One of the unspoken truths about life in a vacation destination is that there's always a bit of (hopefully) unspoken tension between residents and visitors. I grew up in a beach town in New York and now live in a similar, albeit hotter, one in Florida, and it's always been the same. The local economy depends on tourists streaming in, spending money, and then heading out to make room for the next batch, and many residents either have jobs in the tourist economy directly or benefit from its existence (Florida lacks a state income tax because enough is made from sales and various tourism taxes, for example). For that benefit though, residents have to deal with a bunch of tourist nonsense, from heavy traffic and long waits at restaurants to constant noise and hopefully-only-occasional drunken brawls. The thing is, both the pros and cons of this lifestyle evaporate completely when the tourists go away. Like, for example, when you're in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that has killed lots of people.

If I had to guess, maybe the easiest place to observe this phenomenon is Orlando, FL, which is a few hours north of me and of course home to numerous theme parks, kitsch shops, and other tourist traps. Over the last few months, residents have taken to nature trails, bike paths, and other outdoor activity spots (that weren't closed) in record numbers, enjoying peace and quiet that probably hasn't existed there since the mouse set up shop decades ago. But on the other hand, hundreds of thousands of those same people were furloughed or laid off as titans of destination entertainment like Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Disney shut down to wait things out. Since then, some have reopened, testing the waters by asking staff and guests to wear masks and follow new queuing and hygiene procedures. But Walt Disney World, often used as a bellwether for the entire tourism industry, waited. Until this last weekend. It's easy to understand why the house of mouse is being so closely watched right now. Over twenty million visitors passed through the Magic Kingdom alone in 2019, and to many, the park name is synonymous with long waits in tightly packed -- if ever so delightfully themed -- lines. And having long ago watched my toddler son lick a monorail window (and just generally knowing how gross little kids can be), I have to believe that keeping the parks clean was extremely tough even before the pandemic.

So on the one hand, reopening seems like it could be potentially disastrous. But on the other hand... this is Disney we're talking about, and they’re one of the best-executing companies in the world. They've undoubtedly introduced dozens or hundreds of changes and improvements in preparation for reopening, from obvious ones like face shields on cast members and mask requirements for guests to hidden changes in cleaning schedules and guest wrangling traffic programs. You'd have to imagine that they’ll also lean more heavily on self-service and queuing technologies that they’d already started to put in place before the pandemic, and now look absolutely brilliant in light of it. On the self-service side, for the last two or so years, the MyDisneyExperience mobile app has let guests order food for pickup at a specific time, letting them bypass long lines at counter service restaurants. This is great for two reasons: first, it means that guests savvy enough to use the app (and who are happy with the selection of participating restaurants) can bypass physical queues during busy parts of the day. Second, as a follow on, it means that said queues will be shorter for guests who do choose to physically wait in line. That’s good news at any time, but especially during a pandemic.

The other tech that looks especially prescient right now is their FastPass+ system, which basically lets guests make reservations at certain attractions so they can skip the line. They then use RFID-enabled wristbands to “check-in” to a reserved attraction during a specified window and can walk right on (more or less). While the system is far from perfect, it does give guests some visibility into how many top-tier attractions they’ll have to wait to do, and it also helps the park spread guests around more effectively by incentivizing them to visit less-popular attractions. This system currently provides reservation access to most (though not all) attractions, including scoring prime seats for some shows and fireworks, and it’s easy to see how they might continue to expand it (with the help of some Disney supercomputers and probably near-sentient AI) to the point where you could schedule your entire visit and never have to stand in a line again.

Here’s the ironic thing, though. As of Saturday’s reopening, mobile ordering is still allowed but FastPass+ has been disabled. For the time being, it seems the Walt Disney Company is more comfortable relying on extra training for cast members and enhanced spacing in physical queues than a more tech-enabled solution. And while it’s a little counterintuitive, I can think of a couple of reasons why this might be. For one, using the Disney app is complicated, and making good use of your reservation slots is even more so. While something like 85% of Americans have a smartphone, that number is lower when you include international visitors. And even those who have one often don’t know how to do anything more complicated than taking a photo or sending a text.

Another possibility is that the Disney software team is actually working in the background to make the app smarter, and management simply decided that they didn’t want to train people to use the existing system only to switch them to something else in a few months or a year. It’s easy to move a few stanchions and change some markings on the ground if things aren’t working. Getting park-goers to read an app’s changelog after a major update is a different story...

So this story isn’t over, and like everyone else in the world, the folks at Disney will have to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to keeping guests safe in a post-COVID world. My money is on cracking the code though, considering the theme park business is worth something like $20 billion a year to Mickey and his pals. But whether they continue with a lower-tech approach, go all-in on MouseNet AI that controls every park guest’s experience down to the last detail, or settle somewhere in between still remains to be seen.

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