Our Walt Disney World vacation was a success and everyone involved agreed that technology played a central role. We’ve already talked about how MagicBands made negotiating the parks, resorts, and souvenir shops easier. Today we’ll look at the applications we used during (and prior) to the trip to make sense of the madness and make sure everyone had a great time.
Disclaimer: Our vacation was in January, which is a slow month. So bear that in mind when making your plans. Even with these great apps, heading to WDW in July will always be pretty busy, but I’m sure these apps will help.
I was the “tech guy” for our trip and I employed several apps to keep everything sorted out. I used Google Maps to negotiate the way from Orlando to Clearwater, Florida and back (we spent a day at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium). I used Yahoo Weather to keep an eye on the sky and help everyone know whether to wear a jacket or shorts, depending on the day. I used the stock “Notes” app on my iPhone to keep tabs on souvenir money, and the breakdown of our meal plans (which we accessed with those sweet MagicBands). But there were two primary apps that I used to make this vacation successful, and I’m very excited to tell you about them. So here we go:
My Disney Experience App
This app is the “official app” from Disney for your vacation. The app provides a ton of tools to use in the parks including Ride Information, Character Meet-Up locations, Dining Options, Guest Services, and even Shopping.
The My Disney Experience App is something you definitely need while you’re in the park, or even before you’re in the park for planning purposes. Let me share how I used the app for our trip.
Using the App in the Parks
I used the My Disney Experience App for two major things while in the park. First, the app allows you to modify your Fast Pass options directly on the device. We had an early Fast Pass for the Rock Coaster in Hollywood Studios. The bus took a long time showing up (one of the few times that happened to us), and the drive to the park was taking longer than I expected it to. Bottom line, we were going to miss our Fast Pass for the ride, and I knew, from reviewing the app, that we had a 45 minute wait if we had to go through the “stand by” line. So I pulled up the Fast Pass options on the My Disney Experience App, located another Fast Pass window, and switched everyone in our group to that window instead. We did indeed arrive at Hollywood Studios after our first Fast Pass had expired, but because of the functionality of the My Disney Experience app, we were able to saunter our way to the ride (taking a family pic in front of the Tower of Terror along the way) and take advantage of our revised Fast Pass window. This is just on example of the many times I adjusted our Fast Pass times with this app. We actually switched which park we were going to one of the days, and I was able to completely reassign our Fast Passes to the other park, all from within the app on my iPhone.
The second way I used this app in the parks was for Dining. We were doing Quick Service Meals during most of our trip, which is the Disney equivalent of Fast Food. The app shows all of the Quick Service restaurants in the parks with menus provided. On our day in the Magic Kingdom we needed to find a location for dinner. While others in our group rode Dumbo the Flying Elephant, I pulled up the Dining options and took stock of what restaurants were around us (some restaurants have limited hours, and the app indicates that). By the time everyone was done flying I had narrowed it down to two places. With the whole group gathered around, I told them what foods each place offered, and the general consensus was to skip to gourmet mac and cheese of the Friar’s Nook (my choice), and head over for burgers and chicken in Tomorrowland at “Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe”. You can’t win them all. Having all of the menus at your fingertips is a great feature, and something unique to the My Disney Experience app. If you are doing Table Service Dining, you can even make your reservations right from the app. But make sure you do that way ahead of time, because those slots fill up fast, and you’ll have few, if any, options if you do it the day of your visit.
While My Disney Experience provided some great options, including visual maps to guide our way through the parks, another app was my primary tool to make sure we spent more time on rides, and less time in lines. It’s an app called “Touring Plans”.
I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the website for “touring plans“. It was probably during my google searches for “planning a trip to Disney”. However it was that I found it, I can say without hesitation that this app was the jewel that made our vacation a smooth ride from start to finish. Unlike the “My Disney Experience” app, this one has a cost related to it, but I assure you that the price of $12.95 for an annual membership is well worth it. Your $13 gets you access to the Touring Plans website, offering tons of tools, including pre-designed schedules, from which the site got their name. You also can full access to the mobile application (available on iOS and Android). The mobile app is available for free, but you can’t access many of the features without a membership.
