Disney’s Magical Big Data Transformation

By investing in digital technology and big data, Walt Disney World Resort was able to increase attendance despite rising prices while maintaining the magical, personal experience that visitors have come to expect.

In 2013, Disney augmented its physical resort experience with data analytics in order to better personalize guest visits by understanding individual consumer preferences and broader trends.1 The overall program of big data at Disney Parks and Resorts was part the MyMagic+ technology suite, while the linchpin of this new initiative was a digital wristband Disney dubbed “MagicBands”.By investing in digital technology and big data, Walt Disney World Resort was able to increase attendance despite rising prices while maintaining the magical, personal experience that visitors have come to expect.

For customers, the RFID enabled MagicBands allow visitors to unlock their rooms, check in for attractions, and even pay for items.3 In addition, they gain from personalized benefits that Disney can unlock based on collected data. For example, park staff can greet visitors by name and Disney can recommend rides or activities based on previous habits. The wristbands also act as wearable credit cards, ensuring folks are less likely to pull out their wallets (or their phones) which can lead to a more immersive experience, allowing Disney World to deliver on its magical value proposition.

On Disney’s side, there are a number of benefits to collecting individual level data. First, Disney can now track movement through the park by monitoring which customers go on what rides and when.1 This data, especially when paired with additional demographic and psychographic information, can be used to target repeat visitors with more personalized marketing. It can also be extremely useful to increase overall park efficiency and monitor crowd control.1 For example, one 2016 report quoted Disney CEO Bob Iger saying that operational improvements from MagicBand data have enabled them to support around 3k more daily visitors during the winter holidays by “alleviating congestion and helping Disney allocate staff in critical areas.”4 As of EOY22, Disney World had not yet recovered to annual attendance levels seen before the pandemic.5 However, with 17 million reported visitors that year5, it’s still crucial to manage occupancy and wait times to ensure a good customer experience.

Investments in data analytics are not cheap, particularly when companies need to pay for both the data collection and analysis. MagicBands are said to have been around a $1B investment.5 This was a significant cost given the Parks and Resorts revenue for 2012 (at the time of wristband development) was only ~12.9B.6 In fact, Disney’s FY13 earnings report calls out that a portion of Parks’ and Resorts’ “[h]igher costs [in FY2013] were due to spending on MyMagic+.”7

In addition to this upfront investment, Disney had a number of challenges to overcome before being able to realize the full benefits of the data. Firstly, Disney had to ensure that park visitors actually used the bands the way they were intended. Wearables was still a relatively nascent market in 2013 (Apple didn’t launch the Apple Watch until 20148). MagicBands were said to be glitchy at first9 and people had to remember to charge them every night (each full charge only lasts approximately 8 hours).10 Secondly, once Disney had the data, they needed the right people and infrastructure to analyze it, draw conclusions, and implement subsequent recommendations. It’s not unbelievable that data analysis at this scale could require further investment in compute and storage capabilities. Addressing any talent gaps could involve hiring and training a new team (which takes time) or shifting employees from other areas of the business (which could disrupt ongoing operations).

While these are real challenges, it’s clear that Disney found a way to overcome them; park attendance grew from approximately 18.5M11 guests in 2013 to 20.96M12 guests in 2019, despite ticket prices rising from $9513 to about $125.14 But Disney’s big data story is not yet over as the world around the park continues to evolve. Future challenges that Disney could face with regards to their MagicBands and data initiatives are no less daunting than the ones that have been overcome. With the release of the Apple Watch (and other smart watches), Disney now is competing for wrist space. In addition, the MagicBands are no longer complementary for guests and cost an extra $15-$39 depending on the model.15 If Disney were to leverage existing technology like smartphones or smart wearables to collect data, they would likely need to collaborate closely with manufacturers and maintain multiple software versions to ensure coverage. Finally, data privacy continues to be consideration as individuals better understand the value of their personal data; Disney might see a drop off in willingness to participate if this concern grows.


1 Prakash, Anand. “Disney Data Analytics: How it Transformed the User Experience?,” Appventurez, Oct 13, 2023, https://www.appventurez.com/blog/how-big-data-and-machine-learning-drove-disneys-magic-globally#:~:text=Every%20guest%20at%20Disney%20world,entertainment%20venue%20a%20giant%20computer, accessed Oct 2023.

