Disney World’s RFID Program And You!

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Features, The 626, Walt Disney World

Tagged: , , , , ,


Published on August 05, 2012 at 12:11 am with 39 Comments

RFID, is coming to a Disney park near you and much like winter is coming, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

For those of you living under the Tree of Life and who don’t know the story, it goes a little like this: Disney is starting to implement RFID chips into practically everything, from drinking mugs to next generation queues. They’re going to be a thing. A big thing. And it will probably change the way you vacation at Walt Disney World.

So, let’s try to look at some of the facts, what’s been done so far, and where is it going next.

For starters, RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. It’s basically a small chip that is embedded somewhere that sends and receives signals from another location. One of the biggest issues that arose last summer was when Disney started tested using RFID chips on refillable mugs and single use cups at the All-Star Sports Resort.

When it started, the online community was in an uproar. Limited refills, you say? How dare they! But let’s look at the facts about why that system was implemented and how it worked.

As most of you know, Disney offers refillable mugs to their Guests staying at certain resorts. You can buy one (or you get one for “free” when you get a dining plan), with the stipulation that you only use it during the length of your current stay. Disney puts you on the honor system, trusting its Guests to follow that one easy rule, and hoping everything is right in the world.

But some folks don’t play nice. They bring that mug back again. And again. And then again after that. Soon, the mug they bought in 2006 is looking awfully old school next to the brand spanking new ones from 2012 held by more ethical Guests.

So what does Disney do? Well, like any business, they’re putting a stop to it. Last August, they started testing a system at the All-Star Sports Resort which would limit the number of refills Guests can get using the RFID technology. Each mug will have a RFID chip embedded in it to keep track of your refills. When you get a refill, the drink dispensing machine will read the RFID chip and determine if you are eligible. If not, then no drink for you. Further, if you have gotten a refill with that cup in the last five minutes, then again, no drink for you.

You CAN, however, get water and ice. But that’s it, buddy. No more, no less.

Don’t think you folks buying a single serving cup can get away with it, either. You’re just as bad off. Those cheap Styrofoam cups ALSO have an RFID chip at the bottom, allowing you refills for up to one hour before the cup turns into a useless container (unless you choose to wear it as a cheap fez, which I wear mine as now. Because fezzes are cool).

Like I mentioned earlier, this entire debacle got the online Disney community into an frenzy.

“How DARE they limit my number of refills! I bought this mug back in 1999, and I can’t party like that without some Coca-Cola in my cup!”

Well, OK, maybe that isn’t an ACTUAL quote, but I’m sure someone, somewhere, has said that. Probably. More than likely. But maybe just in my head.

I know what you’re thinking, though. Sure, snagging a free refill with your mug from last year’s trip once or twice may do no harm. What’s a little free soda between old friends, right? But this issue isn’t really about those people. It’s about the folks who abuse the system. Yearly. About 10-12 times a day. In the grand scheme of things, a single refill of soda isn’t going to break the bank. But multiple refills, every year? That’s a lot of revenue lost.

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Let’s break it down by price.

A reusable mug costs an average of $12 to $14, depending on where you get it from. Assuming that the average price of a regular, single serving cup is about $3, a mug is the equivalent of 4 drinks. The average family will probably make use of all 4 of those refills, thus paying off the mug. If purchased on the first day of their average, seven day trip, I’d even go so far as to say that they would use that mug at least once a day, getting 3 extra refills for essentially nothing. But that’s a very low cost for Disney to willingly absorb for the upfront price of $12 for the mug itself.

Stick with me now, because we’re about to get all Donald Duck in Mathland up in here.

Looking at attendance rates, the average number of people visiting the Walt Disney World Resort in 2009 was about 1,400,000 a week. Let’s go out on a limb and say that 1/4 of those folks bought reusable mugs. So, if 350,000 mugs were sold at $12 a “pop” (you see what I did there?), that’s $4,200,000 right off the bat. That’s a lot of money.

Now, let’s take it a step further, and say about 1/4 of those mugs sold are brought back for next year’s vacation. So, 87,500 mugs are brought back, which is a loss of $1,050,000 of revenue for Disney. About a million dollars a week. Again, averaging it out, that’s about 52 million dollars a year. That… is more money than I can even begin to fathom.

Taking it even further, let’s talk about the number of folks who CONTINUE to bring that mug back. I’d say about 1/4 of those mugs, which is 21,875, come back to be used again and again, year after year. That’s another $262,500 a week, working out to $13,650,000 a year. Over ten years (which is possible, as I’ve seen lots of people with mugs that old), that’s $136,500,000!

So, again, what if those same mugs keep coming back, year after year? And then year after year after year after that? That money begins to add up quickly, which in turn, is a HUGE loss for Disney. Granted, I’m being VERY liberal with my numbers, and thinking that 20,000 mugs a week come back may be farfetched, but these are the type of numbers that Disney has to be looking at.

