Local 6 Theme World blog: Will Big Mickey be watching you?

Your home for theme park and tourism news, rumors, more

Welcome to Local 6 Theme World


January 7, 2013

Will Big Mickey be watching you?

Well - the day has arrived. Disney has formally exposed the public face of its $1 Billion+ "NextGen" initiative, both in press releases and in an article in the New York Times.  I was planning to tackle this topic today anyway due to some information that came my way this weekend.

First the basics, Disney says "MyMagic+", as it is now called, will revolutionize your trips to Disney World's theme parks and resorts. The NY Times article talks about having the Scuttle animatronic in "The Little Mermaid" ride talk to you directly while you wait in line. I hear one idea that may be in the works is letting your child design a "Small World" doll of themselves that will appear in the ride at some point.  All of that sounds neat.

Last year there were tests with Mickey Mouse able to greet children by name when meeting them on Main St. NextGen would make that a lot easier and "more magical."

At its heart, the system requires you to wear a bracelet Disney calls a "MagicBand" -- and will even let you pay extra to theme your band to your favorite princess, for example.  We first showed you pictures of this band when Disney applied for patents and approval, but now they are finally being rolled out.

"MyMagic+" also brings some convenience, allowing you to pay for your food and souvenirs with a swipe of that bracelet. That same bracelet will let you into theme parks by waving it and entering without going through an old-fangled turnstile. That's a plus for people with strollers.

But the system will do a lot more than that. As envisioned, and being tested, there will be thousands of sensors all over the 40-square mile resort.

 Don't forget. Disney is a business, and I certainly don't begrudge the company trying to make more money and to learn more about making its customers happier. But you have to ask yourself HOW Disney thinks it can recoup the costs of a program many unofficial sources tell me has skyrocketed to at least $1.5 Billion. It's going to take more than little Suzie asking mom for a Princess Jasmine wristband instead of a plain one.

A lot of that was left out of the press release (which I will reprint below). But think what Disney can do with all of those sensors I mentioned.

While your wristband itself contains no personal data, only a unique ID number, that ID number is linked to a profile in Disney's database. As part of the personalization program, parents will get to pick how much or how little information to share over a web site or smart app that will also let you pick FastPass+ attractions (more on that in a moment). You can tell Disney if it is your little princess's birthday -- or your anniversary, for example, and theoretically cast members (and that talking Scuttle) can wish you a Happy (Fill in the blank special occasion).

Again -- That can be cool. But Disney admitted to the NY Times the system can also tell if you bought a balloon, for example, what attractions you rode and in what order; which ones you used a FastPass for; how long you spent in a section of the park; How long it took you to order food and eat; what shops you went in or which characters you met (and which ones you skipped).  

In short, it's a mountain of information on every moment of your trip that  Disney can use, for example, to offer you a discount on a certain type of souvenir, or a discount to encourage you to go to a less-popular dining spot.

But it can also be used to figure out better which attractions to open later and close earlier; which characters to trot out, and which to retire.  And that's the tip of the iceberg.

Then there's FastPass. Since 1999, it has operated the same way. Want to ride Thunder Mountain without a wait in line? Stick your ticket into the FastPass machine, get a ticket -- and come back in the hour time period printed on it. Easy. But also a hassle. FastPass is soon to give way to FastPass+ -- which is a key part of NextGen. Guests, especially Disney Resort guests, will be able to plan out a whole day of FastPasses at once -- linked automatically to your MagicBand.

No more rushing to Toy Story Mania at park open to get a FastPass good for 4pm. For the first time you'll also get to use FastPass+ to reserve a spot for the fireworks show, or the parades.

That's all great for people who plan days, weeks, & months in advance. What about locals? Annual & Seasonal Passholders? Still being worked out. But expect announcements soon.

I also hear Disney is toying with the idea that people at deluxe resorts may get more FastPass+ tickets in a single day than guests at value resorts (i.e. pay for the Polynesian -- get 5 FastPass+ reservations vs 3 at Pop Century). That has not been announced -- and that is not part of the current tests underway, but I hear it is being strongly looked at.

I mentioned in my last update that Disney admits attendance at the Florida parks was down in 2012. Well, several insiders claim so was hotel occupancy. Though the average occupancy is reportedly still an admirable 78%, imagine if Disney offers more FastPass+ tickets to those staying at its resorts. It might be an easy way to boost heads in beds.

We'll have to wait and see.

Some of this will change as testing continues and Disney sees what is viable and what is not.   Whatever comes of this is destined to change your visits to the Disney parks.

Count on Local 6 and the Theme World Blog to keep you informed.

Disney's press release is below:

At Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, we continually push the boundaries of creativity and innovation to deliver the best possible experience for our guests. We're always looking for ways to take what we do and do it even better. Over the past few years, we've devoted considerable time and resources to create a more immersive, more seamless and more personal experience for each and every guest who spends time with us. I know there's been significant speculation about these efforts among our fans, so we're pleased to give you a glimpse into the work we are doing to take the entire Disney guest experience to the next level. 

