As Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary approaches on October 1, 2021, this series will attempt to determine one addition per decade which drastically impacted Disney Parks vacations going forward.
In the 1990s, Walt Disney World had a very successful decade, but its 30th birthday came at it hard. October 1, 2001, followed quickly after 9/11, a day which brought about the first non-hurricane related closure of the parks and created a ripple effect that would be felt throughout the travel industry for years to come. The impact of the national tragedy coupled with an already existing economic recession left travelers reluctant to leave home. On September 23, 2001, The New York Times reported that 40,000 Cast Members had to have their weeks cut due to the reduction of operating hours. Whole floors of various resorts sat unused, and Magic Kingdom Park closed at 7:00 p.m. each night, which was uncharacteristic even for the slower fall season. To make matters worse, one of Disney’s biggest investors sold $2 billion worth of stock, which brought up the specter of a takeover once again.
While the recession technically ended in November 2001, Walt Disney World remained in a state of just “existing” for some time, and as any young adult knows, just “getting by” can lead to a creative rut. Being a part of the moment can become more akin to seeing the moment as it passes by. In order for Walt Disney World to avoid peaking in its 20s, it needed an injection of the “now”. And at the dawn of the new millennium, what was the zeitgeist?
The 2000s were about to be taken over by a technological revolution. Ways to consume media and be a part of it were changing quickly, and interactivity was about to become a part of life in a manner only previously imagined. The finale scenes of Spaceship Earth and Carousel of Progress were about to become reality. The first iPod was released on October 23, 2001, and a decade that began with users communicating via AOL Instant Messenger would see people posting Myspace bulletins in 2003, updating their Facebook status in 2004, and microblogging on Twitter in 2006.
Even toys had become increasingly interactive. The 90s ended with kids feeding their Tamagotchis cake and hamburgers and their parents fighting the Christmas rush for a Furbish-speaking Furby. While those toys look rudimentary today, it took just shy of two years into the decade (November 2001) for Microsoft to release the Xbox and only one more year (November 2002) for it to debut Xbox Live, allowing players to communicate with and compete against each other via the internet.
Disney was faced with the truth that the day-to-day lives of its patrons were rapidly changing and so were their expectations. By 2003, it was time for Walt Disney World to get out of its 30s rut, and in spite of tightened budgets Imagineers were ready with a project that would lead to a massive leap forward in interactivity.
In 2003, a 10-inch Mickey Mouse plush could be found on store shelves throughout Walt Disney World. At first glance, he looked no different from the other Mickey stuffies that were priced much lower than this one’s $50 tag, but he was not your ordinary talking stuffed animal. Secured into packaging displaying “Pal Mickey” across the top, this little guy could tell jokes, play trivia, AND give up-to-date, park-specific information. When carried throughout a Walt Disney World park, Pal Mickey was able to interact with his environment. A sensor in his nose would pick up signals from hundreds of infrared sensors placed throughout the parks.
When Mickey had something to say, he would vibrate or wiggle. Sometimes, he would impart a piece of trivia about the attraction you had just passed, such as this one from Epcot: “That big silver ball is Spaceship Earth. Some folks say it looks like a huge golf ball, but you’d have to be over a mile tall if you wanted to play golf with it.” Other times, he would give helpful pieces of information such as when a character Meet and Greet was nearby, whether or not a show was about to start, or if the line was short at a particular attraction.
At a point in history when wait times were only available at a park’s central tip board or at the entrance to individual attractions, Pal Mickey served as a mobile, user-friendly way to improve guest experience, even if he was a tad bit cumbersome. The plush toy came with a sturdy strap on the back of his head which allowed him to be attached to a belt or hooked on a lanyard. And while original Pal Mickey came donned in classic yellow shoes and red shorts, it was not long before he had a number of clothing options and accessories. There was even a tiny version of a pin trading bag!
For park-goers who found the $50 cost to be a deterrent, the plush could be rented for $8.00 per day. However, demand eventually began to wane and all sales of Pal Mickey were discontinued in late 2008. Anyone who had purchased the interactive toy was still able to use it in the parks until 2014, when the sensors were finally removed.
The decline of Pal Mickey perhaps had something to do with the release of a certain smartphone in 2007, but that does not alter the fact that he was the first instance of real-time interactivity aimed at improving guest experience. While many look back at Pal Mickey as a failure, it is perhaps most accurate to view him as a first step. Pal Mickey marks the beginning of Disney being able to collect data on guests’ movement throughout the parks as well as their ability to implement crowd control simply by having him direct families to attractions with shorter lines. Further, the small toy was most certainly a jumping off point for the Disney Magic Connection in 2008, which utilized a modified Nintendo DS Lite to give real-time information on wait times and more. While the delivery methods are vastly different, both Pal Mickey and Disney Magic Connection can most certainly be considered forerunners to both the StoryMaker and MyMagic+ systems.
In a present reality where resort room doors are unlocked with cell phones and PhotoPass photographs are instantaneously available for uploading to social media, it is almost impossible to think that guests are just over two decades removed from a period when the peak of real-time park information was Epcot’s digital wait time display. In the midst of economic hardship, Walt Disney World got the interactive ball rolling with an unassuming piece of merchandise, and a decade that could have seen the Florida Project slide from a rut right into a pit instead laid the groundwork for a whole new second act.
Lead image from the author’s personal collection. Pal Mickey photos from the personal collection of Erin Stough.