NBCUniversal plans to spend about $1.1 billion on capital projects this year, driven primarily by ambitious expansion plans at its theme parks in Florida and California.
That $1.1 billion will pay for a big chunk of the construction costs for a host of new attractions: a Transformers ride, a Simpsons shopping area and a second Harry Potter land at Universal Orlando, plus a Despicable Me attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, among other projects.
It's also nearly the same amount of money the Walt Disney Co. is investing in "MyMagic+" — the multitentacled technology project at Walt Disney World whose central elements include a reservation system that will allow visitors to book ride times weeks in advance and rubber bracelets known as "MagicBands" that will function as all-in-one theme-park tickets, hotel-room keys and credit cards.
The contrasting investments underscore the enormous bet Disney is placing on what amounts to the most expensive rewiring project in theme-park industry history. Disney has calculated that it can spur profit growth at Disney World — where it now has four theme parks, two water parks and two dozen hotels and time-shares — more by getting visitors to better manage their experiences than by building conventional attractions.
But some Disney fans say they have misgivings about MyMagic+. A few, looking wistfully at the new rides sprouting in Universal's theme parks, are openly hostile to the Disney project, calling it a naked attempt to squeeze more money out of guests by sucking the spontaneity out of their vacations.
"I consider myself middle-of-the-road when it comes to technology and, also, I like to plan my Disney trips. However, I found this to be overplanning," said Steve Holaway, a 43-year-old facilities specialist for a communications company in St. Louis. Holaway was among those chosen to participate in a MyMagic+ test while he vacationed at Disney World last week.
"I don't want to pick what park I'm going to be in on a specific day in advance," Holaway added. "I do not see the 'magic' in the MagicBands."
Disney says critics, some of whom have taken to airing their frustrations in online fan forums, represent a vocal minority. And it says opinions of MyMagic+ are improving as it does more testing and guests learn more details.
The company this month launched its largest test yet, aiming to have more than 80,000 Disney visitors try MyMagic+ systems. Participants can make reservations from home for as many as three attractions a day in a single theme park — or four in the Magic Kingdom — and can get personalized MagicBands shipped to their homes.
Guests selected for the tests fill out surveys at the end of their trips, asking them if MyMagic+ made their visits better, worse or the same. Disney says the "overwhelming majority" have said better, though it would not be more specific.
"I can also say that it's working, meaning those that are using it — and we've got a number of people that have used it — have reacted very well," Disney Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said earlier this month.
Disney has by no means ceased building new attractions at Disney World, though the pace has slowed in recent years. The company next year is set to complete its $425 million expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom, and it has begun work on a land in Disney's Animal Kingdom, based on the film "Avatar," that won't open until at least 2017.
But neither of those projects is nearly as expensive as MyMagic+, which Disney began developing more than five years ago under the internal moniker "NextGen." Disney has acknowledged spending about $1 billion on the imitative, though one person familiar with financial details put the budget at $1.5 billion.
Disney still has not said when it will launch the program for all guests; Iger said a "probable full rollout" is expected in the "early part" of Disney's 2014 fiscal year, which begins in October.
Disney expects to recoup the large investment — roughly the same amount it spent on the wildly successful makeover of Disney California Adventure in Southern California — in a variety of ways. Among them:
•By getting guests to plan more of their trips in advance, Disney expects they will spend more of their vacation time on Disney World property, instead of visiting Universal Orlando, shopping malls or other off-property attractions.
•By making food and souvenir purchases as easy as waving a wristband in front of a scanner — the same cash-free model that has been so lucrative for the cruise industry — Disney thinks guests will spend more money overall.
•By collecting more personal data about visitors, from their favorite characters to their spending habits, Disney hopes to develop more effective sales offers customized for individual families.
Disney thinks MyMagic+ will help in other areas, too, from luring more people into company-owned hotels to establishing a new souvenir line in the form of MagicBand accessories.
But to hit any of those targets, Disney will first have to persuade fans that it is in their best interest — rather than just Disney's — to spend more time preplanning and to share more personal information. And some are leery.
"New attractions or a new resort may be a reason to visit, but … convenience isn't a reason for our family to plan a visit," said Joe Bucher, a 35-year-old architect from Nashville who says he visits Disney World about every two years.
Some of the deepest skepticism has come from locals and annual pass holders, who are more likely to make impromptu visits to the giant resort.
"I hate to say it, but I doubt we'd renew our passes if we have to book weeks or months in advance. That's just not convenient for us," said Michelle Bell, a 39-year-old homemaker from Winter Springs who says she visits Disney World once a month.
To be sure, there are many Disney fans who are enthusiastic about MyMagic+. And Disney says that group is growing: The company said its most recent monitoring of social-media channels found overall sentiment about the program was about 80 percent positive — and just 2 percent negative — compared with a reaction that was predominantly neutral before widespread testing began.
"Our experience was awesome, as the bands functioned flawlessly as our room keys, annual passes and FastPasses," said Gerald Mauser Jr., a 41-year-old sales and information-technology professional from Naples who participated in a test during a recent five-day trip to Disney World.
"We are planning another trip in October," he added, "and we are already able to go in to make FastPass reservations."
Disney notes that MyMagic+ will be entirely optional for guests, though some fans worry they will be forced to endure even longer standby lines for popular rides if they choose not to plan in advance but many others do.
Among the most excited about the program: Wall Street, where analysts expect MyMagic+ to begin generating revenue in 2014.
"The more they can get you organized before you get in there, the more you're going to be doing and spending," said David Bank, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets. "Obviously, the investment community finds that to be a huge positive."
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