The Messy Business Of Reinventing Happiness
Imagineers argued that the uniformity of the access points would disrupt the spirit of their uniquely stylized attractions. For example, seeing Mickey’s face on every post would be disconcerting, since there were wide swaths of the park that had nothing to do with the Mouse at all. Ditto for those waist-high digital posts; what business did something looking like a shiny modern mailbox have in the foreground of a medieval castle? The Imagineers preferred designs that would be immersed in the theme of each Disney World ride: futuristic ones for Tomorrowland, Wild West–style ones in Frontierland, and so forth. Their preferences reflected their deepest goal, which is to protect the sanctity of children’s imaginations as they engage with real-life fairy tales at the park. Says veteran Imagineer Joe Rohde, “If I’m supposed to be living with fairies, fairies don’t have iPhones or MagicBands.”
The Frog team was aghast. They felt the Imagineers’ criticism went against basic user-experience design. To them, the issues came down to usability and ergonomics; each access point needed to have the predictability of a light switch, so guests could locate them easily. They eventually compromised: access posts have consistent features, like the Mickey icon, but can also be designed with more thematic flourishes. However, the Imagineers did torpedo a number of other Frog concepts.
These early skirmishes signaled tougher battles ahead. “There were disagreements between Frog, Parks operations, and marketing folks; there were disagreements between hotel and theme park operations; disagreements between technology and infrastructure guys,” says one former Disney executive closely associated with NGE. As another source puts it, “It was such a reactive environment.”
In January 2010, there was a change at the top. As part of a reported “bake-off” engineered by CEO Iger to see who might one day be better suited to succeed him, Tom Staggs and Jay Rasulo swapped roles. Staggs, who had served as Disney’s CFO since 1998, replaced Rasulo as the head of Parks; Rasulo became CFO. Staggs took over sponsorship of NGE from Rasulo, and followed through on Rasulo’s intention to appoint an executive vice president, Nick Franklin, to oversee the program day to day.
At this point, the project took on a new layer of complexity, as the NGE team felt the need to consistently dazzle the Disney brass. A key part of this was regularly showing off a complex prototype of the MyMagic+ experience. The team had outgrown its original home at Epcot and had moved to Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, inside a 12,000-square-foot soundstage. That’s where the NGE team built out its advanced R&D lab, or what Franklin calls a “living blueprint” that would “sell the vision.”
With typical Disney flair, the soundstage became a storyboard brought to life, with a full-scale living room, including an iMac, which is where the archetypal family would book their Disney vacation via what’s now known as My Disney Experience, the website and mobile app for MyMagic+. The family’s set of MagicBands would then arrive by mail, in beautiful packaging designed by Frog. Next came the flight-arrival stage of the set, which simulated the experience at Orlando International, with actual seats that the NGE team had purchased from the airport. There, family members would first touch their MagicBands to a digital access point, before proceeding to a replica Magical Express bus. Then came the hotel set, with actual front-desk counters and bedroom furniture from Disney’s Contemporary Resort, to reflect the new MyMagic+ check-in process. There were also mock-ups of the in-park experience, including a main entrance; a mini version of the Haunted Mansion ride to demonstrate how attractions could be personalized with consumer data; a small version of the Be Our Guest restaurant concept; merchandising and retail shops; and even a stage exhibiting how MyMagic+ could influence Disney’s cruise line. “At Disney, you can’t just create a PowerPoint presentation and say, ‘Hey, give me $10 million to build this,’ ” jokes Andy Schwalb.
“It goes back to Walt himself,” explains a former top NGE manager. “The story carries the day.” Often, sources say, the “theater” of selling an idea is more important than the idea itself. An NGE source recalls how once, right before a presentation, Padgett told one team member with a British accent, “When you’re presenting to these guys, sound and act more British. It’ll just make the presentation go better.” He wasn’t joking.
The lab was essential for MyMagic+ to win buy-in from Disney World’s 74,000 employees. “We needed to get people’s minds wrapped around it all, from the finance and creative folks to the people running day-to-day park operations,” Schwalb says.
