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Tech Thursday : When it comes to the Disney theme parks & interactivity, what price is right ?

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Tech Thursday : When it comes to the Disney theme parks & interactivity, what price is right ?

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Have any of you folks checked out those "X-marks-the-spot" hotspots that went live at Disneyland as well as at WDW's Magic Kingdom last week yet ?

If not, I really suggest that you make a point of dropping by some of them sometime this summer. For the people-watching in these parts of the theme parks is just extraordinary.

And -- no -- I'm not talking about the 12-year-old boys who are eager to score unlimited health & other exclusive content for their "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" DS. But -- rather -- all of the Disney Interactive Studio staffers as well as Parks & Resorts suits who are lurking about. Who are clearly anxious to learn if the Mouse's latest experiment with in-park interactivity is a success or a failure.

Copyright 2001 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Of course, it's easy to understand why these guys might be anxious. How many of you remember those "Magical Moments" pins that Walt Disney World rolled out as part of that resort's "100 Years of Magic" celebration ? WDI had hoped that the public would just go wild over these hi-tech badges that (Thanks to a series of sensors that the Imagineers had scattered all over WDW) would light up at specific moments in various rides, shows and attractions around property. But what actually happened was that while some Disney World visitors may have been intrigued by this interactive gadget, most people were put off by the "Magical Moments" pins' very high price tags. Which -- back in 2001 -- sold for $16 (I.E. $15.09 plus tax) apiece.

As a direct result, few WDW guests ever bought any of these hi-tech badges. Which is why thousands of these "Magical Moments" pins eventually wound over at Mouse Surplus, selling for just pennies on the dollars.

Copyright 2003 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The Imagineers had a similar problem in 2003 when they introduced My Pal Mickey. Admittedly, this interactive doll featured some amazing technology. Keying off of a second set of sensors that WDI had set up all over property, this 10 1/2 inch plush could recite fun facts as well as give its owner up-to-date information about what was actually going on inside of the Disney theme park that they were visiting that day.

The only problem was -- with a price that started at $47 (plus tax) and eventually crept up to $65 -- My Pal Mickey was a very pricey piece of plush. Which is why Disney World sold far fewer units than they originally had hoped to. Which is why Parks & Resorts eventually abandoned its plans to go forward with construction of a My Pal Minnie & My Pal Buzz Lightyear product line.

Which thoroughily depressed the Imagineers. You see, had My Pal Mickey been wildly successful, they had plans to significantly expand the interactivity of this hi-tech doll. According to the U.S. patent that Disney filed on this technology ...

The present invention will allow the child/owner to program its own name into its memory. This allows the character to refer to its owner by name during all activities.

Copyright 2003 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

(This) interactive plush ... (also has) an event memory such that if a child moves through the theme park, the device will store information about each location, object or character that interacted with the device. This memory can later be accessed by the child /owner so that the character can appear to intelligently reminisce about a visit to the theme park once the child is back home. For example, "We had a lot of fun today at the Magic Kingdom. My favorite ride was Space Mountain. What was your favorite ride, Billy?" or weeks later and triggered by switches activated by an adult, "Remember when we went to Disney World? I loved the Haunted Mansion. Did that scare you?"

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Disney's expanded My Pal Mickey program was what the Imagineers hoped to do inside of many of the attractions. Effectively rewiring certain Audio Animatronic figures so that ...

... a character within a theme park ride (could) sense via reception of an IR or RF signal that (an interactive) plush character is nearby and (then) initiate a conversation with that character. For example, "There's Mickey. Hi, Mickey. Are you enjoying the ride?"

(And if that interactive) plush (then has its) owner's name in memory, (that) theme park character ... can (then) react personally with the child / owner. For example, "Hi, Billy. I see you brought Mickey with you. How do you like the ride?"

That would be pretty cool, don't you think ? To be floating through "Pirates of the Caribbean" and then have that new Jack Sparrow AA figure say your name and ask for your help in evading Barbossa.

 Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

But again because Disney set far too high a price for this hi-tech device, My Pal Mickey then didn't get the market penetration that it needed. Which is why the Imagineers have yet to bring any of these additional features online. Which (obviously) would then enhance the desirability of this interactive doll.

So what exactly is the problem here ? Why can't WDI ever market these new devices at a price point that most theme park guests can actually afford ? As one Imagineering insider explained it to me recently:

WDI spends years researching & developing these things. And they always make the mistake of trying to recover all of their R & D costs in the first year that these items go on sale. Which is why they price these things so damn high.

I mean, did you see that Mobile ESPN cell phone ? Disney was trying to get people to pay $199 for the phone itself and then upwards of $225 a month for premium content. They needed 500,000 people to subscribe in order to just break even on that project. After seven months of heavy-duty promotion across every one of ESPN's platforms, all they wound up with was just 30,000 subscribers.

Copyright 2007 ESPN / Verizon. All Rights Reserved

That mobile virtual network project was a complete disaster. Disney's going to lose $150 million on this deal. All because they didn't market ESPN's new cel phone service at a price point that would have really appealed to hardcore sports fans.

Which brings us back to this special "X-marks-the-spot" promotion that's running at both Disneyland & WDW's Magic Kingdom now through Labor Day ... Given that it seems like Disney is forever getting tagged with that "You make people pay far too much for emerging technology. Which is why none of your in-park interactive efforts have been huge successes to date" label, the Mouse is now trying something different. It's giving away some new technology. As in : for free.

Oh, sure. In order to get access to this cool free content (Like extra costumes and characters), you first have to have purchased a copy of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" Nintendo DS. Which currently retails for $29.95. And then you have to remember to bring both your DS player as well as your copy of the "At World's End" game with you when you go into the park. And then keep in mind that this free bonus content can only be downloaded if you're standing on or near one of the 10 "X-marks-the-spot" hotspots that are located inside of Disneyland and WDW's Magic Kingdom.

Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Wow. That's an awful lot of stuff to remember, don't you ? No wonder those folks who are hovering around these "X-marks-the-spot" hotspots and clutching their clipboards look so nervous. They know that Disney CEO Bob Iger (Who's a certified hi-tech gadget freak) really wants this project to succeed. For Bob has plans for the Disney theme parks that include all sorts of handheld devices. Which will then allow guests to capture cyber-spooks as they ride through the Haunted Mansion (So that Disney theme park visitors can then actually live the final line of that attraction as " ... a ghost will follow you home" and live on as an avatar in your computer). Or -- better yet -- pretend that they're Kim Possible and wander all around Epcot's World Showcase area searching for super-villains with the help of their trusty Kimmunicator.

But none of that is ever going to happen unless the public finally enthusiastically embraces one of these in-park interactive initiatives. So here's hoping that -- when it comes to the "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" Nintendo DS Download Program -- that "free" proves to be the right price.

Your thoughts ?

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  • Sounds good to me!

  • So in the future, the only way to enjoy the park will be to bring your cell phone, hair dryer, and a geiger counter with you. Here's the technology Disney Co needs to focus on: build rides and attractions that the whole family can experence together. If you want cutting edge technology, let's introduce the "prohibitively expensive" talking rubber head characters into the park that have been in the touring shows for the last few decades. That would be far more magical than watching a hand held computer screen light up.

  • My problem with Pal Mickey was that, in the words of "Meet The Robinsons", I'm just not sure how well that plan was well thought through.  (Master?)

    First, as Jim mentioned, the little bugger was overpriced. I'm not sure why they did away with the rental option, unless people weren't bringing 'em back or somebody just got greedy.

    Second, Mickey is the wrong size - too big to carry around on the clip, too small for you to want to allow your kid to want to carry around without potentially losing it and for that kid (or you) to give it a big hug.  

    Third, depening on the number of people around you, not loud enough to hear unless you have it right up against your ear or so loud it makes your cell phone ring seem easy to ignore by comparison (a volume control would have been nice, guys).

