Disney's MagicBands are just that, magic.

My wife and I recently took a trip to Walt Disney World, partly for some much needed R & R. The thing about Walt Disney World is that it is a massive property filled with lots of great things to do. The whole experience can become overwhelming to a novice.  The operation of this Disney World is insane, you have 4 theme parks, 23 different resorts (not counting non-Disney owned properties), a massive transportation system that would make many large municipalities blush (we're talking acres and acres of parking lots, monorails, trams, thousands of bus routes, boats and ferries) shuttling around thousands of people around its 47 square mile property. Perspective: 47 miles would be twice the size of Manhattan and roughly the size of the city of San Francisco. There is so much to see and do, and a week's time just barely scratches the surface.

That's where MyMagic+ hopes to help you navigate the daunting task of theme park visits. (I should clarify, MyMagic+ is the system and MagicBands are the wearable technology itself.) It begins when you book your hotel and tickets through Disney.  You can then begin planning nearly every detail on your trip, from airport to hotel transportation, which theme park you would like to visit on which day, where you would like to dine for meals, and even in some cases what food you'd like to pre-order.  Let's face it when you're hungry, you want your food NOW! Who enjoy's waiting in line? Why mess with room keys and tickets when it could all be folded into one wearable device known as MagicBands.


Recently, I've been on a wearable's kick, much like any other tech fan. If you follow tech sites like TechnoBuffalo, it is hard to avoid the latest smartwatch, activity band, tracker, etc. "Apple Watch" and "Android Wear" related posts infiltrate my feed and it seems that's all I ever read anymore.  While the novelty is "coolish" I find that I don't really love this technology. Ultimately I feel that is still in its infancy and really for early adopters that want to say they have "this" with out much in respect to value, per se. Don't get me wrong I REALLY want it to take off, it just doesn't make all that much sense, yet. The experience is lacking some real draw that makes a user NEED it.

So when a wearable is considered to be "magical" or throw in any PR-induced, over-the-top adjective here, I have a hard time taking the bait. Because, honestly, I've seen it all from Samsung, LG, Apple and Pebble.  Yeah, I'm probably jaded by all the new tech we have sitting around the TechnoBuffalo testing labs.  But that's why I suppose why we are in this tech journalism industry. To be skeptical and a bit cynical when a new product tries to sell us some new snake oil.

But you guys, Disney MagicBands ARE magic.

You see Disney has gotten this formula down pat.

Full disclosure, I worked for Disney for 11 years and I know the theme park segment quite well. I've had to pleasure of visiting all the Disney theme parks, but that itself is another discussion we can have at a later time.

See with a trip to Walt Disney World Resort, you aren't just being sold a park ticket, some turkey legs and a hotel room., but rather an experience.  It begins with booking your trip, you can do so as a package, which includes your hotel, park tickets, airfare and even a shuttle bus that picks up/drops you off to and from Orlando's airport, more on that part later.

When you book your trip, you also select these MagicBands, wearable RFID/ NFC wristbands that are supposed to make your trip more enjoyable. They act as your park tickets, room key, reservation keeper, FastPass and other magical access. They arrive a few weeks/months later, all depending on how far in advance your trip is booked. You receive them in the mail and I feel like this is where the experience really begins. You have these wristbands, customized with your name etched/printed on the sides. If you want to take it up a notch there are accessories you can buy to add on to the band's grommets. There are also special wristbands you can pay for, the pair I had came free with our stay at the resort. For example, the Haunted Mansion ones that has a special chime when you swipe your band across the reader in front of the attraction. So you see the system is highly adaptable and customizable.

Once you have your MagicBands the planning begins, and it starts many months before your trip. In fact, when it came to booking our dining arrangements, most of our preferred choices were either booked or we were going to be eating dinner at 9 p.m. or later.  And this was just shy of 6 months before our trip. So, word of advice: plan way ahead or you'll have to choose other dining options. Mind you, my wife and I were planning our trip based on our (and apparently everyone else's) favorite restaurants.  So there is planning that is required before showing up at the Resort.

But that brings me to another point.  Planning.  The MagicBands make you plan ahead. Which for most vacationers going to do the theme park thing will be great.  If you were looking to just casually make the trip and go from attractions to shows then you probably aren't looking to do EVERYTHING during your stay.  Word of advice, don't try to do everything on your trip. Try to pace things out and enjoy your time.  It IS after all, a vacation.

When your flight arrives at the Orlando Airport you check in your bags to the Disney shuttle service, Disney's Magical Express, which will take you (along with your luggage) all the way to your Disney Resort room.  And when you show up at the resort you could even just walk up to your hotel room (which you would have confirmation of) and use your MagicBand to unlock your room. Or better yet, just head to the theme parks to enjoy your vacation while your bags are delivered to your room.  And remember, since you've planned ahead, your tickets and FastPasses are already loaded up on your MagicBand.

In our case, however, we decided not to take the shuttle. We rented a car because we had to visit friends and family so we needed the ability to drive on our own. But you get the idea of how the shuttle can work.

When it came to planning our meals, the biggest highlight has to be the "Be Our Guest in Fantasyland" option. Because here is where the idea of MagicBands and all the cool technology comes together to deliver this very unconventional, but easy, painless experience.  Though I will say it will throw you in for a loop. Why?

Well we had actually booked our menu nearly 6 months before our reservations.  Once we arrived at our location we scanned our MagicBands at the terminal and the hostess greeted us by name and told us to proceed to the next waiting area. Here was where it was quite evident where the months of planning pays off. As you saw many dejected moms (always the moms) who were angry they had not planned ahead. But that is the game of supply and demand, the cost here is advanced planning.

