CLIFF KUANG DESIGN 03.10.15 7:00 AM
IF YOU WANT to imagine how the world will look in just a few years, once our cell phones become the keepers of both our money and identity, skip Silicon Valley and book a ticket to Orlando. Go to Disney World. Then, reserve a meal at a restaurant called Be Our Guest, using the Disney World app to order your food in advance.
The restaurant lies beyond a gate of huge fiberglass boulders, painstakingly airbrushed to look like crumbling remnants of the past. Crossing a cartoon-like drawbridge, you see the parapets of a castle rising beyond a snow-dusted ridge, both rendered in miniature to appear far away. The Gothic-styled entrance is teensy. Such pint-sized intimacy is a psychological hack invented by Walt Disney himself to make visitors feel larger than their everyday selves. It works. You feel like you’re stepping across the pages of a storybook.
If you’re wearing your Disney MagicBand and you’ve made a reservation, a host will greet you at the drawbridge and already know your name—Welcome Mr. Tanner! She’ll be followed by another smiling person—Sit anywhere you like! Neither will mention that, by some mysterious power, your food will find you.
“It’s like magic!” a woman says to her family as they sit. “How do they find our table?” The dining hall, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, features Baroque details but feels like a large, orderly cafeteria. The couple’s young son flits around the table. After a few minutes, he settles into his chair without actually sitting down, as kids often do. Soon, their food arrives exactly as promised, delivered by a smiling young man pushing an ornately carved serving cart that resembles a display case at an old museum.
We tend to acclimate quickly if technology delivers what we want before we want it.
It’s surprising how the woman’s sensible question immediately fades, unanswered, in the rising aroma of French onion soup and roast beef sandwiches. This is by design. The family entered a matrix of technology the moment it crossed the moat, one geared toward anticipating their whims without offering the slightest clue how.
How do they find our table? The answer is around their wrists.
Their MagicBands, tech-studded wristbands available to every visitor to the Magic Kingdom, feature a long-range radio that can transmit more than 40 feet in every direction. The hostess, on her modified iPhone, received a signal when the family was just a few paces away. Tanner family inbound! The kitchen also queued up: Two French onion soups, two roast beef sandwiches! When they sat down, a radio receiver in the table picked up the signals from their MagicBands and triangulated their location using another receiver in the ceiling. The server—as in waitperson, not computer array—knew what they ordered before they even approached the restaurant and knew where they were sitting.
And it all worked seamlessly, like magic.
No matter how often we say we’re creeped out by technology, we tend to acclimate quickly if it delivers what we want before we want it. This is particularly true of context-aware technology. Just consider how little anyone seems to mind now that the Google Maps app mines your Gmail. Today, Google Maps is studded with your location searches, events you’ve arranged with friends, and landmarks you’ve chatted about. It’s delightful, and it took hold faster than the goosebumps could. The utility seems so obvious, your consent has simply been assumed.
The same idea is taking hold at Disney World: How did they find our table?
A Friction-Free World
WALT DISNEY BORROWED against his own life insurance to pay for Disneyland’s original design, and according to friends and family, he never seemed happier. It was his sandbox. “You will find yourself in the land of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” he crowed in early brochures for the park. “Nothing of the present exists.” The expansion of Disney’s empire brought Disney World to life in 1971, and within that world, Epcot was to be the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Disney wanted people to move in and live with technologies the rest of us could barely imagine. In a way, the MagicBands and their online platform, MyMagicPlus, realize that dream. But not in the way he imagined.
The design of the bands themselves teach users how they work. Access points have an encircled Mickey logo which matches that of the bands, showing that they can be touched together for access. MATT STROSHANE/DISNEY
The MagicBands look like simple, stylish rubber wristbands offered in cheery shades of grey, blue, green, pink, yellow, orange and red. Inside each is an RFID chip and a radio like those in a 2.4-GHz cordless phone. The wristband has enough battery to last two years. It may look unpretentious, but the band connects you to a vast and powerful system of sensors within the park. And yet, when you visit Disney World, the most remarkable thing about the MagicBands is that they don’t feel remarkable at all. They’re as ubiquitous as sunburns and giant frozen lemonades. Despite their futuristic intentions, they’re already invisible.
Part of the trick lies in the clever way Disney teaches you to use them—and, by extension, how to use the park. It begins when you book your ticket online and pick your favorite rides. Disney’s servers crunch your preferences, then neatly package them into an itinerary calculated to keep the route between stops from being a slog—or a frustrating zig-zag back and forth across the park. Then, in the weeks before your trip, the wristband arrives in the mail, etched with your name—I’m yours, try me on. For kids, the MagicBand is akin to a Christmas present tucked under the tree, perfumed with the spice of anticipation. For parents, it’s a modest kind of superpower that wields access to the park.
