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Is Disney World the New Netflix?

By Rick Munarriz – Updated Oct 10, 2021 at 7:34PM

Key Points

  • Disney Genie will roll out on Oct. 19, along with the premium-priced Genie+ and Lightning Lane+ options.
  • In its initial form, it will be a useful way to plan a day at the park.
  • The real trick will be if it can follow Netflix with its machine learning skills to make its business more financially lucrative.

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Disney Genie makes its debut later this month, and the media giant can learn a lot from the leading streaming service in how to handle a suggestions engine.

Mention Walt Disney (DIS -1.04%) and Netflix (NFLX -0.07%) in the same conversation, and it's easy to draw comparisons of one learning from the other. Disney+ has emerged as a rival to Netflix by rapidly building out a catalog of proprietary content. Netflix is starting to rip a page out of the Disney playbook by acquiring intellectual properties, like the recent purchase of Roald Dahl's classic works

Imitation isn't just the sincerest form of flattery: It's often the easiest path to achieve financial success. One of the reasons Netflix is so popular -- with more than 209 million paying subscribers around the world -- is that it knows your viewing habits perhaps even better than you. Netflix leans on machine learning to power its recommendation algorithms and shape its future content deals. Disney now is in a position to follow suit, but not just for the rapidly ascending Disney+ streaming service. New tech is about to raise the bar of what a recommendations engine can do at its theme parks. 

Riders on the Seven Dwarfs coaster at Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Image source: Disney.

Between your mouse ears  

Disney World's official in-park app will be getting a serious upgrade on Oct. 19. The launch of Disney Genie finds the world's largest theme-park operator turning to genetic algorithms to crank out optimal strategies for folks willing to let Mickey Mouse take the wheel.

Visitors punch in the attractions they wish to hit that day, along with any dining establishments they want to check out and other preferences like character photo ops and favorite franchises. It's at that point where the genetic algorithms go to work, a survival of the fittest of the different preferences to formulate a model itinerary where historical wait times, distance, and other factors go through hundreds of thousands of combinations for a custom-tailored day.

The complimentary app enhancement is impressive. I kicked the tires with a hands-on demo on Thursday at Disney World. The itinerary is perpetually optimized. Guests willing to pay up will unlock access to the shorter FastPass queues that have been rebranded as Lightning Lanes. 

Disney has years of customer insight baked into its recommendations engine, just as Netflix has an insurmountable lead in tracking viewer habits through the streaming revolution. How deep will Disney go in catering its suggestions? Even if it starts by simply collecting one-time parkgoer desires to map out the optimal day at a gated attraction, is Disney really going to stop there? 

Netflix can crank out lay-up suggestions because it's been tracking not only what you've been streaming but also what others with similar patterns are sticking with on its platform. When you scratch your head over why Netflix inked a multi-picture deal with Adam Sandler or why the home page is recommending a South Korean survivalist series to you, it's because Netflix is already inside that itchy head of yours. 

Collecting data has become a hot topic these days, but can you blame Disney if it uses every click it collects to get smarter? If you've mobile ordered Orange Swirls at Sunshine Tree Terrace in three of your past four visits to the Magic Kingdom, why wouldn't it nudge you in that direction or tip you off if the iconic Orange Bird mascot starts greeting guests in 2022? 

All of this is hypothetical, of course. However, once Disney Genie is out of the bottle, are we really going to limit the travel and tourism stock to granting just three wishes? If you go on Expedition Everest every time you're at Disney's Animal Kingdom and some new coaster-specific merchandise comes out, isn't the theme-park operator leaving money on the table by not promoting it in the app? The rollout of Disney Genie on Oct. 19 will be impressive, but that's nothing compared with where the smartphone app can be in the not-so-distant future.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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