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Universal Orlando’s Secret Face Recognition Program Revealed

Universal Orlando has quietly and secretly working on a project that will completely change how guests flow through their theme parks. Everything you’re going to read in today’s article has been verified by reliable sources. However, none of the information given should be treated as official until Universal makes an announcement about facial recognition technology. As these things go, details change, as do timelines, so keep in mind what I’m telling you could morph a bit before it rolls out. We have been following this story at Theme Park University for several years and we now feel confident enough that it’s moving forward to give you all the details as we know it.  Capiche? Let’s dig in.

As you can imagine, nearly every entertainment destination paid very close attention to Disney’s MagicBand at Walt Disney World since before the initial testing even began.  In short, Disney’s MagicBand service was an extremely expensive gamble to help streamline a Walt Disney World vacation with an eye on increasing guest spending.  Now that most of the bugs have been ironed out with MyMagicPlus, the majority of the public seems to embrace it. However, the system is far from perfect.  MagicBands are expensive to create and ship to homes across the country. Using them at the front entrance of a theme park has definitely improved the efficiency of the lines there, but they seem to have gotten longer at FastPass return points during peak times.

Despite these issues (and more) of Disney’s MagicBand system, all sorts of companies have used the idea as a springboard to enhance their own guest experience from private clubs to cruise ships. However, if you’re looking for an apples-to-apples comparison of a system to streamline the guest experience, Universal Orlando is about as close as you’re going to get to Walt Disney World pretty much anywhere on the planet. Universal Orlando also has multiple parks, multiple hotels, Universal Express, charging purchases back to the hotel and more. Thus, Universal Orlando has been looking at several different options to improve upon MagicBands from not only a guest perspective but a more cost-effective alternative model that can prove far more valuable long-term as well.

How this all came about was several years ago when Universal executives were at a technology convention where several vendors were offering demonstrations of facial recognition technology for various corporate clients. Keep in mind, facial recognition is not even close to new. Government agencies, banks and especially casinos all have “eyes in the sky” tracking customers and employees 24/7. The technology can be advanced enough to recognize patrons if they put on a hat, glasses or partially block their face with something like a magazine.

Thus, the idea to substitute facial recognition for Disney’s MagicBand was born.  After all, you don’t have to worry about losing your face and there are no printing or shipping costs. You can even say this version is cleaner for the environment since there is literally nothing to print with either a ticket or receiving any sort of bands!

Copyright Universal Orlando

To give you an idea of how long this project has been in development, in 2014 for a brief period, Universal Orlando employees were quietly screened for facial recognition matches as they came to work. Since pictures were taken with their company ID when they were hired, Universal already had a database of what everyone approaching Gate 2 (the main entry for most Universal employees) would look like. From there, cameras were mounted in areas surrounding the entry checkpoint. The idea was to try and recognize the employee before they scanned their ID via facial recognition cameras and software. If the software could produce a match before the ID was scanned, it was proof of concept that this was a viable option for to use for guests entering the park. If my sources are correct, that test was around 85% accurate. Meaning it still needed tweaking, but was solid enough to move ahead.

Fast forward to January 2017. Islands of Adventure tested facial recognition at The Cat in the Hat and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man with guests using Universal Express. Participants in the test would walk up to a camera and smile, then visit the attraction and enter through the Universal Express queue line where cameras would try and match faces with those that were previously registered in the system at those attractions. Again, the facial recognition test proved positive with over a 90% match rate, so the project continues.

Copyright Universal Studios Orlando All Rights Reserved

Recently a study was conducted on a Universal Studios Florida soundstage. A very select amount of upper management and executives were asked to walk around a space that was set up like the front entrance of a theme park. Photos were taken in advance and this time, participants were asked to hold park maps in front of them, wear sunglasses, hats and other factors that could throw the cameras off. Again, the test proved to be positive so the small team working on this project continues to charge ahead.

