"This tram stops at Journey, Discover, Amaze, and Create," our tram announcer said as we were heading out of Epcot and into the parking lot last week. "It does not stop for Bulbasaur, Pikachu, or Squirtle."
The nod to the then bubbling Pokemon Go frenzy didn't end there. She went on to point out that the tram does travel at a crisp 12.5 miles per hour, slow enough to help hatch incubated eggs in the popular mobile app.
She was wrong -- but not about speeding up the incubation process. After coming across dozens of PokeStops, gyms, and characters scattered through Disney's (NYSE:DIS) theme parks, there was no shortage of Pokemon and item-generating PokeStops around the parking lots, too. Nor was there a shortage of Pokemon Go players. I would say that roughly a quarter of the families at Disney's theme parks last week had at least one member playing the character-catching and battling game. It's a trend that appears to be only intensifying.
Pokemon Go has added a new layer of excitement to a day at Disney World for those who seek that variety of enchantment. Disney is benefiting from the craze, even as non-players shake their heads while swerving around distracted gamers. This also could and should be just the beginning. It's only a matter of time before it rolls out its own augmented-reality app. How can it not? This is Disney.
A history of following the leader
Disney hasn't been afraid to follow hot gaming trends with Disney-branded copycats. It rolled out Virtual Magic Kingdom in 2005, an online PC game where folks created avatars to explore theme park realms, played mini-games, and engaged with fellow real-time Disney buffs through limited chat features. Virtual Magic Kingdom was launched in the wake of The Sims and Second Life, at a time when those two virtual universes were all the rage. It was unceremoniously shut down three years later.
In 2011, Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) struck gold with Skylanders -- a console-based gaming platform where players use RFID-backed action figures that get put on a connected base to enter the online gaming experience. Disney jumped on the bandwagon two years later with Disney Infinity. It, too, was discontinued three years after launch.
So three years may be the natural lifespan of Disney's late-arriving "me too" properties, but still, it has a chance to ride the augmented-reality coattails of Pokemon Go by rolling out its own mobile app starring Disney-themed characters. With attendance slumping at Disney World and barely inching ahead in Disneyland, it's a no-brainer.
It's a small world
Virtual Magic Kingdom began as a marketing tool, promoting Disneyland's 50th anniversary. A year into the experience, Disney began to incorporate the game into its domestic theme parks. Kiosks offered scavenger hunts, giving players trekking through Disneyland and Disney World virtual swag. It was a flop, but only because it was 2006. The iPhone wouldn't arrive until a year later.
Most park guests now have a web-tethered supercomputer in their pockets. Disney has used that to its advantage, spending a reported $1 billion on the MyMagic+ technology that makes expedited attraction queues and restaurant reservations a breeze. It beefed up its in-park Wi-Fi. Why wouldn't it turn on the spigot of augmented reality?
It's easy to see how a mobile app in which park guests collect animated Disney characters would be a hit. It only helps that Disney has spent billions over the past decade acquiring Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, giving it plenty of ammo for a character-collecting experience. There are enough properties that, even if they eliminate the evolutionary nature of Nintendo's (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) Pokemon franchise -- you don't want to confuse young gamers with putting Goofy through a metamorphosis -- the well will never run dry.
A Disney app likely also wouldn't include a Pokemon-like battle element, at least not in terms of pitting Pluto against Yoda in combat. However, the Disney gym equivalent could be mini-game stations offering everything from speed Disney trivia matches to Virtual Magic Kingdom-type competitions themed to the anchor attractions. Create deep leaderboards for daily and all-time top scores -- and set up the stations in areas away from the most heavily concentrated foot-traffic zones -- and it would be a slam dunk.
Beyond the parks
Obviously Disney wouldn't release all of the characters right away. It could hold back on some for limited release windows, motivating diehard players to visit and build up their virtual collections. The appeal to Disney Now -- I may as well name it, since I'm dreaming out loud -- is that it also doesn't have to be limited to theme parks.
There are more than 200 Disney Store locations scattered across North America, and more than 120 overseas. These stores can also serve as character-collecting hubs, giving players a local connection for special events. It would also keep interest active outside of theme park visits.
You could argue that this app isn't going to happen. Disney folded its video game business when it nixed Disney Infinity earlier this year. However, it is continuing to partner with third parties -- just as Nintendo did with Niantic Labs for Pokemon Go. Disney has invested too much money in its theme parks and in mobile platforms to resist this easy score. Mobile offers opportunities that weren't available to Disney before, and when even Activision Blizzard is willing to spend billions to acquire the maker of Candy Crush Saga you know that it's where Disney needs to go. Augmented reality should soon be Disney's reality.