Back in the waiting area we approached the cashier who confirmed our order and asked if we would like any changes to our menu. We did not. We were then given a rose, which resembled a restaurant pager, and told to find a place to dine and that our food would just magically show up. I figured it had some GPS-like proximity sensor that sensed which table we were seated.  Within 2 minutes or so a cart of food appeared at our table.  Not really the most traditional, quick-service/table-service dining. As we were finishing up, a very stressed out father began having a slight meltdown because he did not understand what was happening. As they entered the dining area and selected a place to sit, he sat down for approximately 30 seconds and began to become anxious. He began pacing around the table which only seemed to transfer his anxiety onto the remaining family members, after two minutes of this fervent behavior he ran up to some poor cast member and began to confront her. And as she began to open her mouth to begin assisting the man another cast member came around from the other side with the complete serving of food just like ours had come not long before. But you see, no one expects food to magically just show up. But like I said, these bands … they are magic.

Using the MagicBands to pay for food, drinks, merchandise was easy … too easy.  That bill at check-out can be surprising.  Like mobile payment options such as Apple Pay or Google Wallet, it's just a neat experience to pay without a physical wallet. You place your MagicBand up to the round Mickey headed half-dome terminal. Once it blinks/flashes and chimes you're ready to go. For larger transactions we were required to enter a PIN to approve the transactions.

When we planned our trip, months in advance, we also booked our FastPass appointments.  We were able to select up to 3 rides/attractions per day, meaning we didn't have to run around getting FastPass tickets, they were already loaded up on my MagicBand.  We could check all our appointments through a pretty decent mobile app, though I was told over and over again that the app was still in its infancy and features would be added as the system expanded.  But we would show up for rides, shows, and even meet Mickey Mouse where we either boarded, seated or met within minutes. Oh yeah, Mickey Mouse, he can talk. Like actually talk. He asked me how my day was, he saw that I was a big nerd and was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt, he said "My face is on your shirt." Why yes Mickey it is. He yelled "Limburger" when the photographer said "Say Cheese." I guess he is a mouse and I really shouldn't question a mouse's knowledge of cheese.

And you know those photos they take of you while you're on an attraction like Space Mountain or Splash Mountain? Well after your ride they show up in video form now and are loaded up onto your account. Our photo with Mickey? They were there too. But I don't even recall punching in anything or swiping to initiate some of this footage. Maybe I did. But that's just my point, the experience is seamless.

The bad? It has to be the planning.  I LOATHE planning for vacations, while my wife loves to plan every moment of it.  So like any good husband I follow along.  Honestly, with any vacation I love to wander and discover things. But I get why planning is integral for many families that make the trip to Walt Disney World.  You've got a limited amount of time and an insane number of things to do. Especially if you've been saving years for a trip to Walt Disney World, you want to maximize your stay.  The app I was told was still being tooled and retooled, and was told it was really on its first major release. From our experience though it was stable and I didn't have any issues with it.  It told me all the park hours, length or lines, when my next appointment was and I would get alerts when it was time to get to my next one. It is great, I really didn't have to think about what I had to next or where I had to be. It takes a lot of the work out of traveling and I didn't have to take my wallet out once during my trip.


Here's the thing about this technology: it isn't necessarily groundbreaking or earth-shattering stuff.  We probably have higher tech gadgetry at home, in our cars or on our phones. If you travel to many big cities, like London or Hong Kong, you have RFID transportation cards like Oyster and Octopus cards that get you on the subway, bus, ferries. But, it is when all these experiences come together that matters.

We as tech fans and journalists talk about the vices and virtues of a unified smart home or wearable, but this is really a remarkable experience unto itself. We as professionals and fans who cover and follow technology know how important the user experience is. UI and UX is so important in today's systems/platforms and even beyond that is the ecosystem. That's why Apple boasts the compatibility of Continuity across Macs and iOS devices, or why Google spent so much acquiring Nest to bring a unified smart home hub that allows different devices to talk to each other. Because it is a difficult, though rewarding proposition. That's why MyMagic+ along with MagicBands are so magical. It is everywhere and it all talks to each other. Someone figured it out. Making a wearable fold right into an everyday experience and making the processes easier than without it. Imagine all of Manhattan being connected in this manner? YES, there is a learning curve, YES that father was probably going to flip out when he didn't know what to do (just breathe and sit sir).

The thing is, we often find technology to be obtrusive and difficult to understand because it becomes one more step.  Even the newest darling of the tech world, virtual reality, is just that.  It is an attempt to embed users into worlds where they could seamlessly interact. I felt the use of MagicBands was the exact opposite of that, and they emphasized a comprehensive embedded world of technology within a real world. It made sense.  Apple Pay, Google Wallet, those platforms are just a pipe dream compared to what is happening in Walt Disney World.

Technology must be easy enough for Grandma and Grandpa to understand to be mainstream. Honestly, though, the only bit of persuasion needed is to tell someone it works " like Magic." And for a moment, you're willing to believe it. Because why not? You just met Mickey Mouse, and he spoke to you and he said YOUR NAME and had a real conversation with you.

I'm told this is just the beginning phase and that next generation stuff will blow away guests even more. I was already kind of amazed, but to think that there are more opportunities for making a trip more convenient and more immersive, puts a smile on my face. Imagine a day when you'll show up in a certain area of the park. An RFID scanner will read your and your badge. Suddenly, a Disney character will come and say hello "Roy you're our special guest today, we'd like to invite you to our celebration!" Or, if its your child's birthday, Goofy may wish little Todd a happy birthday without any prompting on a parent's part. Magic!

Disclosure: This trip was paid with personal funds and not compensated in any way by The Walt Disney Company. My wife works for The Walt Disney Company.