Skift Take

Disney's tech takes the sting out of paying, at last until the final bill is due.

One of the biggest questions in the retail/consumer/shopping industrial complex is this: Will any of these new mobile payment or automated service projects really stick, or will they just drive people crazy?

Last week, I think I saw the beginning of the answer. At Disney.

This being Florida, many of you have probably already seen/used the Disney “Magic Band” wristband, or been to the “Be Our Guest” restaurant. For those who haven’t, buckle up and pay attention, because this may be the future of everywhere from McDonald’s to The Gap to Sheraton.

Let me set the stage a bit. This is summer. This is Florida. This is The Magic Kingdom, with teeming hordes of tourists. It is inhumanly hot — at lunchtime.

Whilst staggering like zombies in the sauna and solar radiation, we searched for food and AC and found what by all rights should be a completely over-run sit-down restaurant, built in Beauty and the Beast motif. Instead, we basically found paradise.

Enter the foyer, and there’s a short line (amid a hallway full of castle-style suits of armor), and Disney helpers pop up next to you and guide you to one of a dozen touch-screen kiosks. There, you can either scan your Magic Band (more on that later) or just scroll through the menu. Everything has pictures, and it’s easier than shopping on Amazon. Swipe your credit card, and the Disney helpers hand you a “rose,” a puck-sized plastic doodad. “Just take it to your table,” they say, “and we’ll do the rest. Be our guest!”

Enter then the massive ballroom, built in the style of the movie, or one of two other ante-chambers. We picked a spot and put our rose on the table. I had my suspicions, so I felt the underside of the table. In maybe four minutes, a waiter rolled up a gorgeous glass-domed cart you might see on the Orient Express, packed with all our food.

How did they find us in the crowd? The rose was a wireless beacon, and the table surface was an antenna, telling the kitchen staff where to deliver the meal. Sure, we had to fill our own soda cups, but wow!

Let me point out here that the other dining option was an outdoor hot dog window where hapless tourists were staggering around with overstuffed cafeteria trays trying to find an open table in the middle of the riot scene. Rough.

Let me also point out that this was July at Disney and the park was absolutely packed. Everywhere we looked were herds of Brazilian tourists. (Where do they all come from?) And it was absolutely peak time for everyone needing lunch and a break from all that happiness.

By contrast, I counted 300 to 400 guests of our restaurant, all of them lounging in the air-conditioned splendor, absolutely unrushed to leave.

Putting on my business reporter hat, I tallied the infrastructure advantages of Disney.

One, Disney has literally millions of prisoners, er, “guests” already resigned to spending heavily for the merest of sustenance.

Two, Disney has a tightly controlled environment. They know exactly how many people have tickets for that day, and when they’ll get hungry. ((#guests X 3meals)/~45mins)=$

Three, Disney guests are mentally prepared to try new things — things like tablet/kiosk ordering.

Four, Disney’s ride turnstiles and “FastPass” system helps the company know a lot about where many guests will be — i.e. clumped around the Swiss Family Robinson tree at 10:30 a.m. or at Space Mountain at 4 p.m.

Still, the whole “Be Our Guest” system revealed some major advantages that any restaurant or shop would crave. The menu has a fixed set of items, so many can be pre-made. Also, the second a guest taps the touchscreen with his or her choices, the kitchen staff can start work while the guest finds a table, not the other way around. Payments are made before guests sit down, not after.

Add to all this Disney’s Magic Band system of wireless wristbands, each one tied to a guest’s credit card account, and many guests never pull out their wallets to spend money. They just tap their wristbands on a sensor. Forget the guest feeling like it’s magical — that’s a retailer’s wish upon a star come true.

Add to all that the “FastPass” system, which lets guest sit down days or months before their trip and schedule meal times, ride times, character visits — anything. It’s not the easiest system. I estimated one in 10 families walking around were arguing, and more than half the time I heard the phrase “FastPass” preceded by an expletive.

But when FastPass worked, it worked like a dream come true. We walked right onto rides where the normal line stretched to more than an hour. (A million billion thanks go to my wife for all that scheduling.) There’s no exact word in English to describe the venomous glances we received from people standing in line as we sauntered past them onto rides. The term “envy” doesn’t have enough horsepower. “White-hot hatred” is a bit closer.

Lots of companies are trying mobile payments and automated ordering of some kind. Starbucks is doing well with it. Fandango works fine for ordering movie tickets you pick up at the theater, but I rebel at paying extra for it. Chipotle’s online ordering system works fine, and many, many people check in at airports via kiosks. Home Depot is trying PayPal systems so you can pay in the aisles, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s done it. Some Starwood hotels have a system that detects the presence of preferred guests in the lobby, text-messages them their room number, and their phone unlocks the door. Savvy.

In last week’s column, I wondered if we’re moving toward a “post-human” world of service. Yes, 1-800 call center systems truly stink, and everyone hates them. But there’s no reason, really, why we should have to deal with a cashier when ordering a No. 1 Value Meal at Burger King. It’s not that complicated. A kiosk would do.

Most likely, we’re in a shaking-out phase. Some systems will work well in some places. Some will flop. Disney clearly has at least one system that works, like magic.

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Tags: disney, mobile payments

Photo credit: Disney's MyMagic+ bands and the RFID-enabled iPhone check-out system at Walt Disney World resorts. Jason Clampet / Skift