Count on Disney to do the impossible: Make waiting in line more fun.
The new Play Disney Parks app takes the least magical part of a theme park -- the dreaded long lines -- and jazzes them up with themed games that can only be played while standing in line for rides. At times, your phone can even become a remote control to activate special effects.
I'm not talking about some Pokemon Go-style, augmented-reality gimmick. The app can activate physical things seen in the real world. At Space Mountain, watch rockets fly above your head just before you board your ship. At Peter Pan's Flight, players can make Tinkerbell appear inside a lantern.
To pull it off, Disney taps into location tracking and Bluetooth beacons (along with a secret blend of other behind-the-scenes tech). The games can even tell where you are in line and how fast you're moving along, adjusting the gameplay through the queue.
Yes, games. On your phone. While on vacation. I know what you're thinking: I'm traveling to get away from screens. I don't want to be sucked into an app when I'm with my family.
Disney's teams felt the same way.
"We work very hard to immerse people in these worlds, and the last thing we want is having guests' noses buried in their device," said Josh Gorin, an executive with Disney's Imagineering team. His creative group collaborated with the digital and technology teams to make something that didn't just keep you busy on a phone -- but also tells a story and engages you with your travel party.
There's a bit of a family-game-night feel to it all. Everyone in your party shares one phone and passes it around, with people working together to accomplish the missions. And in some, the clues to play are hidden on the walls of the line itself, forcing you to look at the world around you.
Disney's Play app, released last month, is free on iOS and Android. It works at the two parks at Disneyland Resort in California and the four parks at Walt Disney World in Florida. Players on each coast will have different experiences. The Tinkerbell special effect is in Disneyland, for example, and the Space Mountain effect is only at Magic Kingdom in Disney World.
I had a brief test with the app during a visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. I was there to check out the opening ofin June, and I played the games for Toy Story Mania and Slinky Dog Dash. (You can see what it's like in the video above.)
Wait times can also change your experience. Since beacon sensors know your place in line, gameplay will scale, so you feel like the narrative is complete, no matter if you waited 20 minutes or (gulp) two hours.
"The hope is that no matter how long the wait is, we have enough content to keep you entertained," Gorin said.
For now, only a handful of Disney's rides have these special games. But there are layers of other content to keep you busy -- some of which you can play outside of the parks. You can test yourself with trivia, poke around animated maps, and, if you are on iOS, stream theme park music on Apple Music.
Expect more to come. Gorin said the team wants to expand into park-wide quests and scavenger hunts. There will also be challenges tied to the upcoming, opening next year.
Daniel Soto, vice president of digital experience at Disney, called the upcoming Star Wars content a "next-level experience."
I don't go to Disney parks to stare at my phone, but a hybrid entertainment application like this can be helpful when crowds swell, especially when Star Wars land opens. Annual industry estimates show park attendance on the rise, with last year more than 20 million people visiting the Magic Kingdom and 18 million visitors showing up at Disneyland.
Even on vacation, when you want to cut down on screen time, it's easy to be tempted to pull out a phone when you're stuck in line. At least with this app, Disney can get you playing with family and engaging with the parks in new ways, instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media posts.
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