The “Touring Plans” app offers all sorts of information about the parks. Park hours (including the “extra magic hours” for resort guests), Crowd Calendar, Wait Times, Fast Pass Availability, and Ride information (height, intensity, description, and ratings). Bottom line, the only things missing from this app are dining information, and the ability to change Fast Passes on the go (but you have My Disney Experience for those anyway). While those features might sound similar to the “My Disney Experience” app, I found that Touring Plans was easier to use, and had more reliable wait times for rides especially.
As I looked over the app, I had a feeling of nostalgia that is usually associated with viewing photos from a trip. But that makes sense, since I spent most of my time there staring at these screens. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Let me share how I used this app prior to our visit and during our time in the parks.
Using the App to Plan the Trip
Two months before our trip the family gathered to do some trip planning. Using the “touring plans” application I accessed the “Crowd Calendar” which does its best to predict the tourist traffic each day. We could see the days we would be there, with estimated crowd level. We used that information, along with the days that each park had “extra magic hours” (resort guests get early entrance or staying after the park close to the public) to determine which park we would visit each day. Our planning proved overwhelmingly successful. We had minimal lines, and tons of space as we made our way around the parks. Touring Plans Crowd Calendar proved accurate for us!
The second thing we had to determine was which rides everyone wanted to go on. Bear in mind we had ages ranging from an 8-year-old up to the Grandparents, so everyone wasn’t always going to agree. I used a spreadsheet to create what I called “The Super Awesome Ride Selection Machine”, and filled it with data gathered from the ride descriptions in the “Touring Plans” app. Then I sat with everyone and had them rate their interest in every single ride (0 – not interested to 5 – we MUST go on that!!!!). In the end I had a good idea about which rides everyone wanted to go on, and when we’d need to split up. I used that information in real-time once we hit the park. We managed to get to roughly 90% of the rides we wanted to get to, and that is thanks to the wait time calculator. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Using the App in the Parks
The “touring plans” app provides estimated wait times for all of the rides and shows in all of the parks. When you pull up the ride list, you see the Disney posted time (reflected on the My Disney Experience App) and the “expected time” as calculated by Touring Plans. These numbers are derived from historical data and users entering their wait times while they are in line (which is added to the algorithms driving the historical data). I used the app, to time several of the lines we stood in. I verified just about every line’s wait time against the apps expected time and found the app was accurate almost all of the time. If anything, it sometimes stated a longer time than we experienced; it never went the other way! In addition to providing expected wait times, each ride indicates when there is a Fast Pass available, and when the line is expected to get shorter. We planned to ride Big Thunder Mountain again on the day we were in Magic Kingdom. I saw that there was a 40 minute wait as the expected time in Touring Plans. But the app told me that if we waited another hour the line would drop to 10 minutes. We waited (hit another ride in the meantime), and then we rode the ride an hour later with that 10 minute wait! Spectacular.
Anyone planning a trip to Walt Disney World (or Universal Studios – they have this service too), should get Touring Plans. It’s the easiest $13 you’ll spend, and it will definitely make your trip more enjoyable. If you don’t have a tech geek like me in our group, the site offers designed “touring plans” that will literally guide you through the park, hitting all the rides you want to go to at the optimal time. We didn’t use that service, but I can definitely see how it could benefit a group that doesn’t have a person who is fine staring at their smartphone the entire trip.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
As technology increases its presence in our lives, it is becoming more important to be comfortable with the tools. This is certainly the case for a vacation to Walt Disney World. The use of two relatively simple apps will have great benefits for your trip. You will stand in shorter lines, you will use your Fast Passes effectively (we changed some when we realized we had Passes for a ride with a 5 minute wait!), and you will feel more in control of your experience. Need to find a place to eat dinner? The My Disney Experience app has everything you need to know from menus, to prices, to exact locations in the parks. Need to know if it’s worth walking all the way across the park to hit Space Mountain one more time? Touring Plans can tell you how long you will wait before you take one step towards Tomorrowland. These are great tools. They are easy to use. And the first one is free and the second one is a bargain. So make sure to grab these apps before you head to Florida and I’m sure you will have an amazing time!
