How Disneyland is taking cues from Uber and Apple to make sure everybody enjoys their holiday more

On my last visit to Disneyland, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the Happiest Place on Earth finally has an official app for iPhone and Android.

The Disneyland app is a game changer for people who want to make the most out of their vacation: Not only does it tell you current wait times for every single ride in both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure; you can use it to book dinner reservations, buy tickets, find your favourite characters, and collect your ride photos, too.

I’m not alone in my love for the app, either. Just over a year since the app first launched in August 2015, Disney Director of Digital Experiences and former Amazon manager Sarah Laiwala now says that 60% of all Disneyland guests use it on their visit.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what took Disneyland so long to launch an app — rival theme park chain Six Flags launched its first app in 2010, and Universal Studios got into the game in 2013. Previously, Disneyland goers had to use unreliable apps that sourced their information from strangers in the crowd reporting anonymously. 

Disneyland appDisneyThe Disneyland app for iPhone and Android.

As Wailala explains, though, the long wait was because Disney isn’t big on doing things just for the sake of keeping up with current trends. Before Disney even considered building an app, it spent years watching the market, making sure that the whole app economy is “here to stay,” rather than a passing tech fad.

“We don’t use technology for the sake of technology,” she says.

Magic Plus

Back in 2013, Walt Disney World began to roll out MyMagic+ — a $1 billion initative to catch Disney’s Orlando theme parks up with the rising tide of personal technology. Park guests who enroll in MyMagic+ get an app and the “MagicBand,” a wristband that lets you do everything from pay for your meals to unlock your hotel room wirelessly.

The theme parks are Disney’s second-largest overall segment, standing as a $16 billion business that accounts for 30% of the company’s revenues. MyMagic+ was a big bet in continuing the growth of that business in the era of the smartphone.

MyMagic+ was a success, with millions of guests taking advantage. Disney, amid a push towards technology led by CEO Bob Iger, was looking to replicate as much of the MyMagic+ experience as possible for the California parks, as fast as it could.

Disney MagicBandDisneyThe Disney World MagicBand lets guests check into rides, pay for meals, and open their hotel room doors.

And so, the Disneyland app was born. While it doesn’t quite match the scope of the futuristic MagicBand, the Disneyland app has a similar goal: Using technology to help you enjoy the park, without distracting you from it. 

“It helps guests optimise the places they want to spend time in,” Laiwala says. “The whole point is to enjoy the experience around you.” 

In other words, you can use the app to help you make your way around the park, but there’s no point during your vacation where you’ll need to whip out your phone just to get the whole Disneyland experience. It delivers information so you can have a better time, but the park itself is still the focus.

So, no matter how much Disneyland’s mega-fans might want it, the past summer’s Pokémon Go phenomenon “doesn’t mean we’re going to develop ‘Mickey Go'” for the theme parks, says Laiwala. Disney isn’t chasing fads, it’s trying to use technology in a smart way that fills real needs for its guests.

Welcome to Disney city

There’s a saying within the Disney parks, Laiwala says: “Disney is a city in itself.” 

That means that everything an urban planner has to worry about  — from sanitation to street design to access to food and water  — Disneyland has to worry about for its 18 million annual guests.

It also means that Disneyland has to offer its guests all the modern conveniences of the places they came from. For instance, you can’t exactly hail an Uber or use GrubHub to get food delivered while you’re in the middle of a Disney theme park.

Disneyland splash mountainMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderDisney’s PhotoPass service lets you retrieve your ride photos straight from the app. Here’s me on Splash Mountain. I promise I’m having a good time.

But the larger behaviour of pulling out your phone when you want to go somewhere or need something to eat is something Disney can work with. Hence, the Disneyland app’s focus on optimising travel through the park and making it easy to book dinner reservations.

“We’re forced to think about what the entire breadth of the industry is doing,” Laiwala says. The risk is becoming a “source of frustration” when people expect to be able to do something, like pre-order their food (which Disneyland is trying out with the Be Our Guest restaurant), and can’t.

 It manifests in ways outside of Disney’s own apps, too. For instance, Laiwala says her team noticed that lots of guests were posting Instagram selfies with a particular blue wall in Disneyland for no obvious reason. They didn’t understand it, but they still took action, posting an official photographer to smooth the process along. 

Looking to the future, Apple’s Siri got a big upgrade in iOS 10 for iPhone and iPad that lets her hook into other apps. While only a small number of users really take advantage of Siri today, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that if it keeps growing, you’ll be able to ask her for Disneyland park hours and where the nearest bathroom is.

“If guests are going to start using that functionality, I think, ‘should I be there?'” Laiwala says.

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