Disney's classic freaks

Data-driven Disney monitors your every move

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Clever use of data to enhance the customer experience or invasion of privacy? It’s a fine line at the Magic Kingdom, but smiles usually win the day.

Imagine living in a place where your every move is surveilled. A place created in the image of one almost mythological figure, where every step you take is logged into a central database, and where the shadowy figures watching attempt to elaborately orchestrate events to manipulate people. This place is a real place. But it isn’t North Korea, it’s the happiest place on Earth: Disney World.

Today, when you visit one of Disney’s theme parks in Orlando, Florida, you’re offered the chance to buy a ‘Magic Band’, an RFID bracelet that will enable you to easily pass through ticket barriers, skip the queues for rides and buy overpriced merchandise in the many, many shops. But the real magic comes from another hidden power. In addition to working at close range on Oyster-card-style readers, the transmitter inside enables it to be tracked from what is thought to be around 12 metres.

This means that once you cross the border into Disney’s domain, the company is closely monitoring your every move.

“This is to try to really personalise what is pretty much a very mass experience and make sure that people feel welcome,” explains Eddie Sotto, a veteran Disney ‘imagineer’ who was responsible for drawing up the masterplan for Tokyo Disneyland. Today he runs his own experience design consultancy, working on attractions all over the world.

Sotto likens the tracking to the experience of a good butler, who will anticipate a person’s need and provide it at just the right moment. “Real luxury and real service is frictionless. And that’s what you’re really trying to do.”

Surveillance isn’t new for Disney. After the original Disneyland opened in California in the 1950s, Walt Disney himself would conduct research. “He would put a pair of sunglasses and an overcoat on and would sit at the exits to his own attractions and look at the people and listen to them,” Sotto explains. “And if they were happy, [the attraction] stayed.”

Collecting Magic Band data is similar to this, but happens on an industrial scale, and the fruits it bears are hugely valuable for planning and running a park. It means that Disney knows which parts of the park are busiest, and how long visitors are waiting in queues. “They can deploy the workforce as soon as it’s required, so there will be a faster service,” explains Chiara Bertoldini from DRFC, a crowd analytics firm. So if the queue for the new Star Wars Smuggler’s Run ride reaches two hours, which is not uncommon, Disney can deploy Kylo Ren and a couple of Storm Troopers to perform some impromptu street theatre.

Instead of relying on custom hardware like Disney’s, DRFC’s technology uses ordinary Wi-Fi routers to detect visitors’ phones as they move around, and it has been deployed in theme parks all over the world.

The way it works is that every phone, whether it is connected to the Wi-Fi or not, if Wi-Fi is switched on, will broadcast a unique ID number. By looking at where each unique ID was detected, it becomes possible to follow individuals around the park.

Crucially, this system will either work on its own or it can be paired with customer Wi-Fi – so, for example, when a customer connects in order to post a photo to Instagram, the Wi-Fi-login can capture demographic data on that individual and link it to their phone’s ID.

This means instead of simply seeing a map of people, park operators can generate demographic insights into which rides are popular with teenagers compared to adults, or men compared to women, and so on.

Are there other sensors that could be useful in the Democratic People’s Republic of Disney? What about facial recognition?

“I think the Magic Bands cover 99.9 per cent of what’s interesting,” says Jegar Pitchforth, a data scientist who specialises in theme parks. “I can see, at any moment, what makes someone spend money. What ride did they go on just before they came and bought a bunch of expensive drinks? What are the patterns that I’m seeing that tell me where they’re going to spend their money?

“Yes, they’re looking to make money,” says Pitchforth, “but they’re also looking at how to create a user experience that is 10 times more valuable than that piece of data I just gave away.”

“The best thing you can do with these tracking technologies and things like this is to share and reflect the information in a meaningful way that puts the customer at ease,” says Sotto, giving the example of waiting times for rides. Instead of simply using the data internally, Disney World has an app where visitors can see the expected wait times for every attraction.

He gives the example of how the Magic Band technology can really pay off: when children get to meet Mickey Mouse. Reportedly, in some cases the actor inside the costume will receive details of what rides and activities the child has already encountered, as well as personal details, meaning that the meeting immediately feels more personalised.

Theme parks are not the only places that deploy this sort of tracking technology. Elsewhere it has proved controversial, such as when the London Underground rolled out Wi-Fi tracking technology across its network. So should theme park visitors worry about their privacy? Or does the fact that going to an amusement park is a choice rather than a necessity mean that visitors are more relaxed about data collection?

“It shouldn’t be a condition of a service that you unduly sacrifice your privacy,” says Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns against digital surveillance. “Privacy should only be infringed on for a good reason, such as to provide a service. So intrusion in a park or private space is in some ways worse than in public spaces, because people may be forced into an unequal bargain where they feel they have no choice.”

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