Mickey Mouse goes wireless
By Ken Mingis
BOSTON, Massachusetts (IDG) -- On any given day, between 100,000 and 150,000 visitors crowd into Walt Disney World in Florida, largely unaware that the 47-square-mile theme park is almost completely enveloped by an invisible wireless Web.
While families and other patrons watch Goofy and Mickey Mouse on parade, seek thrills on rides or head for the nearest hot dog stand, the attraction's 55,000 "cast members," as Disney employees are called, quietly rely on an 802.11b LAN to do everything from authorize credit card purchases, order up shuttle buses and even track visitors as they wander through the park.
Murshid S. Khan, director of telecommunications and technology support at Walt Disney World, talked about the theme park's use of wireless technology during Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.'s Wireless LAN Summit here. According to Khan, Disney World, which includes the famed Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center, is part of an interconnected world that includes as many as 200 wireless access points hidden throughout the park. The access points are used to facilitate the flow of information and data behind the scenes.
Khan described how the technology use has evolved, as well as where he believes Burbank, Calif.-based The Walt Disney Co. plans to go with wireless LANs in the future. His comments came on the last day of the three-day Gartner event, which ended on Nov. 19.
The decision to provide 802.11b coverage for most of the amusement park grew in response to visitors' complaints about being unable to use credit cards to buy food, beverages and Disney World merchandise, Khan said.
"We were running a food and wine festival and a lot of people had complained in the past that they couldn't use credit cards [to pay for items]," Khan said. "When people go to the park, they want to use credit cards. So we changed that."
With a wireless LAN in place, employees can now accept credit card purchases and complete authorizations quickly, he said, speeding up transactions and making it easier for visitors to buy food and merchandise. The technology also allows employees to be mobile, meaning they can boost revenue by bringing merchandise and food to people who may be stuck in line waiting for rides.
"They're not static; they're mobile," Khan said. "And mobility has enhanced revenue generation."
The technology is also used for "guest tracking" on Disney cruises, especially during stops when travelers disembark for island excursions. As each person arrives on board one of the company's cruise ships, Khan said, he is given a card. As passengers leave and return to the ship, they are required to swipe the cards in a device that tracks who has come and gone.
"That tells us who's on board," Khan said. "Let's say 200 people have gone onto an island. If we see that 200 people have not come back, we know how many people are missing."
Although the company's goal is to provide a wireless workplace for its employees throughout the park, there have been challenges in implementing the technology, Khan said. "Bandwidth is an issue in some areas. Integration [with wired networks and applications] is an issue. Seamless roaming is an issue," he said.
But the biggest hurdle is security -- ensuring that tens of thousands of credit card numbers are sufficiently protected during multiple transactions to prevent theft and working constantly to keep "sniffers" from illegally connecting.
Khan said Disney uses 128-bit encryption and other means of detecting possible intrusions with software. Though he declined to be more specific about how the company protects its network, Khan stressed that Disney is constantly looking to beef up security, especially as the network grows and is used for more services.
During a question-and-answer session after he spoke, however, Khan acknowledged that wireless LANs are still a new technology that may not be right for all businesses.
"This is an emerging technology," he said. "It's going to take a while before everyone feels comfortable with it. For small business groups, you can [implement] it. But for larger Fortune 500 companies, I'm not sure the rate of return is there. You have to be comfortable before you jump in."
"If someone is asking me about applying this for office automation, I'm not sure I would do that at this point," Khan said.
And while he said Disney plans a gradual move to a faster 802.11a network in the years ahead, he said the company has no plans to deploy Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth is wireless technology with a shorter range that is designed primarily for the personal-area network among devices such as telephones, handhelds, laptops, printers or fax machines. By contrast, 802.11b networks are seen as being better-suited for workgroups or other places where wireless connections can be spread apart.
Asked whether Disney might ever offer some of its bandwidth to park visitors, Khan said no. In addition to bandwidth concerns, he said, there are also more practical worries.
"We need you to come to the park and enjoy the park," he said. "If we start opening Internet cafes, you won't do that."
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