Disney Begins To Embrace RFID Technology

Now the company that carries on his name and his legacy continues that love affair with technology.  There have been many stories recently about how Walt Disney will use RFID technology.

What is RFID?  Short for radio frequency identification, RFID uses wireless radio signals to transfer data without the need to make contact between the sending device (like a credit card) and the receiving device (like the card reader).  Some RFID transmitters don’t even need batteries – they are powered by the devices that read them.  And some RFID technology is incredibly small – approaching the size of a single grain of rice.

There are already many uses of RFID in industry today – from tracking the building of a car on an assembly line to monitoring the movement of pharmaceuticals through a factory.

Let’s take a look at how Disney is using this technology, and how they might use it in the future.

Admission Tickets

In 2011 Disney started testing Disney World tickets at Epcot that didn’t involve the typical turnstiles for part entry (Source).  Instead of inserting the tickets in a ticket reader that slides the ticket through the machine, guests instead just held the ticket up to a device (complete with Mickey Mouse shaped logo) that read the RFID in the ticket when it was close.  Guests still had to scan their fingers, just as they do with the old-styled entry methods.

As part of the test, guests who already tickets had a Cast Member put a sticker on the ticket.  The sticker actually contained the RFID chip.  The Cast Member scanned the paper ticket and scanned the RFID, most likely to associate the two different identification numbers together.

The entrance gates at Epcot were home to one of Disney's many tests of RFID.
The entrance gates at Epcot were home to one of Disney’s many tests of RFID.

The physical turnstiles in one section of the Epcot admission area were removed and instead the RFID reader devices lined an open area.  After scanning the tickets, guests just walked through a clear opening.  There were Cast Members to ensure that everyone scanned their tickets and to help with questions or issues.  Reports state that people who tried this process found tickets scanned very quickly.  The lines moved fast as well since they weren’t help up by the churning of the turnstiles or issues in getting wheelchairs or strollers through gates.  There were no physical gates or barriers at all.  There were just the RIFD readers and Cast Members to monitor the flow of people.

Room Keys

The door locks at Disney’s Art of Animation resort will use RFID technology instead of the typical “credit card swipe” technology (Source).  Just like with the admission tickets discussed above, guests don’t have to slide their room key through a reader to access their room.  Instead, when their key gets close to the lock, it opens.  Imagine the convenience of returning to your room and, instead of fumbling for your room key and at the same time you are dealing with arms full of bags or children, knowing that your door will unlock when you hold the key close to the lock.

Refillable Drink Mugs

Here is a use of RFID that has created just a bit of controversy.  Disney conducted at test at Disney’s All Star Sports Resort hotel by installing RFID chips in both disposable soda cups in refillable mugs (Source).  The idea behind the disposable soda cup is that you get unlimited refills for one meal.  And the idea behind the refillable mugs is that you get unlimited refills for your current stay.  Unfortunately, some guests abused the policy – using disposable soda cups for multiple meals, and refillable mugs for multiple stays.  While this abuse might seem like a minor violation of the rules, when you multiple the abuse by some portion of the 100 million people who visit annually, Disney was probably losing some serious revenue.  There are actually stories that groups of ten people buy a single mug and then use it to provide drinks for everyone in the group.

The RFID chips allowed the soda machines to fill the disposable cups for a period of two hours, and the refillable mugs for fourteen days.  This prevented reuse on future visits.  They also allowed a fill up for one minute out of every five.  This prevented filling up additional containers.

There were mixed reactions to this test on the internet.  Some people said that it was unfair and that Disney was penny pinching.  However, it was just technically enforcing the rules – and was preventing abuses that, sadly, take place.

NextGen Initiatives

Disney has been working on a number of projects under the umbrella of “NextGen” where The Walt Disney Company is investing a cool $1 billion to improve the theme park experience for guests (Source).  Many people report that items like new interactive queues in attractions like Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion are part of the overall effort.  However, it is hard to say just want NextGen is or when it will be finished – the initiative has been mostly secretive, to the extent that some employees have been required to sign confidentiality agreements so they don’t discuss their work even with other Disney Cast Members.

One rumored aspect of NextGen is the use of RFID chips implanted in either Disney World tickets or admission wrist bands.  The idea is that guests would provide personal details, like their credit card information or their favorite Disney characters, before they arrive.  Then the RFID chips would connect to sensors in the park to customize and improve each guest’s experience.  Jim Hill has also written that guests will be able to book Fast Pass times before arriving in Orlando for their vacation – in effect reserving rides, parade viewing, and meals in advance, and then enjoying them with little wait (Source).  And it seems possible that the guest’s RFID admission ticket would control all the pieces.

More To Come

It seems that like many other companies, The Disney Company is looking to capitalize on RFID.  Whether it is to speed theme park admission, enforce rules on soda, or pull together various components of a new and more personalized Disney World vacation, it will be fun to see what Disney’s future with RFID will bring.