Disney, Verizon To Turn The Cellphone
Into A Theme-park Visitor's Tool
Wireless software promises to help mobile
phone users navigate the parks and make the most of
their visits. But there are privacy implications.
November 12, 2008
The Happiest Place on Earth will soon know where in the
world you are.
Walt Disney Co. has struck a deal with Verizon Wireless
that will allow it to remain in wireless contact with
its theme park visitors -- even when they step outside
the turnstiles in Anaheim and Orlando, Fla.
Disney and Verizon bill it as a way to enhance the
"theme park experience," enabling parkgoers to use their
mobile phones for tasks such as saving a spot in line at
a popular ride and zeroing in on where Cinderella can be
found signing autographs.
But the service has broad -- and potentially
controversial -- implications for marketers and
consumers as each attempts to balance the need for
information with privacy. The new service has echoes of
the futuristic film "Minority Report," in which Tom
Cruise's character is inundated with personalized ad
messages as he passes interactive billboards in a mall.
On the face of it, the application appears innocuous
enough: Visitors to Disneyland or Walt Disney World
would be able to download an application to their mobile
phones to make trip plans, including booking hotel rooms
and creating a checklist of attractions and shows to
see. Once they arrive, they'll be able to use their
phones to check wait times at Space Mountain or find the
"What we're doing is putting tools in the hands of our
customers to better personalize their experience," said
Scott Trowbridge, vice president of creative research
and development for Walt Disney Imagineering.
Disney joins a growing number of tourist attractions
that employ mobile phones as a kind of personalized tour
guide. Museums across the country already offer
cellphone tours in place of cumbersome rented hand-held
devices. History buffs walking Boston's Freedom Trail
can use their cellphones as virtual docents to accompany
them on the 2.5-mile trek past 16 historic sites.
Using technology in a mobile phone that pinpoints the
device's location, Disney would be able to recommend
activities or restaurants to users. For example, Disney
could help parkgoers avoid a long wait at Pirates of the
Caribbean by alerting them to shorter lines at the
Matterhorn Bobsleds, or exploit the phone's location
awareness to suggest burgers at the Tomorrowland Terrace
to visitors who've just exited the nearby Buzz Lightyear
Astro Blasters ride.
"If I'm standing here, Mickey is there, how do I make my
way to Mickey?" said Ryan Hughes, vice president of
business development and strategic partnerships at
Verizon. "If we're dying for food, where's the closest
restaurant? How do we find our way there?"
This communication could extend beyond the park, with
Disney sharing personalized mementos of the visit, such
as a photograph from Sleeping Beauty along with a
message, thanking the young guest for visiting her
Disney and Verizon executives say they have no intention
of bombarding park guests with marketing pitches for
fear of intruding on privacy or detracting from the
"This is not us shooting out random messages; it's about
the guest experience," said Disney parks spokesman John
But places that have adopted similar technology have
found the temptation to pitch incessantly hard to
resist. In cellphone-centric Japan, event posters
feature small, bar-code-like images that contain coded
information. When photographed by cellphone, the image
takes the would-be concertgoer to an online ticketing
"There's just an awful lot of experimentation right now.
People understand these phones are very much a part of
people's lives," said Gene Jeffers, executive director
of the Themed Entertainment Assn., an alliance of
companies that design, create and build theme park
attractions. "Disney has really been a leader in terms
of the theme parks exploring these technologies and how
they could be used."
Jeffers said the amusement park industry looks to Disney
as a technological trailblazer, because it has the
resources to experiment with innovative applications of
technology. Last year, for example, children who brought
their Nintendo DS hand-held game consoles to Disneyland
and Disney World could use the gadget's wireless
capability to conduct virtual treasure hunts, seeking
out hidden "hot spots" throughout the parks and
downloading exclusive content for their Pirates of the
Despite the marketing bonanzas such technology promises
-- imagine one day approaching a Starbucks and your
cellphone buzzes with 50 cents off a frothy
pumpkin-flavored latte -- Disney and others must be
careful about overreaching, analysts warn.
"The challenge for parks is, how do you become part of
that process without being too intrusive?" Jeffers said.
"Helping to ensure that the viewer is also experiencing
where they are, so they don't become isolated within the
device, so to speak."
Disney's wireless service debuts early next year at
Epcot in Walt Disney World Resort in Florida at the Kim
Possible World Showcase Adventure. Initially, visitors
will receive a hand-held device, dubbed a "Kimmunicator,"
which they will use as they travel throughout the park,
searching for clues and solving puzzles as they help the
Disney Channel animated sleuth on her mission to save
the world. Over time, park visitors will be able to use
their phones to find shows, restaurants and Disney
characters inside the parks, and get instant information
about wait times.
Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research, said
location-sensitive applications like the one Disney and
Verizon are planning are considered the next wave of
marketing and advertising. And consumers are willing to
surrender some of their personal privacy in exchange for
receiving something of value.
"What's most important for the park operator is to be
extremely transparent, to say, "This is what we're using
your location for and we're not using it for anything
else," Golvin said.
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