Disturbed by NSA Spying? Disney World's New "Magic Bands" Track Guests

About a year ago, Disney announced that it would be moving away from paper tickets and instituting a system of "Magic Bands" -- computer-chipped, scannable, waterproof rubber bracelets that would work as entry ticket, FastPass, hotel room key, and credit card. Some preapproved Disney guests were first given Magic Bands to test this summer and fall, and more and more Disney guests who plan their trips online are starting to get bands in the mail now. Currently, use of the bands is optional.

When Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey dared to publicly criticize the bands, saying he was concerned about the privacy of millions of children, Disney's CEO, Bob Iger, barked, dashing off a letter calling him "ill-informed."

That was before Edward Snowden.

See also: Hard-Core Disney Fans Can't Be Corralled by the Corporate-Approved Fan Club, D23

The MyMagic+ "vacation management system" can track guests as they move throughout Walt Disney World and analyze their buying habits. If parents allow certain settings on the Magic Bands, employees playing characters will be able to see data with the use of hidden sensors --- so a child might walk up to Mickey Mouse, who says, "Hi, Bobby! Happy birthday!" Some rides will be designed so that there's interaction between the machines and people with Magic Bands in waiting areas, thus keeping guests entertained as they wait in line.

Would guests find this disturbingly Orwellian in a post-NSA-scandal world?

So far, the answer looks to be "no." The hard-core Disney fans who post on forums like Disboards, and all seem pretty excited to get their paws on their Magic Bands, gladly turn over their personal data, and test them out. Most of the criticisms seem more concerned with functionality than privacy.

Some say that everything worked swimmingly and that it was a relief to have a single device and not have to fumble for keys, tickets, and credit cards. Others complained about system glitches: One guest said that her daughter's band didn't work and that staff were not well-trained in how to resolve the problem, resulting in many hours trying to get tech support instead of riding rides. Other guests said they had trouble if the hotel was in one person's name but restaurant reservations were in another's.

Techy types, however, debated more substantial fears: Could the data on the wristbands be read by smartphones? What if someone copied and pasted your data and cloned your band -- and could use your credit card and get into your hotel room?

Disney has explained that the system is based on RFID -- radio frequency identification -- chips, the type of device that is in a SunPass. (Here's how they work.) and that all purchases made with bands would require a PIN number. Disney has also said that information gleaned from the band would not be used to market to kids under 13.

True to its incredible moneymaking form, Disney has also announced plans to change the bands from time to time, creating a market for "collectible" ones. The company also conceived of "Magic Band accessories" called Cover Bands and "Magic Bandits" -- little plastic characters that can be attached to the Magic Bands for personalization, like this little buttons you can stick in the holes in your Crocs. (Same target buyer?)

One mom was game to try out the bands, if a tiny bit skeptical. She just warned: If she encountered problems, she'd take her tourist dollars to the competitor, Universal Studios: "Kids are going to have to learn about Harry Potter. "

Guess the takeaway here is for the NSA: Just stamp some mouse-ear logo on your surveillance equipment and Americans will be downright delighted to let you monitor everything they do!

Send story tips to [email protected]

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Deirdra Funcheon