I just got back from a couple of days at Disneyland with my daughter, our first trip to one of the Disney parks in nearly four years. And by and large, a good time was had by all — we bonded over thrill rides, marveled at the little details that go into each attraction and ate our body weight in Dole Whips and churros. That's daddy-daughter fun that's hard to beat.
But there was one aspect of our Disney trip that I didn't much care for, and it's something that a lot of companies are falling prey to in this era of always-connected living. Disney has a Disneyland app, and it wants you to use that app — a lot.
Obviously, Disney is not unique in off-loading a lot of the features for navigating its way through its theme parks to an app. Lots of companies offer a mobile experience these days, recognizing that most of us are carrying phones around everywhere we go. Since that's not changing any time soon, why not build an app that augments whatever interaction you're supposed to be having with that particular company?
In the case of the Disneyland app — available for both iOS and Android devices — you're packing plenty of capabilities into one place. There are maps of Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure, showing you where the different attractions are. You can also look up wait times for rides, make reservations at sit-down restaurants in and around the parks, pay for merch online and manage your Genie Plus service. (That's the add-on that allows you to shorten your wait times at some of the popular rides — for a fee, of course, since Mickey and Friends don't miss a chance to wet their beaks.)
If you really wanted to, you could open up the Disneyland app on your phone the moment you arrived at the park and not ever have to close it until you trudged back to your car later that day. And that's part of the problem, for me anyway.
Having grown up in California, I feel especially protective of Disneyland. It's where my parents took my as a treat and where I hung out an awful lot once I had money, transportation and free time to call my own. That's continued now that I'm a parent myself, even if I now feel every one of those turns on Space Mountain clanging around my bones.
The appeal of Disney, for me, is that once you pass through the gate, you leave the troubles and cares of the real world behind. You're not thinking about bills or chores or day-to-day concerns when you're exploring a haunted mansion or watching pirates lay siege to a Caribbean town or hitching a ride with Mr. Toad. This is entirely by design — when Disneyland was being built in the 1950s, the park's designers encircled the property with a berm meant to keep the outside world out of view.
But setting aside the cares and woes of daily living isn't possible when you're constantly staring at a smartphone screen. And that's precisely what the Disneyland app causes you to do. In that sense, it runs counter to the very idea of the park. "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy," the sign welcoming you to Disneyland famously proclaims.
"But be sure to check your phone frequently to see what the wait times are like on Rise of the Resistance" would be a distracting addition, yet that's precisely what people wind up doing at Disneyland these days. The queues at each ride are filled with people with noses buried in their smartphone screens, plotting what ride they'll go to next. I lost count of how many times my daughter and I would be walking from one part of the park to the next, only to nearly collide with someone who came to a dead stop because they were checking out the Disneyland app the way a day trader checks in on stock price fluctuations. If anything, Disney has managed to import one of the most unpleasant aspects of modern life — people staring at their phone, unaware of anyone or anything around them — and plant it right in the middle of a place where we used to be able to escape such indignities.
I'm not going to pretend I didn't get some use out of the Disneyland app. I used it to snag a last-minute reservation at the Wine Country Trattoria in California Adventure where I could feast on the vegetable lasagna that's my favorite thing to eat at Disney's park. And yes, it was helpful to know which rides had suffered breakdowns so that we knew to make other plans. (Though even that's of limited value — at one point my daughter and I spotted low wait times at the newly opened Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway ride, only to find that the ride had been shut down for repairs by the time we walked over to ride it. But frequent ride breakdowns is a gripe for another time.)
Even with those benefits, I'd just as soon not to have use any kind of app at all when I'm at Disney. The only time I want to take out my smartphone is to grab a picture — not because the phone is the only way I can navigate through my day at the park. To make the phone an almost mandatory part of your visit runs counter to the Disneyland I want to experience.
It's a lesson I wish a lot of companies would pick up on — not everything needs to have an app. If whatever minor convenience an app provides tightens the tether between me and my phone, that's an experience I don't want. And right now, that's exactly what Disney's mobile app is providing.