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Walt Disney World on 5 apps a week

We did a write-up of apps used at Disneyland and Walt Disney World back in November, but I just spent a week at Walt Disney World where my daughter got married, and wanted to add some personal perspective on my experience with five iPhone/iPod touch apps for seven days. There are a lot of apps out for Walt Disney World, but from reviews both here and anywhere else I could find, I decided upon, and bought, five of them. The quality of these apps ranged from beautiful but arcane, to incredibly useful.

The most eye-catching of all the apps has to be The Walt Disney World Maps Boxed Set US$3.99 [iTunes Link]. This set contains maps of all four parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot, along with Downtown Disney, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon and the Orlando International Airport tossed in for good measure. Maps of each of the parks can be bought individually for US$.99. When running the app, you are presented with the main screen which goes black for a few seconds and then re-appears. Odd. Tapping on any of the parks gives you a detailed "cartoony-looking" map that can be pinched and stretched to an extent. You can't pinch any map enough to see the entire park on one screen. This means that you really have to know basically what you're looking for before the app can be of much help, and since the map has no text of what the buildings represent, it's hit or miss. At least it was until I found the spyglass button which brings up a screen that searches attractions either by A to Z, by location, or by category. Choosing one brings up a screen with the name, a one line description, and some additional information.

There is also a map button which will take you to a map showing your choice and putting a star on it. Since it has GPS capability built in, it will locate you, but in my experience, you have to find your way to the starred attraction which again is a problem since a park can't be displayed on one screen. The design of the app is pretty arcane to my taste. You can set it to show you rest rooms, ATM's etc., and they show up as appropriate icons, but attractions are just denoted by useless numbers. When you tap on a number, you get to see what it is, but this is far less useful than the paper maps available all over the parks. Tapping on a displayed name of an attraction goes to the detail screen, but in some cases the little arrow to tap is partially off the screen. The detail screens are useful if a bit barren. It took me a few days to find that hidden behind some screens is a wealth of information like park hours and detailed restaurant listings.

This is good stuff, but the way the app is laid out makes it quite difficult to get to the good stuff since I always seemed to be dropped into one settings screen or another. What I want from an informative app is to be able to get to information quickly and not have to fiddle with many concatenated screens. After a few days I gave up on this app favoring the paper maps which were much easier to understand. The Wow factor of the app is apparent though. More than once, on a bus going between parks, someone looked over my shoulder and asked if the colorful map I was looking at was on an iPhone and wistfully telling me that they wish they could get something like that on their phone. I didn't have the heart to tell them that I really wasn't too impressed with the app, no matter how neat it looked. The app requires OS 3.1.2 or better.

Here are some screen shots of The Walt Disney World Maps Boxed Set:




If you are new to the Florida mouse, you can't do better than buying the Walt Disney World Notecast $US2.99 [iTunes Link]. This is a complete guidebook in an app and a very complete one at that. Using a tried and true interface that's probably been around before the iPhone, this app organizes every piece of information you could possibly want to know about the resort. It can be used to plan your trip, suggests tips for taking toddlers, provides history, ticket information, relevant phone numbers, resort information and so much more that if I included it all, this would be the worst run-on sentence I've ever written.

I've been to WDW at least twenty-five times, and with two, now grown, kids, can tell you where all the bathrooms are by heart and give a pretty good tour of all the parks, but this app isn't meant for me. Understanding all four parks, the plethora of accommodations and all of the complexity of the resort can be somewhere between baffling and challenging. The Walt Disney World Notecast is the go-to app to tell you everything about everything. It does so in a static, no Internet or Wi-Fi connection needed, manner. This prevents it from giving you up to the minute information, but there are other apps for that. It works with any device running OS 2.1 or better.

Explanations of Disney's Magical Express a wonderful Disney service where they handle your bags and deliver them to your room, is only one of the details that are fully explained. Hidden Mickeys, which Steve Sande referred to in November, are a game that the Disney imagineers built into all the parks. Hundreds of Mickey Mouse heads are hidden in plain sight throughout all the parks, and the trick is to find as many as you can. This app explains the concept and then gives you seven Hidden Mickey tours. It's that sort of attention to detail and constantly exceeding expectations of what the app can do, that makes the Walt Disney World Notecast really special. If I couldn't walk into Epcot and get to the Norway Maelstrom ride with my eyes closed, this is the app I would buy first.

Take a look at some of the seemingly hundreds of screens to give you an idea of what you get:



The last three apps I used all come from a company called VersaEdge and have a clear in-your-face design which makes them even more valuable than they would be if you had to tap a ton of buttons to get your information. The first and simplest of these apps is Disney World Park Hours Free [iTunes Link]. This is a two-trick-pony that I found quite useful. If you stay at one of the Disney resorts, one benefit you get are Extra Magic hours. Many days one park stays open an extra hour in the morning or up to three hours at night only for resort guests. One tap of the app gives you all the parks hours along with Extra Magic hours in a scrolling list that includes six months of data. If you then tap on a park, you are presented with all the times of parades, shows and special events taking place that day. Of course you can get this information online, but it's really nice to have it in your pocket just one tap away. This app needs OS 3.0 to run and an add free version is available for US$.99, but I see no reason for it since the ads aren't very intrusive.