Just three months into Staggs’ Parks tenure, on March 30, the NGE team unveiled the detailed lab to him and Iger. (Many sources argue much of the vision work was complete by the time Staggs replaced Rasulo. “The ship had sailed in terms of front-end thinking,” one source says.) Iger and Staggs were impressed, but Iger cautioned the team not to bite off more than it could chew, according to people in attendance; at one point, he recommended that the NGE team “cut [their ambitions] in half” and only worry about MyMagic+ at Disney World, rather than at other potential park sites or on cruise ships. By the tour’s end, recalls former NGE leader Michelle Bentubo, “probably around nine of the executives ended up with Bob in the last room, and he [looked toward] Jim MacPhee, John Padgett, and Nick Franklin, and [said], ‘It better work.’ ” The phrase had become an NGE team mantra often referred to as IBFW, or “it better frickin’ work,” a sentiment Iger would express in similar terms to Staggs at the board meeting.
Iger, Staggs, and also Rasulo went through the soundstage lab many more times. When the CEO would visit, team members would hide behind the soundstage curtains taking detailed notes. “If Bob said something, we would immediately go back that night and say, ‘How do we incorporate this?’ ” one team member recalls. “When he came back, we would be saying, ‘As you suggested, we did this. What do you think?’ ”
Members of the Disney board visited as well, with the exception of Steve Jobs, whose cancer was worsening. Sources say that, despite not seeing MyMagic+ in person, he pledged his support. “I love what you guys are doing,” he is said to have conveyed to the group. “You won’t get everything right, but doing what you’ve been doing and believing that will remain the model for the next 20 years is also not right.”
The NGE crew had visits from other luminaries in the Disney orbit. Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter, inventor Dean Kamen, and filmmaker James Cameron—then at work on his Avatar-themed expansion at Disney World—all toured the lab. “These icons created momentum with Bob [Iger],” says a high-level NGE leader.
The NGE team presented so many different concepts to the Disney leadership that some wondered if their aim was simply to wow top leaders with the long-term potential of NGE through whiz-bang features. There was, for instance, Padgett’s concept for reengineering the airport arrival and departure experience. A team started designing a plastic cart for the guest’s luggage, so compact that it would fit through a special Disney x-ray machine without forcing passengers to separate and throw suitcases and backpacks on the conveyer belt. It was a sort of TSA PreCheck for baggage, which would seamlessly be transported straight to a guest’s hotel room. The team began discussing ways to reengineer airport x-ray machines, and Padgett even organized a meeting with TSA officials. “That project itself cost probably close to $500,000,” says a source familiar with the concept work. “And I honestly don’t know: Was it real? Or was it just theater?”
In February 2011, the Disney board authorized a budget of nearly $1 billion for MyMagic+, and Iger told Staggs that “this better work.” Sources say that the early target date to deliver MyMagic+ was February 2012. This was optimistic, given the infrastructure challenges and the fact that Disney would have to create and implement the new system while still operating its theme parks, which are open every day.
Many people wanted a piece of the big money flooding into Parks. “That was the big turning point,” says one senior NGE contractor involved early on in the program. Each division seemed to have a claim. Should the software fall under IT? Should the merchandising division control the MagicBand? Since the project would completely alter park transactions—admission, payments, crowd flow—shouldn’t operations take charge? And what about the Imagineers?
“There were a lot of times when people were like ‘This is going to be so painful,’ ” says project leader Nick Franklin.
The infighting grew intense. “Look, let’s put it crudely: People were protecting their jobs!” says one VP–level NGE source. Uncertainty about the consequences of MyMagic+ raised the stakes—that’s what new technology does to the status quo. For example, if ticketing were to get digitized, many jobs held by traditional ticketing folks might become irrelevant. One source deeply enmeshed in NGE’s development at the time describes Disney as a “culture that is all smiles and happiness, and everyone is going in to give you a hug. But you have no idea who is working against you. You come out bruised and bloody.” A former Disney exec says there was “land-grabbing, finger-pointing, and, quite frankly, a lot of yelling in closed-door meetings.” But, this source adds, “disagreement was how we were going to get to the end result.”
