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What role did Great Wolf Lodge play in the development of MagicBands for Walt Disney World?

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What role did Great Wolf Lodge play in the development of MagicBands for Walt Disney World?

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Pauline S. dropped me a note the other day to ask:

I've read lots of stories lately about all the testing that's being done at Disney World for MagicBands. And while there's been a lot written online about how everyone's WDW vacation experience will supposedly be changed forever once the entire resort is wired into this system, I have yet to hear anything about where the idea behind MagicBands actually came from. Do you know why Disney decided to implement this system in Orlando?

Well, Paulina, it depends on which story you believe.

While Nancy and I were down in Virginia this past weekend, we made a quick
stop at the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg. Photo by Nancy Stadler

There's a tale that I've heard a couple of times from people who are supposedly in the know when it comes to Disney World's inner workings. And the story that they tell suggests that MagicBands' origin can actually be traced back to what a WDW Resort manager observed one day back in the mid-2000s.

This manager was reportedly making the rounds at his resort, when -- as he came around a corner -- he spies a female Guest further on down the corridor lugging this enormous suitcase while she totes a toddler on one hip. Based on the paperwork this woman still  had in her free hand, it appeared that this Guest has just checked in at that resort.

Anyway ... This woman stops in front of a specific hotel room and then began digging through her purse. So it's pretty obvious that she's now looking for the key card to her hotel room.  Of course, in order to be able to dig through that purse, this female Guest now has to let go of her enormous suitcase. Which then threatens to topple over right there in the hallway. And as this woman suddenly lunges to prevent that suitcase from falling over, her toddler then falls backwards in the opposite direction and then bangs his head against that hotel room door. And as this mother quickly turned to try and comfort her now-crying child,  the contents of her purse spills out all over the carpet in that corridor as this poor woman's suitcase then topples over and basically blocks that hotel hallway.

The elaborate animatronics set-up at the

center of Great Wolf Lodge's lobby.
Photo by Nancy Stadler

It was at this point that the WDW Resort manager went rushing up the hallway and offered to help this poor Guest deal with her spilled purse, oversized luggage & now-wailing child.  It took another minute or so of digging around in her purse before the woman could finally find that key card and then get her purse, enormous suitcase & still-crying child out of the hotel corridor and into their room.

But as that WDW Resort manager headed back to the Front Desk, he couldn't help but think about what he'd just witnessed. How that whole fumbling-to-find-your-key-card experience had just seemed like a pretty miserable way to begin a Walt Disney World vacation. More to the point, that manager wondered how many other WDW Guests had had the exact same experience after they arrived at their resort, struggling with their kids & luggage outside of their hotel room. He then wondered if there was some sort of hands-free way that WDW Guests could open up the doors to their on-property hotel rooms without first fishing around in a wallet or a purse.

That's a pretty good story, don't you think? One that suggests that the whole MagicBands initiative started out as a pretty selfless project. A moment when the Mouse put the needs of WDW Guests ahead of those of the Disney corporation.

The wave pool at Great Wolf Lodge's indoor waterpark. Photo by Nancy Stadler

Mind you, there's another origin story associated with MagicBands. One that suggests that this initiative wasn't entirely selfless. But -- rather -- that Disney "borrowed" this RFID-based idea from a business that the Company almost went into.

"Which business?," you ask. The one that Great Wolf Resorts started back in 1997, where you basically wrap a Disney-style themed hotel around an indoor waterpark.

As the story goes, Jack and Andrew "Turk" Waterman, (i.e., the original owners of Noah's Ark waterpark up in the Wisconsin Dells) had been vacationing at Walt Disney World in 1995. Which was right after Disney's Wilderness Lodge & Blizzard Beach had opened on property. And Jack & Andrew supposedly came back from Central Florida convinced that a combination of these two WDW additions would be a hit with the general public.

Kids get drenched in front of Great Wolf Lodge's
four story-tall water play structure.
Photo by Jim Hill

In May of 1997, the first Great Wolf Lodge (which -- for a time -- was known as the Black Wolf Lodge) opened and immediately proved to be a success. So much so that the company & its core concept was purchased by the Great Lakes Companies, Inc. in 1999. Who -- with the help of Ripley Entertainment, Inc. -- turned this single family-friendly, highly-themed-hotel-wrapped-around-an-indoor-waterpark into a viable franchise of 11 different Great Wolf Resorts around the country.

