Disney’s Magic Kingdom of Big Data


Whilst it could be argued that the recent remake of The Lion King represents a bold new digital dawn for Disney, the ‘house of mouse’ (which is currently worth around $130 billion) is something of a fast follower brand when it comes to tech. Indeed Disney has traditionally been quite content with allowing their competitors to innovate whilst they sweep up the stragglers after the dye has been cast and the mistakes have been made. This is reflected in their streaming service Disney Plus, which shamelessly cribs its best moves from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

However, one area in which Disney has proven to be a tech trailblazer is in the utilisation of big data in its theme parks, which was made possible thanks to the ubiquitous ‘MagicBands’ that now decorate the wrists of every Walt Disney World visitor.

The magic of big data

Whilst Disney might be known as a brand that prefers to hide the magic behind the curtain wherever possible, there is a surprising amount of transparency at work behind the MagicBand system. First instigated in 2013 after years spent in development, the wristbands feature RFID technology and a long-range radio that communicates with sensors built into everything from hotel room access panels to theme park gates. These bands can now also be integrated with the bespoke MyMagic+ mobile app to create a powerful tool for resort guests and a constant stream of data for Disney to utilise.

This is all just the first stage of what Disney refers to as the “Next Generation Experience,” which they hope will create a more “immersive, seamless and personal experience” for their guests. The more data the company collects from its guests, the better it can improve its operational efficiency and given the sheer size of the operation at Disney World (over 80,000 employees), that’s no small victory.

Data can also, of course, be used to target marketing based on the preferences and behaviours of its guests - behavioural analytics. In fact, as one of the world’s largest brands, Disney is almost uniquely placed to analyse and interpret data and make the executions based on that data seem like magic. We know however, that Disney World has its very own data centre (the aptly named “Command Centre”) from which to build its magic kingdom of big data.

It would be easy to wax lyrical about how Disney World’s quiet evolution into a surveillance state could have sinister ramifications on the world at large. To me, however, it doesn’t seem to be about controlling the data to control the consumer; it’s about using the data to fuel a better experience. This is a sentiment shared by Teddy Benson, the head of solution integration at Disney. He explains: “Analytics is key to keeping customers’ experience high so they can get the best possible visit.”

Retail magicians

RFID is far from new technology, but it’s certainly one that has gained more ground in recent years as retailers have discovered unexpected ways that the technology can help expand their bottom line. As far back as 2016, 73% of retailers had implemented (or were considering implementing) the technology. It’s easy to see why, as RFID can generate information that can be combined with other store-level data and provide valuable insights in areas including demand forecasting and merchandise trends, dynamic pricing, merchandise placement and in-store marketing. And that’s just the beginning.

Certain brands have been using it to take stock of the user experience in a similar fashion to Disney World. Amazon, for example, recently opened their first “Amazon Go” stores, which allow customers (as long as they have an Amazon account) to walk in, take what they need off the shelves and walk out. These stores utilise a combination of sensors, cameras and RFID to create a digital environment in a physical space. It’s a genius idea on Amazon’s part, as if people feel like they’re stealing, they are that much more likely to perhaps take more than they need.

Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, meanwhile, has installed ‘smart fitting rooms’ in their stores that pair an interactive touch-screen mirror with RFID tagged clothing and augmented reality to create an experience that allows customers to change the colour or pattern of the garment they’re trying on with a simple gesture. They can even add ‘virtual’ accessories to their outfits and send personalised videos to their friends and family members to ask for advice.

It has also been utilised for more benevolent means thanks to the Battersea Dogs and Cats charity, which installed RFID tech into the brochures they were handing out ton the street to potential pet owners. Digital billboards were then used to track these brochures and revealed an image to those carrying them of a dog literally following them home. That campaign alone increased Battersea site visits by over 33%!

A magic kingdom

All of the experiences above have one important thing in common - they all revolve around data and with more brands and retailers than ever before realising the data collection potential of RFID and associated tech, data centres across the globe are going to have their work cut out for them. Whilst Disney might have its very own data centre and seemingly limitless capital, not every company is going to have those resources to hand.

However, the retailers above have proven you don’t need to be one of the biggest brands in the world to successfully harvest and utilise big data to stay one step ahead of customer needs. With the increasing power and cost-effectiveness of cloud computing and colocation solutions, it’s possible for all of us to learn something from Disney’s MagicBands and build our very own magic kingdoms of data.


Written by Benjamin Hiorns

See Benjamin Hiorns's blog


Based in the UK, Benjamin Hiorns is a technology writer with a broad interest including data centers, high performance computing and the evolution of AI. He is also an accomplished musician, producer and songwriter. You can follow him at @HiornsBenjamin

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