I just got back from Disney's Earmark Conference at Walt Disney World. This is a conference for Disney travel planners that carry the Earmark logo, which means they meet certain criteria for selling the Disney product. It comes with some nice perks for the agencies and this is one of them. This year's theme was all about the Magic Bands and I want to cover everything we were told so far even though there are likely going to be some changes as the system is rolled out over the next coming weeks. I also used the bands for eight days, so I have some practical experience with it as well.
Magic bands assistance area at the conference.
If you're traveling in the next few weeks, you may be part of the testing that's going on across property. If this is the case, you will likely have been notified by Disney or by your travel agent, but don't lose hope if you haven't been--we're finding that the situation is so fluid right now that you might think you're not using the bands only to arrive on property and find out that your resort is one that has been chosen for testing. Don't worry if this happens. You can set up the bands at check-in. We were told at the conference that it will be rolled out resort-wide by the second or third week in October. So let's get down to all the practical matters.
What's a Magic Band?
First things first: What are the magic bands? The magic bands are basically a Key to the World Card (KTTW) that you'll wear on your wrist. It holds all your basic information, including Magical Express, tickets, room key, dining credits, plus something new: Fastpasses, which I'll get to separately since it's such an important part of the story. Your information isn't stored on the band. Instead, it allows Disney cast members to access your information by touching one of the Mickey head sensors and then viewing it on their Ipad or computer screens.
The fun thing about the bands is that your name comes up in various places when you use the band, so Disney cast members can say "Welcome to the Magic Kingdom, Chris," or something to that effect, which adds a nice personal touch. They can also look into your file and know that you like eating Mickey bars at midnight, provided you're purchasing them with your credit card attached to the bands. In later months, there will be sensors at various places in the parks that can track your movements for crowd control purposes.
Say what? Okay, that just got creepy.
Every step you take, every purchase you make, I'll be watching you.
Look, I'll be honest. I read all the online diatribes about data mining and I got a little bit paranoid about it, but then I remembered that Disney already knows everything about me and my family because I use a Key to the World card already. They know what I buy, when I come back to my room, and they have a lot of my personal information on file to use as they deem fit, which incidentally, still still doesn't mean I get pin codes. Disney has said our information won't be sold to outside companies. I'm not worried about the new system but if you are, you can opt out. It won't make your vacation any less magical, although it might make getting fastpasses a little more difficult--no one can actually say yet since the system isn't fully in place.
Magic band sensors in the Magic Kingdom.
How Magic Bands Work.
Simply touch your magic band to the Mickey head sensor when the cast member tells you and it can charge to your account, admit you to the park, take away dining credits, or pay for a transaction. When entering the park, you'll first tap the Mickey head and then put your finger on the scanner (for guests ages ten and up). For transactions requiring money, you'll use a pin code which you'll set up when you check in. We talked to a lot of visitors in the parks and they seemed to love the convenience of using the bands. It definitely makes getting into the parks and paying easy (maybe too easy) when your hands are full.
We found this to be the biggest problem of all but keep in mind, this is the initial testing phase and there are bound to be bugs. Annual passholders are able to link to their reservation, but those who have a premier pass for Walt Disney World and Disneyland will have to call tech support to get a special number so that they can add their passes. We didn't find that out until many days into the trip because no one seemed to know this was an issue in the first place. Finally the tech support people at the conference we're able to link my pass. We also had an issue with some of the tickets we received as a group even after attempting to link those several times. We finally gave up on those. I suspect that those who buy their tickets from other sources will have the same difficulty, at least for the time being.
The good news is if you have a Disney package that includes tickets, connecting your tickets to My Disney Experience online or on your phone is automatic. You'll just put your resort confirmation into the system and Disney does the rest. It will also link your dining reservations and fastpasses. Next, you'll invite those who are traveling with your to join your group so that you can link fastpasses. We had a very large group and were able to link all our fastpasses. We were even able to link to those who came in later and who weren't on the system originally.
Magic bands go with everything, even your fancy dessert
from the California Grill.
Are They Comfortable?
Yes, surprisingly so. They've got little ridges on the underside of the band so that air can flow through. Yes, they still get a little bit sweaty, so we recommend not putting them on too tight. But they're comfortable enough that I flew halfway home before I remembered that I had it on. Apparently Disney put tons of research into making sure that these bands are not only comfortable but also hypoallergenic, so if you've got a latex allergy, it's safe to wear these.
