Test-driving Disney's MyMagic+

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The MyMagic+ system continues to get tweaked. The MagicBands debuted in a test phase last year and Disney executives have made changes to many aspects of the MyMagic+ program as they work to refine it.

"As we've been rolling this out and getting it in line, we've tried to be really methodical in our testing, integrating feedback we're getting from our guests and casts members and making adjustments along the way," said Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs at a Disney press event this month.

Terrific tech

Getting into the parks is a lot less cumbersome. With Magic Bands, turnstiles have been replaced with a more open entryway. On a first visit, guests sidle up to a post, kiss their MagicBand to a white circle with a Mickey Mouse head in the center and then put their finger on a fingerprint reader. When both the pole top and fingerprint reader turn green, you're on your way. No more gates to open for wheelchairs or strollers, easy access for all.

Beth Ortosky of Richeyville, Washington County, said her family took full advantage of the MyMagic+ preplanning possibilities before their trip.

"We had our days pretty well all laid out," she said. "We liked that you didn't have to physically get to a kiosk to get your paper FastPasses."

Mrs. Ortosky said she found the MagicBand comfortable to wear and liked that it meant everyone could travel lighter without a purse or wallet since the band serves as a credit card.

"The convenience of knowing it was already linked to our credit card made it easy," she said. "My kids, being the tech-savvy teenagers they are, thought it was great they could use it to get into the [hotel] room and charge stuff to their dad's credit card."

She also praised the app and the ability to check ride wait times.

"We made better use of our time," she said. "I would really recommend it."

Her wish for the future of MyMagic+ is that it becomes possible to add Disney gift cards to one's account.

"They don't do that yet but said they were working on it," Mrs. Ortosky said.

Work in progress

There are still some kinks to work out. There are stories posted online about MagicBands not working properly, not allowing guests into the parks until a bout of wrangling.

Mrs. Ortosky encountered two issues with MagicBands during her family's nine-day visit. One day at the entrance to Epcot the scan of her daughter's finger kept returning with a red light. On another occasion, all the MagicBand kiosks at the Magic Kingdom crashed.

"We had to wait to have supervisors come out with a pad-type scanner and it did delay us a little bit, not more than 10 minutes," she said. "I heard people saying they were concerned because they had dining reservations so they were trying to move those people through first."

For anyone with privacy concerns, the Mouse's ability to track guests' whereabouts on Disney property through their MagicBands might be disconcerting.

"Post-Snowden, some worry that MagicBands are nothing more than NSA-esque tracking devices," noted a writer for Time.

For FastPass devotees who used to get a kick out of running around the park hogging up as many Space Mountain FastPass tickets as possible, FastPass+ doesn't allow for such games. With the new system, FastPasses to a few of the most popular attractions run out before the day has begun (see: the meet-and-greet with Anna and Elsa) and with folks staying at Disney hotels getting first crack at scheduling, the new system seems designed to funnel visitors into staying at Disney venues.

Although FastPass+ allows different members of the same party to make different attraction selections, you can't choose the time to arrive at the attraction you're FastPassing (you can choose among options that may offer a variety of times). And if someone changes his mind on the day of the visit and wants to join in something that's already been FastPassed by other members of the group, it may not be at the same time. The system rewards preplanning over spontaneity.

MyDisneyExperience is also a hub for photos taken by Disney's in-park photographers.

Previously called PhotoPass and PhotoPass+, the latest iteration is Memory Maker, which also includes photos taken on rides and at character dining experiences and allows for unlimited downloads of photos ($149 before visiting the park; $199 on site) by the purchaser. Through the MyDisneyExperience website it's possible to share Memory Maker photos among members of your traveling party but only the person who bought it can download the photos.

Have a Disney photographer snap your picture, then the photographer taps your MagicBand and the picture is stored to your MyDisneyExperience account. Just don't try looking for photos on the MyDisneyExperience app; they aren't there yet.

The intent is to add a spot for these photos to the app later this year, but for now photos can only be found when accessing MyDisneyExperience via its computer-based website. I didn't know that -- if it says that somewhere on the app, I never found it -- and spent half a day searching fruitlessly on the app before finding out I would not find the photos there.

The use of MagicBands for photos also has its challenges: Some of our photos, taken by a cast member wearing a "trainee" badge, never showed up in my Memory Maker account. After filling out a lost photos form, Disney's elves had the missing photos added to my account within 24 hours.

Kiosks for claiming ride photos using MagicBands were often down or when they were working the software seemed buggy, requiring sometimes lengthy waits for an employee to assist in claiming photos.

Something else the MagicBands need: A watch. Because it's worn on the wrist, I found myself constantly looking at my MagicBand expecting it to tell me the current time. It never did.

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