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You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race

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When my wife and I went backpacking around Europe 10 years ago, we made a vow to each other. After seeing the stunningly blue waters off Greece, the paragliders sailing through the Austrian Alps, the idyllic countryside of Slovenia, we said, “Never will we take our children to Disney World. Why would you need something so manufactured when you have the real world?”

It’s 10 years later. And I left for Disney World on Thursday. The thing I didn’t understand, which, now that I have three boys, I know in my bones is this: You can’t see Buzz Lightyear while backpacking.

Oh well, Walt! You win.

But as a data scientist at a tech company, I have to admit, I’m geeking out over the technology. Disney World is like a petri dish for advanced analytic techniques because the hotels and parks are all tied together in one large, heavily controlled environment. If you ever wanted to star in The Truman Show, a trip to Disney is the next best thing — it feels like a centrally planned North Korea only with more fun, less torture and the same amount of artifice.

From the mundane to the magical, the fact is there’s probably an engineer behind the scenes at Disney who has thought through it. Disney has industrial engineers that work on everything from optimal food-and-beverage pricing and laundry facility optimization, to attraction performance and wait-time minimization (the vaunted FASTPASS system).

MagicBands: like magic beans, except they grow data

But those tried-and-true efforts at optimization were just the appetizer. Earlier this week, there was a knock on my door and there on my doorstep sat a little bit of hand-delivered magic. I opened the package with the sweaty palms of anticipation because, to me, this package represented a billion-dollar investment by Disney in big data analytics.

That investment is called MagicBands. They’re a new technology for the park, and the program officially opened up about a month ago. Disney has thought of everything.

The soft matte finish ...
The soft matte finish … Source: John Foreman

The box in which the bands arrived rivaled Apple in its Incredibles-themed design. Each magic band was tucked in a slot, standing up straight, ready to be put on by the vacationer like some fabled amulet. Each rubber wristband was smartly colored with a soft-touch matte.

But under all that visual appeal, beneath the surface of the band, was the reason for Disney’s huge investment: a sophisticated RFID tag. These bands, which are individually coded to each visitor, allow Disney to track individuals wherever they go in the parks and resorts with long-range RFID readers. You check into FASTPASS rides with your band, you purchase food by swiping your band and you use it as a key to your hotel room.

The bands are even uniquely colored and monogrammed with your family members’ names so that they won’t get switched up. Why? Because they don’t want their database to get confused and think that you, a 45-year-old man, rode the teacups instead of your little son Timmy. This is one of the first examples I’ve seen of physical design (e.g., monogramming and coloring) for the sake of digital data purity.

... the strict instructions about who can wear it.
… the strict instructions about who can wear it. Source: John Foreman

If ever there was a testimony to the importance big data has achieved in business it’s this: We will now shape our physical world to create better streams of digital information.

Mickey thinks you need some Buzz Lightyear time

Stop a moment and dream of the MagicBand possibilities.

The pitch that Disney is making is personalization. For each band, for example, Disney asks for the name and birthday of the person who’ll be wearing it. So if your kid is having a birthday in the park and there’s a character wandering nearby, that character can be notified to sneak up on your kid and creepily wish them a happy birthday individually.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper.

What does Disney get out of the deal? In short, it tracks everything you do, everything you buy, everything you eat, everything you ride, everywhere you go in the park. If the goal is to keep you in the park longer so you’ll spend more money, it can build AI models on itineraries, show schedules, line length, weather, etc., to figure out what influences stay length and cash expenditure. Perhaps there are a few levers they can pull to get money out of you.

Some 33-year-olds like the carousel.
Some 33-year-olds like the carousel at Disney’s California Adventure. Source: Derrick Harris

Or perhaps its models know that your family is staying in a high-dollar luxury Disney resort and that this morning you forked over lots of money at the Cinderella character breakfast. But right now your high-dollar family is stuck in a long line at an attraction. If your family gets too tuckered out or frustrated, you might be inclined to call it a day.

So, a model marks you as a candidate for “encouragement.” Within the park, a character is notified to make its way over to your children and entertain them until they can get on the ride. This increases enjoyment, decreases perceived exhaustion, and hopefully keeps you around for more meals, more trinkets and more arcade games.

The research questions that might be answered with this type of tracking data are endless:

  • What menu items served at breakfast at the resort hotel restaurants will result in the longest stay at the park?
  • Do we detect an influx of park-goers into the bathrooms for long stays on the toilet? Perhaps they all ate at the same place, and we can cut off a foodborne illness problem before it gets worse.
  • Is there a roller coaster that’s correlated with early park departure or a high incidence of bathroom visits? That means less money in the park’s pockets. How might that coaster be altered?
  • Is there a particular ride and food fingerprint for the type of park visitor that’s likely to buy in-park high-dollar merchandise? If so, can we actively get vendors in front of this attendee’s eye by moving hawkers to them at just the right time?