Staggs encouraged a policy that’s internally referred to as “constructive discomfort,” which was meant to guard against cultural complacency by fostering collaboration. “People would say, ‘Okay, this looks a little bit scary because it’s different, but it’s been this way for years, and it’s worked really, really well,’ ” he tells me. “That’s a recipe for stagnation.”
Staggs did not engage in project politics. “He stayed above the fray,” says the former Disney exec, approvingly. “Tom was right where he was supposed to be: You had to have someone stay in that role so he could come in and be effective when giving guidance.” Staggs left it to Nick Franklin to manage day-to-day friction. A former Goldman Sachs banker, Franklin has the personality of a bulldog. “There is a great quote from Machiavelli that talks about how nobody wants change because most people are invested in the status quo,” Franklin says. “Even the folks who are open to change don’t actually believe it until it’s real and in their hands. There were a lot of times [in this process] when people were like, ‘This is going to be so painful.’ ”
Franklin managed to get some teams to collaborate well on the project, but many describe the internal politics as fierce. Sources who were present for early in-park tests of the MyMagic+ enhanced, turnstile-free entrances recall how some Disney groups had cast members attempt to sneak past the gates, in an attempt to prove the system wasn’t secure enough. (Others argue that this was a valid security test.) Several sources claim that during a test of whether long-range sensors at the Haunted Mansion ride could identify the MagicBands worn by customers going by at high speeds, Imagineers purposely sat on their hands as the ride zoomed along, to make it harder for the sensors to locate their bands. (A spokesperson for Disney says this was also a valid test, done not just by Imagineers, but by everyone.) Multiple sources indicate the Imagineers were exploring their own alternative to the MagicBand, as were other teams.
“Imagineering is an incredible organization but it has become as institutional as the rest,” says a former high-level Disney leader. “They dream of building these big icons of their creative expression, but when a capital budget shows we’re going to invest in changing the established guest experience rather than spend on a big fixed asset, that doesn’t get met with love.”
Other divisions expressed themselves passive-aggressively. “They might see a problem coming, but they don’t do anything about it, like, ‘Let them figure it out!’ ” says a former Disney manager. “Then, late in the game, these folks came in going, ‘We knew this was going to be a problem.’ We were like, ‘Really? Where have you been for the last three and a half years?!?’ ”
The Orlando-based IT group, as it sought to control more of the project’s technology initiatives, was often at loggerheads with members of the NGE team as well as their counterparts in Los Angeles at the Parks online group. As IT gained a significant foothold into MyMagic+, some credit the group with ultimately improving the technical underpinnings of MyMagic+; others claim it took advantage of the situation to secure greater leverage and resources. “Everyone is trying to build the best possible guest experience,” explains one former senior project developer who tussled with the IT group. “But [we all] had drastically different philosophies about how to get that done. I honestly believe [the IT group] just thought we built pieces of shit.” The feeling was mutual. At one point, IT pushed the division to build its own Windows-based tablets, eventually named the 2400 and the 9000, for cast members. One source calls the devices “god-awful bricks. We didn’t need their $3,000, piece-of-shit, custom-made mobile devices.” Parks eventually opted for iPod Touches and iPads.
As this dynamic played out, the company turned to outside software consultancies, all feasting on Disney’s resources for the project, which one partner describes as a “cash cow.” (According to a knowledgeable source, Accenture billed over $100 million for its role in developing MyMagic+.) Says a leader of one of these project consultancies, “We were basically chartered as a shadow organization [to the IT group], like a backup plan in case shit hits the fan.”
The backroom dealing and finger pointing and glory hogging slowed the ambitious project. “Almost half the work was to support a political situation,” says one executive at an NGE partner company. “At the beginning, we could move really rapidly, but when it got public within Disney, it changed the way we worked. It became more about fighting to survive another day.”
