I’m not a big fan of Disney. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve watched and enjoyed many of their shows and movies over the years, but I just don’t follow the goings-on of the company or any of the characters they own. By way of contrast, my uncle has much of their dining room decorated with Disney empherma, including a number of original animation cels, and my father has a friend who’s visited at least one of the Disney theme parks (including the ones in Paris and Tokyo) at least once every year for the past three decades.
My wife and I are currently planning a vacation down to Walt Disney World next January. Despite my not being a big fan, we’re going down for my benefit. Specifically, to run the Dopey Challenge, a series of races over four days culminating in a marathon through several of the parks. For a runner like myself, it’s primarily a test of my endurance and willpower. To me, that it snakes through WDW means little more than I’ll get some neat-looking photos. But what’s been fascinating has been the process of preparing for the trip; things have changed considerably since either of us last visited the Magic Kingdom over twenty years ago.
Disney, of course, is known for bending over backwards to ensure that all of their guests have a fantastic time. And while I learned that through textbook examples in some of my MBA classes, seeing and experiencing that first hand puts different light on things.
Take the MagicBands, for example, that first started rolling out in 2013. If you’re unfamiliar with them, they’re wrist bands with RFID technology in them that help to streamline your stay at the parks. They can be used to open your hotel door, or pay for dinner, or reserve your spot in line at Space Mountain… They’re a great, practical use of wearable technology. And like a FitBit or Apple Watch, you can get them in different colors. But Disney took the marketing a step further, and produced “sliders” and “bandits” to adorn the MagicBands and allow for a fair amount of personalization. Artistic fans began painting their own, and entrepreneurial ones created Etsy shops with their own add-ons. The MagicBands have become functional charm bracelets that identify the wearer not only as someone who’s paid to come to the parks, but as a particular fan of Mickey or Elsa or Buzz or any of the other Disney properties, and there’s been a fandom that’s developed specifically around the MagicBands.
That’s obviously a subset of all Disney fans, and clearly a devout group of them. (Which isn’t to say they’re more or less devout than other subsets!) But this is a group that didn’t exist before 2013. Disney did some smart branding when they introduced the MagicBands, but the fandom that quickly built up around them speaks to the enthusiasm for which fans are directly encouraged to express themselves. The official nature of the bands, coupled with the directive wearers are given to personalize them, is a means to stir the embers of one’s fandom and carry a fan into a deeper state of fandm. One akin to hanging animation cels in your dining room or visiting the parks every year, but made visible on your person regardless of where you are.