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These days, don't hit the theme park without an app and a phone charger

Emile Crawford stocks two back-up phone battery chargers these days when she takes her kids to Disney World. But she dare not venture into a theme park without a smart phone app, an accessory becoming as necessary as sunscreen in Florida theme parks.

"Look at today," the Orlando mom said on a recent stop in Animal Kingdom. "It's 11 a.m. and already I'm at 30 percent."

It can be draining, literally. But if you want to make the most of your time at a theme park these days, a smart phone app helps. In the last three years, theme park companies have invested millions to turn apps into must-have tools to reserve a spot in line, buy tickets and even order your dinner. Disney and Universal, each with new attractions opening this week, are at the forefront.

Guests may grouse about data usage and battery life. And companies can use data you provide about where you shopped or had dinner for target marketing, which has some privacy advocates concerned.

Still, business analysts say a mobile app, when done right, can be the best tool for both the company and the customer by creating loyalty and repeat business.

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There have been unofficial apps like "Wait Times" by VersaEdge. And fan sites like Undercover Tourist and Touring Plans long ago put detailed maps on apps with crowd-sourced tools to trade info on ride times.

But now theme parks are starting to catch up, said Josh Olson, a technology analyst for Edward Jones. The official apps tend to offer more functionality and accuracy.

"From a business benefit perspective, you have a more engaging customer experience," Olson said. "Whether it's scheduling ride times or paying for things, customers find it very convenient. And you can have a very robust loyalty program."

Industry experts estimate that Disney has spent $1 billion on its MagicBands, which first trickled into public tests in 2013. The wristbands that serve as a park ticket, hotel key, credit card and holder of FastPasses changed the meticulously plotted choreography that rules the world's busiest theme park.

The My Disney Experience app rolled out two years later and got an update earlier this year that makes it easier to get FastPasses at different parks. Guests can also use it to check into a hotel and have access to photo products.

Satu'li Canteen in Pandora — the World of Avatar, which opens to the public at Disney's Animal Kingdom on Saturday, will be the first to widen the use of the app for pre-ordering food to anyone, not just those with a reservation at a place like Be Our Guest, the Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant in the Magic Kingdom.

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Crawford, 37, said she felt like an insider when she used the app to order lunch hours before heading to Be Our Guest.

"It felt like a VIP experience walking past all those people waiting in line to order," she said.

Guests use the app to order in advance, then tap an "I'm here" button that will notify the kitchen to prepare the meal. When ready, guests are alerted through the app to pick up their meal at a designated window. The app will eventually extend to more quick service restaurants around Disney, the company has said.

Universal has also started investing in its app and its own brand of wearable technology. At Volcano Bay, Universal's new 30-acre water park opening Thursday, guests get a wristband that alerts them when it's time for the ride. It also has interactive "tap-to-play" experiences around the park, like activating water cannons and illuminating images on the volcano wall.

When Universal opened Jimmy Fallon's Race Through New York in April, visitors were able to use the park app to queue up virtually by making a ride time reservation. The company has said it plans to expand the virtual line feature to more rides over time.

Busch Gardens' app has a car finder tool to mark your place in the parking lot. A Passport to Fun lets you earn stamps as you to explore the park and earn rewards like a free drink or stuffed toy. The ride time tool, however, is rarely accurate. But the company has said it is in the process of a complete technology and website rebuild.

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The huge amount of data these apps bring in means the theme parks now have a powerful way to target marketing. That's a road some privacy advocates warn is a slippery slope.

"They're basically conditioning young children to wear tracking devices," said Katherine Albrecht, a longtime consumer privacy advocate and co-author of the 2005 book Spychips.

She worries that kids "will grow up thinking it's completely normal to have their whereabouts tracked and their behavior monitored."

Olson, who analyzes technology for investors, said it's an interesting psychology at play with the American consumer.

"They often proclaim concern about all the data that these companies have about their lifestyle, but then at the same time seem to be willing to trade that off for the convenience and the improved experience that they have with the app," Olson said. "If it's such a big concern then stop using it."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

These days, don't hit the theme park without an app and a phone charger 05/24/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 24, 2017 12:14pm]
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