Now, some of you may be looking at the above numbers and saying “Who cares? They’ve been nickel and diming us for years, we should get some restitution.” Well, OK. I can’t really disagree with you on that. With recent price increases for tickets, along with everything else, I can definitely see where that frustration comes from, and for the most part, I’d have to agree with you. But you have to remember that, at the end of the day, Disney is still a business, and if they are losing money, they are going to find some way to recoup that cost.

So, in comes the RFID technology. But is it worth the price Disney is paying for it?

RFID isn’t anything new at Disney. In fact, they’ve been using it for years. Recently, however, there has been an influx of RFID through the Disney Company.

Ever been handed one of those lanyards with a red card just before you get on line for an attraction? You know, the ones that help determine the wait time, after you hand it to the Cast Member just before you get on the ride itself? That’s RFID at work right there! Disney’s PhotoPass card works the same way. The photographer takes your photos and scans your card to make sure all your vacation memories wind up in the same place. Aboard the new Disney cruise ships, Disney uses RFID in room keys to allow visitors to open their room doors, make purchases, and tons of other things as well. Recently at Disneyland, RFID chips are being sewn into Cast Member costumes to help organize and sort them.

While the RFID technology is all very similar, Disney does get different types of RFID chips from different companies. In the case of the drink dispensers, they are using ValidFill. According to their website, “ValidFill, LLC uses a patented solution to bring intelligence to beverage dispensing utilizing RFID Technology. By adding intelligence to the beverage transaction we measurably increase Food and Beverage revenue while positively affecting guest satisfaction, register throughput, shrink, and sustainability efforts. With the help of our partners, we are currently working with companies such as Royal Caribbean International, The Dollywood Company, and Osceola County Schools.”

With a little bit of a 1984-like feeling, according to their site, these chips can be used to track the cup type (hot or cold), cup size, location and date of purchase, number of times it has been used, number of refills remaining, and the last time it has been used. Not only is that pretty amazing, but Disney will get some pretty interesting statistics out of the deal.

The ValidFill system will allow you about 70 seconds for each refill before cutting you off. The handy dandy screens on the dispenser inform you when your next refill is available.

While they don’t include any prices on their site, further research shows that the same type of RFID chips that Disney is using for this venture cost about 7-15 cents apiece. Considering that Disney is buying them in bulk, we have to assume they are closer to the cheaper side of that range, if not even below it.

So, in the long run, after their initial investment into the system itself is paid off, Disney is spending very little per mug for RFID technology. They will be able to recoup most of their losses if they decide to implement RFID across all their Parks. Which, of course, they will.

We’re begun to see RFID stations pop up in front of attractions in the Magic Kingdom. We’ve heard about the incoming X-Pass (or whatever they are calling it now), which will allow Guests to schedule ride times months in advance of their actual trip. Heck, even the Sorcerer’s of the Magic Kingdom game uses a form of the RFID technology. Though not officially announced yet, it’s very probable that the new Disney App for iPhones, My Disney Experience, will interface with the RFID technology for the X-Pass.

Of course, people are going to call foul when it all starts rolling out for real. They always do, and already have. In the end, though, we can rightfully assume that this technology is here to stay. Disney is throwing a lot of money into this. Within a few years, this whole thing will be forgotten, and using RFID will be the norm. Instead of your grandparents telling you how they had to use an E-Ticket to get on the Haunted Mansion, you’ll be telling your grandkids how you actually had to stand in a line before getting onto a ride.

“There was no reserving your spot on Space Mountain months in advance…we had to walk barefoot, uphill, in the snow, if we wanted to enjoy Stitch’s Great Escape!”

So, prepare yourselves for RFID. It will be here soon, and it will become part of your everyday Disney life.

What are your thoughts on RFID? I’d love to hear what you guys think about it!

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Come celebrate EPCOT’s 30th Anniversary in style with a live taping of MiceChat’s Communicore Weekly! Join co-hosts Jeff Heimbuch & George Taylor, along with MiceChat’s Dusty Sage, Kevin Yee, and the Communicore Weekly Orchestra, for a fun-filled night of fandom and frivolity as they tape a special hour long episode of the hit show, Communicore Weekly.

Join us on the evening of Saturday, September 29th 2912 in the Norway Pavilion Special Events Lounge in EPCOT’s World Showcase for this one of a kind event!

Your ticket includes:

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by Jeff Heimbuch

If you have a tip, questions, comments, or gripes, please feel free email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

You can read past columns of The 626 by clicking here!

Jeff can help you plan your perfect Disney vacation with Fairy Godmother Travel! Call him at 732-278-7404 or email him at [email protected] for a free, no-obligation quote for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani or Adventures By Disney.

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About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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  • PSUMark

    Bill’s right.

    Want further evidence that ValidFill was abandoned? Visit Art of Animation. The latest Disney resort uses traditional fountains – no RFID. If this was something they were rolling out resort wide, it’d make sense that AoA – which only opened in June – would have it built in from the start.

    But ValidFill just doesn’t make sense. Tagging every mug/cup likely results in greater cost than the soda lost due to people abusing the system, even without the guest dissatisfaction.

