Disney World’s landmark new programme, where radio frequency bracelets can function as room key, park ticket and credit card, is raising concerns about privacy and data collection.

It turns out that Disney World isn’t just every child’s dream come true – it might soon be every parent’s too. Thanks to a new wireless wristband, next time guests go to Disney World they can leave their purse or wallet – along with their cash, credit card and room key – behind. 

The popular US theme park complex, located in Orlando, Florida, announced its MyMagic+ programme on Monday, a radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that will streamline the theme park experience for guests. At its heart are MagicBands: RFID bracelets that encode each guest’s personal information and can function as room key, park ticket, credit card and FastPass, the theme park’s trademark line-skipping ticket. The new programme also allows visitors access to the new website and app My Disney Experience, from where they can select three free line-skipping FastPasses and get VIP seating for parades, fireworks and character meet-and-greets, from 60 days before arriving to after setting foot in the park.

The various aspects of the MyMagic+ programme, from the new app to personalised interaction with the characters, will be rolled out at Disney World over the coming weeks and months, with a full launch expected this spring. The program is part of a broader campaign, estimated to cost between $800 million and $1 billion, to make Disney World easier to navigate for the 30 million people who visit each year; free wi-fi has already been installed throughout the park.

For the first time, the programme will also allow Disney to closely track guests’ behaviour and preferences. If guests choose to encode their MagicBands with personal details like a child’s name and birthday, employees playing Disney characters can access that data and greet young guests with a personalized greeting. For example, Cinderella might say, “Hi, Ashley, Happy Birthday! I hear you’re turning five today.”

Guests are not forced to participate in MyMagic+, and those that do can adjust privacy settings to control how much personal information is shared. Still, MyMagic+ has the potential to track where a guest goes, at what time, how much time and money he or she spends at any given attraction, as well as the names, ages, birthdays and preferences of family members.  

The landmark program, not surprisingly, is raising major privacy concerns. At a time when US consumers are growing increasingly wary of sharing personal information with retailers and services, and the US government is trying to bolster online privacy protections, Disney has decided to dive headfirst into the contentious arena of personal data collection. The move raises serious questions for future guests. Is it safe to share personal information about children? How will the information be used – or shared with third parties? And what if Disney’s database of personal information is breached by an outside party?

Disney is aware that some guests will be wary, and emphasizes that the program is optional.

“Ensuring the security of our guest’s information is obviously very important to us and no one is more focused on this than we are,” Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Tom Staggs wrote on the company’s blog. “Everything is opt in, and guests will have the opportunity to choose what information they share with us. Guests should also know that the band does not store personal information.”

Though this isn’t the first time a vacation destination has experimented with RFID -- Wisconsin-based park operator Great Wolf Resorts has been using RFID technology since 2006, and some ski resorts and even Las Vegas casinos also use the technology -- Disney sets the bar for other theme parks, which will, no doubt, be watching to see whether guests embrace MyMagic+ and choose to trade privacy for convenience. As such, the reaction to Disney’s new programme could trigger a major shift in how other holiday destinations operate.