Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Pixie Dust Detoxification Effect

A warning: A lot of what I’m about to say will in this post come across as uncharacteristically blunt. I’m not one of those people who goes around telling anyone with a different opinion than me that I’m right and they’re wrong. In fact, I usually edit myself pretty strongly to avoid seeming hypercritical or not respectful enough of someone else’s opinions. So if anything I’ve written here makes you a little hot under the collar, please remember that I’ve made every effort to be reasonable, I don’t like arguments, online or otherwise, and in the end, I’m just some guy on the Internet. I’m not real.

So let’s dive right in.

If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the basics of MyMagic+ by now. If not there’s a pretty good breakdown here, although it does have an unreasonably positive spin in my opinion. I don’t like MyMagic+, and I think that anyone who looks at what it’s supposed to do and says that it makes the Disney World experience “better for everyone” is either a liar or a fool. I usually try to make more nuanced statements than that, but this not one of those things that’s just a matter of opinion. With MyMagic+, Disney is instituting a program that’s good for them and bad for their customers. There’s no way to completely opt out of the program since all ticket media will be RFID-enabled (more on that later) and those who choose not to use features like FastPass+ will have a much worse experience in the parks than those who do. These are facts. Not opinions. Facts. Let me break it down for you:

FASTPASS+

The current FastPass system will completely go away and be replaced by FastPass+. FastPass+ will encompass all attractions, not just the most popular ones, and will also include things like special parade and fireworks viewing areas and selected character meet-and-greets. All customers will get 3 FastPasses per day to be used at one park only. Also, all FastPasses must be scheduled in advance via the MyMagic+ mobile app or the My Disney Experience website. There will be little, if any provision for same-day FastPass availability. None of what I’ve just said is opinion or speculation, it’s all been confirmed by Disney. After reading that you can probably tell why FastPass+ is such bad deal for Walt Disney World visitors, but just in case you’re scratching your head and saying “That doesn’t sound bad at all!” let me explain why you’re wrong:

1. You will have to plan your entire vacation almost down to the minute. The complexity of a Disney World vacation had already reached the upper limit of what I was prepared to tolerate. Thanks to the Dining Plan, you have to make dining reservations months in advance unless you want to eat fast food your whole trip. Then, when you arrive at the park, you have to make sure the return times for any FastPasses you get don’t conflict with your restaurant reservations. It’s a hassle.

But now with MyMagic+, you’ll have to plan all this stuff out in advance. Instead of just saying “I think we’ll go to EPCOT on Tuesday”, you have to plan exactly what everyone in your party will do in EPCOT on Tuesday. You have to make sure that none of their FastPass return windows conflict with the lunch reservation you made for the family at Biergarten or your dinner reservation at Garden Grille. And what if your son Justin used his three FastPasses on Soarin’, Test Track, and Mission:Space and now he has no FastPasses left to get into the Illuminations viewing area with the rest of the family? Sure, he can go into the app and change it, but what if he doesn’t want to? Now you’ve got an argument on your hands, which distracts you from the spreadsheet you’re building to keep track of where everyone will be in the park at what time to make sure they don’t miss your meal reservations. And all that’s just for one day! Multiply it by a four day vacation and you can see what a gigantic pain in the butt this is going to be.

But wait! There’s more! You know how if you want to eat at an extremely popular restaurant like Le Cellier or Be Our Guest you have to make your reservation at literally the earliest possible second or you won’t get one at all? (Let’s suspend our disbelief here for a moment and pretend there’s a high demand for these restaurants because they serve genuinely excellent food, not because they’ve been unreasonably hyped by bloggers who are just trying to show off how totally part of the “knowledgeable Disney insider” crowd they are.) Now FastPasses are going to work the same way! If you don’t book your FastPasses for Soarin’, Toy Story Midway Mania, Space Mountain, or whatever insanely popular attraction you care to name at the earliest possible moment, you may not get one. And if you do, it could be at a ridiculously inconvenient time. Ask yourself how many average, non-theme-park-savvy people are going to realize this? How many of them will forget to book FastPasses altogether, or wait until the week before their trip?  I’d say the appropriate metaphor for those folks involves a river of excrement and a Native American water vessel without any means of propulsion. But, even if you’re the biggest Disney nerd there is and know exactly how to work the MyMagic system, you still won’t be able to avoid . . .

2. Longer wait times for everything. The current FastPass system doesn’t actually make wait times shorter. What it does is grotesquely inflate the wait time for standby riders while FastPass riders wait about as long as they would if there were no such thing as FastPass. This means that for highly popular but slow-loading attractions like Peter Pan’s Flight or Soarin’, the standby line is so long that it basically isn’t worth it to ride them without a FastPass. Of course, there’s a way around this: simply ride these attractions first thing after rope drop, before FastPass return times kick in. Also, it’s worth noting that attractions that load quickly, like the PeopleMover or Pirates of the Caribbean, don’t use FastPass, and their original loading procedure remains highly efficient.

