Cutting edge technology behind latest innovations at Florida's Disney World

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WALT DISNEY WORLD, Fla. — “Magic” is a word that Disney throws around with gleeful abandon.

From their animated films to their theme parks, everything is magical, sprinkled with fairy dust and powered by the dreams of bright-eyed children. It’s cute.

But the latest innovation at Walt Disney World in Florida has nothing to do with magic, even though the word is right there in the name of the thing. Instead, this is cutting-edge technology, a behind-the-scenes revamp that’s making Walt Disney World astonishingly cyber-savvy.

And in a way, it’s almost as impressive as actual magic.

For the past few months, Walt Disney World has been rolling out MyMagic+, a catch-all term that covers the new My Disney Experience website and mobile app, the upgraded FastPass+ ride reservation system and the MagicBand, an all-in-one park pass, credit card and resort room key in the form of a chip-embedded wristband.

While Disney downplays the technology driving these systems – it’s all about the visitor experience, you see, and the man behind the curtain isn’t important — they’ve managed to streamline everything from booking a vacation online to figuring out the best time to ride Splash Mountain.

On a recent trip to Walt Disney World — I’m both a Disney parks fan and an unabashed tech nerd — I had a chance to see how all these parts connect.

It begins with the My Disney Experience website and its companion mobile app, available for Apple devices, Android phones and tablets. From here, visitors can make reservations, plan out what they want to see and even customize their MagicBand colour in advance.

The MagicBand itself is a rubbery wristband embedded with a pair of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, acting as both your park admission ticket and your FastPass. It also unlocks the door of your Disney hotel room and can be used to make purchases at most park stores and restaurants.

Link all these things together, and some pretty magi… err, impressive stuff happens. For instance, you can book FastPasses through the app – up to three at once, a welcome change from the previous one-at-a-time rule – then show up at the appointed time, touch your MagicBand to the Mickey-adorned electronic readers at the entrance to each attraction, and breeze on into the express line.

In addition to tons of information on attractions, shows, restaurants and the like, the My Disney Experience app also functions as an interactive park map that pinpoints your exact location and shows the current wait times at every attraction. Combined with the free and fast wi-fi available throughout all four theme parks and the resort hotels, it’s a truly connected experience.

It’s all quite slick, but it does raise some concerns. The second chip in the MagicBand works with longer-range sensors in the parks that let Disney know where people are congregating, valuable data that can help them place new attractions, food carts and the like. But Disney insists guests are never being tracked.

“Privacy was very important for us early on,” Jim McPhee, senior vice president of Walt Disney World Parks, told us. “If we put that at risk, we put more than just our MagicBands at risk.”

McPhee said the MagicBands don’t store personal information, but instead connect to an encrypted database. When used for purchases, a separate PIN must be entered, ensuring a lost wristband doesn’t mean rogue charges to your bill. And park guests can opt out of using MagicBands entirely, relying instead on traditional tickets.

It’s a very cool step in making a Walt Disney World visit easier, smoother and more fun. And it won’t stop at the Florida parks – expect MyMagic+ to eventually extend to Disneyland in California and the overseas parks in Europe and Asia.

As science fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Nobody knows that better than Disney.

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