Every new experience with technology gently nudges our notions of what we’re comfortable with.
If you sign up in advance for the so-called “Magical Express,” the MagicBand replaces all of the details and hassles of paper once you touch-down in Orlando. Express users can board a park-bound shuttle, and check into the hotel. They don’t have to mind their luggage, because each piece gets tagged at your home airport, so that it can follow you to your hotel, then your room. Once you arrive at the park, there are no tickets to hand over. Just tap your MagicBand at the gate and swipe onto the rides you’ve already reserved. If you’ve opted in on the web, the MagicBand is the only thing you need.
It’s amazing how much friction Disney has engineered away: There’s no need to rent a car or waste time at the baggage carousel. You don’t need to carry cash, because the MagicBand is linked to your credit card. You don’t need to wait in long lines. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking out your wallet when your kid grabs a stuffed Olaf, looks up at you, and promises to be good if you’ll just let them have this one thing, please.
This is just what the experience looks like to you, the visitor. For Disney, the MagicBands, the thousands of sensors they talk with, and the 100 systems linked together to create MyMagicPlus turn the park into a giant computer—streaming real-time data about where guests are, what they’re doing, and what they want. It’s designed to anticipate your desires.
Which makes it exactly the type of thing Apple, Facebook, and Google are trying to build. Except Disney World isn’t just an app or a phone—it’s both, wrapped in an idealized vision of life that’s as safely self-contained as a snow globe. Disney is thus granted permission to explore services that might seem invasive anywhere else. But then, that’s the trick: Every new experience with technology tends to gently nudge our notions of what we’re comfortable with.
Designing the Experience
DISNEY SHROUDS ITS creative process in secrecy. This is both strategic and cultural: The company doesn’t want its magic tainted by the messy realities behind the curtain. That’s particularly true of the MagicBands. Piecing together their origin required more than two dozen interviews with executives at Disney and with designers and engineers who worked on the project but could speak only anonymously due to non-disclosure agreements.
Though the team behind this sprawling platform eventually swelled to more than 1,000 people, the idea started years ago with a handful of insiders. People jokingly called them the Fab Five—an almost sacrilegious reference to Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto. In 2008, Meg Crofton, then president of Walt Disney World Resort, told them to root out all the friction within the Disney World experience. “We were looking for pain points,” she says. “What are the barriers to getting into the experience faster?” The Fab Five were not just Imagineers, the demigods of fun who create Disney’s attractions. They also included high-level veterans of the company’s sprawling operations division, executives intimately familiar with the gnarly realities of running the park—from catching people trying to scam the ride-reservation system to making sure parents are reunited with lost kids.
But the Fab Five’s workaday roles belied a grand vision for Disney’s future. “They came back with a drawing of the Magic Kingdom without turnstiles,” Crofton says. But, she adds, there was a “domino effect in making one decision. Everything was wound together.” No one knew this better than John Padgett. He was the project’s most forceful advocate, and his name appears first on more than a dozen patents associated with MyMagicPlus. Within the company, this cascade of new technologies, and the dream of overhauling the park, thrilled some and threatened others, who fretted over the sheer complexity of it all.
The band’s design reinforced two key values: Everyone is equal, and everyone is welcome.
The Fab Five drew particular inspiration from the then-nascent wearables market. The possibilities seemed nearly endless. They were especially intrigued by the Nike SportBand, a FuelBand predecessor that synced with a heart rate monitor and a pedometer in your shoe and fed data to a wrist-mounted display. Nike was using it in virtual events like the Human Race, a global, virtual 10K run that used wearers’ pedometer data. What if Disney did something like that, the Fab Five thought. What if a band could be the key that unlocked everything at Disney World?
They assembled Frankenstein-like mock-ups using spare parts cribbed from hardware catalogs and torn-down gadgets. The team debated whether visitors would unlock the experience with a band, a lanyard, or even a Mickey Mouse hat. Their vision finally began lurching off the workbench in the first months of 2010, in a decommissioned theater that once hosted the Mouseketeers Live Show. “That lab became the place to showcase the vision,” says Nick Franklin, who with Crofton oversaw the team. “It became the blueprint for the development teams.”
The Fab Five were stationed in an area of the park designed to evoke a studio backlot. The building itself looked a bit like a small-town movie house in the 1950s, complete with a marquee framed in bright lights. It was fronted with broad windows that had been blacked out, and the place appeared to be closed. The benches out front offered a quiet place where harried parents could rest for a moment, then yell at pouting children: We came 3,000 miles to get here, and you will have a good time!