Here are a few screen shots:



The Disney World Dining app US$1.99 [iTunes Link] was the one that really came through for me. It requires OS 3.0 or better and houses information that, as the week progressed, became really important. We were on the Disney Dining Plan which wound up saving us a bunch of money since the price of food in WDW is quite expensive. For US$40 per day you get a snack, a counter breakfast or lunch (which is something like a burger fries and a drink) and a sit down dinner where you get an entrée, dessert and beverage, or as many restaurants are run, a full buffet. It sounds like a high price, but many dinners we had cost more than the daily US$40 alone. A counter lunch can cost over US$15! Not every venue in the parks honor the DDP, so it's quite important to find out which ones do, and that's what the WDW Dining app does, as well as providing a park by park breakdown of all dining options, an indication of cost, and full detailed menus of each restaurant or stand. Although simple, this, for the developer, can be hard to keep up with since menus change all the time. I found that every menu I checked was correct both in the bill of fare and the price. There is also a Near Me button which addresses the GPS if you have one, and tells you how far you are from the restaurant measured in yards if you're on AT&T or meters if you are using an international carrier. You can also keep a dining schedule of all your reservations that can be emailed. I found myself using this one all the time.

Here are some screen shots of WDW Dining



The last app I used was a bit problematic. The Disney World Wait Times app (Free) [iTunes Link] was reported by Steve Sande in November to often be "grossly inaccurate". That wouldn't be surprising since the review came out only days after it appeared in the app store and is based on lots of people using it and reporting times. Currently around fifty thousand copies have been downloaded which should be a fairly large user base even knowing that only a fraction of users will be in one of the parks at any given time. The idea, of course, is to get a handle on just how long the wait is for attractions so you can plan your day accordingly. Although the great majority of app store reviewers loved it, I found major discrepancies in reported wait time and actual waits. The way it works is dependent upon users submitting wait times within the app which adds to an algorithm taking into account park capacity, time of day and recently reported wait times, so the more people that report times, the more accurate it will be ... theoretically. It took me a while to find a button on the time submission screen marked Recent Times. Tapping on that brings up a list of all the reported times and when they were sent. If people submitted times within the last hour, I found that to be amazingly accurate, far more so than the calculated time shown on the main screen. Of course if no one submitted anything on an attraction for a few hours, it was of no use at all. The app requires OS 3.0 or better.

I was confused about the disparity between all the good reviews and my experience so I called up Robert Airhart the developer of the app at VersaEdge and learned a great deal about what's going on behind the curtain. One really neat thing is that steps were taken to not let users fake out the app. Without you knowing it, users are GPS tracked, or their position triangulated using cell towers if the device doesn't have a GPS. If your position is not in the park and you submit a time, it will be ignored. Similarly, if you are in the park and put down something impossible, like a seventy minute wait at It's a Small World in the Magic Kingdom, where there is seldom any wait, again it will be ignored.

So what's the problem? According to Robert, the disparities I saw weren't due to the Artificial Intelligence algorithm entirely, which I thought didn't put enough weight into recently reported times, but that and clumping might be the problem. Here's how he explained it:
Clumping is when you might get a lot of submissions at one time. We use a weighted average of all recent times where more recent times are weighted more heavily. The problem is if a lot of users submitted around 1 hour ago and the actual ride time changed significantly since then but we only have 1 very recent time. In that case, the clump of older times collectively overpowers the 1 recent time in the weighted average. We've also modified the system today so more recent times are worth even more than they were before relative to older submitted times to try to mitigate this effect.

We believe both of these changes will significantly help with the potential problems you saw. However, it does mean we trust a single individual submission much more than we used to. If a user intentionally submits a bad time, it will have a greater negative influence. We will run with these new adjustments a while and see how it goes.
So the app is in the process of being tweaked for more accuracy and a revision should be submitted to Apple by the end of the week. Robert Airhart is even more of a Disney fanatic than myself and goes to the parks at least half a dozen times a year. I absolutely believe that he is taking the right steps to make the app really accurate, and when it is, it will be the most valuable of all the WDW apps. Planning ones day is the biggest challenge anyone runs into in the parks. A few missteps can waste valuable hours.

Take a look at some screen shots of Disney World Wait Times:



I'm already looking forward to my next trip to Walt Disney World which will be for the sole purpose of testing the accuracy of the Disney World Wait Time app.

Yeah. Right.



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App Review

We did a write-up of apps used at Disneyland and Walt Disney World back in November, but I just spent a week at Walt Disney World where my...