The February 2012 target came and went.
More than 28,000 hotel doors needed their locks replaced in order to connect wirelessly with the MagicBand, even as some 80% of the rooms at Disney’s resorts, on average, were occupied. Two dozen workers spent eight months upgrading 120 doors per day. The company rolled out 6,000 mobile devices to support MyMagic+ in the parks. More than 70,000 cast members got MyMagic+ awareness training, with 15,000 learning service-specific tasks for, say, FastPass+ kiosks or MagicBand merchandising (guests would be able to buy Disney character–themed accessories to decorate their bands).
Disney World’s physical infrastructure, which was first built in the late 1960s, needed major capital improvements. Two hundred eighty-three park-entry touch points needed to be upgraded. Much of Disney World lacked a Wi-Fi connection, so in order for guests and cast members to take advantage of MyMagic+ and its mobile apps (which would offer a map service and real-time wait times for attractions), the company had to install more than 30 million square feet of Wi-Fi coverage. “They sure as hell had no ethernet networking, and didn’t even have a lot of power lines,” says one source involved with the construction. “It was a huge effort to wire a communications infrastructure that was basically the same size as San Francisco.”
On January 7, 2013, Disney finally made a splashy announcement revealing MyMagic+. In a story in The New York Times, Staggs called the project “transformational.” Disney played up the ways guests would benefit, including how cast members could use data to know when to wish a guest happy birthday, and how a new Little Mermaid–themed ride would feature an animatronic seagull who could interact with guests wearing the MagicBand. “We want to take experiences that are more passive and make them as interactive as possible—moving from, ‘Cool, look at that talking bird,’ to ‘Wow, amazing, that bird is talking directly to me,’ ” Imagineering chief creative executive Bruce Vaughn told the Times.
But even then, MyMagic+ was not ready for prime time. According to a source, one internal audit around this time found roughly 250 defects plaguing the parks’ MyMagic+ hardware and software systems. MyMagic+ would only roll out slowly, bit by bit, over the course of 2013. Meanwhile, the cost to redesign and integrate DisneyWorld.com with MyMagic+ soared to around $80 million.
There were bright spots. The manufacturing cost of the band came down to below $5. Be Our Guest restaurant, inspired by the fairy-tale dining experience in Beauty and the Beast, launched to glowing reviews. The restaurant was the epitome of what MyMagic+ could offer. Guests who preordered food online, or at a restaurant kiosk, could sit down and have their meal arrive automatically, thanks to sensors telling the waitstaff to deliver what food to what table. The seamless experience won top innovation honors from the National Restaurant Association.
But even this success story couldn’t transcend the hostility among Parks divisions. Working with outside partners, John Padgett’s team had managed to deliver Be Our Guest early—only to find that other groups felt he did so at the expense of their projects. As a former employee involved in Be Our Guest says, “It really didn’t go over well with the traditional IT org. It was like, ‘Wait, you’re going to actually have a successful launch of a project on time, on budget, as you promised? Even though our [technical] components, which were supposed to support the system, aren’t ready?’ “
The carping weighed heavily on Nick Franklin. From the beginning of his tenure, he made efforts to generate goodwill and friendship among the various players, holding frequent team dinners so people who sources indicate didn’t like each other could at least break bread and try to bridge their differences. During one feast on St. Patrick’s Day, the team ate “deconstructed fisherman’s pie” and “haute cuisine-style bangers and mash” paired with various Irish beers and whiskeys. “I made my team members know each other, and I mean, know who their kids are, where they grew up, and what they’re passionate about,” Franklin recalls. “Everybody on that team knew that John Padgett built his house himself, and that [technology SVP] Randy Brooks was a motorcycle guy who rode with his kids. That’s what bridges the gap. At the end of the day, shit is going to get hard, and when you’re in the trenches, that’s the stuff that brings you back together.”
