Big Brother Disney is watching

Guests throng Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in Anaheim, California. Unfettered access to customer data has helped Disney streamline its park logistics.
Guests throng Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in Anaheim, California. Unfettered access to customer data has helped Disney streamline its park logistics.PHOTO: REUTERS

At its theme parks, Disney gathers reams of data by monitoring guests' movements and preferences via its electronic wrist-worn MagicBands

NEW YORK • We are in the heat of the summer blockbuster season, when Walt Disney is taking over theatres with releases like Toy Story 4 and live-action versions of Aladdin and Lion King.

There is another aspect of the season Disney is effectively capturing: Reams of data on the things you do inside its amusement parks.

With the recent opening of the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge theme park at California's Disneyland, the company continues to mine its portfolio of franchises and boost its US$20 billion (S$27 billion) resorts business.

Last week, Disney announced the opening of another Star Wars extension at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, a follow-up to its massive Avatar annex. Next on the schedule is a slate of Marvel comics-themed attractions in locations ranging from Hong Kong to Paris.

As families float through boat ride It's A Small World, run from Stormtroopers or snap a picture with Buzz Lightyear, Disney is watching their every move. It is remarkable how much data Disney can collect in the process - and how willing people are to authorise such behaviour.

At a time when Facebook, Google and myriad other technology companies are getting hammered over consumer privacy issues, Disney is running the happiest police state on earth.

To keep the parks running with extreme efficiency and learn ever-more about guests, Disney monitors usage of its smartphone apps and electronic wrist-worn MagicBand. The resulting data could include the rides families frequent, the characters kids and parents are most drawn to and the television and film merchandise into which their dollars are funnelled.

It was not always this way. Just a decade ago, Disney relied on paper tickets and old-school turnstiles, and, for the most part, did not know that much more about resort customers than those who came to the park's opening 64 years ago this week.

Finally recognising the growth of social media and mobile phones in the late 2000s, the company embarked on a US$1 billion digital transformation of Disney World with the MagicBand, a gizmo that can hold your place in line, make payments and unlock a hotel room door.

At a time when Facebook, Google and myriad other technology companies are getting hammered over consumer privacy issues, Disney is running the happiest police state on earth.

This journey has been fraught at times - and not just because Disney overspent on a wearable device that was quickly displaced by phones.

In 2013, in the early days of the MagicBand, Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger was at loggerheads with United States Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts - the privacy advocate who recently introduced an Internet Bill of rights - over how the system would monitor children's whereabouts and interests within Disney World.

Despite these concerns, Disney's data mining never faced the sort of scrutiny that Silicon Valley has.

The reason is fairly simple: Disney World is the real-world manifestation of a walled garden, a family-friendly environment without a perceived risk of children being exposed to inappropriate content like on YouTube or Twitch.

Wired magazine once called this data-driven customer relationship "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 idealised vision of life that's as safely self-contained as a snow globe".

Unfettered access to customer data has helped Disney streamline its park logistics. The company has suggested the MagicBand enabled it to slash turnstile transaction times by 30 per cent while increasing park capacity.

At Disneyland, a new virtual reservation system, the first in the park's history, has prevented overcrowding and reduced wait times. Even in the early weeks of its highly anticipated Star Wars-themed land, the line for the signature attraction, the Millennium Falcon ride, was a mere 25 minutes.

Longer term, Disney's "Imagineers" have suggested they want to leverage such guest data for more personalisation and crowd-flow management.

At a higher level, this surveillance gives Disney insight into the value of its creative capital.

The enthusiasm of patrons for certain physical attractions can signal which movie franchises are rising or falling in popularity. That could inform whether the Avengers can sustain more sequels, help promote the upcoming Disney+ streaming service or is in need of a refresh.

Whereas data-mining efforts have harmed the reputations of tech companies, Disney's parks division is booming, with operating profit up 18 per cent last year, to US$4.5 billion.

Perhaps this explains why Disney is reportedly investing more into its theme parks than it spent to acquire Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm combined.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2019, with the headline 'Big Brother Disney is watching'. Print Edition | Subscribe