With MyMagic+, visitors can plan their trip using a computer or smartphone

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Visitors returning to Walt Disney World this summer will encounter a new way of experiencing the Disney parks, from paying for meals to accessing a Disney hotel room to making FastPass ride reservations and more.

It's all due to the rollout of MyMagic+, a new vacation management system that's optimized through the MyDisneyExperience.com website and app. If the thought of managing your vacation through a smartphone causes anxiety, don't worry -- you don't have to use every element of this new system.

MyMagic+ does seem to be best suited to travelers who want to preplan their Disney vacation but even those who learn of it when they show up may find some benefits, particularly in the app.

Kara Bowser, a 16-year-old Highlands High School rising junior, visited the Disney parks this month. She learned about the app from a Disney worker at Epcot and downloaded it to her smartphone.

"I really liked it. We used it to get FastPasses, to find places in the park," she said. "My parents would always ask me where things were."

But Kara said she wasn't the only member of her family to use the app.

"My mom's not very good with smartphones but she was able to look at it and understand it, too," she said.

The three primary elements of MyMagic+ are:

MyDisneyExperience: The website (MyDisneyExperience.com) and app allow users to pull up maps of the parks and wait times for rides, look up dining options and make reservations. (There is free Wi-Fi throughout the Disney parks.)

MyDisneyExperience is also where visitors can schedule attraction visits using FastPass+ up to 60 days in advance of a visit for guests staying in a Disney hotel; 30 days in advance for those staying off-property. (Parents taking children for a meet-and-greet with Elsa and Anna from "Frozen" in the Magic Kingdom's Princess Fairytale Hall are advised to FastPass this as early as possible or face as much as a five-hour standby wait time.)

FastPass+ replaced the old paper ticket FastPass system.

"On average, 40 percent more people use FastPass+ than used the highly popular legacy FastPass system," said Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs at a Disney press event earlier this month. "People are liking the ability to book [visits to] attractions in advance and they like the ability to make changes on the fly.

That combination assures people they can have the experience they want but preserve the spontaneity people would often engage in when enjoying a day or longer visit in the parks."

MagicBands: If My Disney Experience is the cloud site that pulls everything together, MagicBands are the physical manifestation that makes MyMagic+ possible. Worn near your wrist like a watch, MagicBands replace paper park tickets and PhotoPass cards.

MagicBands also serve as a key to your Disney property hotel room.

MagicBands are distributed free to all family members staying at a Disney hotel and are customizable to fit adults and children. For park guests staying off-site, MagicBands are available for purchase for $12.95 each but they are not required. (Off-site guests receive plastic RF-enabled cards as tickets, for FastPass+, etc.)

Guests who plan ahead using MyDisneyExperience can choose the color of their MagicBand; those who don't are given a gray MagicBand at check-in. And, of course, Disney created accessories for the bands, little charms that can be collected and added for $7-$16 depending on the specific bling and quantity.

MagicBands use radio frequency technology but Disney says MagicBands do not store personal information; they provide a conduit to plans made via MyDisneyExperience.

MagicBands can also be used to pay for purchases -- a four-digit, guest-created pin is required for these transactions -- by simply pressing the band against a touch point at stores throughout the parks.

FastPass+: The old FastPass system, created in 1999, involved paper tickets that expert Fast Passers would collect in a mad dash around the park to assorted rides to moderate the high wait times. The new FastPass+, which started in January, eliminates this run by allowing folks to book FastPass reservations in advance.

Go onto MyDisneyExperience and select your desired attractions and the system spits back four options that may contain all the rides you asked for or may substitute others.

The timing of the rides also varies among the options presented. MyDisneyExperience suggests a "best option" you can choose or ignore.

Beth Ortosky of Richeyville, Washington County, visited Walt Disney World earlier this month with her husband and teenage children. It was their fourth trip but the first time using the app and MagicBands.

"We actually had made all of our FastPass [reservations] before we left home," she said, but added that one day they wanted to sleep in so they went back in and readjusted their FastPass plans to better accommodate their more relaxed schedule. "Some people might consider it a negative if they heavily use [FastPass] because they've added more rides and limited how many major attractions [you can do in a day]. Maybe you couldn't get Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain in one day now. That was a little bit different from the paper FastPasses. They kind of funnel you into other rides using FastPass+."

Visitors can select up to three FastPass choices at one park per day before or during their visit. Once those have been used, another FastPass selection can be made.

The new FastPass+ doubles the number of attractions in which you can use the special service and adds new FastPass options: special viewing areas for fireworks, parades and meet-and-greets with costumed characters.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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