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Mousing around: A review of Disney theme park iPhone apps

My wife and I are unabashed Disneyphiles, so the last two months have been a lot of fun. After my wife taught a tutorial in L.A. last month, we spent a few days at the West Coast properties -- Disneyland and California Adventure. This month, we had some Disney Vacation Club points left over, so we spent five days at our "home" resort near Disney's Animal Kingdom, Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, and Disney's Hollywood Studios.

I thought these trips would be a perfect opportunity to try out some of the many travel apps that have sprung up for the iPhone, all of which purport to be the solution to all of your Disney dining, lodging, and theme park information needs. As with any genre of app, there are a mixture of good and bad apps available. Since the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is generally a big time to visit the parks, here's a quick tour of a few of the apps that my wife and I used on our trips so you can load up your iPhone if you're going to visit The Mouse over the holidays.
While we were at the Disneyland Resort in October, I used an app from MediaLAB, Inc. called the Disneyland iGuide - Walkee [US$2.99, iTunes Link]. The UI on this app is great; after starting it up, you are presented with a ring of icons around a big blue button. Tapping each of the icons allows you to add certain items to your search criteria, while tapping the blue button displays those search items on a colorful and rather whimsical map of Disneyland (at right).

For example, if I wanted to look for dining, restrooms, and ATMs (three of the most important things at any Disney theme park), I'd tap on the dining icon and the information icon. The latter icon has a list of items that can be selected.

The map looks more like a game board than an actual map, but with this app it really works. There's just enough detail so that you know where you are going, but not so much detail as to clutter the map. One of the names of this app, Walkee, describes how the app is supposed to "walk along with you" in the parks to help you find your way. Unfortunately, the assortment of structures and dense foliage in the park makes good GPS tracking a challenge. At some points, I could watch the Walkee screen and it was spot on -- in other cases, it had no clue where I was. I think the app needs a disclaimer to point out that location awareness can be highly variable.

I was also disappointed in the fact that the iGuide had wait times for attractions at both Disneyland resorts -- Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure -- but there was no map available for California Adventure. I'd prefer to either see California Adventure added to the app, or another app aimed solely at California Adventure.

About those wait times... The idea with the app is that you and other users who are standing in line can time exactly how long you're in that line using the Walkee Line Timer, and then submit that information to MediaLAB for instant updating. In reality, I found the wait times to be quite off the mark. In some cases, nobody had updated the wait time for two or three hours, while in other situations it was apparent that users either guessed their time in line or forgot to turn off the timer! Before my wife and I headed over to the great California Screamin' roller coaster at California Adventure, I checked the wait time and found it to be 35 minutes. When we actually arrived at the ride, we ended up spending less than 10 minutes in line before being launched on the ride.

The app also provides a Daily Calendar function for Downtown Disney, California Adventure, and Disneyland. You enter the day you're going to arrive at the resort location and how many days you're staying, then tap a button for the park you want information about. A guide showing what special events and parades will be going on each day, the time, and the location.

Finally, the app has a tool for remembering where your car is parked, a local dining chooser powered by "Welcome to SoCal," and ways to capture things that you've done at the parks. You can even get discount coupons for restaurants texted to your phone, which means that the app can pay for itself with one use. I was very impressed with the Disneyland iGuide - Walkee, and found it to be useful while visiting the parks. Of all the Disney-related apps my wife and I have purchased, I found the Disneyland iGude to be the best value.

The tool I used for our visit to Walt Disney World was the Walt Disney World Notescast [US$2.99, iTunes Link]. Notescasts began back in the days of the original iPods as a way to have a portable reference guide with information about Disney theme parks. The WDW Notescast is probably the most thorough guide you could choose for planning a trip to Walt Disney World, and the app is replete with information you simply can't find easily anywhere else or without an internet connection. For example, there's a full history of Walt Disney World, information for disabled guests, and even a "list of coming attractions." Are you a fan of finding "Hidden Mickeys?" The app has seven distinct tours for finding these subtle reminders of the mouse that started it all...

While much of the information found in the Notescast (at right) can be found by searching the Disney sites, fan sites, and Wikipedia descriptions, the app pulls it all together into a compact and easy to use package. It uses a simple e-reader interface, provides a way to bookmark articles of interest, and doesn't rely on technological tricks like GPS that may sometimes fail to work.

My wife used a handful of apps for the trip. The first was the Disney World Wait Times Free app from VersaEdge Software [Free, iTunes Link]. Her verdict for this app, which also requires other users to enter their actual wait times, was that it was useful, but really depended on how many other people are using the same app in the park you are at. That means that sometimes the wait times weren't updated and were grossly inaccurate.

The next of the "mouse apps" that my wife used was Walt Disney World Park Hours from Minneware [US$0.99, iTunes Link]. While the app is updated on a regular basis, she noted that the information could be found for free simply by going to the Disney website before the trip. For people who are staying at one of the many hotels on the resort property, updated information is given to you upon check-in. The app didn't include times or locations for many of the special events that were taking place at the parks.

Barb also decided to get a map app for her iPhone, since I had shown her the Walkee app's map capabilities when we were at Disneyland. She ended up purchasing the Walt Disney World Maps Box Set from UPinPoint [US$3.99, iTunes Link]. The app features cartoon-like maps of all the parks, and has a GPS button to locate your position on the maps. Unfortunately, my wife didn't see that button until the last day we were in one of the parks, and when she finally brought up the feature, she noticed the same issues with inaccuracy that I experienced with the Walkee app.

A big part of our trip was frequenting the top restaurants throughout the resort area, so the WDW Dining app from VersaEdge [US$1.99, iTunes Link] was a big help. As my wife mentioned, the menus weren't necessarily up-to-date, but they were very indicative of the type of cuisine and prices at the restaurants. One thing we both wished that the app had featured is wine lists for the restaurants. The only other complaint, which is more of a reflection on Disney than the app, is that we couldn't do an online reservation request. Disney Dining requests that you call them at a special phone number, while it would be much more convenient to do an OpenTable-like electronic reservation.

The last app that Barb used, and the one she liked the best of the group, was the Notescast Secrets of Walt Disney World app [US$1.99, iTunes Link]. The app contains a lot of behind-the-scenes information that is probably available on the Web, but it's nice to be able to pull up the facts and figures even when your iPhone is showing zero bars. We're both trivia buffs, so it was fascinating to get the scoop about a lot of the "inside jokes" or special tours that are available.

If you're planning on going to any of the Disney parks over the holidays, think about getting some iPhone apps to help you plan and enjoy your trip.

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