Franklin’s mantra was “we all cross the finish line together or we all fail.” But as one VP–level Disney source describes, “[Executives kept asking], ‘When is this going to be done?’ ‘Oh, in two months!’ ‘No, three months!’ It became this slog with one group going, ‘We’re ready and you’re not!’ And the other group going, ‘No, we’re ready, and you’re not!’ ”
According to a source, one Parks leader who helped Padgett deliver the MagicBand, Michael Jungen, would caution his team against playing the blame game because it was all just “booger flicking.” Jungen told his team to not give anyone an excuse to “flick the booger back at us.”
Disney didn’t complete its rollout of MyMagic+ until the first half of 2014.
This January, I made several trips to Disney World. With my MagicBand strapped on, entering and exiting my room at the Contemporary Resort is a cinch. I love leaving my hotel without worrying if I forgot my wallet, or even my phone; whether I venture to the Starbucks at the Downtown Disney shopping village or sit down for an extravagant dinner at the Grand Floridian Resort, I pay by simply flicking my wrist. At dinner one night, an elderly couple tells me they were skeptical of the MagicBand at first (“because we’re old!”), but that they have come to love its headache-free benefits.
There is no line at the main entrance to the park, where cast members and a row of polished, golden digital access points greet me, and it takes just seconds to stream through with my MagicBand. According to Disney, the MagicBand has cut turnstile transaction time by 30%. Park capacity has also increased. At the Magic Kingdom alone, Tom Staggs notes, MyMagic+ has allowed “north of 5,000 more people into the park for the same experience.”
The creative potential of MyMagic+ is on full display at Test Track, an Epcot ride that lets visitors pretend to drive a concept vehicle through intense stress tests: swerves in bad weather, screeching halts, big bursts of speed. It’s extremely popular, often with 60- to 90-minute wait times. But the queue seems to move fast, thanks to what Disney calls “scene ones,” interactive moments designed to entertain waiting guests. Rather than fidgeting in line, I get to walk through an auto design studio with rows of touch-screen kiosks. Using my MagicBand, I digitally customize my own car, modifying its color, body shape, and engine capabilities. As I’m about to hop on the ride, I use the MagicBand again to integrate my personal vehicle into the attraction. Zipping through the track, display screens at the tail end of each section show a leaderboard simulating how my rig is performing. Afterward, I make a digital commercial for my car, one of a slew of experiences available to guests once the ride is finished.
At the Magic Kingdom alone, Tom Staggs notes, MyMagic+ has allowed “north of 5,000 more people into the park for the same experience.”
Test Track has 197 touch-interaction points. Disney has measured the impact of effective “scene ones” on customers’ perception of waiting in line. According to Disney World SVP Jim MacPhee, “a 35-minute wait felt like a 15- to 20-minute wait.”
Executives point to this kind of thing to explain why Disney’s intent-to-return metrics are up, though the company won’t provide specific figures. They also say they are seeing guests spend more money while in the park. And MacPhee lets slip that guest intent to recommend, another key Disney metric, is “really high, with overall satisfaction in the 70% range.”
There are many other tangible results. The Be Our Guest restaurant has become incredibly popular. Kids are accessorizing their MagicBands with Frozen-themed tchotchkes, which are fast becoming a material revenue generator for the company. And with Disney’s slick PhotoPass service, photos and videos captured of guests shrieking down the Splash Mountain water ride are tied to their MagicBands and automatically uploaded to the My Disney Experience website, where they can later view and purchase prints.
During my return monorail ride back to the hotel one cool winter night, two exhausted parents, baby carriages in tow and a tuckered-out young girl wrapped around Dad’s neck, tell me the MagicBand is a lifesaver; they couldn’t imagine going back to the old system, with all those paper tickets and FastPasses. It is indeed a “better reality than the one outside,” as Disney biographer Neal Gabler put it.