    Maybe the next time WDI wants to do an interactivity thing, they might want to consider selling a really-for-real version of the "Personal Disney Assistant" toy - a PDA that allows Disney to transmit messages like wait times or Disney trivia and games to, that allows you to check seating at a restaurant or make an ADR or even request a FASTPASS, that can have sound capability by attaching an earpiece to the device (the messages can be Mickey "calling" you to mention what's going on), and can vibrate or play the first few notes of Zip-A Dee-Doo-Dah" or whatever to notify you to check the PDA for updates.  {WDI, if you're interested, call me! :) }

    Okay, so it wouldn't be cute and cuddly like Pal Mickey, but it might be more useful...

  • I don't know.... seems to me that something like Nintendo DS is something you spend time doing when you can't make it to a Disney theme park. It’s kind of anti-climatic I think to go into a theme park to play around with a handheld video game.

    Just about EVERY other idea mentioned in this article is better than this.

    They need to focus on what the park has to offer....

    For instance..... Imagine the possibilities in bringing back something like say.... The Country Bear Playhouse.... with an interactive twist.  Or something like America Sings ... takes requests. Interactive TIKI room?  Hall of Presidents?

    As for the DS thing.  Send a big rig to malls arround the country or something.

    Why not build a Wacky Laundry mat in Toontown and invite people to bring their laundry? Color changing washers and dryers anyone?

    How about you bring your IPOD to the park... plug it into your ride seat .... and download a realtime recording of the ride soundtrack, mixed in with the sounds you make.

    I'm not for anything that mixes the mundane every day things of life with a day inside the magic place.

    I know... i'm weird.

  • I agree with curmudgeon. I don't know, I think Disney is just going about this the wrong way. I care more about attractions and shows than I do about Jack Sparrow being able to utter my name as I pass by. I think kids would feel the same way if they were given the choice. It sounds like a lot of work, and yes, it might slightly improve the experience (though talking back-and-forth Mickeys sounds a tad creepy, if not annoying), but not like rides and shows are able to.

  • This made me think of ET over at Universal and the fact that he does greet you by name at the end... which I've never been able to catch: it's too loud in there. Also, any non-standard (ie not in English) name will innevitable be mis-pronounced, losing a bit of magic there.

    I agree that spending more on the rides and park characters would be more magical than walking around with a Nintendo DS. Especially if I don't want to buy one of those things, have no need for them and would feel almost discriminated if I had to have one to experience the magic. It's expensive enough to get into the parks, do I now have to buy additional expensive technology to experience it more fully?

  • To me, visiting themeparks means leaving the everyday world outside and entering another realm. Taking my game computer with me interferes with the experience I hope to have. The magic lies in how different the places you can visit in the parks are from the outside world. Why bring this outside with you? Of course I would encourage venturing new technologies but they should be tested on a smaller scale. Technological progress for the individual can only enhance the experience when it fits seamlessly with the existing facilities, not when you have to think about it, how to use it, where to stand, what to bring with you. These things mean stress. Which is the last people want from a day in a magical world.

  • I realize this is not an "in-park" deal, but while on the subject of giving away technology for free, why on earth are they still making people pay $10 for a 24 hour period of internet in their hotel room? If you can go to a Motel 6 and get free wifi, but get charged for it at the Polynesian...something is wrong.

  • As far as Pal Mickey talking with AAs in rides- that's not fair for anyone else...we're all enjoying a ride, and then the AA starts saying "Hi Billy, how's your day?"...who's Billy? we'll say.  Why does he get special treatment.  I don't like that idea at all.  If the costumed characters that you can meet had that ability, then that'd be cool, since that's a 1-on-1 experience, anyway.  But, I'd hope that all the children in a family had a Pal Mickey for that to happen, since Billy would be getting special treatment, but his brothers & sisters wouldn't be.  Maybe it's just not a good idea after all.