The allusion of freedom and agency still exist within the park, but with these bands, you are giving up much of your privacy and freedom to experience something “untailored” in exchange for a better time. Even if that better time is achieved by spending more money.

The future of big data is in meat space

“Meat space” (coined by William Gibson in Neuromancer) is a term for the physical world where our bodies (meat) move around and do meat-like things (for example, eat, jog or go clubbin’). The interesting thing about the term is it’s a play on “cyber space” — meat space is an internet-first way of viewing the world.

And that internet-first way of seeing the world is what’s driving these changes at Disney, casinos, insurance companies, etc. We’ve been “cookie-ing” people online and tracking their browsing habits for years, and in that contained environment, businesses have seen the value of acting on personal transactional data. But now businesses are taking this approach and applying it to meat space.

Why? Because cyber space is small, it starts and stops at internet-connected devices. Think of the transactions and interactions that are carried out each day in meat space. Think of the money spent in meat space (on your caramel macchiato, for instance).

While not everyone is online all day long, we’re all implicitly offline. Wouldn’t it be great it we could gather meat space data and use that to tailor the offline experience much like companies now tailor your online experience? “Personalizing your meat space experience” is a gross way of saying “pretty much control your life.”

Which is frightening. But that’s exactly what companies want to do.

Source: Flickr / joelogon
Source: Flickr / joelogon

It’s not new. It’s one of the fundamental goals of marketing. For example, a discount pricing model implemented on airline seats wants to control your booking decisions by adjusting prices. The control is targeted and specific, so you feel pretty good about it.

We now know this is Google’s end game. Self-driving cars, Google Glass and the purchase of Nest — Google is dying to get out of your computer and all up in your life. With Nest, Google won’t just know how you like your air to feel. It’ll know when you’re at work and when you’re at home. It gets pieces in a data puzzle that is your entire observable life.

Loyalty cards (those things you swipe at the grocery store) were the first salvos into this real-world data gathering. Now, department stores are doing a lo-fi version of MagicBands by tracking the hardware ID on your cell phone’s Wi-Fi card as you wander the store.

Hey, look! That’s the same Wi-Fi ID as the person who bought a necklace from us last week. Maybe a sales associate should propose a pair of earrings to them?

This is where data science is headed, and it’s part of the reason why there aren’t enough qualified data analysts to meet demand. The reach of the discipline is moving out of the browser and into every business that can gather data on your life.

But I’d like to keep my meat private, thanks.

At this point, I’m sure a lot of you are freaked out by the privacy implications of where all this is headed. Indeed, one journalist just compared what Disney is doing to the recent disclosures about the NSA’s own tracking programs. But at the end of that article there’s a big glaring difference between the NSA and Disney: “Disney fanatics, for their part, can’t wait to get their hands on the [MagicBands].”

We want MagicBands!

We don’t want the NSA tracking us, because we get nothing in return. It tries to sell us on “terrorism prevention,” but most people don’t experience that benefit in a visceral way. But this is not to say Americans won’t give up privacy for anything.

On the contrary, Americans are very, very cheap dates. For just a modicum of convenience, entertainment and comfort, I’m happy to give you a list of everyone I call and everywhere I go. That’s more than I’m sure the NSA has on me. And despite your privacy concerns, most of you are exactly the same way.

Don’t believe me? I recently installed a flashlight app on my phone. In exchange for this app that does no more than turn on my phone’s camera flash, I give it my geolocation all day long. Who owns this app? No idea. Probably some Ukranians. What I do know is that this app is worth like $5 to me, and yet that was enough to give these strangers all my info.


Same with Angry Birds (tracks location). Same with LinkedIn (can read AND WRITE my phone call data, can read my “calendar events plus confidential information”, etc.). Same with the freaking Shazam app that let’s me identify that song playing in the mall. Have you heard of Stylitics? You get your wardrobe mirrored back at you in a virtual closet –whatever that is — and Stylitics gets to sell your clothing data to retailers to better understand where else you shop beside their stores.

We’re all wringing our hands over the NSA, and meanwhile we’re handing our data as fast as we can to other entities for next to nothing. If the NSA were smart, it would buy Candy Crush Saga, change the permissions, and be done with it.

If we’re honest, we give privacy lip service, but we vote with our keypresses and our dollars, and the bands we strap to our wrists.

Expect your future meat space world to feel very much like your cyber space one. The next time your RFID tag lets Mickey know you’ve got diarrhea, maybe the stall door can make suggestions to you: “Customers who got funnel cake diarrhea also bought Maalox.”

John Foreman is chief data scientist at MailChimp.

66 Responses to “You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race”

  1. Cheyenne Rose

    I am going to disney in May and am kind of excited to try out the magic bands.I do wish they came in more then just basic colors.They could have added pictures or something that said disney on the bands.I ordered the orange one but saw pictures of ones that had hearts and princesses type things that were never released .I hope in the future they will be more then a basic colors.

