Is MyMagic+ Bob Iger’s Folly at Disney?

Lasseter

All of the talk about MyMagic+ and Bob Iger’s efforts to re-invigorate the parks with new technology came to my mind the other day when I recently came across a June 30th, 1983 internal Disney news publication. It was for Cast Members and was entitled, “Experimenting with Computer Graphics.” It featured a photo of John Lasseter and Glen Keane doing a computer graphics test based on the Maurice Sendak’s award winning children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. The article talks about the challenges of using computer-generated graphics in the wake of TRON, which had come out earlier.

Of course, the irony of this internal company promo is that shortly thereafter, John Lasseter was let go from the studio. Not only did studio heads like Ron Miller think it wouldn’t work, but so did some of Disney’s most legendary artists, to include Frank Thomas, one of the Nine Old Men and an artist admired by Lasseter himself. David A. Price, in his book The Pixar Touch, noted that Thomas at one point wrote a lengthy essay in which he seemed to argue that computer animation was a dead end. “Even today there is no electronic process that produces anything close to Snow White quality,” wrote Thomas.

Of course we know the “rest of the story” with John Lasseter, along with Ed Catmull, leading Pixar to becoming the animation giant it has become today. We now look back and think how stupid it was to think that computer graphics wouldn’t succeed. But do we limit our own thinking about what technology can do for us in the future?

When Bob Iger came aboard, one of three goals he had was to advance the use of technology in the organization. He not only saw to the purchase of Pixar, but embraced Steve Jobs as a member of the board of directors. More recently, he has added other high-tech leaders to the board, like Jack Dorsey (Twitter and Square) and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook).

But that high-tech effort is more than simply boardroom presence. For instance, the Disney Interactive group has recently invented a touchscreen that lets you feel textures. It’s a tactile rendering of 3D features allowing you to feel the contour of a map or the sharp points on a picture of a pineapple.

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In another project, they have created a special microphone that you can whisper into and then transmit that whisper directly to someone else’s ear through one’s fingertips.

Interesting as these may be, none of these technology efforts are as well known as MyMagic+, an enormous undertaking utilizing MagicBands and other features into the theme park experience. In the Disney blog community, this has become a very controversial project. It was judged and condemned before it has even fully launched.

In New York City, the common practice is that critics don’t judge a play before opening night. They don’t catch a rehearsal and then condemn it before its premiere. But critics sure are ready to dismiss MyMagic+. Remember, this initiative has yet to be fully introduced. Even among those who have already tried the MagicBands (though views on them have largely been favorable), it still isn’t fully implemented. At the time of writing this article, one of the key components involving the interactive magic itself hasn’t even been introduced.

A Disney Cast Member helping non-resort guests with their FastPass+ choices. Photo by J. Jeff Kober
A Disney Cast Member helping non-resort guests with their FastPass+ choices. Photo by J. Jeff Kober

Since the utilization of sound with Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney has embraced technology. People who love Disney know that the word “folly” was attached to several of Walt’s projects, Snow White and Disneyland being two big examples. Was he always successful? No. Just look at his efforts to create an immersive experience when Fantasia was released. That effort–creative as it may have been–didn’t succeed. But it did spawn what we know today in 3D efforts such as Captain EO and Mickey’s PhilharMagic. More importantly, Walt wouldn’t have experienced near the success if he didn’t embrace technology. So why fault Iger and the rest of the company for trying MyMagic+? You have to take chances.

I’m not trying to pour the company Kool-aid. I don’t know if this MyMagic+ will have a perfect outcome. It may not work. Or, it may even work, but still not be worth the price tag. But whether it succeeds or not, you have to admire a company that isn’t ignoring technology. “We keep moving forward, opening new doors” is the mantra of this company. Let MyMagic+ have its day. Judge the experience after it premieres.

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