Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Webslinger Holiday

I spent a few days in Orlando Florida at their amusement parks and have come to two conclusions:
  1. Mobile devices are invaluable for park visits
  2. I'm sick of simulated/3D rides
I blogged about these topics before, such as Disney World's increasing use of digital media and Canada's Wonderland's poor mobile app.

Although, I have been to a few theme parks, when it came to Orlando my family always went to Disney World and nowhere else. So this trip I decided to try Universal as well as Disney World. I heard the rides are more wild at Universal (partially true) and I was eager to see their Marvel Super Hero Island (awesome!).

So now that I have been to Universal, Disney's main competitor, and also recently at Canada's Wonderland (North America's most visited seasonal amusement park), I am able to compare North America's top amusement parks on their use of digital media and mobile technology. Disney is definitely a leader in this area (although they have inferior postcards, see my other blog's post, Universal Postcards Best in Universe).

Universal Studios Islands of Adventure with pictures of Marvel superheroes
Since I was last at Disney World a few years ago, they made huge changes in their use of user tech. So here's my recap of the cool things the parks are doing...

RFID Bracelets for Visitors
One of the most noticeable changes is that Disney has replaced park tickets and cards with RFID-enabled wrist bands called MagicBands. These bracelets not only provide entry to one's hotel room and park (with fingerprint scan needed as well), but can also be used for food and gift purchases (with pass code provided as well), claiming photos from rides or Disney photographers, using FastPasses, or for a new interactive game.

I liked the bracelets as they are quick and easy to use and worked flawlessly. I like that I didn't have to whip out my wallet all the time, as I have habit of losing it. I also like that the bracelets are waterproof, so I can wear it in the pool and don't have to worry about someone stealing my room key or wallet.

I don't believe the privacy concerns raised are a worry - seeDisney's privacy policy.My only complaints about the RFID bracelets are that I did find it uncomfortable to wear on hot days. Unlike other parks and resorts that make guests wear a wrist band, MagicBands can be easily removed. Also, Disney sells accessories for them, "Band Its", but they always kept breaking or falling off, much to my daughter's upset (and wasting $20).

Planning Online - Gaining Efficiency, Losing Spontaneity
Disney has made increasing use of the Internet to allow people to pre-plan their trip for booking dining reservations and passes to rides and shows.

My favourite example of the technology combining masterfully was for our lunch at Be Our Guest restaurant at Magic Kingdom. We had pre-ordered our meal online months in advance. Within moments of sitting down at a table, a server brought our meal to us, without us having talked any waiters first. The RFID bracelets alerted the kitchen of our order and provided our location for the server to locate us.

Disney allows guests purchasing park tickets in advance to book three passes a day to rides, shows, or character greetings. These FastPasses allow one to skip the queue. I find Disney's system to be much more fair than other parks (Canada's Wonderland and Universal Studios charge people almost double park admission to get such passes). It's also better than Disney's prior system, which required people to physically go to the ride every day to claim a ticket - you had to be there early before the day's allotment of passes ran out.

Having had a miserable time at Canada's Wonderland recently where we had to wait in line at least 30 minutes for every single ride and up to 1-2 hours for top rides, I won't go back to a park in-season without such a pass. I hate waiting in line in the full sun (as Wonderland makes guests do) for the bulk of my day and paying about a $100 to do so. The only down side to such passes is they instill a forced rigidity to one's schedule that doesn't facilitate unstructured fun or serendipitous surprises. But it does free up 3-5 hours of each day that would otherwise be spent in queue hell, so that more than makes up for a loss of spontaneity.

Mobile Devices a Must
All of the trip planning done online gels beautifully with Disney's mobile app My Disney Experience.

Disney provides free wifi at the parks and hotel rooms and grounds - as does Universal. For all parks, we found coverage is not great and there are many places where no coverage is available. We were only able to connect to wifi in about half to two thirds of any of the parks. As one is frequently moving around at the parks, it wasn't a huge problem, but it really should be improved.

When we were able to connect to the Internet, having a mobile device was invaluable.

We loved Disney's mobile app. It's effectively displays one's plans (restaurant reservations, FastPasses, parades, etc.)day-by-day at a glance. The app makes it easy to see restaurant availability and book reservations (we were able to get a character dinner that surprisingly came available for a few minutes). It also makes it easy to change one's FastPasses too - up to the day of the pass. Supposedly, after one has booked their three allotted FastPasses of the day, the app should allow one to book new FastPasses - but this feature never worked for us.

I loved Disney's GPS-enabled map feature. I have never been to any theme park where I was able to find my way around - or find a washroom - without great difficulty. I usually refer to a park's printed map at least 2-3 times every hour at least. And I still had to as it often was the case that when I needed directions, I couldn't access Disney's wifi.

