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Never mind Big Brother watching you. What about "My Pal Mickey?"

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Never mind Big Brother watching you. What about "My Pal Mickey?"

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Okay. By now, JimHillMedia.com readers are no doubt aware of "My Pal Mickey." (After all, this site actually broke the story on this hi-tech wonder back in December 2002.) That 10-and-a-half inch tall plush that -- thanks to its on-board sensors -- can tell WDW guests all sorts of interesting things about the Florida theme parks. Trivia about various attractions it encounters and/or start times for parades and shows. "My Pal Mickey" can even entertain WDW visitors while they wait in line at rides by telling jokes and/or playing games with the guests.

Of course, what allows "My Pal Mickey" to do all of these amazing things is that this hi-tech toy makes use of some pretty sophisticated technology that then keys off of the literally hundreds of sensors that are scattered around Disney World's theme parks. Which allows the doll to know exactly where it is at all times in the parks. Which allows "My Pal Mickey" to know exactly what it's supposed to say in any given situation.

Of course, the flip side of this situation is that the sensors that Walt Disney Imagineering has strategically placed around the Florida theme parks can be used to track "My Pal Mickey" and -- by extension -- the guests who are carrying the plush. The end result is: the Walt Disney Company has been scoring all of this exciting new info about how its guests actually move around its WDW theme parks.

"This is a true break through for us," said one un-named source in Disney's Operations, Strategy and Technology office. (This gentleman only agreed to speak to JimHillMedia.com about this particular aspect of the "My Pal Mickey" dolls if we agreed to disguise his identity.) "We're finally getting real-time data about how guests move through our parks. What holds their interest. What doesn't. If we can actually harvest this information. Figure out what it means in terms of guest flow, show planning, etc., this will give Disney a huge advantage in the theme park arena."

According to our source, Disney began collecting data from the "My Pal Mickeys" as soon as the dolls first started hitting the parks back in April. Watching, for example, how quickly guests who were carrying the plushes moved through the Magic Kingdom. What attractions they walked right by. Where they lingered and loitered.

"We've already begun to see some interesting patterns emerge," he continued. "Guests carrying 'My Pal Mickey' typically head for Mickey's Toontown Fair once they enter the Magic Kingdom. As if they're eager to show off their new hi-tech toy to the real Mickey Mouse."

"From there, these guests then tend to double back into Fantasyland, where they ride a few rides before heading over to Tomorrowland. Once there, these WDW visitors tend to hit most of the rides and shows open there before heading out the Hub to catch a show in front of the Castle or the afternoon parade. Only after this is done do they head over to the western side of Magic Kingdom to check Liberty Square, Frontierland and finally Adventureland."

WDI is reportedly already pouring over the info that has been harvested from the "My Pal Mickeys" that WDW guests have been carrying about. I've heard that a few Imagineers are planning on using this info to justify adding a brand new E Ticket (something along the lines of the now-abandoned "Fire Mountain" project) to Adventureland. With the hope that building a new thrill ride on that side of the Magic Kingdom will help to start balancing out guest traffic flow patterns at that particular Disney World theme park.

Of course, given that the "My Pal Mickeys" have only been in operation at the WDW theme parks for less than two months, there are (of course) others within Disney's Advanced Technology efforts who are already advising caution. Who are telling the folks at WDI not to jump the gun here. That -- as intriguing and exciting as the info gleaned from this new data stream might be -- that it's extremely premature to use this information in an attempt to rethink the Disney theme parks, to decide which attractions should be built where.

"To put it bluntly," said Sue Doughnim (another WDW veteran who only agreed to be interviewed for this article if JimHillMedia.com agreed to protect her identity), "we don't know yet if the people who are buying the 'My Pal Mickeys' are truly typical theme park guests. Given the plush's $50 price point, this toy is obviously not an impulse item. At least not yet. So a lot of us in Operations tend to think that it's the hardcore Disneyana fans who are buying up the dolls right now. Or parents with deep pockets."

This is why Sue and her colleagues are advising WDI to proceed with extreme caution. To just collect the "My Pal Mickey" data for now. To see how spring traffic patterns at the theme parks compare to those in the summer, fall and winter. To pull together a full year's worth of tracking information before making any decisions about what to add and/or what to take out of the parks.

Still, given how thrilled WDW executives have been with the public's overwhelmingly positive reaction to "My Pal Mickey" (I.E. None of the market survey work that was done prior to placing the plushes in the theme parks suggested that Disney would be selling more "My Pal Mickeys" than they'd be renting. Given the doll's $50 price tag, Mouse House officials always assumed that they'd be renting a lot more Mickeys than they'd be selling. But -- as of last week -- the opposite has proven to the case), Disney World's Operations staff is going to be hard pressed to rein in these execs' enthusiasm. To not have Mouse House officials snatch up the preliminary data that's been compiled to date and run with it.

"Our chief concern is -- now that we have all of these real-time data about how guests actually move around Disney World's theme parks -- that it may skew WDI's plans for the two Chinese theme parks that the Walt Disney Company has in the works."

So -- given that Mickey's Toontown Fair is the first stop for WDW guests who are carrying "My Pal Mickeys" as they tour Disney World's Magic Kingdom -- does this mean that Hong Kong Disneyland as well as the yet-un-named second Chinese theme park will end up with beefed up Toontowns, perhaps more prominently positioned than in any previous Disney parks? As of this moment, it's honestly hard to say.

What is clear is that "My Pal Mickey" has proven to be a real boon to the Walt Disney Company. Both for the money that this 10-and-a-half inch Mouse has poured into the corporation's coffers as well as the info that these dolls have dumped into Disney's data banks. (Which might explain why Disneyland Resort officials are so eager to get the "My Pal Mickey" project up and running in Anaheim. With a particular eye toward what this hi-tech toy can tell them about how guests really move through Disney's California Adventure and what can be done to improve that still troubled theme park.

So please keep this mind the next time you're toting that "My Pal Mickey" doll around the theme parks. Yes, it's admittedly fun to have this hi-tech toy telling you all sorts of trivia about the various attractions. But this piece of pricey plush is also making it possible for Walt Disney Company officials to keep an all-too-accurate track of your movements through their theme parks.

So where you go and what you do while carrying that doll may determine -- in the not-so-distant future -- what sorts of new rides, shows, shops and restaurants end up being built in the parks.

So please keep that in mind as you carry "My Pal Mickey" (or the "My Pal Pooh" which is expected to hit the theme parks in 2004 ... provided of course, that the Slesinger lawsuit is resolved in a favorable way for the Mouse House). Though you may have a miniature Mickey dangling off of that clip on your belt, always keep in mind that it's really the Big Mouse that's watching you.

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