2 Toor, Amar. “Disney’s ‘MagicBands’ will track the movements and behavior of theme park attendees,” The Verge, Jan 7, 2013, https://www.theverge.com/2013/1/7/3845622/disney-world-magicbands-mymagic-data-gathering, accessed Oct 2023.

3 Hollander, Jordan. “Disney’s MagicBand: Breaking Down One of Hospitality’s Greatest Innovations,” HotelTechReport, Oct 28, 2022, https://hoteltechreport.com/news/disneys-magicband, accessed Oct 2023.

4 Walker, Russel. “DIGITAL LESSONS FROM DISNEY’S $1 BILLION EXPERIMENT: MARKETING AND OPERATIONS INTERTWINED,” Big Data to Big Profits, Mar 30, 2016, https://bigdatatobigprofits.com/2016/03/30/digital-lessons-from-disneys-1-billion-experiment-marketing-and-operations-intertwined/, accessed Oct 2023.

5 statista “Attendance at the Magic Kingdom theme park (Walt Disney World Florida) from 2009 to 2022,” https://www.statista.com/statistics/232966/attendance-at-the-walt-disney-world-magic-kingdom-theme-park/, accessed Oct 2023.

6 The Walt Disney Company, Fourth Quarter and Full Year Earnings for Fiscal 2013, p. 2, https://thewaltdisneycompany.com/app/uploads/2015/10/Q4-FY13-Earnings-Report.pdf, accessed Oct 2023.

7 Ibid, p.4.

8 Verizon “A timeline: A brief history of Apple Watch,” https://www.verizon.com/articles/smartwatches/brief-history-of-apple-watch/, accessed Oct 2023.

9 Murphy, Anthony. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Disney’s Magic Bands,” Theme Park Insider, Nov 2013, https://www.themeparkinsider.com/flume/201311/3756/, accessed Oct 2023.

10 Button, Danni. “Disney World Has a Problem Visitors Won’t Like,” TheStreet, Aug 10, 2022, https://www.thestreet.com/investing/disney-fans-experience-another-magicband-problem#:~:text=Some%20customers%20have%20reported%20some,worked%20for%20about%208%20hours, accessed Oct 2023.

11 Doctor Disney. “Global Theme Park Attendance for 2013 Released: Magic Kingdom Tops List Again,” Doctor Disney: The Ultimate Walt Disney World Guide, Jun 3, 2014, https://doctordisney.com/2014/06/03/global-theme-park-attendance-2013-released-magic-kingdom-tops-list/#:~:text=Magic%20Kingdom%20has%20topped%20the,Kingdom%20attendance%20figures%20for%202012, accessed Oct 2023.

12 statista “Leading amusement and theme parks worldwide from 2019 to 2022, by attendance,” https://www.statista.com/statistics/194247/worldwide-attendance-at-theme-and-amusement-parks/, accessed Oct 2023.

13 Disney Parks Blog “Magic Your Way: Facts on 2013 Walt Disney World Resort Prices,” https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/magic-your-way-facts-on-2013-walt-disney-world-resort-prices/, accessed Oct 2023.

14 Tolliver, Laura Jazmin. “Disney World tickets: How much did they cost the year you were born?,” Daily Commercial, Dec 3, 2019, https://www.dailycommercial.com/story/news/state/2019/12/03/disney-world-tickets-how-much-did-they-cost-year-you-were-born/2165796007/, accessed Oct 2023.

15 Powell, Joshua. “Are Magic Bands Free?,” MagicGuides, Feb 12, 2023, https://magicguides.com/are-magic-bands-free/#:~:text=They%20will%20cost%20you%20between,priced%20at%20just%20%2414.99%20each, accessed Oct 2023.


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Student comments on Disney’s Magical Big Data Transformation

  1. Cool example Eleanor — I had no idea this was a thing which I suppose dates me (was a big Disney fanatic as a child but could never get my parents to purchase Fastpass…!)