One nice thing is that the bands are easily fitted to the biggest or the smallest wrists. That's because they come in two pieces. Here it is full-size:
And here it is with the outer portion stripped off to reveal a much smaller band:
I'm guessing that many women have wrists that are small enough that they would be comfortable with the outer band taken off, but since you get sweaty under the bands if they're tight, I would leave it on and just wear it a little bit baggy. Once you take the outer band off, you can't put it back on, as you can see from the picture.
Fancy a t-shirt that touts your love of the magic bands?
Currently, you can buy covers, "band-its", and sliders to decorate your magic band. Covers will keep you from getting a bit sweaty under the band and the sliders are cute.
You can also buy "band-its" which are similar to the Jibbitz kids you to stick in their Crocs. These tend to fall out, so I don't recommend buying them until that problem is solved. Or you could just adorn your magic band with the ones you find on the ground all over the parks.
One sad, lonely Kermit band-it on the ground in the Magic Kingdom.
How Do Fastpasses Work with the Magic Bands?
Okay, this is the big one and it's also the one people are the most worried about. Currently, you can choose your fastpasses 30 days out. When the system is completely online, Disney will move that to 60 days out. You'll simply log into My Disney Experience and choose your fastpass times on the appropriate date. If you're traveling with a group not on your reservation, invite those individuals and they will chose their times with you if they want--but they can also go at different times as well. You're not obligated to be together.
Obviously, the idea of choosing rides 60 days out is a little bit scary and just like with advance dining reservations (ADRs), the early bird is going to get the best times. So now you've got to coordinate parks, dining, and fastpasses? That sounds like a lot of work, especially considering that things change from day to day. Maybe everyone likes the Magic Kingdom so much they want to go a second day and skip Epcot? Or maybe you just want to sleep late or spend the afternoon at the pool. Well the good news is that these fastpasses can be changed, provided there is availability. So before your trip, as you continue to plan, you can make adjustments. Then, once you're on property, you can continue to change your fastpass times. Again, this is subject to availability but there's no reason to think at this time that there won't be at least some fastpass times available for same day selections. You might just not get your ideal times.
At this time, if you're not staying on property, you won't use a magic band. You'll still be able to get fastpasses the old-fashioned way. I'll keep you posted on any changes to this, but I don't see this being extended to off site guests for a while, if at all.
Pros and Cons in a Nutshell.
Overall, our group was really happy with the magic bands. Here are a few quick thoughts on the subject:
- Getting into the park is a lot faster, with less fumbling. I was shocked at how quickly the lines moved compared to the Keys to the World cards.
- Easy to pay for purchases, especially when you've got your hands full or are wrangling kids.
- Bands are waterproof so you don't have to bring much to the pool and you can take them into the water with you without worrying that they're going to get misplaced.
- I loved being able to leave with just my magic band and my phone in the morning when I went running (which of course meant I also went into the Boardwalk Bakery).
- If you're using an annual pass or DVC discount, you'll still have to pull your card out of your wallet. It's not currently showing up on your magic band.
- We encountered multiple problems with credit cards and tickets "falling off" magic band after they've been added. I tried to add my credit card at least three days in a row before I finally gave up. Each time the cast member said it was on there and we did a new pin and each time it didn't work. At least two members of our party arrived at the parks after attaching their tickets only to be sent back to their resort to have them added again. That's a lot of time wasted.
- Bands pop off easily. Most of our agents mentioned hitting them or catching them on something and having the bands go flying off.
- Since Disneyland is not online yet, you'll need to call tech services directly to have them attach your premier pass (all U.S. parks) to your band.
Despite some bumps, we were really happy with our magic bands. I recommend not leaving your credit card or room keys and tickets back at the resort in case you have some issues. The next 3 to 6 months are going to see a lot of changes, so remain flexible but have a back up (your tickets!) with you when you leave the room. I'll try to post any new changes here in the future. Meanwhile, if you want to hear more about my group's experience using the magic bands for eleven days and learn about what we were told by Disney at the Earmark Conference, please listen to the latest Mouse chat episode HERE.