Disney Makes Another $1 Billion Bet

Family entertainment giant Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) isn't afraid to crack open its wallet for a 10-figure investment in its future. It spent billions on Pixar, Marvel, and more recently Lucasfilm. The first two bets have already paid off, and the third should prove huge when the new Star Wars movie opens by the end of next year. Apart from acquisitions, Disney hasn't shied away from big-ticket wagers, including cruise ships and theme park expansions.

However, now it has reportedly invested $1 billion in a next-generation attraction reservation platform that it tested on hotel guests for months and annual passholders for weeks, before finally making it available this week to Disney World day guests.

MyMagic+ and FastPass+ are certainly ambitious. Wristbands with radio-frequency identification chips and visitors' ability to reserve expedited queues for as many as three rides or attractions days before arriving at a theme park clearly build on the original FastPass system that Disney rolled out 15 years ago. 

On paper, it sounds great. Folks can set aside three 60-minute slots to board their favorite attractions with minimal waits -- and at no additional charge. If visitors' plans change, they can fire up the official My Disney Experience app to make changes on the fly. Folks who lack smartphone connectivity can simply head to one of the in-park kiosks to create or edit their FastPass+ selections. 

In reality, the system was a bit of a mess until this week, as day guests had to queue up in long lines to make their initial FastPass+ reservations. Things always go slow during a learning curve, and it probably only confuses things more that Disney World attracts a lot of foreign visitors who may sidestep the perk without realizing the long standby lines that await them if they don't opt for it. 

Disney still deserves praise for finally making advance FastPass+ reservations available to all visitors this week. Nearby rivals SeaWorld and Comcast's Universal Orlando charge extra for guests who want expedited access to rides and shows. Comcast's resort also offers guests staying at its three original on-site hotels access to the speedy lines, once again showing that you can buy your way to a better park experience.

Disney does a bit of this, too. Guests staying at its on-site resorts have early and late access to select parks. They also have longer advance reservation windows and greater selection flexibility than annual passholders and day guests. However, the fact that FastPass+ is available to anyone entering its Florida parks at no additional cost makes it harder to knock the system.

The rollouts of MyMagic+ and FastPass+ have been slower than Disney initially projected, but they're finally here. It's going to be an interesting summer for Disney, especially as it competes against Comcast's latest Harry Potter expansion at Universal Orlando and the "Sea of Surprises" celebration that just kicked off at SeaWorld. 

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