And when you want to know where to find her, you won’t need a Fairy Godmother…
I first heard about the Disney MagicBands from the CIO of Medtronic, who praised the technology in a town hall meeting, after a recent trip to Walt Disney World. He was drawn to the concept of a single device that could provide a variety of services in a portable form. I was excited to get my hands (or wrist rather) on my MagicBand for our Disney trip. Would it live up to the hype, or would this fledgling technology prove unequal to the task? I’m happy to say that the bands worked like a charm for several specific tasks. Here they are:
Magicband as a Room Key and Park Ticket
First off, the MagicBand replaces the room key for those staying at a Disney Resort, as we did. This isn’t a huge advancement in tech, as all it really does is take the chip found normally in the key card of a traditional hotel and places it in the band. Still it’s great to have one less thing to lose, because unlike a room key in your pocket/wallet/purse, it’s a lot harder to lose something strapped to your wrist (though I imagine some could still manage it!)
While the room key aspect of the MagicBand isn’t that revolutionary, the employment of the Band as a Park ticket is where things start to get interesting. Now Disney doesn’t care if you pass your band around your group when accessing your hotel rooms. Those rooms aren’t tied to daily admission. Park Tickets are costly, and everyone needs their own, so they added a second level of security at the gates to the parks themselves to ensure there isn’t any Band sharing. When you first scan your MagicBand at the gate, you are asked to place your index finger on a scanner. This effectively ties your MagicBand to your fingerprint, meaning no one else can enter a park with your MagicBand except you. That’s a great piece of security that isn’t that invasive to the entrance process. I had to redo my fingerprint at our second park, but I suspect that happened because I used a finger with a scar that gave the scanner some issues. Even with the second scan, it was not a time-consuming process.
If you are using a Park Hopper, which allows you to visit multiple parks in a single day, the MagicBand will work for all parks. You’ll have to scan that finger each time, but it’s usually a one-and-done kind of experience. We actually hit three parks in one day at one point, and the single park ticket on the wrist made the process very smooth. By the end of the week, entrance was a science. Smack your wrist to the Mickey till it turned green, then place finger on scanner until the bar went all blue, and you are on your way!
Magicband as a FastPass/PhotoPass
Disney has been using the FastPass option for a while now. Essentially, a FastPass allows you to jump to the front (or near the front) of the line for the rides. Every ticket gets you three FastPasses for the day you are in the park. This isn’t a perk for people staying at Resorts, but having a MagicBand makes using them more convenient. Without a MagicBand, you are issued a paper ticket for the ride and time for each of your FastPasses. This means you’ve got three “tickets” to keep track of throughout the day! The SmartBand keeps your FastPasses for you, and you can double (and triple) check the times via the “My Disney Experience” app on your phone. A scan of the wrist at the FastPass entrance shows your name on a screen and you are on your way to the front. Insiders Tip: They do not check your fingerprint for the FastPass line, so you have the ability to swap bands. My daughter wasn’t interested in many of the roller coasters that we got fast passes for, so she often gave her band to a more adventurous cousin for a second spin.
PhotoPass is another convenient service provided by Disney. The parks are filled with employed photographers, all set to take your family photos in front of iconic location like Cinderella’s Castle and the big golf ball at EPCOT Center. Again, the MagicBand can be used to quickly scan after the picture is taken, and the photo is uploaded automatically to your PhotoPass account. Another bonus is photo stations located after many of the rides (especially the coasters) where you can view your “during ride” pictures. You know the ones, with the scream faces! These stations have a place to scan your MagicBand as well, so those photos are instantly added too.
