Friday, February 18, 2011

Disney's Next Generation project? I have reservations.


Rumors have been building for a while now among Disney park enthusiasts about a top secret billion dollar investment Disney is making that will have a broad impact on the overall park-going experience. It's been code-named the Next Gen project, and speculation about what it would entail has been rampant.

This week Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs finally revealed many of the broad strokes of the changes as detailed in this Orlando Sentinel article. The goals of the project are said to address park guests' two biggest complaints: 1) spending too much time bored waiting in line and 2) worrying that they might not get to experience favorite attractions.

Waiting in long lines has always been one of the biggest complaints about going to a Disney park, and I'm glad to hear Disney is using creative ideas to address the problem rather than simply accept it as a necessary evil. Still, some of the ideas about what to do about it leave me a little concerned.

First, there's the idea of simply making waiting in line more entertaining. This concept isn't entirely new. Disney has several attractions with detailed, decorated queues that set the stage for the attraction to come (Expedition Everest, Muppetvision 3-D, and Star Tours for example), and in the last few years have added some electronic games to lines (Space Mountain, Soarin'), but the recently-unveiled new queue for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Disney World's Magic Kingdom took this to a whole new level. While waiting for their turn to ride through the Pooh stories in a honeypot, guests can play with a variety of Pooh-themed toys and games: springy Tigger pads, items in rabbit's garden that can be drummed or spun, gophers that jump out when you put your foot on certain steps, and lots more.

This is great. Some time spent waiting in lines is probably inevitable, so making that time more entertaining is an excellent idea.

Other ideas will attempt to lessen the time guests wait in line. There were some experiments last year with Disney giving guests a number and then letting them roam free in an area near the attraction while waiting for their number to be called. The new version of Dumbo the Flying Elephant coming to the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom will be doing this, letting groups roam and entertaining circus area while waiting their turn to fly.

I'm all for this idea too. You can enjoy your time waiting, but not have to feel like you're being enclosed and herded. As long as it doesn't slow down the wait any (and I'm sure they'lll fine tune it until it doesn't), this seems good too.

But one of the biggest changes in this latest announcement is the one that has me worried: making advanced reservations for visiting attractions before you even step foot in the park. This one... this could go either way. A little of this wouldn't be terrible, like as an incentive to stay on Disney property, you get to reserve a spot for one or two high profile attractions. But booking a lot of attractions ahead of time or planning out your whole day in advance? That's not what I want from a Disney vacation.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a planner. It's best to go into your vacation knowing what parks you want to visit on most days and go into that park with some general goals about which attractions are your top priorities and which you should hit first, but adapting that plan and following your whims throughout the day are imporant too. Who wants to be so stuck to a schedule that you have to worry about your next attraction appointment that you can't stop to admire park details or divert from your plans when you notice a short line somewhere else? A Disney vacation isn't just about hitting attractions, it's also about relaxing.

Early reservations and the Disney Dining Plan have already conspired to remove most spontaneity from dining in the Disney Parks. You used to be able to decide where to eat when you were hungry. Nowadays you have to reserve well in advance for most table service options or wait in a long line for the burgers. Bad as this is, it would be much worse if the situation repeated itself with the actual attractions. That #2 worry - not having enough time to visit your favorite attractions? It's not one I have now. Missing out on a something I feel like on a whim because all the reservations are filled? That I would worry about.

But hey, it's early yet. Maybe I'm fussing over problems that won't really occur at all. I think it'll depend just how much guests are allowed to pre-schedule. A little could be a benefit for the savvy traveler, a lot could be a headache for everyone.

This isn't all about lines and reservations, though. Staggs says the Next Gen experience is about making your trip more personal. I won't flip out too much about this yet, since we don't really know what it means. Will the talking Mickey Mouse of the future know your name before you tell it to him? That might be neat, I guess. Will Haunted Mansion spiel get rerecorded so they can say, "There's no turning back now, JEFFREY!" No, thank you.

If the park knows Donald Duck is my favorite character, will I start to see Duck touches everywhere? What if my real favorite is variety and being surprised? Can we program for that?

I hate to be too much of a curmudgeon or a luddite about all this. There are some ideas I love and others that have great potential, but one of the main appeals of the Disney parks has always been nostalgia. Even when it first opened, much of Disneyland was about nostalgia for bygone times. Today's parks feed on our nostalgia for rose-tinted old days and for our memories of visiting the parks in the past. That creates a situation in which the repeat consumer is especially adverse to really big changes.

These changes are coming all the same - to the tune of a billion bucks - money that could've also shortened the lines by adding several new high-quality attractions to increase the parks' capacity by the way. I'm not saying they won't be worth it, I'm just saying to be worth it, they're going to need to be awesome.

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