Get Ready For The Real Story Behind Disney’s $1 Billion Attempt To Reinvent Its Iconic Theme Park

Innovation is messy, even in the Magic Kingdom.

Get Ready For The Real Story Behind Disney’s $1 Billion Attempt To Reinvent Its Iconic Theme Park
Disney’s MyMagic+ [Photo: courtesy of Disney]

The complete story is now available – Read The Messy Business Of Reinventing Happiness


Since as early as 2007, Disney has been working on MyMagic+, an innovative project to reinvent the experience at its iconic Disney World park. The company invested nearly $1 billion into the program, which brought wearable computing and a digital layer to the park, re-imagining how guests interact with Disney World’s attractions, hotels, and cast members.

But you have not heard the full story of MyMagic+. Disney is as controlling of its brand as Walt was over every frame of his motion pictures. What Disney has tried to present is a G-rated fairy tale where the right-brained minds of Disney’s creative “Imagineers” and the more left-brained IT and operations groups at its Parks and Resorts division worked in perfect synergy. The Frozen screenplay has more inherent tension than the officially sanctioned MyMagic+ story.

Tomorrow, my feature story on Disney’s MyMagic+ will go live online and hit newsstands. (UPDATE: The full feature is now available online here.) It’s the culmination of more than six months of reporting. It’s a tale packed with drama, involving corporate politics, personal feuds, and turf wars. This is a story of a massive corporation trying to reinvent itself. And what Disney ended up delivering is a success, a multiyear experiment in wearable computing with smart lessons in design for companies ranging from Apple to Google as they enter the arena.

What you haven’t read is how change agents pushed the project through a difficult and risky journey. Talk to Disney, and you won’t hear about these individual innovators—the company is dedicated to presenting itself as a “We Not Me culture.” You won’t hear how the project faced fierce resistance from some of the Imagineers. Past reports don’t tell how outside partners such as Frog, the storied San Francisco design firm, helped bring the experience to life. Until now, you haven’t heard the specifics of how involved Disney CEO Bob Iger was; ditto for Tom Staggs and Jay Rasulo, the two executives who oversaw MyMagic+ (and who were considered top candidates to one day succeed Iger before Staggs took the lead in February when Iger appointed him COO). And no one else has told about how board members including the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs contributed to the project.

Talk to Disney or read other stories about MyMagic+, and you’ll learn it cost nearly $1 billion to develop. But you won’t be privy to the fact that the earliest bill-of-materials cost estimate for the MagicBand was $35, a surreal 87,000% increase from the 4-cent paper tickets Disney historically relied on. Or that the cost to redesign and integrate with MyMagic+ ended up ballooning to nearly $80 million. One former creative involved tells me “people do a spit-take when I tell them I worked on an $80 million website. But the scale of it was so massive.”

Talk to Disney, and you’ll hear about the collaborative, team-oriented atmosphere. You won’t hear about the internal resistance, the grasping for credit, the political battles. One source deeply enmeshed in the development describes Disney as a “culture that is all smiles and happiness, and everyone is going in to give you a hug. But you have no idea who is working against you. You come out bruised and bloody.” Another former exec says there was “land-grabbing, finger-pointing, and, quite frankly, a lot of yelling in closed-door meetings.” Adds another executive partner intimately involved with the project, “There were a lot of bodies buried on the side of the road [over the course of developing MyMagic+].”


But the truth is, this is how innovation happens. The scale of MyMagic+ was indeed massive, as are many projects developed at innovative companies. Yet rarely do we get such an intimate look into how that creative process actually works.

We need not fault Disney for the internal culture that you’ll read about tomorrow, because that culture ultimately delivered.

What we should take away from the story is one truth: Innovation is messy. Anytime you read yet another squeaky-clean founder’s myth in the self-aggrandizing startup world, look to our story tomorrow as a testament of how real innovation happens.

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.