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Disney NextGen could be the ticket

Orlando Sentinel

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February 22, 2011

If Disney is looking for a Fountain of Youth for its maturing domestic theme parks, this could be it.

As more details trickle out about its highly secretive endeavor known as "next generation experience" or "NextGen," it appears Disney may have hit upon a formula to revitalize some of its oldest assets.

This is more than giving Cinderella's gray-haired fairy godmother a shot of Botox.

At a reported cost of $1 billion, the effort could help cure some of the theme parks' biggest hassles that stand in the way of more happy, repeat customers.

When he spoke to investors last week, Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs revealed a few details of the mostly hush-hush undertaking that would freshen the park experience for new tech-savvy travelers who will demand a little cutting-edge mixed in with their Disney nostalgia.

He said Disney is targeting the things customers dislike the most: long lines, hotel check-in, worrying about missing certain attractions because of crowds or bad timing.

Put together what Staggs told investors with other reported elements of NextGen and you can easily imagine a scenario like this:

A mom, while watching the snow fall in New York, books her Walt Disney World vacation online. She decides where she wants her family to stay, where she wants to eat, reserves the times she wants to hit certain rides and shows, even enters her kids' names, birth dates and favorite princess or other character.

Before her family leaves town, they receive a package that contains wristbands with computer chips preloaded with their preferences and credit card number. That becomes their all-in-one hotel key, wallet and data download that helps personalize their vacation.

When they arrive in Orlando they step off the plane and onto Disney's Magical Express shuttle bus, which drops them off directly at the Magic Kingdom while their luggage is delivered to their hotel room.

Inside the park, they use their wristbands to pay for lunch and souvenirs. They walk onto the rides at the times they pre-booked from home with little wait. When the family's young children explore the newly made over Fantasyland, the princesses greet them by name after a reader scans their wristbands.

If mom or dad's plans change, they use their cell phones to adjust show and ride times. They even reserve a time to meet Mickey with little to no wait.

Such a scenario seems to be what Disney is going for with NextGen.

The company wants to remove the hassle factor and make the experience new again for a generation of parents who grew up on Disney themselves.

Spending so much money without a new blockbuster ride or attraction to go with it could be risky.

It's not a thrilling new expansion tied to a hot franchise, likeUniversal Orlando's hugely successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Potter sensation has surely increased pressure on Disney to show its big bet on technological upgrades will pay off in the long run.

The changes will roll out over the next few years, a time when the company's capital spending on its parks and resorts business is expected to soar.

Disney's spending on capital projects during the first quarter, nearly $1.1 billion, was almost as much as it spent on capital improvements to its parks and resorts during all of 2009.

And its capital spending this year is on pace to well exceed the $1.5 billion it spent in 2010. Included in this year's costs are the final payment on new mega-cruise ship the Disney Dream along with the construction of Aulani, a hotel and timeshare set to open this year in Hawaii.

Soon, NextGen will likely be counted as a major expense as well. If it can keep the parks feeling young, it will be well worth the investment.



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