    Given what you mentioned about Apple Watch at the end, I wonder why Disney didn’t consider doing this through an app (smartphone penetration should’ve been pretty high in 2012, right?) in the first place, since wearable technology is expensive and the app could probably do all the things a wristband could do. Is the wristband appealing in itself for children and parents because the physical product makes it seem “exclusive”? Would they be willing to pay for an app subscription that would unlock their rooms, check in for attractions, and pay for items, and give all these personalised benefits, etc.?

    Or, given that these benefits seem to mostly accrue to Disney being able to better manage crowds, should Disney be offering an app like this for free to customers? That way it can get more people to enroll in it and can better target personalised offers and crowd control.

  2. Great work Eleanor! This is a really cool example, love the level of detail you were able to find on the MagicBands initiative. Admittedly I’ve never been to any of the Disney theme parks so I’ve yet to experience the Magic first-hand.

    I thought it was really interesting that they switched from providing the bands complementary to now charging guests for them. Do you know if guests are required to purchase a band to enter the park and it’s now an additional line item in the entrance fee or if they’re optional? If they’re optional, I wonder if that means Disney was able to capture most if not all of the value from that data around balancing park staff and resources and they now have enough historical data to rely solely on predictive models without needing to retrain them. That, or if they’ve found another method of gathering the same info behind the scenes (like scanning your pass on the rides or key cards when you check into your hotel).

  3. Thanks, Eleanor! I enjoyed reading about the MagicBands. I haven’t been to a Disney park yet, but I’m sold on getting one in the future. They seem incredibly user-friendly and offer intuitive benefits.

    I’m curious, to what extent do they leverage the collected data to enhance the customer experience? Do you know if they have tried incentivizing the customers by providing a record of their rides taken? Providing a record of their experience could make the visit feel even more memorable, potentially outweighing the initial cost. It might also be interesting to link this data to user profiles for added incentives, encouraging more visitors to use it.

  4. Great read, Eleanor! As someone who hasn’t been to a Disney park since being a kid, I’m definitely eager to try out the MagicBands experience. All I remember from my childhood memories are the long lines and being grumpy that it took forever to finally get on a ride – I’m excited to see the crowding control and operations efficiency make a difference in real time! One open question in my mind is why Disney doesn’t lump the price of the band with the admission prices – by requiring a separate purchase, I’m curious how they’ve impacted their perception as a company from the customer’s POV. Having it mandatory would also enable better data capture to predict operations optimization.

  5. Great post Eleanor! I’ve always thought that MagicBands were a great idea, and I’ve wondered if they have uses even after you leave the theme park. For example, if you go to the theater to watch the latest Disney movie, they could have a kiosk where you scan your band, and it could be a win for both sides: Disney gets more robust engagement and data on their customers’ behaviors, while you could get a freebie (like a coupon or prize) for scanning. As arguably the world’s biggest media company, Disney is all about capturing attention, and while they are doing a great job when their guests are on premise in their theme parks, wearables could be a great tool to expand that coverage. And because it’s opt-in, there would be fewer data concerns, since people can just choose not to use it if they feel uncomfortable.

  6. Good stuff! It’ll be really interesting to see how the war for wrist space ends up and how the outcome of that war impacts data science. On the one hand, I think people’s wrist space exceeds their attention spans, so wearables, provided that they are visually appealing, might grow in popularity. On the other hand, people might feel more surveilled by wearing a bunch of items that record information about them.

  7. Thanks for sharing Eleanor! If Apple were to partner with wearables brands, do you foresee any additional friction of adoption from the customers end?

  8. Excellent read, Eleanor! Your article does a fantastic job explaining how Disney’s MagicBands improve the park experience. It’s impressive how they use data to manage everything from crowd control to personalized experiences.

    However, I’m particularly interested in the data privacy aspect. MagicBands collects a lot of personal data, from location tracking within the park to purchase history. While this data is helpful for Disney to enhance the visitor experience, it does raise some questions.

    For instance, parents might be concerned about the data collected on their children. Kids are a big part of Disney’s audience, and data about their preferences and movements could be sensitive. As awareness grows about the value and risks associated with personal data, could this become a stumbling block for Disney? Might parents be less willing to let their kids use MagicBands if they feel the data could be misused?

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