If you haven't been to Disney's (NYSE:DIS) massive theme-park resort in Florida in recent months, you may not recognize the place. The old FastPass kiosks that used to spit out ride reservation times have been replaced with a centralized FastPass+ system where guests can reserve as many as three rides or experiences in advance.
It's not perfect. There's a learning curve to master and the high-tech upgrade will take some getting used to for tourists, particularly international visitors who may not be up to speed on the process or have smartphone access to change reservations on the fly.
But Disney is clearly raising the bar in the realm of ride reservations in ways that nearby rivals SeaWorld (NYSE:SEAS) and Comcast's (UNKNOWN:CMCSK.DL) Universal Orlando may not be able to match. Over the next few days I will detail some of the game-changing advantages behind the new platform. As a longtime charter annual passholder and more recently a part-time resident of Celebration, Fla., I have been able to kick the tires of the new system several times in recent weeks.
The high-tech makeover replaces the slips of paper offering 60-minute return windows with RFID-backed admission media that finds guests tapping wristbands or passes against Mickey Mouse-shaped scanners that light up to validate access to expedited queues for rides and attractions. It's pretty neat, and it seems to be working right most of the time. Disney has spent a reported $1 billion on this technology upgrade, and thankfully months of testing with resort guests have worked out the kinks.
The MagicBand bracelets and FastPass+ technology takes visiting a theme park to an entirely new level. Guests can reserve expedited access to three rides a day, and they can do so days and even weeks ahead of their arrival. Regional amusement-park operators will never be able to afford this kind of investment, and rival theme-park operators that could bankroll decent upgrades just don't have the justification.
Neighboring theme parks -- SeaWorld's SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa and Comcast's Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure -- have no problem drawing millions of guests a year, but tourists aren't planning daily itineraries the way they do for weeklong treks at Disney World. Universal Orlando has been making major strides since the 2009 addition of its Harry Potter attraction, but you won't find too many visitors planning the exact day that they will be visiting select parks as much as 60 days in advance.
In short, Disney is doing this because only Disney can. There are information, merchandising, and strategic advantages that we'll dive into later this week, but at the end of the day it's Disney flexing an experience-enhancing platform that incorporates dedicated website and smartphone applications that raise the bar too high for anyone else to reach. Disney knows what it's doing, and it's going to prove it by drawing record attendance numbers this summer despite its recent price hike.