Just over a year ago, I wrote about the increasing similarities between the cruise industry and Orlando's themed resorts. Disney further blurred the line between them last March with their new Port Canaveral-based Fantasy, featuring additional ocean-bound theme park-inspired experiences (like interactive artwork and an uphill water coaster).
But now, it seems the flow of influences may be reversing. Upon returning from a bargain-basement bob to the Bahamas – think three days locked in the Fashion Square Mall, with a field trip to the third world – I was struck by how cruising's quirks resemble the radical reshaping coming soon to Mickey's vacation kingdom. Earlier this month, Walt Disney World finally revealed the first firm details about MyMagic+ (formerly code-named "NextGen"), the Mouse's years-in-the-making, billion-dollar experiment in crowd manipulation. Once MyMagic+ is fully implemented – a process that should take several months – your former idea of a Disney visit may vanish forever, to be replaced by something more akin to an ocean voyage in three notable ways.
Everyone on a cruise ship is in the same boat literally, but not metaphorically. From the second you approach the terminal and sight the significantly shorter security lines for "VIPs," a superior class of service is offered to those able to afford the ubiquitous upcharges. And in the Downton Abbey-esque shadow of the pampered passengers, socioethnic segregation is equally apparent among the employees: Italian officers, Australian entertainers, Baltic busboys, Indonesian stewards.
Walt Disney's parks, by contrast, were originally established as egalitarian middle-class amusements that paid living wages to their upwardly mobile employees – just ask newly appointed WDW Resort president George Kalogridis, who launched his career cleaning tables at the Contemporary in 1971. But MyMagic+'s advantages will be offered first to those staying in Disney's high-dollar hotels, before someday (supposedly) trickling down to day guests and annual pass-holding locals. More importantly, guests booking Disney's above-market beds will have up to a 60-day advantage in securing limited reservation slots for rides and shows. Read between the lines of the program's terms and conditions and a blatant "buy your way to front" future for WDW is easily foreseeable.
Embrace Big Brother
Long before you set foot on a cruise ship, your passport is scanned, your face is photographed and your financial details are encoded on a plastic card that becomes your lifeline while aboard. (Some fundamentalists would have a fit over the Mark of the Beast-iness of it.) On the plus side, the electronic ID allows everyone from the waiters to housekeepers to hail you on a first-name basis; the effect is equal parts charming and creepy.
Disney aims to amplify that a hundredfold with their new MagicBand, a key component of MyMagic+. The Livestrong-like rubber bracelets embedded with an RFID computer chip will serve as a guest's hotel key, park ticket and charge card. More eerily, it will enable interactive attraction elements to personally identify and track you, remembering your name, birthday and anniversary, and favorite characters to enhance the illusion of immersion. If the "It's a Small World" dolls are going to start singing my Social Security number when I float by, I pray they pronounce my name better than E.T. at Universal can.
Faux free will
Cruise marketing makes much of the alleged "freedom" to do anything or nothing while aboard, from mini-golf to massages. But when you eliminate eating (which will fill approximately 30 percent of your waking hours) and extra-cost excursions, your ticket basically only entitles you to fight over deck chairs or attend a regimented schedule of prefab performances and party games.
Similarly, MyMagic+'s FastPass+ component, an "upgrade" to their current ride reservation system, will replace the ritual morning race to snag Soarin' passes at Epcot with touring schedules secured online months in advance. Those without FastPass+ (or deviating from their prearranged path) will wait longer for fewer standby seats, since Disney has barely added any hourly rider capacity in a decade, and none of MyMagic+'s blockbuster budget went toward much-needed new E-Ticket attractions. Hope you know what day and time you want to ride Space Mountain six weeks from now, because I sure don't. Spontaneity, we hardly knew ye …