Some of these initiatives are more apparent and can already be seen by our guests – like our interactive queues at Walt Disney World Resort and the Enchanted Art on our cruise ships – while others are more behind-the-scenes and are focused on "how" visitors plan, access and enjoy their experiences with us. Over the next several months, we'll be rolling out a collection of tools at the Walt Disney World Resort called MyMagic+ that will give guests more opportunities to customize and personalize their entire visit. 

Like most people who visit Walt Disney World Resort, my family and I have our "must-do" attractions, and as the father of three boys, those attractions often end with the word "mountain." Now, rather than dashing as a group, or even splitting up to gather FastPasses, imagine booking guaranteed ride times for your favorite shows and attractions even before setting foot in the park. With MyMagic+, guests will be able to do that and more, enabling them to spend more time together and creating an experience that's better for everyone. 

A major component of MyMagic+ is the new My Disney Experience website and mobile app, which gives guests planning their trip the latest information on all Walt Disney World Resort has to offer. We know that some people like to plan every aspect of their Disney vacation in advance while others like to plan very little, letting their day unfold spontaneously. No matter where guests fall in that spectrum, My Disney Experience gives them the flexibility to plan as much or as little as they'd like to create the exact Disney experience they want. They can book dining and other experiences and reserve times for their favorite attractions, shows and more through an enhanced FastPass system, FastPass+. Once they arrive, they can use their smart phones to spontaneously change their plans in the moment, exploring our parks at their own pace and getting the most out of their visit. 

Linking the entire MyMagic+ experience together is an innovative piece of technology we developed called the MagicBand. Worn on the wrist, it will serve as a guest's room key, theme park ticket, access to FastPass+ selections, PhotoPass card and optional payment account all rolled into one. We've began testing certain aspects of MyMagic+ in Florida last month and the early reactions we've gotten have been fantastic. 

This collection of tools is another step forward in the ongoing evolution of our guest experience, giving us even more ways to help friends and family create the unforgettable Disney memories that they want most. We'll be testing, adjusting and adding features to MyMagic+ and My Disney Experience over time and will continue to make improvements based on our guests' feedback. We look forward to sharing more with you in the months ahead!


January 4, 2013

Earlier this week, in my 2013 Parks Preview report, I mentioned there are rumblings Animal Kingdom's Avatarland may be on hold again. One reason, the insanely popular "Festival of the Lion King" has to move first, and the cast was just given new contracts.

Well, today there is new proof Disney is getting ready to do SOMETHING. Disney recently filed a permit with the  South Florida Water Management District asking for approval to clear out a 1.5 acre site in the Africa area, behind the Tusker House Restaurant & Dawa Bar. The shape of the building on the plans looks to be a virtual duplicate of the facilities for "Festival of the Lion King." Though insiders tell me it will look very different on the outside, and properly themed to Africa.

Tip of the hat to the always excellent "The Disney Blog" for breaking news of the permit filing.

Here's the header of the application with  SFWMD  so you can do a permit search if you want to read all of the documentation: 

South Florida Water Management District Application:

Application #: 121217-6  
Permit#: 48-00714-P Approved Date:  
Issuing Office: ORL
Permit Type: Environmental Resource (Compliance Letter Mod)
Expiration Date: Project Acres: 1.59
Project Name: A K Africa Hardscape Improvement Receiving Body: Pond Cde
Location: Orange S34/T24/R27 Landuse(s): Commercial
Applicant: Walt Disney Parks And Resorts U S Incorporated Lee Schmudde P O Box 10000 Lake Buena Vista FL 32830
Other Interested Party: Reedy Creek Improvement District Mahmoud Elsabagh 1900 Hotel Plaza Blvd Lake Buena Vista FL 32830-0170

If you do search, be warned the SFWMD site is really slow to load the permit documentation.

As to the show itself. no word yet when construction will start, or if Disney plans to build the new theater before closing the existing one.
We will keep you posted.



January 2, 2013

 Happy New Year!

As we close the books on 2012, local theme parks are starting to recover from some of the biggest crowds of the year.  Today, and for several days over the past week and a half, Disney's Magic Kingdom reached what is called a "Phase 3 Closure." Basically, that means there were so many people that Disney would only let in resort guests, Annual Passholders & people with restaurant reservations. How many people does it take before Disney closes the gates? It varies, depending on how many rides are down for maintenance, but insiders tell me the Magic Kingdom's maximum capacity is around 80,000 people. Doesn't sound like a fun time to be at the world's most popular theme park. Epcot  workers estimate the park had a New Year's Eve crowd of around 85,000.

Fortunately, locals can just wait a few more days for sanity to return. With most of Disney's Fantasyland expansion & Test Track 2.0 now open at Epcot, what can we expect to see new in the parks for 2013?

FunSpot USA is doubling in size, and recently sent us an aerial image showing the large construction site. You can see the start of construction on one of its two new roller coasters in the lower right hand corner. FunSpot hopes to have them open by May with a grand re-opening of the park off I-Drive set for Saturday, June 8th.

Kennedy Space Center ended the year with a new entrance complex, but the highlight will be this summer's opening of the new home for Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Universal & SeaWorld have the biggest additions on the way. SeaWorld's "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins" is a whole new land the park calls its largest expansion ever, complete with first-of-its-kind trackless ride that promises the closest encounters yet with all types of penguins.