Now let’s look at the future of Universal Orlando and how the facial recognition technology can work for guests throughout the resort. First, it all starts with the Universal Orlando app. Once this program rolls out, there will be a heavy push to buy tickets directly through their smartphone app. Even if they choose to buy elsewhere (website or third party vendors), they can link tickets via barcodes or confirmation numbers. After that? It’s time to take a selfie.

Once that picture is saved in the database, it will certainly make arriving in the park much smoother. If you choose a ticket that includes parking (such as certain annual passes), you can roll up to a Universal Orlando parking booth and roll down your window and smile. The facial recognition software recognizes your face and alerts the attendant that you are good to go. No scanning cards of any kind. Of course, you can still pay to park, but considering how many people have free parking privileges from annual passes to employees (plus the option to purchase parking through the app could be coming), it will speed up the time to enter those parking garages immensely.

Copyright Universal Orlando

After passing through security, your walk to Citywalk will feature new eye in the sky cameras that will start to identify you… or not, as the case may be. Have a pass on file? Whether it’s a one day ticket or an annual pass, the system will recognize you are approaching and about to enter the park. You’ll notice that not only are the tickets booths gone (or vastly reduced) but so are the turnstiles. There are no lines to enter Universal Orlando parks of the future.

Front entrance attendants will be manned with iPads with a live video feed of people approaching the entry area. If the guest has a valid theme park ticket on file and their selfie is in the system, a green dot will appear over their head.  If they do not have a photo on file, the attendant will stop them and ask if they can take a quick picture of them so they have it on file and link it to their pass/account.  Once done, they are free to go about their day and they won’t have to do it again.  More on that later.

Let’s say that the guest approaching the front entrance Team Member hasn’t bought a ticket in advance? (Gasp!) Not to worry. Those handy iPads will double as a point of sale device complete with credit card swipe.  You simply ask how many days they will be visiting, what kind of ticket they would like to purchase, take that selfie and poof.. they are good to go.  A receipt can be printed nearby or emailed to them.  There will also be stations nearby where customers can pay by cash (which is a very small percentage of a major purchase like a theme park ticket these days).

Now let’s say that some crafty whipper snapper manages to sneak by the front entrance Team Members without a valid park ticket or selfie in the system. Not only will these cameras be covering the front entrance, but nearly the entire park. Meaning that there will be a few Team Members just beyond the main entrance to catch those few stragglers who manage to skedaddle by.

Taking it further, maybe that someone manages to get by everyone in the front entrance area and manages to get to the back of the park.  Security will also be using this system to monitor who is in the park and where. If any of these eyes in the sky cameras manage to see someone who it doesn’t recognize anywhere beyond the main entrance, it can alert security to dispatch someone to approach the individual and verify they have park tickets. On a similar note, remember that article we recently posted about how theme park stop guests who have been trespassed from the property from entering? Once implemented, this will be Universal Orlando’s new way to prevent those who aren’t allowed on property from entering… or at least getting very far.

Now let’s talk about that queue-less theme park idea we have talked about here at Theme Park University several times.  Despite the fact that Volcano Bay continues to get hammered by pretty crappy reviews, this park is just the start and testing ground for Universal Orlando (and eventually all Universal parks) to become queue-less (or at least minimal queueing upon your return time).  While we aren’t going into detail about the no-queue version of the theme park right now (later, I promise!) just know that facial recognition will be your “ticket” to entering most attractions whether you’re using Universal Express or you’ve reserved your time in advance via the Universal Orlando app, much like you can now with Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. This means that yet again if you manage to make it past the front entrance without a park ticket, you will not be allowed to enter an attraction if the facial recognition software doesn’t have your mug on file.

Copyright Universal Orlando Resort

Now let’s say you want to grab a bite to eat or buy a t-shirt. You’ll be able to link your credit card via the app to your online profile that includes (you guessed it) your picture. You can approach the counter, smile at the camera and enter a four-digit pin that you set up beforehand. This will make the checkout process of most transactions a breeze.  Yes, you will also be able to charge back to your room if you are staying in an on-site Universal Orlando hotel as well.