But now this is all going to change. Since every attraction will have FastPass+, standby wait times for every attraction will be drastically inflated. And since you only get three FastPasses per day, you will end up waiting in some of those lines if you want to visit more than three attractions. Since FastPasses will be entirely reserved in advance, there won’t be a “window” at the beginning of the day where you can hop in the Standby line for a popular attraction and progress quickly through it without being held up by the FastPass process. The fact that wait times will increase is something even Disney acknowledges. Why else would they be installing interactive games in so many standby queues? Because they love their customers and want them to be happy? Or because of the need to placate customers who are going to be spending a lot more time standing in basically stationary standby lines once MyMagic+ is fully up and running?

3. Less flexibility. One thing Disney representatives always say when talking about MyMagic+ is that it’s all about giving their customers more choices, more options, more freedom to personalize their vacation. This is a completely and utterly false lie. It’s the same kind of thing that AT&T or Verizon says whenever they introduce some complicated new rate plan designed to squeeze more money from their customers but not improve their service in any way. What is really more likely, that a huge corporation like Disney or AT&T loves its customers so much that it wants to spend a huge amount of money developing a system to make their lives easier, then add it to the service it already provides at no additional cost? Or that they’ve found a way to enhance their revenue in a way that worsens their customers’ experience, and they’re just marketing it as in improvement?

FastPass+ will restrict you to one park per day. This is by design. Its stated goal, as outlined in company documents that have leaked online and/or message board postings from people with a proven track record for providing reliable inside information, is to solve the problem of outsized crowds at the Magic Kingdom (and EPCOT, to a much lesser extent) in the late afternoon and evening due to people park-hopping there after spending the first part of the day at Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom. What Disney would like is for people who started their day at Hollywood Studios to remain there, and presumably for people who started their day at Animal Kingdom to go back to their hotel room and sit on their hands, since that park closes at like 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

Now, to any sane person the answer to the question of how to get people to stay longer at Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, or even EPCOT is obvious: add more attractions and entertainment to those parks that people will want to experience. After all, it worked pretty well in Anaheim with the California Adventure overhaul. But Disney is not in the theme park business just so it can do what people want, even if those people happen to be paying customers. No, the approach Disney is taking here is to herd people where it wants them to go, not where they are naturally inclined to be. The executives are very happy about this “crowd management” feature of MyMagic+, because they imagine that it will spread crowds more evenly throughout the four theme parks and alleviate the need to spend the money to add new attractions. Because we all know that the Orlando management team would rather get a colonoscopy from Captain Hook than spend the money to add new attractions.

Now maybe after reading all this, you’re like “Dave, I totally agree that FastPass+ is going to be a giant hassle. I just won’t use it! I’ll opt out!” Well, good for you. But since the current FastPass system will go away, and FastPass+ will dramatically increase the wait times at every single ride on property, you’ll be waiting in a lot of hideously long, barely-moving standby lines. But you will have paid as much to get into the park as everyone else.

So that’s it. I’ve spent over 1,250 words talking about just one aspect of MyMagic+ and why it’s so bad for everyone who’s not a Disney executive. And I didn’t even get into the fact that another exciting feature of this technology is that Disney will be able to track you all over the property and develop a complete picture of your park touring, dining, and spending habits for every minute of your stay. That’s something that freaks a lot of people out, and if it doesn’t at least worry you you’re incredibly naïve.

Still, so as not to be accused of being too one-sided in my opinions I really do need to mention one positive aspect of MyMagic+: its convenience. Instead of having to fish a ticket out of your pocket and feed it into a little slot while pressing your finger against a biometric scanner to enter the park, you just swipe your MagicBand against an RFID reader. Instead of having to pull a card out of your wallet to pay for something, you just swipe your MagicBand against an RFID reader. And instead of having to insert your park ticket into a FastPass machine to receive a FastPass, then present that FastPass to the Cast Member at the front of the FastPass queue, you just swipe your MagicBand against an RFID reader. Is it convenient? Sure. You’ll save seconds of valuable time. But balance that against the increased time you’ll spend waiting in line and maybe you’ll see why I’m not enthused.

But perhaps I’m getting all upset over nothing. Because Disney has been doing a lot of tests of the MyMagic system over the past few weeks, and they’ve gone great except for the fact that the system doesn’t work and the frontline Cast Members are obviously not trained to deal with any of the problems it has. Here’s a nice first-person account from one of the MyMagic test subjects. Here’s another one. What worries me most is that Disney management is going to respond to the negative feedback from their customers and the front line Cast Members like this:

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. . . and decide to push ahead with full implementation of the system anyway even though it clearly does not work. And if you seriously think that Disney’s executives are not out-of-touch enough to do something like this, then I have a tropical island in North Dakota I’d like to sell you.

As I said at the outset, I am not usually this blunt. But the fact of the matter is that anyone who says that MyMagic+ is really going to be a great thing for Disney’s customers fits into one of three categories:

  1. Extremely naïve people who view the world through rose-colored glasses and won’t consider the possibility that Disney is just like every other corporation because that would “spoil the magic.”
  2. People who work for Disney and are being paid to lie about how wonderful MyMagic+ is.
  3. Bloggers, podcasters, or website owners who don’t dare to say anything negative about any of Disney’s ventures lest they upset their friends in Disney’s social media arm who provide them with freebies and access to make them feel special, or aspiring bloggers, podcasters, or website owners who are trying to get in good with Disney’s social media arm to obtain the aforementioned freebies and access.

The first category of person is just clueless, maybe even mentally ill, and I don’t dislike those folks but I do feel sorry for them. But the other two groups of people will deliberately steer you wrong just to satisfy their own selfish agenda, an agenda that may be as trivial as hoping Disney will notice them and treat them like a “preferred” blogger. And I have nothing but contempt for those people.

If you’ve made it all the way through this extremely dense wall of text, you deserve a prize. Unfortunately, I don’t have any, because this isn’t one of those blogs with sponsors and stuff. But, maybe you’re wondering “What does all of this have to do with the title of this post? And why do you feel so strongly about it?”

Well, I’ve had a lifelong love for Walt Disney World. It used to be full of awesome stuff that I loved. Some of that stuff is gone now, but there’s still plenty there. And I’m very much a creature of habit. Once I find something I like and am comfortable with, be it a burger joint, a brand of sneakers, or a certain cartoon mouse-themed vacation compound, I stick with it and it takes a lot to un-stick me. But over the past decade or so I’ve watched Disney World get progressively more expensive and more complicated to navigate without necessarily getting any more fun. For me, MyMagic+ is the final straw. At one time, I might’ve qualified as a “pixie duster”. But if this thing is implemented, if even the FastPass+ part of it is implemented as currently planned, I’m completely done with Disney World. They’ve lost me as a customer, and I will never go back unless someone else pays for it.

I’ve heard people who spend a lot of time at Disney World spoken of as “pixie dust addicts”. And I know the feeling. I know the irrational desire, at the end of a days-long Disney vacation, to whip out my credit card and max it out just so I can stay another few days. But the last time I walked out of a Disney park, which has been almost two years ago now, I did not have that feeling. I was just ready to go home. The best way to detox from your Pixie Dust addiction, in my opinion, is to take a step back and realize how expensive and difficult-to-plan a Disney vacation has become. Then go online and realize what a great vacation you can have elsewhere for a fraction of the price.

If that doesn’t shock you back to reality, nothing will.

7 comments:

  1. A sobering post. I'm not quite as disappointed as you are, but I do agree with most of what you say. What's really sad is that WDW has basically added a less than inspiring fantasyland addition and a restaurant here and there while its competition continues to aggressively add new attractions.

    Saddest of all is that TDO doesn't seem to care about adding new things and pushing the boundaries of entertainment technologies other than offering up a minorly convenient wristband/ticket.

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  2. I said something similar on twitter, but my short version of my opinion is "I'll wait to judge until after it is fully operational." Fastpass was supposed to be the end of the universe too as I remember from the internet complaining at the time. Now it is merely an accepted part of the Disney experience which, it would seem now is something people fear changing or replacing.

    That doesn't mean I seek to spend thousands of dollars of my money to beta test this system for Disney. Quite the opposite. Just as I would like to wait to judge it until it is fully operational, I'd also like to sit and wait to make a decision about going to WDW until it is fully operational to determine whether or not it'll be worth my money. There's a big world out there, and I don't exactly sympathize with people who are upset that only now they feel urged to consider other vacation/travel options. That isn't a tragedy. That isn't sad.

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  3. Every time I read a post about Fastpass+ and the system around it, it makes me really angry and disappointed. I've loved Disney World since I was a kid in the '80s, and I'm concerned about where it's headed. I completely understand that the goal of the company is to make money, but the recent crowd surges from Cars Land (and Harry Potter at Universal) have reminded us about what draws the money and people. It's great attractions! Disney can find ways to herd the crowd differently and fake us out with parlor games, but it's the rides and shows that keep us going back. Add even one or two major attractions with great theming to DAK and DHS, and they become something entirely different. Fix the worn-out Future World attractions and upgrade them, and the people will come.