Universal has the momentum. Since the "Wizarding World" opened, attendance has been soaring. Last year, Universal added the great new "Despicable Me" ride, its first daily parade & a Cinema Spectacular. This year, the ground-breaking "Transformers: The Ride 3-D" will open less than a year after demolition of an old soundstage. That is unheard of for a complex, high-tech attraction. (In contrast, Disney is taking 4+ years to build the Fantasyland addition).  Also on the way, a Simpsons miniland, including several Springfield landmarks, and if online reports are true, it will also include a small new ride.  That should tide people over until the not-yet-announced Harry Potter part 2 opens at the studios. We'll have more on that project, and word of several other big expansions at Universal soon.

That leaves Disney. In 2013, expect the new "Princess Fairytale Hall" meet & greet where the old "Snow White" ride used to be, along with Rapunzel-themed bathrooms between "it's a small world" and the "Haunted Mansion."

There is also the possibility the smallish "Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster" will be complete before the end of the year.

That will wrap up the Fantasyland expansion, and wrap up the last major project Disney has announced for all of its four parks.

Epcot has a new Pastry shop being built in France, and the operator of the Morocco pavilion's restaurants claims they will be adding a lagoon-side eatery this year, though Disney has not confirmed that. 

Other than that? Not much is in the works at all at Disney.

Nothing has been announced for Hollywood Studios, though there are rampant rumors all or part of CarsLand will be cloned from Disney California Adventure Park. Animal Kingdom is still allegedly getting an Avatar-themed land sometime this decade, though there are whispers of more setbacks on that project. One telling sign: The cast of the popular "Festival of the Lion King" show just received new contracts through September, after previously being told the show would temporarily close (presumably because Avatar is slated for the Camp Minnie-Mickey area of the park).
So -- SeaWorld & Universal have multiple large-scale new rides on the way that could all be game-changers.  Disney has a small-scale (but fun-looking) coaster. Disney doesn't like having its thunder stolen, and the company's CFO admitted recently attendance was down last year at its four Florida parks. Universal certainly isn't saying that.  It will be interesting to see how things shake out when the amusement industry trade group THEA reveals its attendance rankings for last year.

I'd expect Disney to make an announcement or two for new projects sooner than later. No news to report yet, but we'll keep you posted.

 See you in the parks!


December 20, 2012

Happy 50th For Gatorland's Jaws

We'd like to wish a Happy 50th to a true Central Florida icon: the Gatorland Jaws.

If I'm not mistaken, it is the oldest surviving tourism icon except  for Clermont's Citrus Tower.

 The Orlando Sentinel's Dewayne Bevil has a  terrific article  on the history of the jaws, but, long-story short: Gatorland founder Owen Godwin, Sr. ca lled on his son, Frank, to design something special for an expansion of the park's entrance and gift shops. (Gatorland itself opened in 1949 as the Florida Wildlife Institute)

 The giant concrete & steel jaws  opened in 1962 and quickly became one of the most-photographed landmarks in Central Florida.

I have long been fond of this slice of old Florida, and have a personal connection: I met and got to know Owen Godwin, Jr. & his wife, Nancy, quite by accident decades ago when I was in Israel.  

So it was personally stunning and sad when it looked like the Jaws would have to be torn down.

I was producing the Local 6 Morning News on November 6th, 2006 when the main entrance complex and gift shop caught fire and quickly burned to the ground.
the most memorable image: flames shooting out of the mouth as seen here from Sky 6.

As you can see the damage was extensive.

Fortunately, the park was able to quickly re-open and rebuild, and they saved and restored the jaws, though they no longer are the entrance to the park, they remain a very popular photo spot.

A ceremony this afternoon will mark the 50th at Gatorland, on OBT.
To celebrate the park graciously sent this cake to the Local 6 Newsroom.

Our thanks to  Gatorland & here's to 50 more years of the smiling gator jaws.

For  more images of Gatorland,  here's a link to a ClickOrlando slide show. 


December 19, 2012

What is Theme World?

It's a new way for us to share and learn more about what draws tens of millions to our area each year: the largest collection of theme parks and attractions in one place on earth.

Yes, this blog will be sharing news, reports, rumors and opinions on Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, & the SeaWorld parks.

But Theme World is far larger than that. Look for coverage of almost anything that attracts locals, Floridians, Americans and tourists from around the world: everything from I-Drive to Legoland to Bok Tower to the Canaveral Seashore to FunSpot USA. 

We also don't want this to be a one-way street. We encourage you to email ideas, comments and questions and we will do our best to answer them here on ClickOrlando.com, on our Local 6 Facebook Page, Our Twitter feed, and, of course on Local 6 News.

My name is Ken Pilcher, and I'll be leading this forum. I'm a long-time producer here at Local 6, and a life-long Floridian. I've been going to the theme parks and attractions since I was a toddler in 1971, and through all of my life I've had a fascination with the parks and attractions and how they, and the industry, work.

I look forward to sharing with you and hearing from you.

About the Author: