Big Data at the Magic Kingdom – a blessing or a curse?


It used to be the case that retail or telco or utilities were the markets that were getting the IT world abuzz with stories of big data analytics and making money out of large and complex data, markets where customers can be very fickle and operating margins very tight.  But an article earlier this year in the New York Times shows that big data and the ability to collect, transact, manage, analyze and act upon it is just as applicable to markets with which we wouldn’t normally associate data.  The big data analytics and reporting needs of retail organizations and telecom operators are by no means passé, but theme park operators and leisure companies are harnessing the big data wave, too, in order to deliver better customer service, up their game and drive profits.   It seems that Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy are on hand to act upon big data, too.

The article showcases the great wealth of information that not only can be collected on theme park visitors’ habits – from what rides they prefer to what signature Mickey Mouse keyring they chose as their souvenir of the day from the gift shop – but also on significantly improving the user experience.  By dispensing with coupon tickets, turnstiles and, in some cases, cash, Disney is now planning to arm its visitors with electronic wristbands and getting them to use them for purchases in the park as well as check in at sensors in order to ride they favourite attraction.  As such, not only can Disney ensure that visitors don’t waste half of the day by standing in line, they can also ensure that they are happier and potentially spending more money in their stores.  Families can pre-register online to ride at 1pm and turn up just 5 minutes beforehand and swipe their wristband.  That certainly beats getting in line at 11am and waiting 2 hours in the soaring heat for the 90 second ride.  Sounds good, right?

Sure, for the park operators this harnessing of the big data generated by all this online and sensor activity and using it to their advantage sounds great.  If they can reduce waiting lines, improve the user experience and fully digest who does what when, who buys what when and who wants to see what attraction when, then the park operator can tailour the park to meet the needs of the consumer and profit accordingly.  Happier guests will recommend the park to their friends, happier guests are sure to return themselves and happier guests may even spend more in the park’s stores, given that they are spending less time in the lines waiting for the rides.

But isn’t this all a little too much?  Especially when theme parks are a place to go to escape from the realities of life for a while?  You might argue that the simplicity and innocence of theme parks – especially Disney and the market it serves – will be lost in favour of a system where it is all about gleaning as much information from the visitor as possible and using it to the operator’s advantage.  Will parents be happy standing with their kids on their shoulders watching the parade of smiling cartoon characters on Main Street knowing all too well that theme park operators are busy behind the scenes analyzing, crunching and mining information about them and their activities both done and pre-planned for the day ahead?  Or is this now just the way of the world?  After all, theme parks are businesses, too.

With all things in life and certainly with big data and personal information, you have to find the happy medium.  I am sure that parents who pre-register their childrens’ information into the parks’ systems will not want to divulge too much data, nor have that information abused, but then they might appreciate the fact that their kids’ wristbands will tell Cinderella that one of them is celebrating a birthday and have the cartoon character wish the kid a very special day automatically.

While it is fair to say that theme park and leisure companies do need data in order to compete more tactically – somehow building a newer, faster rollercoaster ride doesn’t seem to cut it anymore these days – it is also fair comment to make that theme park operators need to be sensitive to the needs of their customers:  offering a tailour-made and extra-special experience at the Magic Kingdom sounds great, but overstepping the mark and making it too intrusive can do untold damage to the theme park company and its reputation.

But whether you believe it to be a good thing or just way too over-the-top, my guess is that digital wristbands and data analytics at theme parks are here to stay.  It seems that no business can afford not to embrace and ride the big data analytics wave.

About Sean Jackson

Sean Jackson is the marketing director for EMEA and APAC at Actian. Sean has an insatiable appetite to travel, ski, improve his photography skills, write, become a master of Adobe Creative Suite, play the piano, speak a variety of languages, and discover more about the world of big data analytics and Hadoop.

View all posts by Sean Jackson →

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