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Mickey Mouse has your number

November 12, 2008|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Chmielewski is a Times staff writer.

The Happiest Place on Earth will soon know where in the world you are.

Walt Disney Co. has struck a deal with Verizon Wireless that will allow it to remain in wireless contact with its theme park visitors -- even when they step outside the turnstiles in Anaheim and Orlando, Fla.

Disney and Verizon bill it as a way to enhance the "theme park experience," enabling parkgoers to use their mobile phones for tasks such as saving a spot in line at a popular ride and zeroing in on where Cinderella can be found signing autographs.

But the service has broad -- and potentially controversial -- implications for marketers and consumers as each attempts to balance the need for information with privacy. The new service has echoes of the futuristic film "Minority Report," in which Tom Cruise's character is inundated with personalized ad messages as he passes interactive billboards in a mall.

On the face of it, the application appears innocuous enough: Visitors to Disneyland or Walt Disney World would be able to download an application to their mobile phones to make trip plans, including booking hotel rooms and creating a checklist of attractions and shows to see. Once they arrive, they'll be able to use their phones to check wait times at Space Mountain or find the nearest pizza.

"What we're doing is putting tools in the hands of our customers to better personalize their experience," said Scott Trowbridge, vice president of creative research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering.

Disney joins a growing number of tourist attractions that employ mobile phones as a kind of personalized tour guide. Museums across the country already offer cellphone tours in place of cumbersome rented hand-held devices. History buffs walking Boston's Freedom Trail can use their cellphones as virtual docents to accompany them on the 2.5-mile trek past 16 historic sites.

Using technology in a mobile phone that pinpoints the device's location, Disney would be able to recommend activities or restaurants to users. For example, Disney could help parkgoers avoid a long wait at Pirates of the Caribbean by alerting them to shorter lines at the Matterhorn Bobsleds, or exploit the phone's location awareness to suggest burgers at the Tomorrowland Terrace to visitors who've just exited the nearby Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride.

"If I'm standing here, Mickey is there, how do I make my way to Mickey?" said Ryan Hughes, vice president of business development and strategic partnerships at Verizon. "If we're dying for food, where's the closest restaurant? How do we find our way there?"

This communication could extend beyond the park, with Disney sharing personalized mementos of the visit, such as a photograph from Sleeping Beauty along with a message, thanking the young guest for visiting her castle.

Disney and Verizon executives say they have no intention of bombarding park guests with marketing pitches for fear of intruding on privacy or detracting from the experience.

"This is not us shooting out random messages; it's about the guest experience," said Disney parks spokesman John Nicoletti.

But places that have adopted similar technology have found the temptation to pitch incessantly hard to resist. In cellphone-centric Japan, event posters feature small, bar-code-like images that contain coded information. When photographed by cellphone, the image takes the would-be concertgoer to an online ticketing site.

"There's just an awful lot of experimentation right now. People understand these phones are very much a part of people's lives," said Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Assn., an alliance of companies that design, create and build theme park attractions. "Disney has really been a leader in terms of the theme parks exploring these technologies and how they could be used."

Jeffers said the amusement park industry looks to Disney as a technological trailblazer, because it has the resources to experiment with innovative applications of technology. Last year, for example, children who brought their Nintendo DS hand-held game consoles to Disneyland and Disney World could use the gadget's wireless capability to conduct virtual treasure hunts, seeking out hidden "hot spots" throughout the parks and downloading exclusive content for their Pirates of the Caribbean game.

Despite the marketing bonanzas such technology promises -- imagine one day approaching a Starbucks and your cellphone buzzes with 50 cents off a frothy pumpkin-flavored latte -- Disney and others must be careful about overreaching, analysts warn.

"The challenge for parks is, how do you become part of that process without being too intrusive?" Jeffers said. "Helping to ensure that the viewer is also experiencing where they are, so they don't become isolated within the device, so to speak."

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