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Is Mickey Mouse showing us the future of credit cards?

Tony Mecia

Imagine one day going to the store or out to dinner, and when it comes time to pay, you simply waive your wrist and — voila — the purchase goes straight to your credit card. No digging through your purse or fumbling with your wallet.

Does that sound magical?

Is Mickey Mouse showing us the future of credit cards?

That future might be closer than you think. Yes, the much-hyped Apple Watch will be released April 24, and it will include Apple Pay, which allows users to pay at certain retailers by linking a credit card and then tapping their phone or watch. The main drawback so far is that only a small percentage of places have the technology to accept payments by phone or watch. The lack of acceptance has made previous pay-by-phone technologies such as Google Wallet slow to catch on.

For a vision of what the future might look like, though, head to Orlando, Florida, as I did last month on a family vacation. About a year ago, Disney World began offering what it calls "MagicBands" to its annual pass holders and to guests staying at Disney resorts. It’s a hard rubber wristband that serves a number of functions: It’s a room key, park admission ticket and payment device rolled into one. Disney says you can "tap into the magic" with a MagicBand, which "effortlessly connects you to all the vacation choices you made" online — no fairy dust necessary.

For many years, hotels and cruise lines have been able to link credit card information to key cards, so that if you’re within a hotel or on a ship, you really need only that room card to make purchases or get into your room.

There are two main differences between Disney’s MagicBands and those key cards. First, and most obviously, MagicBands are wearable. Whether you’re in the pool, riding Space Mountain or taking a photo with Sleeping Beauty, it’s on your wrist. That might not sound like much, but since everyone you’re with needs a way to get into the parks and into your room — including girls accustomed to wearing leggings that have no pockets — wristbands can be superior to keeping up with multiple cards.

Second, Disney’s MagicBands are accepted more widely than at a single hotel or park. They are accepted throughout all six of Disney’s Orlando parks, plus more than 25 Disney resort hotels, as well as its shopping and entertainment districts. Also, the bands are more complex than the hotel and cruise line key cards because they tie into not just credit cards and hotel access systems, but also into Disney’s photo packages, meal plans and ride reservations. It really is all you need to carry.

The industry press in payments and technology has taken notice. Wired says the bands allow you to "imagine how the world will look in just a few years, once our cellphones become the keepers of both our money and our identity." PaymentsSource sees Disney’s experience as "another indication that consumers are willing to adopt mobile and wearable payment systems if the payment capabilities are paired with other useful functions."

Not all reviews are positive. InfoWorld said "Magic Band showed why mobile payments don’t have a real future any time soon," because they are no more convenient than plastic and the technology is not reliable enough.

Personally, I found MagicBands to be convenient and cool, but not glitch-free. Some might find it liberating to leave the hotel room with literally nothing in your pockets for an expensive day of theme parks, restaurants and shopping. But I found it unnerving. I kept my wallet in my pocket, just in case, recalling the Boy Scout motto, "be prepared" (which also happens to be a song from Disney’s "The Lion King").

Using the MagicBands to enter the parks was sometimes clunkier than it should have been. You have to touch the exact front of the wristband — marked with Mickey ears — to the precise point on the reader, then also provide a fingerprint. Sometimes this took a few tries. For purchases, you must enter a PIN. There was a certain rush of relief I would get when the process worked, signaled by the reader glowing green. It’s a similar feeling to passing through an airport metal detector without it beeping at you.

Although the bands worked fine most of the time, there were some hiccups. At the Animal Kingdom one morning, my 12-year-old’s band just couldn’t be read. A Disney employee quickly arrived, read the wristband with her tablet, then waived her through. One night as we were heading to dinner, my wife went to search for some ibuprofen for a headache (probably brought on by a mix of spring break crowds, Florida heat and the relentless playing of the "Frozen" theme song "Let It Go"). At the hotel gift shop, they told her that the MagicBand payment system was temporarily down, so she was out of luck unless she had cash or a credit card. There was no Plan B, just a shrug and an apology.

My Disney experience helped me understand why banks and retailers are moving slowly to embrace new technologies, such as chip cards and mobile wallets. They want to make sure they get it right. Disney did test its wristbands first, and they have been in place for more than a year, but it is still not 100 percent smooth.

It would be great if a fairy godmother could waive her magic wand and these new technologies would be implemented overnight and work instantly all of the time. The reality, though, seems to be that any new payment technologies are going to take a while to perfect.

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