Monday, July 02, 2012

Disney iTunes Apps

This article focuses on iTunes apps only, but there are often Android versions of the same apps available as well.

Some apps are free, and driven by ads. Others cost money for the download (anywhere from $.99 upward, though $.99-$1.99 seem the most common prices), and the purchase price is a one-time cost. I resisted paying for apps all of perhaps two days, and once I caved, it became hard to imagine returning to my stingy ways. Many apps promise they will be updated over time, when content changes. That will be especially helpful for ones that offer, say, prices of exact menu items. Others draw the content and information "on the fly" (requiring a cell phone connection) when you request it, so it's by definition going to be current. I'm thinking here of one that makes use of the published, official Disney operating hours and show times. In the spirit of helping my fellow iPhone users, I thought I'd take one for the team and buy a bunch of these apps, and review them so you wouldn't have to spend the money unnecessarily. What follows is clearly a personal and subjective recounting of the relative worth (or worthlessness) of the apps, and as always, your mileage may vary. I've placed them here in ranked order, with the best and most useful ones listed first.

  1. Disney Mobile Magic (free) - this is the official app released by Disney, and you must own it. It doesn't have full menus, but it's invaluable for ride information. You can see wait times for standby lines, and these aren't guesses - they are taken from the actual park computers and streamed to your phone. What you see on the app is precisely what you'd see if you walked over to the ride, so this app saves you a lot of time. You can also see when return times would be if you got a new FastPass. How crazy useful is that? You simply have to get this one. One downside: it very often has trouble connecting to the service in the parks, as if the network is overwhelmed.
  2. WDW Dining Disney ($.99) - Listed as "WDW Dining" in the icon, this indispensable tool gives you exactly what it sounds like: complete menu items, prices, and sometimes ingredients for all the restaurants at the parks and hotels. It's got a clean design, an easy interface, and it seems extremely up to date to me. You click on a park (or hotel name), then it lists all the eateries alphabetically in this park. Click on a restaurant name, and you get a description. My one quibble is on this screen; I'd like to see the menus right here just by scrolling down, but I have to click LUNCH or DINNER to see that menu. There's a search function that looks for restaurant name; it dynamically suggests choices as you type. I'd like a search and index function by menu item, too, but beggars can't be choosers, I guess, and this app is very difficult to beat for usefulness. I found myself checking it multiple times each day, and let me remind you that not only do I live in Orlando and should know the menus, but I've quite literally written a book that does everything this app does, so for *me* to find it irresistibly useful is saying quite a lot. I hope they update often, but even if it's only once a year, this is one app you cannot live without.
  3. Walt Disney World Resort Times Guide ($1.99) - Listed as "WDW Times" in the icon, this tool makes use of official data from Disney's website to bring you park opening and closing times, as well as the major parades, fireworks, and shows. Since it's automated and doesn't depend on human agency to update it daily, I have high confidence that it will be current on whichever day I switch it on. It's particularly useful for the purposes of selecting which park to visit that day (try locating all four paper Times Guides in your hotel in the morning, especially if you're staying off the Disney property), and it's just as useful when thinking about parkhopping. You can check parade times, fireworks, and so on from anywhere in the park, without having to find the paper Times Guide. A real winner, and an easy purchase for me to recommend to you.
  4. WDW Wait Times Disney (free) - Listed as "Wait Times" in the icon, this free tool has one of the cleanest designs and easiest navigations of all the apps. Clicking a park name gives you different lands of the park, and under each land is prominently listed the attractions in that land. The approximate wait time for the attraction is given in large characters next to each attraction name; it's impossible to mix this up. This app doesn't provide a guess based on historical data and an algorithm, it needs live users to input data on a day to day basis. The more users inputting data as the day goes on, the more accurate the result. On one visit, we only saw a few reported times, implying perhaps two users. On another visit, it looked like four people were doing it that day. This app is presently not perfect, and there are gaps. But it has enormous potential. If ten, twenty, or two hundred people (let alone two thousand  or twenty thousand) used the app, the wait times info would be pretty accurate. Since it's free, it's an easy sell. I hope the rest of you will join me in using this particular wait times app. Even the interface for inputting a recent wait time is intuitive and actually kind of fun. It's oddly satisfying to stand at the info board and update all the times at once. This kind of outsourcing of labor is called "crowdsourcing", and it's the last of the "must get" apps for Walt Disney World. Quibbles: it's missing Mickey's Philharmagic for some reason, and it is completely silent about FastPass. It would be nice to add functionality about "last reported Return Time" for issuing of new FastPasses, so I would know whether it's worthwhile trotting out to Splash Mountain before leaving the air conditioned comfort of the Exhibition Hall.
  5. Wait Watchers Magic Kingdom Edition (free) - This app is specific to the Magic Kingdom, and there are others for the other parks. The same idea as the earlier app governs this one: it depends on users inputting data so others can benefit. But this time around, the user input interface is somewhat difficult to use. You see the same master interface for inputting times no matter which ride you were looking at a moment ago, and you have to scroll through the long list to find your desired ride. Frankly, it's annoying, and since this app is only for one park at a time (rather than the all-parks app mentioned earlier), this one ends up lower on the list.
  6. Hidden Mickeys ($1.99) - Listed simply as "Disney World" on the app (a somewhat presumptuous title), this one offers a clean interface and easy navigation. As you might expect, it's all about finding those elusive Hidden Mickeys. It's not written by Steven Barrett, the author of the paperback version of the same topic, and it's a lot cheaper than his book. In terms of content, it's probably about comparable. There are five locations listed for Adventureland, which compares favorably with the print book. It's somewhat fun, and reasonably useful. I wish it had pictures, though.