    “it’s very probable that the new Disney App for iPhones, My Disney Experience, will interface with the RFID technology for the X-Pass.”

    For this to work, you’d need either an RFID chip or reader (or both) in the iPhone hardware. Neither exists.

    I have to agree with Bill – this article was kind of a bust. There’s so much misinformation here it really should be taken down or rewritten. I normally appreciate Jeff’s content but this isn’t up to MiceChat’s quality standards. About the only thing in the article that was true is that XPass is coming to WDW and will make extensive use of RFID tech.

  • Jeff Heimbuch

    Hey guys!

    Thanks to everyone for the comments so far, and I’ll be addressing most of them later or tomorrow, but I just wanted to respond to both Bill and PSUMark’s at the moment:

    ValidFill may have been a bust at ASM, but I’ve heard from some pretty reliable sources at WDW that that isn’t the end of the technology being used in the food courts.

    As for RFID being used in mobile hardware and smartphones, that is most definitely coming. Integrating RFID has long been rumored in iPhones, and it is already included in some other smart phones. It’s only a matter of time, with Disney becoming so wired, that it will begin to use Guest’s phones as a way to interface with their systems.

    • theswillmerchant

      Jeff, this article is great because it had both a Game of Thrones, and a Doctor Who reference. Well done, sir.

      • travelskip

        Bowties are also cool.


    Interesting, but can it solve the problem of unauthorized pool hopping?

  • Algernon

    Not only is RFID on it’s way, so is facial recognition software. One click of a mouse and they’ll know who you are, where you live, and everything else about you. Of course you won’t mind–because the average park guest will be able to do the same thing with his or her cell phone, down the road. And, if they choose, their Google glasses will give them a reasonable idea of what you look like without clothes on–all in real time. I guess the only way around it will be to wear cloaks and veils everywhere we go.

  • FredSimmons

    I wouldn’t mind Disney being outraged by being ripped off, if Disney didn’t charge outrageous prices in the parks to rip off its captive customers every day. They know that once in the park, you have no other choice than to pay whatever price they demand, or go without. It’s OK for the company to take advantage of the customers on a regular bass, but it’s not OK for the customers to take advantage of them when it comes to a lousy Coke? More than a little hypocrisy in that…

    • Algernon

      Two wrongs don’t make a right. Stop at Del Taco or McDonald’s along the way, get really full, don’t eat at the park, and drink only from the water fountains. If everybody does that, they’ll have to lower their prices.

    • rmsongs

      Nobody’s forcing anyone to visit Disney World. Yeah, the prices are high, but everyone knows that going in. That certainly doesn’t justify what amounts to stealing. The prices are high at the grocery store, too, but I don’t fill my pockets and walk out the door.

  • Kurtoon

    The NextGen RFID wristbands for park attractions will be great if they work like the VallidFill system. I will try to ride Space Mountain and the computer screen will tell me “No…you just rode Space Mountain 5 minuets ago. You have to wait an hour before you ride again.” Or since Disney is tracking all my purchases the screen will point out that “You just had a Dolewhip, popcorn, a corndog and a Churro….you have to wait an hour before you ride Space Mountain. Would it kill you to eat some fruit?” I will try to argue that the wait in line will take an hour….but I am denied access and told to go try Stich’s Great Escape. I go to the closest ODV and buy a frozen banana.

  • DisneySam

    I recently stayed at Old Key West and RFID is now being incorporated in the room keys as they no longer require you to slide the card into the door, thereby reading the old magnetic stripe. Now you simply wave your card in front of the lock on the door where a mickey head is located and the door will unlock.
    I work for a professional sports organization that was one of the first to incorporate RFID technology for our season ticket holders. It provides them with personalized experiences and discounts by indentifying themselves with their RFID chips sewn into their jerseys.
    RFID is a great technology. I could really see it being beneficial to Disney if they use it in the right way. I do think the whole drink thing is going a bit overboard but if they use RFID for passholders, DVC members, resort guests, FastPass, etc. then that is the right way to go.

  • sweeper

    Travel to Europe and see how expensive normal, daily life things are and then Disney prices will seem like a bargain! Bring a bottle of water and forget the soda. That is the easiest solution here.

    Now I would be willing to wear an RFID chip if the cost of admission went down. Seriously. Why not charge people by the amount of use they get from the park? Like the old ticket system, just reversed. Pay $10 to enter the park and then the price goes up based on the rides and attractions you visit. On some days, let’s be honest here, most of us would save money. The packed parks make it near impossible to get your money’s worth anyway.

    Why not pay us back to endure a really under utilized attraction? Earn credits for CBJ to use on Splash Mountain? I think we can find a way to distribute the crowds! Better yet, want a Fastpass for Thunder Mountain, you have to earn it by watching the Tiki Room. This could bring a whole new level of fun to the parks ;)

    • rmsongs

      Forget it. I’m NOT watching the Tiki Room. :-)

  • The Boxing Guru

    Fascinating article!