Disney's app shows wait times for all rides, which is great for planning one's park visit to maximize ride time and minimize queue time. Disney didn't use to provide this info beforehand, and we had to go to a third party website to get it. So I'm glad they have it now. We were asked twice while entering a line to carry a device that tracked our wait time, so I know the info was valid. And it was highly-accurate - always within 5-10 minutes and usually over-estimating the waits.

Disney's app also shows upcoming parades, shows and character greetings. I don't like that the app shows only the one next character appearance and not the full schedule. The character schedule was inaccurate occassionally too. The biggest Disney disaster was when we waited for 30 minutes for a character greeting and the character didn't shouw up, causing my daughter to burst into tears. Character greetings for her (and many other children and adults) is as important as rides, so this is something Disney needs to do correctly.

I didn't use Universal's mobile app as we had almost no wait times for rides (YES!) and the park are well laid-out so it was easy to find my way around. My wife used it and it has similar features to Disney's.

This is the first trip to an amusement park where I brought my mobile device. It was invaluable to be able to email my partner when we split up. But it does have the down side of also getting work emails at the park (but then addressing work problems while at the "Happiest Place on Earth" is better than coming home to the dreaded email avalanche the first day back).

This is also the first trip that we didn't bring a separate camera. It made things much lighter and generally our mobiles provided satisfactory quality (except for night photos).

One thing I hated is that both Disney and Universal had services or interactions that relied on text messages and don't allow emails as well. This is really stupid as many visitors are from out-of-town. Roaming charges being what they are, we had our voice and data plan turned off. You'd think the companies would know this and allow email which works on wifi.

Augmented Reality App - Potential but Problems
My daughter, like most young girls, loves the movie Frozen. So while she was playing at Wandering Oaken's Trading Post, I noticed they offerred an augmented reality experience there. It required the app Aurasma. Aurasma claims to be the world's leading augmented reality app, but I had to download it for this.

Apparently, this Aurasma installation is notoriously buggy. In general, I have had dismal track record with a.r. apps, see my past post on this (do they ever work well?). My wife has a newer mobile device, so I first tried it on her Android device, but even I and two Disney employees couldn't get it to work on her mobile. It worked, if inconsistently, on my old Nexus oddly enough.

Disney only has configured the app to work on two spots at Oaken's. When working, trolls or reindeer appear on your camera screen, do a brief action and then pose for photos. The final picture quality wasn't that good though.
It was a lot of trouble to get working, so I was disappointed Disney only used it so seldom. I read they have an installation for Star Wars weekends - but why only then?

If Disney made more use of installations throughout the parks and could make the tech work on more devices and more reliably, it would be an amazing experience! Who wouldn't like finding, seeing, and posing with Disney characters throughout the park and without long lines! It could also be used to help one find hidden Mickeys (I had to search mobile websites for this info).
Simulated Thrills
I have liked wild rides since I was a kid, but didn't have any friends or family that shared this passion. Until recently - my daughter just recently passed the height and courage requirements for wild rides. This has opened up a world of possibilities for me. I got to go on some great rides at Canada's Wonderland and I was expecting Universal to top this.

It seems, however, that Disney and Universal are focusing all development in rides on simulated and hybrid rides (a.k.a. motion-based 3D dark rides).

In short, some of them are great, but these parks have too many of them and after a few days of them they get boring.

Simulator rides are stationary rides that use 3D or large-screen projections and move the audience to correspond with on-screen motion to achieve the sense one is on a dynamic, moving experience. I didn't know until today that the world's first such ride was my hometown of Toronto's Tour of the Universe.

Most rides use a combination of physical movement, actual sets and animatronics, and "4D" techniques (vibrating chairs, scents, bubbles, lighting effects, fire, etc.).

First off, I like many others, hate wearing 3D glasses. In many cases, the glasses don't work well enough to justify their existence. They make everything darker and less sharp and they introduce a barrier between me and my immersion in a world. 3D is so common nowadays in entertainment and rides that it isn't a draw for me or my kid. At the worst they don't work - as happened for both me and my daughter at Disney Quest's Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold where problems with the 3D tech resulted in us both having double and blurred vision and ruining what would otherwise be a very fun and immersive game-ride.

Simulated rides also often don't deliver the same physical feeling as real rides and they don't offer the same perceptual level of experience. They are the only rides that have ever made me feel motion sick.

I did like Disney's Star Tours: The Adventure Continues - but probably only because it was themed as Star Wars and being in a rocket pilotted by a real C-3P0 while encountering Darth Vader is a fanboy's dream come true. Universal's The Simpsons Ride was similarly fun to be able to enter another world that would otherwise be impossible, but the actual ride part, as with other simulators, was lacklustre.