Tucked away in a vestibule behind the glass, within earshot of those unsuspecting visitors, were 30 or so designers and engineers arrayed at makeshift desks, highly stressed and occasionally hung over from a night spent drowning their frustrations. “It was just weeks and weeks of long days and traveling to Orlando,” says one consultant who worked on the project. “At the end of day, the only thing to do was drink with the team.” The oblivious families wandering past offered one of the few diversions from their grueling work schedule.
The room they shared was maddeningly cold because they couldn’t turn off the AC. Everyone suspected it was part of the same system cooling guests at Toy Story Mania next door. And messing with that thermostat was tantamount to sending a cash cow to the slaughterhouse. So to make up for it, Disney staffers offered mountains of sweatshirts and blankets and gloves from the park’s many gift shops. Despite the conditions, the work inched forward. Great swathes of MyMagicPlus—the MagicBands and their readers, along with pieces of the web portal for making ride reservations—already worked. The bands themselves had been designed, as had the kiosks that would light up with a pleasing chime anytime you swiped.
That already represented a slew of feats, chief among them the MagicBand’s novel tear-away design that ensured they’d fit nearly every wrist on the planet. The band looks simple enough: a colorful center panel surrounded by a dove-gray border. But if the band is meant for a child, a parent simply peels away that gray outer edge. Adults can wear it as is, intact. “We had models ranging from what we called the Shaq wrist to that of a child, and everything in between,” says another designer. Disney was adamant that the band’s design reinforce two key values: Everyone is equal in the park, and everyone is welcome.
An illustration of the passes, cards, and maps that the system replaces. KENT PHILLIPS
It took one engineer six months to get the tear-away channel just right: It had to be easy to tear, but it couldn’t inadvertently come apart. Meanwhile, the readers had to be intuitive enough for people to instantly know how to use them. The design has a novel and clever cue: Simply touch the circled Mickey icon on the band to the circled Mickey icon on the reader. When everything works, the reader flashes green and emits a pleasing tone; if something goes wrong, it glows blue—never red. Red lights are forbidden at Disney, as they imply something bad happened. Nothing bad can happen at Disney World.
Beyond the vestibule, through a set of double doors, was a sound stage with a full-scale demo of the revamped Disney World experience. It was a cavernous space covering 8,000 square feet, with 50-foot ceilings. By 2012 it had been divided into a dozen or so “rooms,” using enormous black curtains that hung from the ceiling. Each room stood in for a stage in a visitor’s trip, from the living room where the family might reserve its rides online to the hotel’s shuttle bus to the hotel check-in to the lines for Space Mountain to the futuristic restaurant-booking system they’d invented. “We were using the interfaces and technologies that would ultimately get deployed,” Franklin says. This was an x-ray version of the Disney World experience—a view directly into the bones of the park’s commercial infrastructure.
All these vignettes playing out on the soundstage were a way of getting Disney’s board of directors to sign off on the $1 billion cost of deploying the full system. The dress rehearsal worked. People like CEO Bob Iger and Pixar board-member John Lasseter, who was new to Disney and on a path toward reinventing its animation studio, were led through a two-hour tour that unfurled according to a fastidious, continuously refined script. They loved it.
What followed was two years of grinding work transforming a scripted prototype into a real-world performance, then another 18 months rolling it out in the park. The soundstage became a training ground for Disney’s employees, who are called cast members. Today the soundstage has been disassembled. There are few photos documenting what happened there, due to the secrecy of the project and Disney’s mandate to never show the mess behind the magic.
By the summer of 2013, when MagicBands first trickled into public tests, they would change almost every detail of the meticulously plotted choreography that rules Disney World itself.
Inside Be Our Guest, the restaurant where your food manages to find you, without you ever having to ask. MATT STROSHANE/DISNEY
The Era of Invisible Design
TOM STAGGS HAS the ramrod posture, trapezoidal jaw, and friendly face of a former varsity star you encounter at your high school reunion. When we meet in a teleconference, he’s at Disney’s corporate headquarters in Burbank, California, and I’m in a large room hidden within the support wings of Disney World, a continent away. I’m surrounded by charts and graphs, projected onto the wall, displaying all the information constantly flowing in from the park. Here, beneath a speckled drop ceiling, at a long folding table, in a room that looks like its been set for a PTA meeting, you can imagine the park breathing in people in, breathing out data.
Staggs, now the chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Company as a whole and until recently the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, is widely thought to be in line to become Disney’s next CEO. He was the one who had to sell Iger and the Disney board on MagicBand. Like many corporate bigwigs, he has a talent for hiding radical ideas in a cloak of suave common sense calibrated to calm Wall Street. But every sentence he utters seems to be a koan that encapsulates years of teeth-gnashing about the ever-expanding borders of high technology.
