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Disney to make standing in line — and cash — passe

Digital system may raise privacy concerns, too

MagicBands encoded with credit card data can also carry personal information, opening the user to Disney marketing.

Disney via New York Times

MagicBands encoded with credit card data can also carry personal information, opening the user to Disney marketing.

ORLANDO — Imagine Walt Disney World with no entry turnstiles. Cash? Passe. Visitors would wear rubber bracelets encoded with credit card information, snapping up corn dogs and Mickey Mouse ears with a tap of the wrist. Smartphone alerts would signal when it is time to ride Space Mountain, without standing in line.

Fantasyland? Hardly. It happens starting this spring.

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Disney in coming months plans to begin introducing a vacation management system called MyMagic+ that will drastically change the way Disney World visitors — some 30 million people a year — do just about everything.

The initiative is part of a broader effort, estimated by analysts to cost between $800 million and $1 billion, to make visiting Disney parks less daunting and more amenable to modern consumer behavior. Disney is betting that happier guests will spend more money.

“If we can enhance the experience, more people will spend more of their leisure time with us,’’ said Thomas O. Staggs, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts.

The ambitious plan moves Disney deeper into the hotly debated terrain of personal data collection. Like most major companies, Disney wants to have as much information about its customers’ preferences as it can get, so it can appeal to them more efficiently. The company already collects data to use in future sales campaigns, but parts of MyMagic+ will allow Disney for the first time to track guest behavior in minute detail.

Did you buy a balloon? What attractions did you ride and when? Did you shake Goofy’s hand, but snub Snow White? If you fully use MyMagic+, databases will be watching, allowing Disney to refine its offerings and customize its marketing messages.

Disney is aware of potential privacy concerns, especially regarding children. The plan, which comes as the government is trying to strengthen online privacy protections, could be troublesome for a company that some consumers worry is already too controlling.

But Disney has decided that MyMagic+ is essential. The company must aggressively weave new technology into its parks — without damaging the sense of nostalgia on which the experience depends — or risk becoming irrelevant, Staggs said. From a business perspective, he added, MyMagic+ could be ‘‘transformational.’’

Aside from benefiting Disney’s bottom line, the initiative could alter the global theme parks business. Disney is not the first vacation company to use wristbands equipped with radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips. Great Wolf Resorts, operator of 11 water parks in North America, has been using them since 2006. But Disney’s operation, with an estimated 121.4 million admissions a year and $12.9 billion in revenue, is so huge that it can greatly influence consumer behavior.

“When Disney makes a move, it moves the culture,’’ said Steve Brown, chief operating officer for Lo-Q, a British company that provides line management and ticketing systems for theme parks and zoos.

Disney World guests currently plod through entrance turnstiles, redeeming paper tickets, and then decide what to ride; food and merchandise are bought with cash or credit cards. (Disney hotel key cards can also be used to charge items.) People race to FastPass kiosks, which dispense a limited number of free line-skipping tickets. But gridlock quickly sets in and most people wait. And wait.

MyMagic+ will allow users of a new website and app, called My Disney Experience, to preselect three FastPasses before they leave home for rides or VIP seating for parades, fireworks, and character meet-and-greets. Orlando-bound guests can also preregister for RFID bracelets. These so-called MagicBands will function as room key, parking ticket, FastPass, and credit card.

MagicBands can also be encoded with personal details, allowing for more personalized interaction with Disney employees. Now, the employee playing Cinderella can say hello only in a general way. But if parents opt in, hidden sensors will read MagicBand data, providing information needed for a personalized greeting: ‘‘Hi, Angie,’’ the character might say without prompting. ‘‘I understand it’s your birthday.’’

Guests will not be forced to use MagicBand, and people who try it will decide how much information to share. An online options menu, for instance, will offer various controls: Do you want park employees to know your name? Do you want Disney to send you special offers when you get home?

“I may walk in and feel good about giving information about myself and my wife, but maybe we don’t want to give much about the children,’’ Staggs said.

Still, once using the MagicBand, even if selecting the most restrictive settings, Disney sensors will gather general information about how the visitor uses the park.

Rumors about MyMagic+ have been circulating for months and offer a window into the likely debate.

“Although I know this type of technology is making its way into every facet of life, it still makes me feel a bit creeped out,’’ wrote Jayne Townsley on StitchKingdom.com.

Pam Falcioni, another StitchKingdom user, had the opposite response:

‘‘I think it sounds awesome. As far as ‘Big Brother’ watching over us as we wander the parks, anyone worried about ‘real’ privacy wouldn’t be wandering around a theme park full of security cameras.’’

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