    Fastpass at least rewards visitors for being diligent; this new plan is something else entirely. I'll pick up my three Fastpasses so my kids can ride the remarkable attractions, but I refuse to get stuck in this system. I'm also more likely to visit other parks that aren't so restrictive. There are a lot of entertainment options out there, and Disney should realize that even the most prominent companies can fall if they stop caring about customers. The price increases and changes like Fastpass+ are sending them into dangerous territory.

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  4. It sounds, from your description, that it is going to be nothing but a major frustration. It's going to change so much about planning a WDW vacation. It was already a chore for my wife who does the advanced dining reservations, and we don't usually use the dining plans. Instead of running to Space Mountain or Everest or Soarin' first thing, you're going to have to virtually "run" to them months in advance, if your description is accurate.

    I have never felt that Disney had any other purpose besides separating its customers from their money but I have always felt that they at least tried to go about doing so in a way that made the customer happy to pay. This sounds like it will not do that; in fact, it sounds like it's going to make the worst things about a Disney vacation even worse.

    At least the resorts are still nice, and there's always Universal...

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  5. David,

    This is an incredibly well-written and well-thought post. Kudos.

    This new program scares me. I think it's going to alienate first time visitors and make their trips really bad.

    I assume that people will adjust their vacations over time and that it will be successful--successful for the people that can afford to travel often and at the nicer resorts.

    I've also heard rumors that people staying in the Deluxe resorts will get more amenities in the program.

    Keep up the great work.

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  6. My partner and I just got back from an 8 days at WDW and were in the MyMagic+ test program. It was his first visit, whereas I (who am probably around David's age) lived in Tampa in the 1980s, so I've been many times with a long hiatus from the early 90s - 2011.

    Aside from various technical problems and the whole cattle-tag aspect, we found the TEST program pleasant enough. Their web app sucks (although improving), and that becomes important in MyMagic+. The mobile apps don't perform all that well either. Lots of POS RFID readers (fixed and hand-held) don't seem to work well. I was surprised to see so many technical problems still in play at this late date. It was nice to use our MagicBands as tickets, room key and payment method, but I think the old cards could do all of that.

    We ended up missing or not using about 1/3 of our FP+ reservations because like most people, we occasionally change plans. What seemed like a good plan for Day 6 three months ago may sound like the Bataan Death March by Day 5. Instead of being somewhere at rope-drop, you want to sleep in, have a late brunch and then spend the afternoon drinking rum out of pineapples at Tambu. So the test, while okay, didn't add much to our trip except an additional layer of planning and schedules.

    The real issue (which this post nails perfectly)is that the fully-implemented FastPass+ experience will be NOTHING LIKE the test experience. It frustrates me to see people posting all over about how great their experience as MyMagic+ testers was, because it misses the point that IT WILL BE NOTHING LIKE THIS once everyone in the park is completing for FP+ slots at ALL attractions. As testers at WDW with fairly low crowd levels, it was no big deal for us to skip a FP+ and just wait in standby later...or to reschedule a FP+ for Space Mountain from morning to evening, or whatever. But there's just no way it's going to be that easy or flexible (especially for headliners) once all attendees are in the pool. I'm no statistician or crowd-management expert, but I can't come up with ANY scenario where standby waits don't get MUCH longer. It will be REALLY important to get your plans right when you book all your FP+ three or six months in advance (because does anyone really doubt that Space Mountain and Toy Story Mania will book completely the day they become available, just like Le Cellier reservations do today?), and guess what? I SERIOUSLY TOTALLY COMPLETELY DO NOT WANT TO PLAN EVERY FREAKING HOUR OF MY VACATION SIX MONTHS IN ADVANCE! Having to do that kind of planning is THE OPPOSITE OF FUN. It requires spreadsheets, and there's a reason why Excel is a part of "Microsoft Office" and not "Microsoft Vacation Funtimes".

    A trip to WDW already involves more planning and complexity than is really reasonable for a domestic vacation to a theme park. We had a good time, but I doubt we'll return once FP+ is fully implemented (at least not for a week-long "ride everything" sort of trip). Maybe we're just not the kind of customers Disney wants...which sort of baffles me. As a childless dual-salary household we have enough disposable income that if we WANTED to take a trip like the one we just returned from (stayed on property, 8-day admission with park-hopping, deluxe dining plan, wine with most meals, many overpriced cocktails and souvenirs purchased) every year, we could easily do it. We're sort of easy money for Disney World.

    But for a lot less, I can book a 7-day western Caribbean cruise out of Galveston (including a stateroom with a balcony). That has a "deluxe dining plan" built right in, will give us a chance to shop for overpriced Mexican knick-knacks in actual Mexico, and does not require a multi-page spreadsheet and an iPhone app to plan and "manage".

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  7. So sad , long time Disney family. FP+ On this last trip was awful. Going to take my money elsewhere for a while. Sad we would go at least 1x a year.

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Thanks for taking the time to comment!