Automatic cameras are back in use at the Mickey Mouse meet and greet in Magic Kingdom’s Town Square Theater, replacing PhotoPass photographers, along with a new Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary backdrop. This post shares thoughts, photos, and info.
Let’s begin with background. Walt Disney World first began “testing” automatic cameras for PhotoPass in September 2019, including in Star Wars Launch Bay, Olaf’s Celebrity Spotlight, and Town Square Theater for the “Surprise Celebration” meet with Mickey & Minnie. The backlash among fans was fierce, and only a few weeks later, human PhotoPass photographers returned along with the Magician Mickey meet & greet in Magic Kingdom.
Meanwhile, automatic cameras remained in the other locations. It’s unclear whether Walt Disney World’s test ever concluded, as the parks closed only a few months later. The PhotoPass page on DisneyWorld.com still indicates that “photo capture systems will be operating at a limited number of character greeting locations.” (Google’s preview says it’s 9 locations, but that’s not on the actual page.)
Fast-forward to post-reopening, when character sightings first returned around last year’s holiday season without PhotoPass photographers. The automatic cameras were not in use then, even though that probably would’ve been preferable as compared to the uneven and unflattering lighting in selfies.
As recently as this weekend, there were human PhotoPass photographers at most other meet & greets in Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Olaf is the only other outlier–he still has the automated camera installed, but isn’t using it and also doesn’t have a PhotoPass photographer.
We know this because we’ve been doing these character meet & greets quite a bit of late. That’s in part to get new photos to replace all of the old ones, and in part for updated strategy, as many of these wait times fluctuate dramatically throughout the day. That’s definitely true of Red Carpet Dreams and Sulley at Walt Disney Presents.
It’s also very true of Mickey Mouse at Town Square Theater. Expecting a lull if I jumped in line right after Disney Enchantment, before the Magic Kingdom mass exodus, I was surprised to encounter an hour-long wait. No problem, I figured I’d wait out the crowd and return right before closing.
A few minutes before the meet & greet ended for the night, the posted wait time had jumped to 80 minutes. Assuming this was significantly inflated to deter guests exiting the park for “one last photo,” I took a peek inside. Nope, definitely 80 minutes–the extended queue had numerous switchbacks in use. Also notable was the fact that about half of the guests in the standby line were sitting down, suggesting it wasn’t exactly moving fast.
Figuring this isn’t exactly time-sensitive news and knowing I’d be back in Magic Kingdom the next morning, I opted to purchase Genie+ specifically to use for the Mickey Mouse meet & greet.
Obviously, I didn’t use Lightning Lanes for just that–it was a pretty relaxed day and I accomplished a surprising amount despite not booking my first ride reservation until after 9 am. (Happy to share the step-by-step day in another post if there’s interest.) This time, my wait was only a few minutes for Mickey Mouse at Town Square Theater.
Above is a look at the new backdrop for Mickey Mouse. Although exactly none of my photos or those from the automated camera captured it, this wall features a magical effect with pixie dust coming out of the magician’s hat, going through the rings, and illuminating a “50” in the Mickey Mouse emblem. It’s a neat effect.
Now for the automated cameras. The photo above shows how this currently looks, with the bookshelf directly opposite the character meet & greet having cameras and flashes above and below a red box and prop camera.
This has been tweaked slightly from before, the the prop camera added to presumably better grab guests’ attention. Below is a look at the old design of the automated camera wall from Fall 2019, which is in the bookcase on the left:
As guests are meeting with the characters, these cameras take photos (with flash) about every few seconds. In my observations and experience, this process didn’t start until triggered by a Cast Member. Mickey Mouse’s initial introduction to guests–often the best part for small children–is not captured by these cameras.
I have no clue how the technology behind this works (facial recognition? some sort of fancy algorithm?), but I don’t think it’s simply a timer as it wasn’t consistent. In any case, the technology is far from perfect, as the cameras continually captured those in-between moments of awkwardness as people were getting positioned or moving around.
In watching other groups, this is the first thing that struck me–the ‘trash to keeper’ ratio is undoubtedly worse with the automated cameras. The new system is perfectly adept at capturing the perfectly-posed moments, but not so good with anything else. This simply requires instinct and a deft photographer’s touch, and a computer lacks both.
Then there’s the obvious impersonal quality of it all. There’s still one Cast Member working at this meet, and the character attendant does an admirable job attempting to direct guest attention towards the “magical bookcase.” However, even with a superlative Cast Member this still feels a bit like getting your picture taken at the DMV.
That might seem hyperbolic, and perhaps it is, but there should be absolutely zero room for comparing a meet with Mickey Mouse to the DMV. There’s nonetheless a discomforting quality to both and it’s hard to fully articulate this, or appreciate it until you’ve experienced it.
“Discomforting and impersonal” is probably the best case scenario if you’re a party of adults. Families with small children might have more issues than that. In fairness, this happens even with a PhotoPass photographer, but the Cast Members in that role have plenty of personal experience and humanity to employ every trick they know to overcome this. A bookcase has no such tricks up its sleeve.
On the way out, you scan your MagicBand, phone, or park ticket at a kiosk to save the photos. Interestingly, my preview photo above never appeared in My Disney Experience–I assume it was filtered out as trash, but definitely would’ve been a keeper for me. It’s a fun behind-the-scenes shot.