How can facial recognition enhance that Universal Orlando hotel stay? Once you book your room (and probably a ticket package that goes with it), you’ll also be encouraged to set up an account online to upload that selfie before arriving on property. Assuming your smiling face is on file before you even arrive at the front desk, cameras can recognize you’re approaching and notify employees. A greeter can say hello to you by name and even wish you a happy birthday, anniversary or welcome you to your first visit (which the parks will be able to do as well!)

Since your picture is linked to your account, the front desk computer can start assigning a room to your party as you’re walking through the lobby. By the time you actually reach the desk, an employee can have your room keys and welcome packet ready to hand to you, speeding up check-in time and allowing for a more personable experience.  Once you arrive in the hallway where your room is located, the ever-present eye in the sky cameras can unlock your room for 30 seconds before you even reach the doorknob!

Once inside your hotel room, while there are no cameras inside (phew!) the system does know you’re there. Remember those on-ride photos that were taken of your family during the day? Or the ones you took with characters via the photographers stationed around the park? Now those photos might end up in a digital photo frame mounted to the wall in your room.  Before you even arrive, those photos will be cycling through a slideshow to remind you of your day in the park.

While all these new features may sound groundbreaking, the real reason why this technology is so interesting to Universal executives is brand loyalty.  Contrary to popular belief, Disney’s MagicBands do not track you throughout the park. Sure, they know what experiences you’ve reserved and redeemed for the FastPass Plus system, but that is usually only two to three maximum attractions per day. What attractions did you wait in line for? Where did you eat? How many times did you ride Space Mountain in one visit? Sure, your son may have gotten two FastPasses for it, but maybe he loved it so much he waited in line five times for it as well.  Disney has no way of tracking that data presently and from my understanding, will not be doing so in the foreseeable future.

Now let’s say that your son Timmy was obsessed with the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure. The cameras recognized that you just exited the attraction, went to the gift shop and bought a t-shirt. A notification can be sent through the app saying “Hey Jones family! Spider-Man is ready to meet you! He’s just across the street! Come say hi to Peter… uh, we mean… Spidey himself! Maybe he’ll pose for a picture or two!”

Courtesy Universal Orlando Resort

The Jones family heads across the street and now, not only does Spider-Man know Timmy’s name, he knows it’s his birthday.  He also knows that you just helped saved Manhattan and thanks you for your bravery facing Doc Ock and his gang of villains. Spidey can get fed this information via a Bluetooth earpiece, creating a memory that goes beyond what talking Mickey can do over at the Magic Kingdom.

Want me to prove it? Let’s say that after riding the attraction, buying the t-shirt and meeting Spidey, little Timmy is pumped and wants to ride The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man five more times during the day. It becomes his favorite ride of all time. Once Timmy arrives back home, a letter arrives in his name from the Universal Orlando Resort. Open opening it, it’s a note from Spider-Man! It could go something like this:

“Dear Timmy, It was totally awesome meeting you and your family last Saturday! I hope I gave you a few pointers on your web-slinging skills in case you’re ever bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider like I was. I couldn’t help but notice that after we met, you went and saved New York City a whopping six times in one day! You’re one brave dude! As a thank you, the next time you visit, present the enclosed pass to one of my…. err… Peter Parker’s co-workers at the Daily Bugle and they’ll make sure to get you on the Scoop without having to wait in line.  It’s the least I can do for all your bravery. See ya next time! – Stay Awesome, Your Friend – Spider-Man.”

Copyright Universal Orlando

Now if you think Timmy isn’t going to beg his parents to take another trip to Universal Orlando Resort after receiving that letter, you’ve lost touch with reality. Not only will that letter be cherished until Timmy’s return visit, but you bet your bottom dollar it’ll be shown to every kid in his class and everyone who lives up and down his block.

