Part of the magic of Disney’s Magic Kingdom is that visitors to its theme parks are immersed in a self-contained ecosystem, insulated from the realities of the outside world.
Walt Disney dreamed of using his parks as incubators of technology – the monorail, for example – that one day would migrate from his sealed ecosystem to society at large. EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that was opened in 1982 – 16 years after his death – was originally conceived as a showcase for futuristic urban planning and technology that would be home to 20,000 permanent residents.
Disney died before his EPCOT dream community could be realized. After his death, The Walt Disney Company retooled his vision into the World’s Fair style theme park that visitors enjoy today.
Disney’s $1 Billion MagicBand
But Walt Disney’s wish to nurture our futures very much lives on.
Nowhere is that more evident than in his company’s Disney MagicBand, a $1 billion technological marvel that toddlers, children, and their parents already wear nonchalantly on their wrists while joyfully navigating their way around Disney World in Florida.
The apparent simplicity of the rubber MagicBand, available in multiple kid-friendly colors, is highly deceptive. It is already revolutionizing retailing and the tourism industry. Moreover, one day very soon smartbands will break free of the Disney ecosystem like a runaway monorail hell-bent on transporting all of us to the promise of a better tomorrow.
While the Apple Watch – available later this month – has been generating oceans of media ink, the Disney MagicBand is really the more disruptive of the two wearable technologies. The fact that for now you have to go through the turnstiles at Disney World to experience the MagicBand is only a temporary state of affairs. Over the next decade, the software and hardware that feed the MagicBand will change our world far more than Apple’s smartwatch.
A True-Life ‘Cinderella’
Cliff Kuang, an editor at WIRED magazine, provides a great overview of the Disney MagicBand and its capabilities. “If you want to imagine how the world will look in just a few years, once our cell phones become the keepers of both our money and identity, skip Silicon Valley and book a ticket to Orlando,” he writes.
Kuang tells a story every bit as wondrous as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast; only this transformative tale is fact, not fiction.
The key is that Disney has used cutting-edge technology to engineer away the “friction” most of us associate with family vacations. By registering online ahead of their visit to Disney World and wearing their MagicBands once they embark on their trip, vacationers enjoy the type of VIP experience – where their every need and whim are anticipated ahead of time and met – that previously was reserved for heads of state and other dignitaries.
The many perks include letting Disney manage your luggage from the airport to your hotel room; entering the park sans tickets; arriving at the pre-reserved rides you select and skipping the long waits; rendezvousing with the Disney characters your children love on your schedule; having your table and food ready as soon as you arrive at a park restaurant – where you’ll be warmly greeted by name; and buying souvenirs and snacks without the need for cash, a credit card, or even a wallet.
The Disney MagicBands and the complex systems that enable them “turn the park into a giant computer – streaming real-time data about where guests are, what they’re doing, and what they want,” Kuang writes. “Which makes it exactly the type of thing Apple, Facebook, and Google are trying to build. Except Disney World isn’t just an app or a phone – it’s both, wrapped in an idealized vision of life that’s as safely self-contained as a snow globe.”
The real mind-blowing aspect comes in envisioning Disney-style smartbands migrating outside the snow globe into our everyday lives. WIRED reports that already cruise ships, airlines, and professional sports franchises have asked Disney to explore how to extend the smartband concept to their universe. Other early adopters are also likely to include zoos, museums, and Las Vegas casinos.
EPCOT On Your Wrist
Yet specialty destinations are only the beginning. The day will arrive, quite soon, when our entire lives can be a keyless, cashless, wallet-less, VIP experience of having everything ready ahead of time for us and having our brick-and-mortar retail purchases customized and delivered seamlessly to our door. Vendors will know, even before we do, what we’ll want and have it ready at the swipe of our wrists.
Yes, some aspects of smartband technology do pose privacy questions and the danger of Big Brother abusing the technology. It is a real risk. But so many previous technological advances – such as smartphones – present similar exposures. Nevertheless, the giant leap in convenience that these new technologies provide is so compelling that the tradeoff is one most people readily accept.
If Walt Disney were alive today, there is little doubt he would be ecstatic with his company’s MagicBand and its potential to change our world for the better. He once envisioned EPCOT as a city that would eliminate much of the friction from our everyday lives and simultaneously serve as an inspiration for other companies to devise complementary technologies and advancements.
In that regard, Walt Disney’s original vision for EPCOT is finally being realized in the guise of an unpretentious rubber wristband that young children give not a second thought to, even as their parents realize the MagicBand represents the once fantastical future wrapped this moment around their wrists.
Read Ran's posts on innovation, society, and the world at large.