MagicBand as a Payment Source
The final aspect of the Disney MagicBand is the most complicated. Basically, the band can replace your credit card, so in theory you can leave your wallet behind (assuming you aren’t buying any adult beverages). Like the secondary security at the gates with fingerprint identification, whenever you use the card for purchase you are required to enter a four digit PIN number. This is not only a convenient feature, but a required one if you are traveling with children, and you don’t want them buying a bunch of stuff at the gift stores without your knowledge. Without the PIN, the payment source aspect of the MagicBand is worthless.
If you are staying at a Resort and have a Dining Plan, you can use your MagicBand for that as well. It requires the PIN number, so keep that handy.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Disney MagicBand is a truly revolutionary tool within the Parks and Resorts. Without the band each person would be walking around with a park ticket, three fast pass slips, a hotel room key, a photopass card, and credit card/cash in the wallet. With this simple accessory all of those items are combined into one thing. Of course I still got locked out of our hotel room one day when I went next door to talk schedules and forgot to put my Band on. Thankfully someone was there to let me in.
But here’s what I’m most excited about after using the Disney MagicBand for a week, and that’s the potential wider expansion. We are already seeing the possibilities with the wave of Smartwatches that are sweeping through the tech festivals this year. Apple is set to launch their first smartwatch in the coming months. Android Wear is being adopted by more and more companies. People often ask me why we need another device strapped to our wrist? Won’t that just be another distraction? I agree with that possible outcome if the devices on our wrists are too interactive. If smartwatches are just another screen to stare at, that is a problem. Imagine how many people are going to walk into walls as a result! But if the bands on our wrist can be closer to the MagicBand than the Apple Watch, I think there is great potential for widespread adoption. With Apple Pay, more attention is being given to the industry of mobile payments. Google Wallet has been around for a long time, but few use it. I see a future where your wallet truly is right on your wrist. And this new technology will be even more secure than our antiquated bar scanner cards, using things like Apple’s fingerprint verification. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations!
So if you are off to Disney and staying at a Resort, get ready for the Disney MagicBand, because you will get one. You can even jazz them up with stick on covers and accessories! Not staying at Resort, but still want in on the fun? You can purchase a band for $12.95 and activate all of the goodies already mentioned!
So strap that band on your wrist and wonder at the ease of use, the diversity of options, and the possibilities for such technology beyond the lands of Mickey Mouse, where the rest of the world is just waiting to join in.
We have just completed 8 days at Walt Disney World in Florida. We went with a specific plan, and months of preparation. But you know what they say about “best laid plans”. Managing 10 people (from an 8-year-old to the Grandparents), over the course of 8 days, where each day averaged 12 hours of actual Disney Park time was going to be a challenge. Kids had competing priorities, timing was a best guess much of the time. And so we had to make many adjustments to our daily schedules on the fly. And technology played a huge role in making those changes positive.
Over the next week of so, I will be posting a series of blogs about “The Tech of Disney”. Each post will focus on a different aspect of how technology enhanced our vacation (and the few times when technology failed us, which was bound to happen at some point along the way). Disney has figured out many ways to make the vacation on their resorts a smooth process, but still we were newbies, figuring things out as we went along. I’m certain that our next visit to WDW will be even better because of the lessons we’ve learned throughout this week. And I know I will be looking for great apps again to make sure I am in control of my experience. Because while “going with flow” might sound good, planning and control are the best ways to make sure you get to everything you want to get to, and you don’t spend all our time in lines or on buses.
So check out the coming blogs if you have Disney in your future vacation plans, and hopefully I can help you out. Or if you’re a tech geek like me, make sure to read the blogs to hear a firsthand experience with the Tech of Disney!
**We also visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure, so the posts will address the tech of those locations as well. Call it a bonus.
Tech has played a huge role throughout our days. From last minute fast pass changes to wait times and park hours (even the need for the nearest first aid station at one point). I don’t know how people did these parks before the apps came along on the smartphones.
The tech of Disney has been more than just apps though (I got the chance to compare Disney to Universal Studios one day), and I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned in the coming week, once we’ve returned to the cold North!