After more than three years in development and $1 billion in spending, the Walt Disney Co. on Monday unveiled the central elements of its "Next Generation Experience," the sweeping, vacation-planning project aimed at getting travelers to spend more time and money at Walt Disney World.
Packaged under the name "MyMagic+," the project includes a new website and mobile-phone app, a revamped ride-reservation system, and wristbands equipped with wireless transmitters that will serve as all-in-one theme-park tickets, hotel-room keys and credit cards.
The goal is to make an increasingly congested Disney World, whose four theme parks drew more than 47 million visitors last year, less intimidating and more pleasant to navigate for travelers.
But it is also designed to allow Disney to cull vast amounts of new information from its guests -- from individual spending habits to crowd movements in its parks -- in hopes of better tailoring everything from sales pitches to operating hours.
"There's the key. It's a marketing bonanza," said Duncan Dickson, a professor in the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "It opens up so much rich information and gives the marketing groups the ability to target-market specifically to the guest."
Rumors have been swirling around Disney's technology project for years. The Orlando Sentinel first reported the existence of "NextGen" -- and its billion-dollar price tag -- in January 2010, though the project wasn't formally approved by the Burbank, Calif.-based company's board of directors until February 2011.
Disney said Monday that the project includes three central elements:
-- A new website and mobile app dubbed "My Disney Experience," which Disney said will be a "one-stop shop" for planning a Disney vacation. In addition to details such as hotel-room availability, travelers will be encouraged to provide personal details ranging from their favorite characters to celebrations such as birthdays.
-- A revamped version of its existing FastPass ride-reservation system dubbed "FastPass+," in which travelers will be permitted to reserve a limited number of attraction times from home. In addition to rides, options will include reserved seating for nightly fireworks displays and other shows -- even specific character-greeting times. For travelers uncertain about how to plan, Disney said it will recommended a prepackaged set of three FastPass+ reservations to "serve as a starting point."
-- Radio frequency identification-equipped wrist bands, to be known as "MagicBands," that will replace paper tickets and can be used to enter parks and hotel rooms and to buy food and souvenirs throughout the resort. The RFI wristbands will also interact with other sensors in Disney's parks, allowing characters to greet guests by name and verifying guests' "FastPass+" return times.
Disney said MagicBands will initially be available to certain guests staying in Disney-owned hotels or to those who purchase other, unidentified products -- a move Disney hopes will help rebuild occupancy rates that dipped to 78 percent during Disney's fiscal fourth quarter last year.
Dickson said he expects the wristbands will help drive bookings particularly for Disney's mid-tier hotels, which he said have not fared as well in recent years as Disney's top- and bottom-end hotels.
But Dickson also said Disney will have to articulate a strategy for how the new planning tools help annual pass holders, who are some of the company's most loyal customers and who may not benefit from advance reservations as much as travelers planning vacations six months or more ahead of time.
Other experts said they expect the systems to spur visitor spending in other ways. Disney, for instance, plans to sell items allowing visitors to customize their MagicBands. "People are willing to pay quite a bit for convenience," said John Gerner, an amusement-park industry consultant.
Disney said it expects to adjust the NextGen systems as more travelers use it and the company gathers more data. It also said it will roll out additional features later.
A number of elements of the project, including keyless hotel-room doors and interactive ride queues, have already been installed throughout the resort.
A spokeswoman said Disney will begin rolling out components of MyMagic+ over "the next few months." Not everything will debut at the same time.
"Over the past few years, we've devoted considerable time and resources to create a more immersive, more seamless and more personal experience for each and every guest who spends time with us," Tom Staggs, the chairman of Disney's global theme-park division, said in a prepared statement.
"This collection of tolls is another step forward in the ongoing evolution of our guest experience, giving us even more ways to help friends and family create the unforgettable Disney memories that they want most."
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