Which does not go unnoticed by The Walt Disney Company. Given that its own attempts at location-based-entertainments -- Club Disney and DisneyQuest, which the Company had hoped could operate as stand-alone business units outside of Orlando & Anaheim -- had crashed & burned back in 1999 & 2001 respectively (To be fair here, the one remaining DisneyQuest -- which is located on the West Side of WDW's Downtown Disney -- was transferred from Disney Regional Entertainment to Disney Parks & Resorts in the mid-2000s. Which now oversees day-to-day operations of this indoor theme park).

And to have someone else succeeding at location-based-entertainments -- especially a location-based-entertainment that clearly drew its inspiration from two Disney-owned properties -- really stuck in Mickey's craw. Which is why -- for a time -- the Mouse seriously looked into the idea of building its own lodges around the country (Check out these pieces of concept art for Disney's White Mountains Lodge ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... which -- if all had gone according to plan -- would have been built in the northern part of New Hampshire).

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In the end, given that Hong Kong Disneyland had gotten off to a somewhat rocky start in September of 2005 and Disney California Adventure was still under-performing a full five years after the Disneyland Resort's second gate had first opened to the public, Disney's Board of Directors opted not to go into the lodge business (Though -- that said -- in 2007, the Company did announce that it was purchasing 21 acres of oceanfront property on Hawaii's island of Oahu. Where it then planned on building a resort which would then wrap itself around a very elaborate lazy river, pool & water play complex. So perhaps all of the research that Disney did on Great Wolf Resort's day-to-day operations was put to use after all).

And speaking of research ... One of the things that Disney reps noticed -- as they made discreet, on-site visits to observe how Great Wolf conducted its business -- was how much the Guests at these resorts seemed to be enjoying using RFID technology.  Mind you, Great Wolf first began using wristbands in 2006 because ... Well, what with the amount of time that Guests were spending at these resort's indoor water parks, it just didn't make sense to have these people bring their wallets & purses along so that they'd have access to cash, credit cards and room keys. Which is why Great Wolf began issuing these waterpark-friendly wristbands to each Guest at check-in, so that -- with a flick of the wrist -- these people could do everything from open their hotel room door to purchasing spa treatments at these resorts' on-site Aveda Salons and Spas.

Mind you, Great Wolf instituted the use of RFID technology at its resorts more out of necessity than anything else. Given the amount of time that Great Wolf guests typically spent in the pool, it only made sense for these resorts to come up with some sort of water-proof, wallet-free system that would then still allow these people to make purchases at all of these resorts' retail shops, bars and restaurants.

Photo by Jim Hill

Whereas Disney ... They opted to invest in RFID technology NOT because people would be spending all that much time in the pool while they were vacationing at Walt Disney World. But -- rather -- because the Company just loved the idea of people who were staying on property being able to purchase things with just a simple flick of the wrist. Which (it was hoped) would lead to WDW Guests making a lot more impulse purchases.

So -- if you believe that version of the MagicBands origin story -- Disney's decision to install this RFID wristband system all over WDW property was anything but selfless. In truth, it was all about giving visitors to the Walt Disney World Resort an even faster way to spend money. So you no longer have to bother to dig out your wallet if you want that $9.49 jumbo turkey leg. With a simple flick of the wrist, it's all yours.

So what do you folks think? Did Disney put MagicBands into development because it wanted to make it that much easier for over-burdened parents to get into their WDW hotel rooms? Or was it because the Company wanted to make it possible for Central Florida tourists to spend their vacation money that much quicker while they were on property? Or was it perhaps some sort of combo of these two origin stories?

The Grand Lobby  is festooned with holiday decorations as Great Wolf Lodge gets
ready for Snowland, which runs from December 3rd - 25th. Photo by Nancy Stadler

So what's your take on this tale?

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  • Jim - fascinating article.  I was deeply involved for a year in Disney's regional resort marketing plans (2008), a story for another day.  You have the top line correct, but details were pretty interesting.

  • The GWL story is by far the most credible of the various 'origin' stories we have heard to date. It definitely has the smack of authenticity. Great reporting.

  • You should do another story on how many Disney songs were ripped off for the Great Wolfe Lodge tower show ;)

  • I was an insider at Great Wolf during this era.  We knew that Disney folks were sneaking around, taking notes and photos, and that they were hot on RFID.  Discrete, they were NOT.  We actually hoped they might be interested in buying out our company, so we turned a blind eye...  It is not a coincidence that the MagicBands concept emerged a couple years later.

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