MyMagic+ MagicBandPhoto: courtesy of Disney
“Honestly, it’s not so magical,” one cast member tells me about MyMagic+, echoing a common sentiment I hear from park employees during my visit. “It’s just for your hotel room [door] and paying for things.” When you look closely, there’s less to MyMagic+ than what some on the team had hoped for.
Few rides other than Test Track tap into the storytelling potential of MyMagic+. “When you go to the park today, you’ll say, ‘Where is it all?’ ” says one former top NGE manager. “The Imagineers, the R&D group, they’re supposed to be the innovative team—they’re the Walt Disney Imagineers, for Christ’s sake! And yet, for this newest innovation, they simply didn’t deliver. Well, they delivered the barest, thinnest, most minimum creative support for NGE.”
“Honestly, it’s not so magical,” one cast member tells me about MyMagic+.
MyMagic+ was always designed to be a platform to build on, but even the elements the company publicly promised in The New York Times‘ announcement are still missing in action. Though Disney executives still boast, inexplicably, that MyMagic+ lets cast members wish guests a happy birthday, the fact is that feature plainly does not exist. (When I point out to Staggs that cast members don’t yet fully take advantage of MyMagic+, he mentions there may be ways in the future to acknowledge a guest’s birthday through the program, but also tells me, “You know what, we’ve got the buttons, people put on the buttons [that say] happy birthday, and people say happy birthday, [and] they love it.”) Cast members engage with MyMagic+ only in an operational capacity, predominantly at the park entrances, the FastPass+ kiosks, and the guest relations centers. They don’t even wear MagicBands. And that animatronic seagull on the Little Mermaid ride that was supposed to talk with guests wearing MagicBands? During my visit, it squawked on a loop to an empty room.
Disney executives are still figuring out how to talk about MyMagic+. When MacPhee takes me to the classic Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride, he says, “This, to me, is the poster child of everything MyMagic+ is about.” But other than using a MagicBand at the entryway touch point, as one does at every attraction, Dumbo had nothing to do with MyMagic+ technology. The space was recently renovated, but mainly to add an area where parents can sit and relax in line while their kids play on a jungle gym. Cast members hand out buzzers, like the ones you might find at an Olive Garden. The buzzer vibrates when the ride is ready, so parents have time to collect their kids. (A Disney spokesperson asserts that MyMagic+ and the Next Generation Experience encompassed more than just technology, and thus that the Dumbo renovations fall under the NGE initiative.)
Later, I am shown a new meet-and-greet attraction. While I watch, a Venezuelan family is ushered into a small room, where a cast member, dressed in a full Mickey Mouse getup with automated voice features, kneels down to welcome and hug a shy boy. Without missing a beat, Mickey speaks Spanish, and the kid’s face lights up. (“Queso!” the multilingual Mickey squeaks as a set of family photos are snapped.) I assume that when the boy entered with his MagicBand, the cast member somehow received an instant and invisible notification that the child is a native Spanish speaker from South America. Not so. Afterward, MacPhee acknowledges that the system doesn’t use MyMagic+. The real trick—which my hosts only share on the condition I not publish it—is quite impressive, but almost goes out of its way to avoid taking advantage of the MagicBand.
Shortly after my last Disney World trip, I go to Glendale, California, to visit the folks many NGE insiders blame for everything unrealized by MyMagic+. Ever since Walt first corralled a group of animators, writers, and engineers into his WED Enterprises group in 1952, the mission of the Disney Imagineers has been to transport guests into another world, to immerse them into experiences so delightful that they return again and again. So why did they resist MyMagic+?
“A big part of the company culture is trying to guard against dangerous change. If Disney had followed every trend in the past 60 years, it wouldn’t be Disney anymore.”