  7. Walt Disney World Trivia ($2.99) - This one is less about utility and more about killing time in line. It's got great fun icons and whimsical castles, and an overall fun design. It's basically a trivia quiz (something I know a little bit about!), and you appear to lose the game as soon as you miss one of the questions. It's got a leader board, which I like since it will encourage repeat play. The questions are multiple choice and ask such things as the tallest object on property or the name of the leader of the Bear Country Jamboree." Some of the questions came up twice in the same 20-question game on me, implying a bit of an error in the programming. Still, it's a good killer of time when in the lines, and I'll bet it will be popular on airplanes. Assuming you remember to put your iPhone in "airplane mode" and just use the apps!
  8. Magic Kingdom Mini Guide ($.99) - Listed as Magic Map on the icon, this app looked almost completely useless to me at first. It appeared to be just an unofficial redrawing of the park map, with a simple way to see restrooms, rides, and shops. All this is on the official paper park maps you can pick up for free, so I didn't see the point at first. Eventually, though, I realized that you can click DINNER on the restaurant page and be linked via the iPhone's Safari browser to the menu items as seen on the allearsnet website. I wonder if allearsnet even knows if they are doing that. This saves me the trouble of a bookmark in the regular Safari browser, which is standard on an iPhone, but it probably takes just as many clicks. I suppose this might be a useful and fun thing to check while riding the Disney bus on the way to the park, but it wouldn't be my first choice.
  9. Walt Disney World Secrets Notescast ($.99) - With only one or two "tours" per park, and each tour really pretty slender, this app leaves a lot to be desiredyou're your definition of "secrets" includes knowing that Cast Members sometimes show off animals to small kids or that you can hear artificially-piped in kitchen noises in Tusker House, then this is the right app for you. Pretty much 100% of this info is available elsewhere online, though, so it wasn't really the right app for me. At least it was about lesser-known things, though.
  10. Walt Disney World Guide Notescast ($1.99) - This one goes in a million directions: annual events at Walt Disney World (pirate and princess party, food and wine festival) but with zero specifics, descriptions and photos of Walt Disney World attractions, a historical narrative of WDW, generic character finding hints, disability info, and a few token links about planning, merchandise, parades, phone numbers, hotels, and tickets. It reads like a not-very-informative unofficial website, reproducing much of what's already there on the official website.
  11. WDWPal ($1.99) - This app is all about drinking and dining! The top link concerns lounges, then comes dining discounts, a dining plan tracker (which might be useful if I actually used the Disney Dining Plan), and there are some details about exactly *which* restaurants gives me discounts using the annual pass or the Tables in Wonderland card (this is a problem because the list is ever-evolving). Moderately useful.
  12. ProGuides: Disney World ($.99) - Extremely overview-oriented. The top menu has "districts" (um, I think you mean "parks" guys), and such links as UNDERSTAND, TALK, GET IN, TICKETS, GET AROUND, SEE AND DO. It's meant for the rank first timer who did no homework, has no context, and yet would like something to read when they are at the park. Or perhaps they are thinking folks would use this rather than the regular Web when planning? It may be cheaper than Frommer's, but the value is quite suspect.
  13. SwanDolphin (free) - This app is official. What a concept! I wish Disney would release official apps, but like always, Disney is behind the technology curve. (I'm still annoyed they thought would be a portal of sorts, and still find ways to worm it into URLs) The Swan and Dolphin hotels are not owned by Disney, and this app provides video, pictures, restaurant info, activities, and a map of the area. It's mostly generic and unspecific, like a glossy official website, but it's free. And if you're staying here, it wouldn't hurt to read about the amenities while you're waiting in line for Splash Mountain.
  14. Disney World Wait Times and More ($.99) - Listed as D2 on the icon, this one tries to be comprehensive but just plain misses the boat. It purports to cover wait times, photo sharing, map location, restaurants, restrooms, and shopping, but in reality, most of the app is just a gigantic listing under "Places" that puts "AFI Showcase Shop" right next to "Agrabah Bazaar". In case you're wondering, the standby/wait time for Agrabah Bazaar is "nothing submitted" as I write this, and the FP return time is "Nothing submitted today." As you can surmise, they have quite lazily used a common interface for every ride, shop, and restaurant in the park. Um, no. Not useful. Have these people even been to Walt Disney World? Avoid.
  15. Disney Checklist: Walt Disney World Day Organizer ($.99) - This is one giant "to do" list, meant as an interactive way for you to create a list of stuff to do as you plan your trip. It's not very guided - it could be used for anything! It lets you create a description, assign a status like "in progress," and assign three levels of priority. This might be useful for OCD people, but for the rest of us, a piece of paper works just as well (personally, I do my vacation planning in MS-Word, where I can paste reservations info from the web, or remind myself of URL links). Your mileage may vary, but I found this app completely worthless.
  16. WDW Today ($2.99) - Not only is this one overpriced, compared to the others, it commits the unforgivable sin of being incorrect. It's a simple and useful tool on the one hand; it shows you at a glance what the park hours are around WDW, and even suggests which ones to avoid (on the basis of which has Extra Magic Hours and will likely be more crowded). So far, so good. It even gives parades and fireworks times, but not the smaller entertainment. I originally had this app ranked much higher, but then last Saturday it listed the MK as closing at 10 pm, and stuck with that info after multiple refreshes. Yet the other park info app (see #2 above) said the park closed at 11pm. Finally, we opened Safari and checked the official website: 11pm was right. Since we were in-park that day, we also grabbed the paper Times Guide and saw that 11pm was correct. This app is either hand-coded by a human (who might make a mistake), or it relies on older data. Either way, unreliability is the  kiss of death, for me at least.