My photos with Mickey Mouse via the automatic camera turned out just fine, but that’s in large part because my interactions are incredibly formulaic. I nervously say hello, nervously take photos of him, and then nervously stand next to him.
There’s nothing free-flowing or organic about my solo character meet & greets. The most “spontaneous” thing I do is scramble to figure out what to do with my hands despite having met characters thousands of times. When it comes to character meet & greets, I give off major “alien trying to learn how to act human” vibes.
When Sarah is with me, it’s a totally different story. She actually interacts with the character, hugs them, and does whatever else actual humans do when they meet life-sized mice or monsters. These are more photographically challenging moments, for lack of a better term, than my very staged poses.
Dynamic interactions are pretty easy for a human photographer to observe. Usually, the PhotoPass photographer will zoom in to focus on Sarah, move around to compose the photos in the most flattering manner, and so forth. With that said, the success or keeper rate on these spontaneous interaction photos still isn’t the greatest.
A fun or cute moment in person with Mickey Mouse pointing to a hat might inadvertently look like him hitting a nose, etc. I’m sure anyone who has done a character meet and greet has been there, and has that uncomfortable mid-hug shot or something of the sort. It comes with the territory.
Nevertheless, human photographers generally do a good job with timing their photos for maximum impact, capturing awesome and special moments along with a few of the awkward ones. We have plenty of fun and goofy photos from interactions that we still look back on today and smile or laugh at, remembering the exact experience, all thanks to the timing, skill, and intuition of a good PhotoPass photographer. The point is that it’s an art, not a science. Automation is great in a number of ways, but something like this requires a human touch, intuition, and perception of emotion.
While we were highly critical of the automated PhotoPass cameras in the past–probably because it hits close to home for me as a photographer–I’m going to temper a bit of that here. As with so many things, it would not surprise me in the least if this is yet another result of Walt Disney World’s staffing shortages.
I know many fans are tired of hearing this “excuse” for every shortcoming or cut, but the reality is that it’s still a persistent problem. It’s also one that I think people who haven’t lived in Central Florida underestimate. This is a very unique labor market, with a workforce that’s largely transient. Most people who live around Orlando are not from Florida–they’re transplants, and the combination of the closure and subsequent soaring shelter costs have really done a number on the local labor force.
While all might appear well on the staffing front at Walt Disney World, it definitely is not. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories we hear; many of these illustrate that there’s a cascading effect as shortages strain the system, leading to more headaches for current Cast Members, leading to more people quitting, leading to more shortages. (Most of this is “invisible” or behind the scenes, but some is visible to guests–just look for the red “Earning My Ears” flag on name tags.)
Anyway, the point is that use of the automated cameras feels different this time. Rather than being to cut costs or reduce labor, this is much more likely out of necessity, as there are only so many PhotoPass Cast Members, and Walt Disney World can’t exactly put automated boxes up and down Main Street.
I’d still argue that the Mickey Mouse meet & greet is so iconic and so important to capturing truly magical memories that it shouldn’t be trusted to a cold camera box. If staffing is the underlying problem, pull photographers from Main Street or the Tomorrowland bridge and just let those lines get longer.
The point is that reintroducing automated PhotoPass cameras seems like a misguided strategy, but not one done with ulterior motives (this time). Nevertheless, I’ll reiterate our commentary from the last time this happened, as it’s a good reminder of just how important Cast Members are to the guest experience…
Walt Disney famously once said, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” That quote is famous in large part because the modern Walt Disney Company has made it famous. The line is used a lot when touting Cast Members and the Disney Difference.
Walt Disney World leaders would be well-advised to take this quote to heart when undertaking decisions that impact Cast Members and the guest experience. Again, people aren’t coming to Walt Disney World simply because it’s a collection of rides. As with entertainment, face to face interactions with Cast Members are one of those essential core underlying components that help define a trip.
Automation is a fact of modern life, and something that will occur more, not less, going forward. With that said, there are good and bad forms of automation, and it takes thoughtful leaders who understand what defines Disney’s theme parks to realize that just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it should be automated. In some cases, automation is great. Not many guests are going to come out against Mobile Ordering, even if its ultimate goal of reducing labor costs is identical to these automated cameras.
The differences lie in the how, why, and ultimate feeling it gives guests and Cast Members. It doesn’t take extensive studies with psychologists or human behavioral experts to tell you how people were going to respond to these automated cameras. As a society, pretty much our only experiences with automatic cameras are in “negative” situations, and this stands as a very obvious and in-your-face example of removing the humanity from what should be a fun and personal interaction.
Just about anyone reading this could probably predict the consensus reaction to automated cameras at meet & greets. I’m honestly a bit surprised that Walt Disney World has returned to the idea, and I’m even more surprised that it’s being done with Mickey Mouse. The company’s most enduring and beloved icon, the meet & greet experience that forms the seminal, tangible memory from their Walt Disney World vacations for so many families. Simply put, something so important should not be trusted to an automated camera. It’s just not worth it–in any way, shape, or form.
Have you done the Mickey & Minnie Mouse meet and greet or any of the meets with automated cameras? What did you think of the experience? Do you agree or disagree with our review? Do you think Walt Disney World should be more careful when eliminating Cast Member roles like this? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!