My friends, this is how you create brand loyalty to a theme park. This is the future of marketing. This is the next wave of how people will move through, interact with and ultimately enjoy a Universal Orlando vacation. When is this happening? That hasn’t been determined. All I know is that the new park that is currently being designed is slated to open with facial recognition technology, which is around 2023. Without question, more tests will be done and the existing theme parks are slated to get it before that time.

Without a doubt, once this system rolls out it will outdo what Disney’s MagicBand system is currently capable of hands down. Keep in mind, for the most part (aside from annual passholders and frequent visitors) MagicBands are often thrown away between visits. Meaning Disney has no way of truly tracking what you do from stay to stay that are years apart. Your face will always be with you and software can easily pick up on your facial features and still recognize you as you age.  Want to take it a step further? Let’s look far down the road.

Timmy grew up going to Universal Orlando and remembers that first visit to Marvel Super Hero Island vividly.  He took several trips throughout the years, even through his teen years and always went and visited Spider-Man who always greeted him with “Tim! How ya been, man?” and they’d catch up just like old friends. Now Timmy is married and brings his son to the park for the first time.  Now, Timmy Jr. gets to meet his dad’s long-time friend: Spider-Man.  They chat just like they always do and introduce his son to his lifelong friend. Then… a postcard arrives in the mail upon returning back home. It’s from Spider-Man, who has made a collage of all the photos they took together including the one with Timmy Jr. After all, Peter Parker is a photographer for the Daily Bugle with photo editing skills. Now the torch has been passed and you’ve got a souvenir that will bring a tear to any dad’s eye.

Admittedly, the Timmy Jr. story is one I embellished on. As far as I know, the team at Universal working on this facial recognition haven’t thought that far in advance. But if not, they should be. This system is dripping with the potential to ease the guest experience and connect brand loyalty to Universal Parks. Yes, facial recognition is slated to reach all parks globally. Naturally, everything that is listed in this article can’t get implemented overnight. It will come in very small tests and phases over the course of the next several years. It gets really complicated when it comes to water parks (which I’ll cover in a future article), but for now… you’ve got questions. What if twins both have identical selfies? What happens if the system crashes and there is a power outage? What if I don’t feel comfortable with Universal Orlando tracking my every move?

Clearly, I don’t have all your answers at this point. And frankly, neither does the team working on this at Universal. It’s a work in progress. However, regarding security cameras tracking your every move: it happens now. Every single day. Virtually every time you leave your house. Gas stations, banks, grocery stores, sporting events, casinos… the list goes on and on. All of them have multiple cameras monitoring your every move… some are more sophisticated (and interactive) than others. This merely takes it a few steps further. Your thoughts?

Wait! Remember when I told you I would keep the “#IReadTheEntireArticle” thing going at least once a month? Well, I keep my promises. Respond to this article using that hashtag on any of our social media outlets and you’ll be entered into a random drawing to win a $10 Amazon gift card. This contest is not affiliated with Universal Orlando (or Amazon) in any form. Entries must be received by 10/27/17 at midnight EST. It’s Theme Park University’s way of thanking you for being a savvy theme park fan!

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Images Copyright: Universal Orlando Resort, Apple

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One Comment

  1. narniaexpert
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    The big fallacy I see here is how this could be scaled to a large scale theme park. The test examples listed were done with a test pool of several thousand Universal employees. In full implementation there would be a data pool that includes around 40,000 daily visitors, every possible annual passholder in Florida, every possible Universal employee/vendor, and every possible multi day ticket holder. If a test sample identifies someone among a sample of several thousand employees, the accuracy would be far lower among a data set of around 100,000. In actuality the effectiveness of the system is not whether or not it can correctly identify an individual face, but whether or not it will find any face among the more than 100,000 in the database that is similar enough to register a false match. One guest selfie at the point of sale is not going to give an accurate facial mapping because usually these face measurements are aggregated from a larger collection of photos of that person. Really when it comes down to it the biggest flaw in the logic of this article is the idea that Universal would at all be interested in using this to improve customer service instead of just making more money selling more line cutting passes.

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