I also liked Disney Quest's personal simulated roller coaster, CyberSpace Mountain. I enjoyed this because it was the first personal simulator ride I've ever been on and I loved that the simulation was designed by my daughter and I.

Simulator rides would be better if there were less of them. But I found the best experiences were ones that were a hybrid between simulator and actual ride, such as Universal's& Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. But I don't like it when the ride stops for a long time as most of them do to display a short theme-related scene - interrupting the motion of the ride ruins the momentum of the ride experiences.

After many days of 3D shows and simulated rides, I was impressed by Universal's The Revenge of the Mummy ride. It makes engaging use of real sets, special effects, and projected imagery and a real roller coaster. It and Disney's Space Mountain are my favourite Orlando rides as they deliver unique, themed and wild ride experiences.

Real Interactions

Disney World has three interactive games that allow players to travel around the park and solve clues and play with the park environment.

  1. A Pirate's Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas @ Magic Kingdom
  2. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom @ Magic Kingdom
  3. Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure @ Epcot
We did all of them - except that we did the Phineas & Ferb one when it was themed as Kim Possible. Interestingly enough, each game used a different input method - the RFID bracelets for the first, cards for the second, mobile devices, and magic wands (that cost about $50). Disney provides the mobile devices for the Phineas & Ferb game - which I was dismayed as I'd much prefer to be able to use my own device (although I realize that ensuring compatibility and performance would impossible).

All the games have a similar structure. Players are given maps or instructions to travel around a park area and solve clues to find specific spots for their next interaction. Each interaction spot requires a player to confirm their presence by activating a site sensor through their input device. Then either a short video or audio clip will play that advances the narrative and leads a player to the next clue. This step may also involve the world responding in some way, e.g. a statue moves, a painting comes to life, a canon fires, or a treasure box opens, etc. Game play takes about 30 minutes and can be played at the player's own pace.

Universal Studios had just one interactive experience, and it isn't a game so much as just playing:
Universal is getting a lot of hype for the magic wand experiences which they launched earlier this year. But Great Wolf Lodge has had a very similar, and I'd say better, game, MagiQuest. We played years ago and it also allows players to interact and move objects in the real world.

The problem with both MagiQuest and Harry Potter wands is that the motions required are too complicated and the sensors are not sufficient. First, it is pretty much impossible to get them to work on the first try without having someone showing you. Neither Universal or Great Wolf Lodge have staff readily available for assistance, which results in lots of frustration. Fortunately, other park visitors noticed our problems and helped us out (as we did with others once we knew what we were doing).

So the only way to get these things to work is to find the sensor - which looks like a little camera - and do your "spell" pointed right at it. This totally ruins the illusion and immersion of the experience. Ideally, the sensors should not be visible, but people should definitely not have to perform for the technology.

Blogger Kristin Ford has excellent reviews of Disney's games (see review of #1#2 and #3). She points out the main problem with these is that if there is a queue for the spots the players ahead of you will spoil the surprise for you. We got our Harry Potter wand an hour before the park closed and the place was almost deserted. So it really was magically when we got to make the Harry Potter world come to life and were surprised by what happened. It is quite the opposite, when you are the fifth person in line to do the exact same thing.

My daughter loved the interactive experiences. Her favourite was Disney's Sorcerer's of the Magic Kingdom. She liked that there was more of a story than the other ones and that the cards worked seamlessly with the sensors. She also loved using and collecting the cards - and I like how Disney gives the cards for free (a pack a day) compared to the over-priced wands. She liked the Harry Potter wands, but wanted there to be a story element to the play.

Post Trip
We purchased the Memory Maker package for our Disney World visit. This gave us access to unlimited photos taken by Disney's ubiquitous photographers and automated ride photos. They also have two videos one for Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Tower of Terror but the latter's video broke down the day we were there.

Once we had our picture taken by a photographer, we had them scan our card or bracelet. The photos are automatically uploaded to our Disney online account. From their website sharing photos, downloading, or posting to social media sites is easy.

What I most liked about the Memory Maker photos was access to some special Disney stuff. They give some stock photos of Mickey and some characters we met (my daughter would have liked more of these). They also give access to Disney themed borders and clip art, that users can add to their pictures.

I wanted to be able to upload my own photos to get access to the borders and clip art, but Disney doesn't allow this. This is my biggest complaint - that and that purchasing any of their photo products (e.g. albums, mugs) are insanely expensive - about twice as much or more as equivalent photo providers.

Disney photographs offer some cool treats too. They have you pose a certain way and then Disney characters are automatically added in. My favourite is when my daughter was photobombed by the reindeer Sven.

Disney is really leading the way with amusement parks in using digital and mobile media to deliver fun and useful guest experiences. There are still some areas to improve, but they provide a great example of what can be done with this technology.

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