By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
2:49 PM PDT, May 30, 2012
What may be the most interesting feature in Disney's Art of Animation Resort can be found in the most mundane of places: the doors.
All of the hotel rooms in Walt Disney World's new, $350 million hotel, whose first phase opens Thursday, will be keyless. Instead of inserting room cards into a slot, guests will merely have to hold the cards within a few inches of an electronic reader to unlock their doors.
Those doors, which use a technology known as "radio-frequency identification," are one of the first widespread applications to emerge from Disney's secretive "Next Generation Experience" initiative, a sweeping technological upgrade that Disney engineers have been developing for years.
Scores of additional features, many expanding on the same RFID technology, will surface throughout the giant resort in coming months and years. Disney has already tested turnstile-free entry gates in Epcot and advance ride reservations in the Magic Kingdom. Much more is in development.
"This is a signal that we are sending to our guests, in a very direct way, that we are positively making changes here to enhance the guest experience," Kevin Myers, Disney World's vice president of resort operations, said of Art of Animation's easy-entry rooms.
Disney is wagering much on "NextGen," which company executives think will help wring more capacity out of crowded theme parks, make the resort more appealing to increasingly tech-savvy travelers, and open new avenues for sales of food and souvenirs.The Walt Disney Co.has so far budgeted about $1 billion for the initiative.
That's about as much as the company has spent on its five-year rebuild of Disney California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif., which culminates next month with the opening of a new, 12-acre area with a theme based on the Pixar film franchise "Cars."
The keyless hotel-room doors are just one small component of the project. But while they may seem a trivial addition, Disney says those small details can add up — both for guests and the company.
Disney expects the lock system will provide more convenience for travelers. No longer, for instance, will a parent juggling young children and luggage have to fumble at the door to properly align the card key. No longer will a guest wishing to change rooms have to trudge back to the front desk — a commute that can take 10 minutes or more in some of Disney's larger hotels — because the cards can be reprogrammed by remote control.
From the hotel's perspective, the new card readers, which are sealed in small black boxes, are sturdier than the opened-ended magnetic slots, which are vulnerable to moisture, dust and other contaminants that cause them to fail. Myers said Disney has already seen improved reliability on its two new cruise ships, the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, which also use the keyless system.
While Disney isn't the first hotel owner to use keyless doors, what makes these significant is how they will eventually tie into other NextGen tools. Although Disney has discussed few details publicly, it is expected that guests will eventually be asked to provide all manner of personal preferences ahead of their vacations — from preferred ride times and favorite characters to food allergies — that will be stored on the RFID-equipped cards and will trigger various actions when the guests visit the vast resort.
Disney has set an aggressive schedule to retrofit all of its existing hotels with the keyless locks — approximately 26,000 hotel rooms and time-share suites in all. Myers said he expects installation to begin in June with Disney's Contemporary Resort and to be complete at all Disney World properties by the end of next year.
In the meantime, of course, workers have been scrambling to prepare Art of Animation, which is the first new non-time-share resort Disney World has built since 2003.
The first phase opening Thursday — with a theme based on the Pixar film"Finding Nemo"— includes 320 "family suites" with room for as many as six people each. A second phase will follow quickly June 18, a third Aug. 10, and a fourth and final phase Sept. 15.
Upon completion, the hotel will offer 1,984 rooms, more than half of which — 1,120 — will be family-size suites. Disney says the hotel will support 750 permanent jobs, in addition to the 800 construction jobs created in the interim.
In recent days, the resort has been inviting employees in key jobs — reservations, marketing, resort operations — to stay at Art of Animation, both to familiarize them with Disney World's newest product and to give the hotel itself a dress rehearsal.
The reaction so far "has been a bit on the 'wow' side," Myers said.
Disney is banking on Art of Animation to fill a gap in its existing hotel inventory: affordable suites that have grown increasing popular with middle-class travelers vacationing with extended family or other, larger groups. Before today, Disney had only about 215 such suites on its property, meaning it was likely losing reservations to off-property competitors such as the 777-room Nickelodeon Suites Resort.
The new hotel also continues a long-running push to add more affordable rooms on Disney property. Since 1994, roughly three of every four conventional hotel rooms Disney World has added have been categorized as "value" rooms, the cheapest of its three classifications. Once Art of Animation is complete, about three-quarters of Disney's conventional rooms will be classified as "value" or "moderate."
Disney executives have credited the greater mix of cheaper rooms with helping Disney World better weather the most recent recession. Company analysts say the company's financial performance bears those executives out.
"People had much worse expectations for their declines in profitability" going into the downturn, said Michael Nathanson, a media-industry analyst who covers Disney Co. for Nomura Securities. "They did a much better job on revenues than we ever could have imagined."
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