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Tech turned me Into a Disney park fan

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

Like many, I am a member of a number of minority groups. Some I was born into. I’m an only child. I’m left-handed. I’m unusually tall. Into others I have been enlisted by my interests or perhaps my lack of interests. I’m not much of a sports fan, I love reading history and I’ll say yes to an invitation to travel even before I know for sure where the adventure will lead us.

But one minority group has just lost me as a member. Because of a recent journey to central Florida, I now am no longer among that rapidly dwindling cadre of codgers who still thinks Walt Disney World is just an overgrown amusement park for kids and their tired but tolerate parents.

It was a news flash to me (and, yes, few others) that Disney World is much more than that.

Until last May, Pamela and I had never been to that 42,000-acre entertainment complex which attracts more than 50 million visitors a year. Having no children of our own, we foolishly thought that Disney’s magic kingdom had nothing for grownups, even though our dear friends Maggie and Bob Hearn — longtime Disney devotees — had steadily and patiently campaigned to change our attitudes.

Finally we decided it was time to find out what out we were missing. We asked the Hearns to go with us for a week and show us their Disney World. Throughout the winter, Maggie and Bob planned the schedule, crafting an extraordinarily comprehensive visit. In five days they would give us a good sample of all four Disney theme parks, assorted restaurants, resorts, affiliated shows and entertainments, shopping and good old-fashioned people-watching.

In addition, because the Hearns are as much as into technology as the Bowens, they also gave us a great opportunity to see how Disney’s wizards now use computers to make the experience even more magical, especially through its freshly launched MyMagic+ vacation management system.

Even months before we arrived at the complex, Disney reached out through personalized emails to guide us through making reservations for everything from rooms to meals and activities via a free My Disney Experience account. The web site also gave us park maps, details on nearby attractions, restaurant lists and everything else we needed to customize our itinerary.

We learned that if you’re going to Disney World, it is smart to connect everyone in your travel group by adding them to the “Family & Friends” list in the My Disney Experience site. That way you can easily make and share plans together.

Disney-bound techies will also want to download the My Disney mobile app, free for either iPhone or Android smartphones. The app links you to your activity plan, gives you GPS-enable maps to play with, lets you check out nearby attractions, depending on wherever you are at that moment. You also can browse restaurant menus and make last-minute reservations, as well as find schedules for events like fireworks and parades.

Another exciting development at Disney is the MagicBands technology. These colorful three-quarter-inch wide rubbery bracelets employ radio frequency or Bluetooth technology. As part of the pre-visit planning through My Disney Experience, bands are mailed to each member of your party.

During the actual vacation, you make payments, open hotel room doors, even provide children with set spending limits. You use them by simply pressing the raised Mickey Mouse logo to a sensor called a touch point on a door, entrance of an attraction or on the portable pad at the restaurant or store.

MagicBands allow you to travel much lighter throughout your vacation.

And Disney folks say more will be added to MagicBands’ function. On the drawing board are plans for enabling Disney characters to greet children in the park by name and even wish them, say, happy birthday, if the parents have so enabled their MagicBands.

MagicBands are especially useful in conjunction with another new feature, the newly enhanced FastPass+ service at the resorts. FastPass lets you reserve access to specific Disney World attractions, even before you leave home. Working with the My Disney Experience, you can select your must-do experiences, locking them in for specific days and times, then when you arrive, you simply skip the long queue, tap your MagicBand to the sensor and go to the head of a line.

And if your plans change, you can use your MyDisney app to update your FastPass reservations. You can have three FastPasses a day and the service is included with your ticket, package or annual pass at no extra charge.

Also in conjunction with the MagicBands, we signed up for a Meal Plan, which is a lot cheaper than paying for all your food. For each of our days at the complex, we were authorized for a snack (bag of chips, one ice cream, etc.), one “quick service lunch” (one drink and one “entrée,” like a hamburger) and one “table service meal,” (which is a drink, entrée and dessert at a nice restaurant. We were amazed at just how nice the restaurants were, and the food was as good as any five-star restaurant we’re familiar with). One evening Pamela got a fancy salmon that was listed for $27. Ordinarily she’d not spend that much for a dinner, but we had already paid a lot less for that on the Meal Plan.

Also new at Disney is the Memory Maker photo service. Photographers (summer interns, often) are stationed at various photogenic places with nice cameras on tripods. If you have a photo pass, your family gets its picture taken. The photo is immediately automatically uploaded to your special My Disney web section, where you can email it to friends or share it via Twitter or Instagram.

We left awed by the magic of Walt Disney’s original vision, but also inspired by how 40 years after its opening, Disney World continues to grow in ways that even fertile imagination could not have foreseen.