The Imagineering Story, a wonderful documentary on the park, but walking through it in real life. Or maybe Disney would take some of the content that they have in the behind-the-scenes tours and make it accessible via the app.
There are apps that do this. My favorite was called Detour.(3)It’s no longer available. Bose bought it for the technology and shut it down. I was able to walk around New York guided by the app. When the GPS saw that I was at a tourist destination, it would give me a snippet of content and then show me directions to the next location. Disney could easily do this by putting location beacons throughout the park and combining it with audio.
Considering Disney has all of this content, I wondered about what was holding them back. Maybe they don’t have the technology. Maybe they’ve tried it already but realized that they couldn’t get the location of the guest good enough. Then I discovered that Disney could do it, they just don’t.
I talked to my friend Sameer. Sameer is blind and uses assistive technology to experience Disney World. This assistive technology has all the content that a sighted person would care about—highlighting each exhibit and providing wonderful descriptions and backgrounds of everything in the park. Sameer says it’s some of the best audio descriptions and location tracking that he’s ever experienced. This assistive tour is exactly what I want. But currently, it’s only available for blind people. Even worse, it’s not easy for the blind community to use. Instead of being integrated into the My Disney Experience app, you can only get to the assistive tour through a big bulky device that’s only used for this one thing. Each day the visually impaired guest needs to stand in a line at guest services in the morning and check it back in at night. This is just so they can “see” the park!
Adding these audio descriptions to the My Disney Experience app as an audio tour would provide a lot of value to everyone. I would get the audioguide commentary that I’d gladly pay for. The low-vision community would have a much better experience dealing with these devices. And Disney would be building a far stronger relationship with its customers that want to dig deeper into the parks. Why don’t they do this?!
Focus on the Magic
I’m not saying that Disney World isn’t still a magical place. I am saying that Disney is making a huge mistake in where and how it’s investing in technology to drive the experience.
About a decade ago, Disney released a magical new experience that uses some simple technology. In the Magic Kingdom, the Dumbo ride always has a consistently long line. They’ve added capacity to the ride but couldn’t keep that up forever. So instead of trying to make the line even faster, the Imagineers created a small carnival about halfway through the line. You turn a corner and there’s a giant mandatory playground/waiting area. When you get to the playground you’re given a little buzzer like you’d get waiting at a restaurant. When the buzzer goes off, you can leave the playground and continue to the ride. The important thing is to focus on the experience of “play in the jungle gym while you wait!” rather than “look at this magical buzzer!”
The biggest technology mistake, which I’m sure my fictional linen-suited friend had a hand in, was Disney’s MagicBand. The idea was to give everyone a bracelet that could be used throughout the park, from ride tickets to room keys. The project went well over budget costing over a billion dollars. Today, the technology is about as good as what you get from a mobile phone, just a lot more expensive for Disney to maintain. But Disney keeps pushing it. Last year Disney World rolled out a $45 ($65 for the limited edition ones) MagicBand+ which has underwhelming features like flashing during fireworks or playing music when near a statue.
The goal for MagicBands was in the right direction—if poorly executed. The company wanted to offer an integrated digital and physical experience at Disney World. At the Be Our Guest restaurant, you could order your quick service food. Then, magically, your food would be delivered by a robot butler to your table in the vast dining hall guided by your MagicBand. Another key idea shared by the initial team was that Magicbands would let Disney cast members and robotic attractions wish guests Happy Birthday throughout the park.
While the robot table service at Be Our Guest was a good gimmick, it was soon replaced by the more standard Disney table service with characters coming around and signing autographs. The experience of cast members dressed as the Beauty and the Beast characters was more magical than the robot waiters. And what happened to that key Happy Birthday interaction? It never happened. Years after the MagicBand launch, Tom Staggs, who oversaw the project, said, “You know what, we’ve got the buttons. People put on the buttons that say ‘Happy Birthday,’ and everyone wishes them Happy Birthday. They love it.”
PS. While the technology didn’t help, we still had a wonderful experience with Jeanne and Tony. Here are 3 of our great moments in addition to Club Cool: we drove around in those little assistive scooters, saw an amazing new Fireworks show, and ate and drank our way through Epcot at the Food and Wine Festival.
|↑1||Hawks famously said, “A great movie has three great scenes and no bad ones.”|
|↑2||Beverly is iconic enough to be featured in an April Fools prank.|
|↑3||It’s no longer available. Bose bought it for the technology and shut it down.|