Interview With Disneys CIO Roger Berry

Walt Disney Co. CIO Roger Berry and Andy Schwalb, director of information technology for Walt Disney World, on the thinking behind Disney's sensor-equipped Pal Mickey doll and other aspects of the theme parks' new customer-experience strategy. (CIO Ins

CIO Insight: How is Disney Worlds new CRM strategy relevant to all businesses?

Roger Berry: Were trying to see if we can make convergence work for business—that is, converging business processes onto converged technology networks and servers and data. It opens a whole new paradigm in how to deliver service to customers. On the front end for us is Pal Mickey, a customer interface in the form of a doll and a feel-good brand that can dispatch customer information in individualized ways to help us, say, ease long lines, improve yield management, boost efficiency, enhance the customer experience and drive new revenues. On the back end, we have a strategy so that anywhere a guest comes in contact with us—whether with a food server, merchandise salesperson, ticket seller or what have you—we can use technology to take the hassle out of the guest experience. Fundamentally, its about using technology to create a more favorable guest experience and leverage customer activity, and in real time. Well be able to tell you through Pal Mickey or through your cell phone or whatever when the fireworks at Magic Kingdom will begin or where your childs favorite character is going to be at a certain time. A very high percentage of our guests have cell phones, over 95 percent, so it makes sense to use the devices already there to get some of this data out to people.

Andy Schwalb: The concepts we develop here, well roll out in our other parks. The idea is that if it works at Walt Disney World, itll work anywhere because were so much bigger than everybody else.

Berry: For anything that you want to test and get a really good look at, to see if it will work in a broad way in a commercial market somewhere, this is a good place to try it. Were about as big as San Francisco. Technology used to fall under the financial arm of the company, but it doesnt anymore, at least not at Walt Disney World. Disney World IT reports directly to the president, and Disney World has become the new test site for Disney IT. Its a great place to work if youre a technologist.

How else will the mobile Internet and convergence be applied?

Schwalb: We know our guests hate waiting in line, so were developing GPS and mobile Internet systems that, for example, count the number of people waiting for a bus for a particular hotel or resort. This system can dynamically dispatch the buses, which are not on a static schedule, and change the routes depending on demand. The system can also automatically change the sign on the bus, count the people getting on the bus, tell people how many minutes before a bus shows up so they dont have to wait, and route buses dynamically. Nobody else in the world does this because everybody else uses static routes.

Could you describe some of the thinking behind Pal Mickey?

Schwalb: We experimented a lot with the concept, and there were many details to worry about. What should Mickeys voice sound like? How loud should his voice be? Giving it volume without disturbing anybody else is a fine line that was a real challenge, for example. Would it work to wear Mickey around your wrist, or would it get too hot in the summer? Were rolling out a Spanish-speaking Pal Mickey and looking into other language possibilities.

Berry: Pal Mickey is another type of point of service. Its another character we can employ to increase our ability to touch more customers personally. If youre a reservations agent, you pull information from our information system. If youre Pal Mickey, you push information from our data system to the customer. We have an architecture strategy that allows anywhere, anyplace, anytime delivery of information to any device. Its pervasive computing. Its an early form of customization. Pal Mickey isnt interactive yet, but he could be. Now hes being used to tell you information depending on where you are—and in the future, depending on who you are. Were also looking at interactive television in our hotel rooms and other ways to help guests understand what weve got to offer and make their experience better.

Schwalb: Our clear target is to use technology to reduce customer hassle. The money will follow.

Will this add a lot of complexity to your IT architecture?

Berry: When you get under the covers and look at the technology underlying this, its an evolution. First it was a business vision. Then we had to ask ourselves if we really had the technology to deploy it. Once we decided that some of it was commercially available and some would need to be developed ourselves, we went into a huge architectural design to lay this out. This isnt like the traditional way of building a system because you cant just build one piece of it. So I use the analogy of Legos. Some of it is stuff proprietary to us, but most of it is off-the-shelf technology exploited in a big way, kind of plug and play. The role of IT is changing. Its not simply an organization that is deploying technology, but integrating technology from a lot of different angles.