Why I’m A-OK with Disney tracking me "NSA-style"
I recently spent a few days down in Disney World in Orlando—you might have noticed my two week writing hiatus—and like everyone else I was pretty curious about Disney's most recent billion dollar investment: Magic Bands. The wristbands, which utilize RFID and Bluetooth technology, were recently rolled out on a larger scale as part of the MyMagic+ program to streamline and de-stress some of the park processes. I’d heard they were “magical,” but after a few days in Disney the word magical basically loses all meaning.
Basically, Disney provides their guests with a plastic, waterproof wristband that contains a chip. The chip stores a credit card, room key, Fast Passes, and park entry tickets. It’s the same technology used in a SunPass (the Florida version of EasyPass). If you have a Disney Dining Plan, you use the wristband to pay. When you get to a ride, need to pay a meal, or get to your hotel room, you tap the band against the reader and go about your business.
I have to tell you, I loved it. It just made everything so much easier. If I wanted to get a drink or a snack, I just used the wristband to charge it. Plus it really limited the risk of getting locked out of your hotel room because you forgot your key. You just wake up, put on your wristband and you’re good for the day.
Logistically, it made things a lot easier. We didn’t have to hold on to paper slips for the fast passes or park tickets. In fact, because Disney uses your fingerprint to ensure that your entry card is actually your entry card, one of the problems I’ve run into previously was mixing up which ticket belonged to which person. But, with the wristbands, your name is printed on it—plus you’re wearing yours—so there aren’t any mixups. It’s a single device that eliminates a lot of the annoying parts about traveling. Not to mention you can set up Fast Passes on it before you even get to Orlando and avoid waiting in line for rides or returning to rides later.
If you’ve got kids—everyone I went with was over the age of 24—you can activate certain features so Disney characters will know to wish your kid a happy birthday when the child activates a sensor. This is a little creepy to me—I suffer from Xenohabilzoophobia—but if you’re a child, it’s probably really awesome Mickey knows your name. This a purely opt-in option and easily skipped. As an added bonus, they can be used to locate lost kids in the park.
Are they a security risk?
The wristbands made everything really convenient and simple, but there are critics who question the security of the bands. Chief among the grumbling have been a fear of “NSA-style” tracking comments.
While I can appreciate that mindset, there are two things that make that fear totally null and void. One, Disney’s security is legendary. In addition to employing over 1000 “cast members” in their security department, including plainclothes officers, when you’re in a Disney park you’re always on camera. If you think that not wearing the band will mean Disney doesn’t know where you are at all times then I have a bridge to sell you. Worrying about Disney knowing where you are or what you're doing as a result of wearing the band is pointless because they already do it. Disney is its own town. Much like Oz, they know and see everything. Moral of the story: if you’re worried about privacy and complete anonymity, Disney is not the place for you.
Secondly, all data stored on the chips is encoded so it’s just letters and numbers. As for credit fraud, each purchase on the card requires a pin number. Plus, you can control how much information Disney can gather from your wristband, which they will use for data about park users' habits. At the end of the day, you can opt out of the whole program and just go with the old-fashioned paper tickets and door keys, but I'm never going back.
At the end of the trip, an informal poll (of the five people traveling with me) was all in favor of the bands and everyone was a little bummed when we went back to the real world of keys, credit cards, and devices.