Development of FastPass+ delivers freedom as Walt Disney World personalizes vacations with more MyMagic+ planned

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The latest innovation from Walt Disney World isn’t a big new ride but behind-the-scenes improvements that are meant to better the guest experience.

MyMagic+ has officially rolled out, offering technologically-driven tweaks to a Disney vacation designed to pull visitors out of lines and give them more time to enjoy time spent together.

“This is really the basis of the guest experience,” explained Sarah Sinoff, Director of Growth Marketing Strategy, Walt Disney World. “What we’re trying to do is give the guest a more personalized experience. It improves the experience for every single guest and allows them to pick and choose what they want to do, have information at their fingertips, move through the park without barriers like the turnstiles. It’s a complete new platform for the park.”

Sinoff has spent more than 3 years working on MyMagic+, a task she called a “journey to develop.” Its components are driven by RFID technology – chips embedded in park tickets and new MagicBand wristbands that allow tap-to-enter hotel rooms, turnstile-free faster entry into theme parks, and tap-to-pay in stores.

The centerpiece of the MyMagic+ program is FastPass+, an enhancement to the line-skipping feature that Disney first launched in the late ’90s. Now travelers can book FastPass+ selections for three rides, shows, or other attractions up to 60 days in advance with more selections available day-of.

But at a reported cost of more than $1 billion for these backend enhancements, many fans are left wondering why that money wasn’t spent on incredible new attractions instead. Disney says the investment is important to improving time spent in the parks.

“It’s not about a Walt Disney World vacation,” said Sinoff. “It’s about spending time with their family or their friends that they come with. What we believe this does is takes away the friction that took away from those great experiences, their ability to really spend that quality time together, and it gives it back to them.”

By offering advance ride reservations, Disney hopes guests will use their extra free time to shop, dine, and otherwise freely explore and have fun. The new system is intended to take the pressure off of a Disney vacation.

“No longer does the ‘amazing race’ happen when the rope drop occurs where people run to FastPass locations that were decentralized,” noted Jim McPhee, Senior Vice President, Walt Disney World Parks. Now, guests who don’t book FastPass+ reservations in advance online can simply visit any of the kiosks throughout each theme park to plan out their day or just grab whatever is the next available spot, by passing long waits in lines.

Jim McPhee (center) discusses MyMagic+ at a recent Walt Disney World press event.

Disney insists spontaneity is not dead due to the addition of FastPass+. Those who take advantage of the advance reservations will find more freedom available to them on their trips. But those who aren’t avid planners aren’t required to take part.

“It works for everybody,” said Sinoff. “There are a lot of experiences available. Most are available day-of. So it’s not that you have to plan before you come, it’s that you can.”

But there is already a divide Disney has created in the system. Those with reservations at a Walt Disney World hotel can book FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days in advance while annual passholders and day guests can only book 30 days.

“We heard from our resort guests that they prefer to plan far in advance and we heard from our day guests and our pass holders that they want a lot of spontaneity,” said Sinoff. From that, Disney decided to offer a longer window in which hotel guests can make their FastPass+ reservations.

It doesn’t exactly sound like a solid excuse for the split, more like a perk for those paying to stay at a Disney hotel. It also doesn’t mean it will stay this way.

Based on guest feedback, Disney has already implemented some changes to FastPass+ since it first launched a few months ago. Guests can now make additional in-park FastPass+ selections after they’ve used their first three for the day and those additional selections can be at any of the four theme parks, allowing park hopping.

To help alleviate some of the confusion about how many selections can be booked at what time, Disney offers a series of FAQs online explaining it all to those who take the time to read them.

Though there will be tweaks, don’t expect any major changes to FastPass+. “We’re not looking reinvent FastPass+ a second time,” added Sinoff. “But we’re going to always work on how we make this experience even better for our guests.”

Out of the gate, FastPass+ has been heavily utilized and appreciated by many of Disney’s guests. Within a couple hours of FastPass+ bookings becoming available for the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride (opening May 28), more than 50,000 signups had already occurred, according to McPhee. There was so much interest that the online system was temporarily brought to a halt. Likewise, FastPass+ selections filled up quickly as soon as word spread that they were available for Star Wars Weekends.

FastPass+ reservations disappeared fast for the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the Magic Kingdom.

In fact, FastPass+ is being used by 40% more people than the previous system was, according to Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Tom Staggs, who also added that Disney’s guests are experiencing more attractions and exploring the parks more extensively than they did while using the original FastPass, spending less time “running around grabbing passes.”

MyMagic+ as a whole is an ongoing and ever-evolving program. Unlike officially opening a ride with a grand ceremony, Disney has opted to not cut the ribbon, so to speak, on the new system since they intend on making small but regular changes and upgrades to it.

“We want to continue to evolve in a very realtime basis,” explained McPhee, adding that it’s a rather unusual rollout for Disney. They can make changes on the fly as they see fit, so the way MyMagic+ and FastPass+ work today may not be the same tomorrow.

“We will continue to test the experience forever,” said Sinoff. “We are going to continue to test and build, grow and learn forever. It’s never going to be done. It’s all about innovation for the future.”

There are big plans for MyMagic+ ahead, though Disney isn’t ready to disclose what those are just yet. Integration with attractions is certainly on the horizon, allowing guests’ personalized data to customize experiences. Disney has previously offered examples of Mickey Mouse “magically” knowing a guest’s name and that they are celebrating a birthday or riding through “it’s a small world” and seeing dolls that the guest had customized online show up digitally alongside their boat in the ride. The possibilities of RFID-triggered interactions are endless.

But the technology that makes it all work will remain hidden from the average guest’s view. Staggs used legendary writer Arthur C. Clarke’s “third law” to describe MyMagic+, stating that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

And Disney is indeed developing even more technological magic. “We are just getting started,” said McPhee. “We wanted to get to a place where we could take the Parks and Resorts experience at all of our property here at Walt Disney World to the starting line of personalization and customization and we are excited about the things that are on the horizon for us to go and do.”

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