Whew! That's a big list. Now, a reminder: you have to actually *USE* your apps. On the first weekend I had them, I checked only sporadically and thus lodged a false closing time into my memory. It could be argued that we relied a bit *too much* on technology. In a world without an iPhone, I would have grabbed the paper Times Guides and known for sure what time the park was closing. Arguably, having the technology lulled me into a false sense of security, and it ended up with me checking the closing time less often than otherwise would be the case. As noted media theorist Neil Postman famously said, when you adopt a new technology, you are invariably (and often unconsciously) giving something else up in return. Are we losing our active planning and relying on the technology instead? Are we thinking too little? On the one hand, that's the goal of a vacation. On the other hand, that's also just a tiny step forward on the road to a Keanu Reeves "Matrix" type future, which is chilling enough in itself.

The apps are so darned useful, though, that they may well be inevitable. Long before the iPhone landed in my lap, I had planned to discontinue my own Menu Book (which gives menu items, prices, and indexes by park of everything in Orlando) because sales have never matched the level I'd need to make the constant updating and printing worthwhile. I had expected people to use my book in the parks themselves, but most of them who replied told me they used it for planning instead (and there are free websites for that). Like any businessman, I see the writing on the wall and will discontinue the book. That became especially true when I saw the dining app (#1 on my list above). It's better than my book. You carry it around with you anyway, and updates are digital-thus, they are "free" to the author (no additional printing of books) and might even happen more often.

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.