    As a customer, I don't feel too bad about Disney losing so much money on these new technologies.  $199 for a cell phone, & up to $225 a month extra?  That's gross.  With a few failed attempts under their belt, Disney should learn not to price things so high.  

    There's such a limited market for the "X-Marks-the-Spot" promotion that I just can't see it doing well.  Sure, there are a lot of POTC fans, but how many of them have a Nintendo DS, and how many of them will bring their DS with them to DL or WDW?  Or what about little girls with Nintendo DS systems who are into Princess and not Pirates.  Maybe Disney should cater to them as well...

    I agree with curmudgeon on the focusing on attractions idea.  And, I think you're idea is great, pschnebs.  It'd probably be overpriced, too, but great idea!

    RHeath2, Disney charges $10 for a 24 hour period of internet in their hotel rooms since they can.  People pay for it.  They love their money.  They'll continue to charge unless the number of people willing to pay greatly reduces.  Or else they'll not care about that and enjoy the $10 from those who would be still willing to pay.

  • It's not the price that turned me off of these items ... I actually bought a Pal Mickey and I thought it ended up being the most ANNOYING thing I ever owned! Have you ever tried to listen to the thing in a noisy theme park??? You've got to hold it up to your ear like a cell phone ... and then it vibrates every three seconds. You ended up being a slave to your stupid Pal Mickey instead of just enjoying the parks.

    I'm with almost everyone else who responded here ... I don't think price is the issue. I think Disney is badly misreading their audience. I'm not interested in any of this garbage. Build some solid new attractions ... that's what I want.

  • The DS and iPod show up on property because whether a kid flies or gets driven to a park, they're probably using those devices on the way. Now I can't speak as to why these things wouldn't stay in the car or hotel room but I'm not a parent. The POTC DS thing does remind me of something Nintendo's done for years with Pokemon- having special characters available for one's Gameboy during Mall Tours and their NYC store.

    As for interactivity, the first couple generations of any new technology are going to have bugs and heavier price tags that only get early adopters who care most about the latest. I think as the technology meets demand and prices drop, they might end up outfitting more and more plush this way. Generation-wise, I think they probably should have had some NBXmas options.

    And what's with the past tense? Have they stopped selling MPM? I was kind of hoping to pick one up when I go this summer.

  • "If you want cutting edge technology, let's introduce the "prohibitively expensive" talking rubber head characters into the park that have been in the touring shows for the last few decades."

    Those have now shown up on the castle stage at WDW. It freaked out my 8 year old son to see their mouths move, especially after several years of us parental units explaining to him that Mickey doesn't talk because if he did, he'd lose his voice very quickly, with all the kids he'd need to talk to.

    I was really surprised to see these on stage, but my guess is that they'll be rolling them out more and more (I imagine that this is also the Iger techno-geek coming into play).

  • Harry Potter is going to Universal, Universal press release confirms it. Kudos to Jim for backtracking on his original story and getting the scoop. Universal just became much for formidable in Orlando again.

  • for me - Iger's vision is similar (to a fault) of other media and Internet executives who's personal and work lives revolve around technology - and they assume that the general public is on the same page. WOuld the common Disney park visitor REALLY have so much connectivity on their person?  Maybe a nintendo DS but it's not like they are connected 7x24 like most execs. It's too soon to do this and expect a wide acceptance and usage. I am glad they are trying something - but it's a 5 year journey to get people (the entire guest community) used to that..

  • This is a minor point compared to some of the things that have already been said that I agree with, but we parents are often cautioned not to put a child's name on his/her clothes so that unscrupulous people will not be able to address the child by name and gain his/her trust.  But Disney would encourage us to buy a toy and put the child's name in so that AA figures know the child's name!!??  Presumably that information would be available to anyone who knew the right frequency to interpret.  I personally do not think there are loads of molestors who would try to exploit this technology.  I just think it is ridiculous that Disney would develop a product that depends on violating standard warnings given to parents.  It's another way in which this whole line of thinking is very out of touch with what guests want and need.

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