Who needs that Apple Watch? Mickey’s got “magic” wristbands

If your friends have returned from a Disney theme park vacation sporting slim personalized wristbands in a variety of colors, and wondered: what are those? — well, you’re not alone.

So did I.

The new, wearable technology is the key to the Magic Kingdom. Almost literally.

MagicBand, which uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to verify you, is your hotel room key, your preferred ride access, entry ticket and it activates the park’s photo service, PhotoPass.

Take that, Apple Watch.

Oh yeah, and you can make purchases with it, too. (Warning to parents: You might not want to activate this feature for your little ones.)

In a broader sense, these wristbands represent a quantum technological leap for the modern theme park vacation. When combined with Disney’s smartphone app, it can help you make more informed vacation decisions, steering you to the attractions with the least wait times or to your favorite restaurant or to a bargain that you weren’t aware of.

But it could also make you spend more time and money than you expected to on your getaway. It all depends on how you use these gadgets.

In this age of GPS and cell phone tracking and NSA shenanigans, the Mouse knows where you are at all times. And because you’re planning your dining, FastPass rides and character meetings, Mickey can even anticipate where you’re going next.

The most common use of Disney’s new magic bands is for theme park admission. Just wave your wristband in front of a scanner and then offer an electronic fingerprint.

The process greatly speeds up the lines at the gate. Thanks to this new technology, it’s uncommon to see a long queue.

By the way, this technology raises all kinds of interesting possibilities for accelerating other lines, especially those long TSA security checks. What if you could swipe your wrist watch and offer a fingerprint, instead of going through today’s rigorous search?

Now that would be something, wouldn’t it?

MyMagic+ integrates the wristbands, planning software and app, experience programs, hotel and dining reservations, as well as shopping, into a single program. If you’re traveling with family or friends, you can connect with each other online and share your plans through the program as well.

One of the most popular Disney Park programs is FastPass+, an upgrade to the original system that allows you to reserve a spot on a popular attraction. This is far better than having to wait half an afternoon for a ride like Test Track at Epcot or the Seven Dwarves Mine Train at the Magic Kingdom.

When combined with Disney’s iPhone app or website, you can schedule an entire day’s activities without wasting any of your valuable vacation time in a long queue.

Your MagicBand also doubles as a room key if you’re staying on property. When we checked into Disney’s Boardwalk Hotel last week, a cast member synced up our wristbands with our hotel rooms effortlessly. But we observed that not all guests were entirely happy with their “magic” band experience. This idea, that your wearable technology opens everything, that your electronic room key is a thing of the past, takes some getting used to.

While most of the guests we saw were using their MagicBands as intended, we did notice one hotel guest flinging her wrist band at a member of her party in frustration and demanding a real room key. Old habits die hard.

One of the best-kept secrets of the MagicBand is the way it works with Disney’s PhotoPass service, which lets you purchase access to photos taken by Disney’s professional photographers across its theme parks. It makes it the cleverest use of this technology, because it literally follows you around wherever you go, allowing theme park photographers to know who you are and then sending the photos to your online account, where you can download them for your personal use.

PhotoPass is one of the least used services at the theme parks, but it may hold the most potential for time-strapped vacationers who would prefer being in the photos instead of seeing their entire vacation through their camera’s viewfinder. We had a great time looking at reaction shots of us on some of our favorite rides.

MyMagic+ can be seen either as a beautiful new way of making your theme park experience better or as a brave new world in which customers are being tagged and tracked.

Maybe it’s a little of both.