Staggs couches Disney’s goals for the MagicBand system in an old saw from Arthur C. Clarke. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he says. “That’s how we think of it. If we can get out of the way, our guests can create more memories.” He offers a story about how a program called Fast Passes once guaranteed a ride time at premier attractions like Space Mountain. It used to be that those passes were issued at the rides themselves, and stamped with a designated return time. You had to be there when it opened, because passes went quickly and unless you were a scheduling savant, it was hard to hold passes for more than one ride at a time. You’d see families waiting outside for the park to open, then fathers sprinting for a kiosk to get enough passes for everyone in the family. “I used to be that sprinter,” Staggs says.
You make people happier not by giving them more options but by stripping them away.
You can see why he—and Disney—would be so keen on the bands. Instead of telling your kid that you’ll try to meet Elsa or ride It’s a Small World, Franklin says, “you get to be the hero, promising a ride or a meet-and-greet up front. Then you can be freer to experience the park more broadly. You’re freed to take advantage of more rides.” There is an elegant business logic here. By getting people exploring beyond the park’s top attractions, overall use of the park goes up. People spend less time in line. They’re doing more, which means they’re spending more and remembering more. “The whole system gave Disney a way of understanding the business,” says Franklin, who stepped down last July as Disney’s executive vice president of next-generation experience. “Knowing we need more food here, how people are flowing through the park, how people are consuming the experiential product.”
It also allows Disney to optimize employees. The goal was to create a system that would essentially replace the time spent fiddling with payments and tickets for moments of personal interactions with visitors. The MagicBands and MyMagicPlus allow employees to “move past transactions, into an interactive space, where they can personalize the experience,” Crofton says. What started as a grand technology platform has inevitably changed the texture of the experience.
Meanwhile, the digital world—and the ease with which we carry it around in our phones—has filled our lives with new expectations and endless entertainment options. “I can’t think of a business that isn’t affected by more choice and more access to information and an increasing desire for personalization,” says Staggs. So if you’re a theme park, you have a strange dilemma that echoes the dilemmas we face in our digital lives. “Walt Disney World is vast. There’s more to do than you could do in a month,” Staggs says. “That choice is overwhelming.”
In fact, it’s called the paradox of choice: You make people happier not by giving them more options but by stripping away as many as you can. The redesigned Disney World experience constrains choices by dispersing them, beginning long before the trip is under way. “There are missions in a vacation,” Staggs says. In other words, Disney knows that parents arrive to its parks thinking: We have to have tea with Cinderella, and where the hell is that Buzz Lightyear thing, anyway? In that way, the park isn’t a playground so much as a videogame, with bosses to be conquered at every level. The MagicBands let you simply set an agenda and let everything else flow around what you’ve selected. “It lets people’s vacations unfold naturally,” Staggs says. “The ability to plan and personalize has given way to spontaneity.” And that feeling of ease, and whatever flows from it, just might make you more apt to come back.
Will the world at large ever become something akin to Disney World, loaded with sensors attuned to our every move, designed to free us? There are signs. It’s already starting to appear on Disney cruise ships, and Staggs says airlines, sports leagues, and sports teams have asked about the technology. “We’re just at the beginning of understanding what to do with this,” he says. What Staggs doesn’t share, but what former team members do, is that Disney already has conceived, designed, and engineered many more features that seem to border on science fiction—features even more ambitious than delivering your food to you without your having to ask.
The MagicBand contains sensors that let guests swipe onto rides and allow Disney to pinpoint their location. At Be Our Guest, they’re what enable the radios in the table and ceiling to triangulate your location so your server can find you. If Disney decides to install those sensors throughout the park, a new world of data opens up. They could have Mickey and Snow White find you. They might use the park’s myriad cameras to capture candid moments of your family—enjoying rides, meeting Snow White—and stitch them together into a personalized film. (The product teams called this the Story Engine.) But they might also know when you’ve waited too long in line and email you a coupon for free ice cream or a pass to another ride. And with that, they’ll have hooked the white whale of customer service: Turning a negative experience into a positive one. It recasts your memories of a place—that’s why casinos comp you drinks and shows when you lose at the tables.
Though Franklin wouldn’t comment on the particulars of these possibilities, he did offer an intriguing summary of them. “What people call the Internet of Things is just a technological underpinning that misses the point, ” he says. “This is about the experiential Internet. The guest doesn’t need to know how it happened. It’s about the magic of the food arriving.”
These are the experiences that many more designers will soon be striving for: invisible, everywhere, and, in a word, mundane. Which is its own kind of magic.
*This story originally stated that the design lab was next door to Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, instead of Toy Story Midway Mania. It also stated that the lab was begun in 2008. This referred to a previous iteration of the lab at another location. Finally, the story stated that John Lasseter was a Disney board member, instead of a member of Pixar’s board. We regret the errors.