The Imagineers speak about the project with enthusiasm, but also—always—with caveats. “There are a million ideas, like . . . I walk through the park, and my face is integrated into movie posters,” says Bruce Vaughn, the chief creative executive. “Do you really want that? Is that special the third time I see it?” The group has always been wary of introducing technology for technology sake, although it is willing to experiment, such as with a short-lived interactive game developed in 2006, based on the Kim Possible cartoon series, which enabled guests to use cell phones to go on a virtual scavenger hunt of the parks. As one MyMagic+ partner points out, with admiration for the Imagineers, “A big part of the company culture is trying to guard against dangerous change. If Disney had followed every trend in the past 60 years, it wouldn’t be Disney anymore.”
There certainly are reasons for caution. MyMagic+’s rocky rollout makes the Imagineers’ case for conservatism in the face of technological change seem sound. A slew of problems reared up after launch: The My Disney Experience app was buggy, digital access points would turn blue when they were supposed to turn green, hotel reservations were a mess, and guests griped that the new FastPass+ system was unintuitive and difficult to program. Many of these issues have since been fixed (the company tripled the size of its customer support department), but every time a guest has to raise her hand for help with MyMagic+, the Imagineers’ carefully crafted illusion is spoiled.
One former NGE executive believes the public won’t “see Imagineering leverage the NGE platform until the next wave of attractions.” Even then, he believes, the group will never see MyMagic+ as anything more than another paintbrush at its disposal. “The Imagineers didn’t know what [MyMagic+ would become],” this source says. “So if you need to design it into a ride that has to handle thousands of people an hour, continuously, that can be really hard! The Imagineers wanted to wait to figure out how they want to use it in their storytelling.”
Imagineer Joe Rohde, who sports a tribal-style earring that weighs down his left ear, speaks eloquently about the pros and cons of MyMagic+. We meet over a model of Avatar Land, the movie-inspired Disney World extension set to open in 2017. He tells me the Imagineers are trying to hit that sweet spot where the technology stays “subconscious,” because he doesn’t want to see “switching behavior”—he waves his wrist around in front of his face—”in between the human and the experience.”
I ask where MyMagic+ will influence Avatar Land, and Rohde turns my attention to the model, which is the size of three Ping-Pong tables. He swirls his finger around a tiny section. This little spot is where MyMagic+ will be put to use, in “the most intensive, interactive moments.” What about the area’s two big attractions? “Less so,” he adds.
What excites the Imagineers about Avatar Land? The robotics prototypes they’ve built, which they think represent the next generation of animatronics. MyMagic+ is just a tool that Imagineers tell me they don’t want to force on visitors. “We don’t want to say, ‘Hey, guest, go around and tap with your MagicBand to cause something magical to happen,’ ” Vaughn says. “We never want to do it just because we can.”
On February 5, I am waiting outside Tom Staggs’s office in Burbank when two PR representatives walk over to me briskly to declare that my planned interview has been canceled. Bob Iger has just appointed Staggs chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Company.
That day, beat reporters covering Disney write that Staggs won the “bake-off” over CFO Jay Rasulo due in part to his success at ramping up revenue and profits at Parks. The latter had jumped 20% the previous quarter, helping Disney deliver spectacular earnings, which sent its stock to an all-time high. Most reports also highlight two major achievements: Shanghai Disneyland and MyMagic+. Iger himself praised MyMagic+ during the earnings call that week. “About 10 million guests have already worn the bands, and so far, what we’re hearing from them is overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “What that basically tells us and what we have actually seen is that it is serving the purpose we set out to serve.”
The following afternoon, Staggs meets me at Imagineering headquarters. He spends one day a week there taking meetings, an opportunity for the former Morgan Stanley investment banker to improve his creative chops. Outside his first-floor corner office, he greets me with a knowing smile as he apologizes for yesterday’s unforeseen schedule change. Staggs cuts a slim figure, a result of his intense fitness routine and healthy eating habits. He is relaxed and polished, with a cordiality rooted in his Minnesota upbringing. After walking past the poster of Captain Jack Sparrow on his door, we kick back on a sofa set in his neat office. Staggs, wearing jeans and a white button-down, rests his clasped leather shoes on top of the coffee table as we chat. He’s exceedingly humble when I ask about what his COO promotion means for his future at Disney, and avoids any discussion about whether he might one day replace Iger, though he acknowledges nothing was promised. “I’ve been asked to do one job, the COO job, and that’s what I’m going to do, and whatever comes next will be subject to separate process,” he says.
