Not Your Daddy's Disneyland


By Tony Kontzer

My wife and I recently took our seven-month-old son to Disneyland, which is, admittedly, cause for an immediate psychiatric evaluation. In an effort to protect us (and baby) from utter exhaustion, we plunked down the nearly $400 for a room at the Disneyland Hotel, enabling us all to hop on the Monorail and head back for an afternoon dip in the pool, followed by a nap for baby.

I tell you all this because, in case you have not been there lately, this is not the Disneyland of yesteryear. And I'm not just talking about the presence of the newer California Adventure theme park, the expanded array of Disney-run hotels, or the dizzying Downtown Disney shopping center that connects everything. I am talking about the way you, the customer, are tracked.

Disney has clearly taken full advantage of all the technologies that now enable companies to learn more about their customers' tendencies, and no kernel of knowledge is deemed insignificant. Take the Disneyland Hotel. When a family checks in, each person -- even kids like my soon-to-be-13-year-old -- are given their own, personalized keycard, embossed with their name on it. That keycard isn't just for getting into your room -- it is also your admission pass for the pool area, and your virtual resort credit card, enabling you to add any purchase to your bill with a swipe.

Naturally, these transactions tell Disney a lot more than what you're buying and that you like to swim, although that information is all useful, too. Rather, this type of tracking provides insight into where you are, and when you go there. That is the kind of data that can be used to make your experience all the better by ensuring that what you want is where you want it at the exact moment you want it. (That explains why it seems like there's a reason to spend money every 9.3 seconds during your stay.)

This ability to glean customer patterns carries into the park, whether guests are staying at Disney hotels or not. For years, Disney has issued passport cards to all guests -- these resemble public transit passes, with a magnetic strip that's scanned as you enter the park. Don't throw it away. As you traipse through either of the parks, you'll come across a number of popular rides that feature Fastpass. This is a Disney innovation, introduced in 1999, that allows you to come back during a specific hour and wait in a much shorter line than usual, so that you feel like a VIP.

To get your Fastpass, you go to a designated area beside the ride and slide your park passport card into a Fastpass machine, which spits out the little Fastpass cards. Your park passport card also is needed to re-enter the park should you decide to head over to California Adventure or back to the hotel for the aforementioned swim and nap. What didn't occur to me on my previous Disneyland visits during the Fastpass era is the wealth of knowledge that's gleaned through all of this activity. Don't think those Fastpass machines and passport scanners aren't looped into Disney's customer information systems.

Through the Fastpass setup, Disney now is able to have a much clearer idea of where you are in the park at what times, what rides you like best, and how often you use Fastpass. That, in turn, can be used to strategically locate food and souvenir stands, bathrooms, benches, and anything else. By scanning your passport as you re-enter either of the parks, Disney learns when people like to take breaks, which can aide in everything from parade and show schedules to staffing the re-entry gates.

This all helps to explain how, on a crowded summer day, with an estimated 60,000 people in the park, a group of eight visitors that included a baby, a kindergartner and two strollers had to barely waited in a line all day. We never seemed to be at a loss for anything, whether it was food or souvenirs or restrooms. Clearly, Disney puts its expanding knowledge of the customer to good use.

The moral of this story? It's possible to track your customers on an intensely granular level without making them feel watched or violated. And it's also possible to put seemingly innocuous information to powerful use. That, folks, is the lesson Disney holds for any company that wants to know -- and serve -- its customers better. Next time you're at Disneyland (or, undoubtedly, Florida's Walt Disney World), take notes. You'll be learning from the masters.


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