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Here’s what happens when a data scientist goes to Disney World

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A couple weeks ago, Mailchimp chief data scientist John Foreman wrote a guest post for Gigaom before leaving on a family trip to Disney World. He described the Magic Bands that arrived in the mail for his family and the possibilities that arise when we let companies — ranging from mega corporations like Disney(s dis) to obscure app vendors — track our locations in the physical world. This week, Foreman came on the Structure Show podcast to talk about whether the trip lived up to his analytic expectations and if it changed his mind about privacy.

Here are some of the highlights from that interview, but if you’re interested in privacy and the data science behind it — or just funny stories from Disney World — you’ll want to hear the whole thing.

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Magic Bands: For the micromanager in all of us

“You become a slave to your app. So instead of waiting in horrible lines, you’re rearranging your whole schedule,” Foreman said, describing the process of using Disney’s Magic Band app to plan your time at the park. “If you enjoy filing taxes or doing paperwork, then Disney is for you, because you spend your whole time like in a calendar app managing your schedule.”

Personalization via animatronic mouse head

“My kids rode Pirates of the Caribbean like seven times … So we got in line the third day to see Mickey … And you go in the room with Mickey and it’s an actor in a suit, but then Mickey has an animatronic head, so Mickey’s mouth moves and the audio that’s coming out is not from the actor. … Based on the kids in line, whenever a kid would walk up to Mickey, Mickey would say something contextually appropriate for that kid,” Foreman explained.

He continued: “When my two kids walked up, he immediately started talking about pirates. … Why? Probably because they can see that come up — like these people that you’re about to take the photo with, they freaking love Pirates. … That’s like an example of this personalized experience that Disney has been promising of, ‘Hey, we’re gonna track you, but we’re gonna track you so we can give you a personalized experience.’ They are able to deliver on what they’re selling.”

John Foreman at MailChimp HQ. Source: Derrick Harris
John Foreman at MailChimp HQ. Source: Derrick Harris

Can an antenna keep Busch Gardens in its place?

One thing Foreman explained in his post was the fact that Magic Bands contain a long-range antenna as well as a short-range RFID chip. Because they’re users’ room keys, meal tickets, credit cards and more while in the park — and they’re personalized — losing them is a bad idea. So it’s best to keep them on; good thing they’re comfortable and attractive, too.

“I kept wondering about not taking it off, because one of the stated purposes of the band is trying to get people to spend more time at Disney while they’re on their Disney vacation, as opposed to visiting rival parks like Universal Studios or Busch gardens or any of these things,” Foreman theorized during the podcast. “… What’s to stop Disney from somehow … procuring various real estate along the routes to these other parks or around these parks … potentially tracking my location as I visit rival parks to understand, ‘Hey, here’s not only how John spends his time at Disney. When he’s not at Disney, here’s where he goes, such that we can understand what the competing interests are and then understand how we might better keep him in the park on those days where he went and rode those other rides.'”

Foreman's Magic Band
Foreman’s Magic Band

Of course tracking is bad. Except when Disney’s doing it

“One of my friends read the [Gigaom] article and she commented, ‘Oh, man, this is so creepy. I wanna give up all my electronics at this point. Except for my iPhone, because I have to have that.’ … I think there’s a sense of we want to have our cake and eat it too, and Disney has really cracked the code on how this works,” Foreman said. “… You don’t have to do the [Magic] bands. You could just enter with a normal ticket. But I looked around, and everyone I saw was using this stuff, and they tell you right up front they’re tracking you. It’s just because everyone knows, ‘This is gonna be awesome.’ And I think people also know, OK, the tracking potentially sort of starts and stops at the parks.”

Later, Foreman noted, “I think people have a lot of goodwill toward Disney from all these great childhood memories, so they’re willing to cut them a lot of slack. They’re certainly not the NSA.”

Foreman (center) at Structure Europe 2013.
Foreman (center) at Structure Europe 2013.

So, tracking consumers is OK? Or it isn’t?

The interview wasn’t just about Disney, though, because what it’s doing with Magic Bands extends into other parts of our consumers live, too. Most notably, many of our favorite smartphone apps collect lots of data about what we do and where we go.

“It’s one of those things that’s both exciting and nauseating simultaneously. No one is stopping using their smartphones. We all continue to install these apps … I’m willing to make that tradeoff, and I think a lot of people are willing to make that tradeoff,” Foreman said. “So I guess the scary part then is like, are we really OK with it, or are we … not good as humans at judging really what we’re giving up yet?

structuredata2014_300x200_editpost2“What we are really good at is understanding stories. So what might happen is we get one or two really bad examples of where this tradeoff has gone awry and where people’s data has been collected and used for evil. And if that happens enough, then I think we’ll actually begin to understand this tradeoff a lot more.”

5 Responses to “Here’s what happens when a data scientist goes to Disney World”

  1. Jim Brashear

    To make an in-park food or merchandise purchase, Disney guests press the Magic Band to a POS device and enter a 4-digit PIN. An IBM employee visiting Walt Disney World when I was there last week cited statistics on purchasing behavior of guests wearing Magic Bands. He said that band-wearing guests spent a lot more (something like 70% more) than other guests. He attributed that to the convenience factor of the band and because guests don’t focus as much on the cost as they might with a cash or credit card purchase. I suspect it’s because the bands are principally issued to guests staying in Disney hotels, who are more likely to eat all their meals on Disney property, etc. Also, it’s easier to aggregate purchases with the Magic Bands, because everyone on the same room account is tracked. Without the bands, it’s much harder to associate cash and credit purchases to a room party.

    The point when I felt particularly creeped-out by Magic Band tracking was when I had to use the band to enter a restroom. That seemed like TMI to share. Photo:

  2. Interesting post indeed. I think that everybody is ultimately interested in having a personalized experience. This makes us feel valued. So eventually the balance between risk and value might tip in favor of the technology that provides this additional value (as it did in the past for so many other technologies). Who knows when this will happen.

  3. Interesting post. Forget companies with mixed reputations like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. The era of Big Data means that even companies with stellar brands (read: Disney) will use technology and data to sell more stuff. Those that don’t will miss out and eventually face irrelevance or even extinction.

  4. Jeff Gordon

    I think you’re only scratching the surface.

    First, Disney already owns the property around Orlando for running antenna – look at all of the Disney billboards in that area.

    Second, it’s irrelevant. The bands are being designed to ultimately store GPS data. Why do you think they ship them to your house? They want to know where you are BEFORE and AFTER your trip. The bands can live for up to two years after your first vacation – so when you come back, they can report on your absence.

    Third, one of the hosts poo-pooh’d the value of knowing where people were in the parks. This is INCREDIBLY important data. They’re ultimately going to change attractions because they’ll have absolute rider data. When people start to feel creepy about putting these on children, they’ll roll out missing kid tracking. Parents will clamor to staple them to their children.

    Fourth, the guest was talking about tracking failed purchase opportunities. This is going to be interesting once Disney puts a little RFID tag on every piece of merchandise. They’ll simply adjust the proximity sensors and watch for time in proximity to a specific item. If there is ultimately no sale of that item, but you held it for a few minutes, that becomes the valuable information.

    In all, Disney IS going to get away with it because people won’t stop going to Disney. And they will deliver on the personalized experience because it will ultimately sell more park tickets and room nights.