Staggs gives me an overview of the MyMagic+ development. He says the project was under budget (“not enough to do a victory lap over”), and claims it wasn’t delayed. “Since we said there’s no set schedule, it’s hard to really say whether we were on that set schedule,” he explains. “I don’t mean to be at all glib with you. Truth be told, it might make better copy to write ‘delay’ than to write ‘certain aspects are taking longer than originally anticipated.’ “
MyMagic+ MagicBandPhoto: Matt Stroshane, courtesy of Disney
Eventually, the discussion shifts toward the future of MyMagic+. Key veterans of the project have departed, including executive VP Nick Franklin and the NGE cofounder John Padgett. “There’s a reason why so many NGE people have left Disney,” says one NGE source involved with the program nearly from the outset. “The project basically has devolved back into the [traditional] business. Is there a next generation of Next Generation Experience?”
Like Iger, Staggs heralds how MyMagic+ will eventually spread to the other Disney theme parks. But when I press him on exactly what this means, Staggs says the company will roll out “variations on MyMagic+.” He explains that this “doesn’t mean the MagicBand will be used in every [park].” MagicBand probably won’t come to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, because restructuring costs would be too high. Shanghai is expected to have such a high proportion of guests with smartphones, he says, that there wouldn’t be any need to export the MagicBand. A MyMagic+ app could essentially replace it.
Staggs seems to be suggesting that the MagicBand may not be necessary in the future. That’s hardly a sign of failure. Staggs is quietly making a point that’s broader and more important than the carping of employees worried about the future of their project. Moving to a smartphone-based MyMagic+ infrastructure may now be more reflective of the realities of the rapidly changing technology landscape. Perhaps it would be foolish to try to keep up with the Apples and Googles of the world when it comes to wearables. “We help ourselves by being less precious, [like] ‘Gee, we invented this MagicBand, we’ve got to use that everywhere,’ ” Staggs says. “We’ll use it everywhere it makes sense. But we don’t want to let something we think is cool and cutting edge become a legacy item that we’re trying to drag along.”
For execs like Staggs, what matters most is that the big ship Disney is headed in the right direction. If “serving the purpose we set out to serve,” as Iger puts it, is a mundane judgment of MyMagic+ that falls short of earlier, more transformative goals, that’s fine. Staggs explains that this is the “very beginning” of MyMagic+, and that “there is so much more that we can do there.” He doesn’t go into specifics, but promises the company is learning widely from the MyMagic+ experience. “The key is the collaboration across literally everything from food and beverage, IT folks, online folks, our industrial engineers, our merchandise folks, our core operations team, the finance organization, across all of those,” Staggs tells me. “It was a big project. I don’t want to appear overly proud of it, but we’re very proud of it happening at this organization. It would be folly to say that anything other than the collaborative approach we took would’ve been successful.”
Perhaps Staggs is being coy. The Imagineers and Frog certainly did disagree during the MyMagic+ development, as did many others, and that disagreement had repercussions and costs. But it ultimately led to a successful conclusion. What Staggs calls “constructive discomfort” is what sophisticated collaboration is all about.
After all, he tells me, “[This was] one of the most collaborative processes that we’ve undertaken, and we tend to be pretty collaborative by nature.”
Magic+ Kingdom: Disney World was a Technicolor–not high-tech–dream on Opening Day in 1971.Photo: Yale Joel, Life magazine, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images
See the history of Disney’s Princesses Brand in 200 sparkly seconds
[Illustrations: Ramona Ring; Photos: courtesy of Disney; Avatar: 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection; Zebra: iStock; Captain EO: Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection; Jim Henson Co.: Photos 12, Alamy; Epcot 1982: Roger Viollet, Getty Images]