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Data-Mining in Disney’s Parks Is Both Profitable and Uncontroversial

2019/7/29 10:34:24
With the recent opening of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park at California’s Disneyland, the company continues to mine its portfolio of franchises and boost its $20 billion resorts business. Last week, Disney announced the opening of another Star Wars extension at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, a follow up to its massive Avatar annex. And next on the schedule is a slate of Marvel comics-themed attractions from Hong Kong to Paris.
To keep the parks running with extreme efficiency and learn ever-more about guests, Disney monitors usage of its smartphone apps and electronic wrist-worn MagicBand. The resulting data could include the rides families frequent, the characters kids and parents are most drawn to and the television and film merchandise into which their dollars are funneled.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Just a decade ago, Disney relied on paper tickets and old-school turnstiles, and, for the most part, didn’t know that much more about resort customers than those who came to the park’s opening 64 years ago this week. Finally recognizing the growth of social media and mobile phones in the late aughts, the company embarked on a $1 billion digital transformation of Disney World with the MagicBand, a gizmo that can hold your place in line, make payments and even unlock a hotel room door.
This journey has been fraught at times—and not just because Disney overspent on a wearable device that was quickly displaced by phones. In 2013, in the early days of the MagicBand, Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger was at loggerheads with Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts—the privacy advocate who recently introduced an internet bill of rights—over how the system would monitor children’s whereabouts and interests within Disney World.
Despite these familial concerns, Disney’s data mining never faced the sort of scrutiny that Silicon Valley has. The reason is fairly simple: Disney World is the real-world manifestation of a walled garden, a family-friendly environment without a perceived risk of children being exposed to inappropriate content like on YouTube or Twitch.
Unfettered access to customer data has helped Disney streamline its park logistics. The company has suggested the MagicBand enabled it to slash turnstile transaction times by 30% while increasing park capacity. At Disneyland, a new virtual reservation system, the first in the park’s history, has prevented overcrowding and reduced wait times. Even in the early weeks of its highly anticipated Star Wars-themed land, the line for the signature attraction, the Millennium Falcon ride, was a mere 25 minutes. Longer term, Disney’s “Imagineers” have suggested they want to leverage such guest data for more personalization and crowd-flow management.
At a higher level, this surveillance gives Disney insight into the value of its creative capital. The enthusiasm of patrons for certain physical attractions can signal which movie franchises are rising or falling in popularity. That could inform whether the Avengers can sustain more sequels, help promote the upcoming Disney+ streaming service or is in need of a refresh.
Whereas data-mining efforts have harmed the reputations of tech companies, Disney’s parks division is booming, with operating profit up 18% last year, to $4.5 billion. Perhaps this explains why Disney is reportedly investing more into its theme parks than it spent to acquire Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, combined.

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