  2. I was at Disney World last month & saw people wearing these. Another aspect of it is that the souvenir shops in the park sell MagicBand “gear” – trinkets & charms to attach to your band, band covers etc etc. Another cute marketing ploy to make the bands an attractive/desirable thing and get people to spend more money on them. Who’s going to refuse their kid a MagicBand if they want to hang a Buzz Lightyear charm from it?

    Really interesting article, thank you!

  3. Paul Robinson

    Someone once told me that one way to get free changes to your plane ticket was to pay cash for it, because your average droid will not notice they do not have a card on file and will fail to demand the change fee. Another possibility is to tie this to a prepaid reloadable debit Visa or Mastercard card like GreenDot issues, you can buy them for cash at Dollar Tree for $1 for a load of up to $75, and $1 for each additional $75. You set them up online and a week later, you get an embossed card with your name on it in the mail. (If you’re going to load more than $400 then buy them from a regular retailer because they will charge the full $4.95 for higher amounts.) Since they can’t get any more money out of you they will not, under any circumstances, allow you to run an overdraft. So they do not have access to your credit card or its limit and you can prevent them from charging extra. They’re very useful for paying for purchases from on-line merchants that try to sneak in hidden or not clearly publicized subscription systems, the subscription option won’t work when you have less money available. So then you can say, “If I have $20 on this reloadable card, and the charge is supposed to be $10 plus $8 shipping, why won’t it clear? Oh, they’re adding a $39.95 monthly subscription to something else UNLESS YOU CANCEL.” With a locked card this can’t happen and you can’t get cheated.

  4. I actually cancelled the install of the flashlight app because I didn’t think the exchange was worth it. I don’t play facebook games and there are very, very few things I’ll agree to give open access to. (Some I want badly enough to go ahead and let them have it.)

  5. Phil from southern California

    This destroys completely, my inclination to take my kids to Disney resorts. I’m quite serious. We will never again set foot in any of them. The original Disneyland was a wonderful thing to me in my childhood. And I’d have liked to have had my kids experience the same magical feelings. But now that they’re moving in this direction, no way.

  6. David White

    They were actually still trialing these when I was at the Magic Kingdom last November for a conference. When the receptionist handed over the box with the magic band in, I thought I was going to get something fun. Ended up with a tagging device that looked like I was on parole! I refused to wear it….

  7. John Hayes

    On my last trip in December, I noticed RFID readers that had been retrofitted onto Disney transportation buses. Made me wonder just how many readers I didn’t spot during that trip.

  8. Anyone know what happens to the MBs when your trip is over? Do you get to keep them as a souvenir? Are they destroyed? Are they dismantled and the components recycled in an environmentally responsible way?

    Or are the internals rewrapped and given to the next lucky punter?

    If the latter, how long before we get the first cases of mistaken identity?

    • Lisa Watson

      They are yours to keep and may be reused in the future, even if you do not stay in a WDW resort. The battery life is between 1 and 2 years depending on how often they are used.

  9. Ian Beyer

    Would be really cool to find out what technology platforms they’re using on the backend for this. Ruckus Wireless, for example, has the ability within its access points to track AeroScout RFID tags. This allows you to deploy a tracking infrastructure along with your wi-fi, and simplify your system deployment (you only need one device, rather than having to deploy an AP as well as an RFID receiver). This is being used primarily in hospitals to track patient and employee flow, but there are lots of other uses.

  10. The big difference is that you know what privacy you are giving up, and you can take off the Disney wristband once you leave the Disney properties. Disney also does not have the power to deprive you of life or liberty (that is, they aren’t dispatching drones to bomb random wedding parties or throwing black kids for drug crimes that white kids normally don’t need to worry about, because of the discretion of law enforcement officials.)

    I suspect people who are freaked out about the NSA spying disclosures would be less so if there was a clear statement that information gathered in this way would not be used in criminal prosecutions since it was gathered without a specific search warrant, and indeed, would not be disclosed publically, and would only be used for foreign national security investigations purposes. I’d also note that while all of the NSA disclosures have been scary, it’s what the FBI can do with malware and other computer hacking which should be much more worrying.

  11. roderickm

    Went to Disney a month ago and found the Magic Band to be very convenient — it’s a door key, food voucher, fastpass, chargecard, parking gate opener, and park ticket.

    However, I’m surprised that the article didn’t mention that the Disney parks attempt to scan fingerprints upon entry, which is Not Cool in my book. I opted out for my family and endured a tiny inquisition upon each entry. We’re asked to display photo ID and explain which park(s) we attended on which days, apparently to prove that we’re the same people using the nontransferable Magic Bands. I got a little loud once and embarrassed my wife, but if just a fraction more customers opposed the fingerprint collection, they’re stop that silliness.

    When data collection practices serve the customer, I’m happy to adopt. But when they invade my privacy for corporate policy enforcement, I’m out.