“How’s the lunch order going?” asks Ian, our kids in tow. At least that’s my husband’s name today. Mine is “Amy MacDonald.” My family knows the rule: no real names on the internet. Sometimes in real life too.
The Southern California heat is rising, along with my blood pressure. I am sitting at a fake wooden picnic table in the shadow of four towering orange traffic cones, juggling two cell phones as my hands shake in frustration. Across one screen, a spider web of cracks radiates around my thumb, while the other is in a reset loop. From behind the splintered screen, the Genie from Aladdin waves at me cheerily: reporting, once more, that our lunch order did not go through. Yet another convenience denied on the day that we, like so many post-lockdown families, finally made the pilgrimage to Disneyland.
“Mummy, I’m hungry.” Frances looks up at me pointedly. Chester digs in the Lightning McQueen backpack next to me for snacks. Today’s names are an homage to Lightning and his trainer’s alter egos during an undercover race in Cars 3. Like many families in America, we spent our COVID lockdown watching and rewatching the franchise until I felt like we lived in Radiator Springs. Now that we’re gathered on this recreated Pixar set baking in the Anaheim sun, their choice of pseudonyms seems especially appropriate.
The kids—their faces indiscernible to a computer, thanks to the asymmetrical white, blue, and gold racing streaks I brushed on their round cheeks this morning—dance gleefully down the street after the star tow truck Mater. I stay behind, trying to order lunch one last time.
Everyone else seems to be enjoying the park, while I’m on the sidelines trying to accomplish the basics. I suppose this whole Genie app just works for the other families around me. It would be so convenient to just use a real credit card, my real name, a working email address, or just get an iPhone like everyone else.
That’s just what Disney wants.
Once upon a time, you could just go to Disneyland. You could get tickets at the gates, stand in line for rides, buy food and tchotchkes, even pick up copies of your favorite Disney movies at a local store. It wasn’t even that long ago. The last time I visited, in 2010, the company didn’t record what I ate for dinner or detect that I went on Pirates of the Caribbean five times. It was none of their business.
But sometime in the last few years, tracking and tracing became their business. Like many corporations out there, Walt Disney Studios spent the last decade transforming into a data company.
The theme parks alone are a data scientist’s dream. Just imagine: 50,000 visitors a day, most equipped with cell phones and a specialized app. Millions of location traces, along with rides statistics, lineup times, and food-order preferences. Thousands and thousands of credit card swipes, each populating a database with names and addresses, each one linking purchases across the park grounds.1 A QR-code scavenger hunt that records the path people took through Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Hotel keycards with entrance times, purchases, snack orders, and more. Millions of photos snapped on rides and security cameras throughout the park, feeding facial-recognition systems. Tickets with names, birthdates, and portraits attached. At Florida’s Disney World, MagicBands—bracelets using RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology—around visitors’ wrists gather all that information plus fingerprints in one place, while sensors ambiently detect their every move. What couldn’t you do with all that data?
In Disney’s analytics department, data science PhDs pore over your traces like a trail of breadcrumbs, scrutinizing your every move online and off, to sell you more content, more princess dresses, more Marvel movies. I’m willing to bet that the Disney Corporation has data about every family in the United States. No doubt the 72 million pieces of information collected about every child by the age of 13 include the 20 million times they’ve watched Frozen. When it comes to data about our families, Disney clearly wants us to “Let It Go.”
Data about children online is protected by special regulation (the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, or COPPA). But COPPA was written for websites: it doesn’t apply to data-driven interactive experiences like theme parks, where people give away their children’s information as part of the price of entry. Even if they blow that data away before kids reach 13, all this invasive data detection inures our children to the problem of data privacy, turning them into the perfect, unwitting, 21st-century consumers.
Raised on “Stranger Danger,” today’s helicopter parents are so overprotective and safety conscious they won’t even let their children go on unsupervised playdates.2 So how did Disney convince them to willingly give away the entirety of their children’s personal information to a faceless corporation: their names and addresses, what they like to eat, the names of their friends and family members, and their favorite cartoon characters?
Apparently, the answer is convenience.
“Don’t go without the app,” a Southern California friend advised when I asked her for tips for our upcoming trip to Disneyland. “It makes everything so convenient.” “Like what?” I asked. “Like, you don’t have to stand in lines anymore. And you can order food. So the kids won’t get hungry waiting. Like I said”—she nodded sagely over her cappuccino—“so convenient.”
“You’ll hate it,” explained another friend when I called her up. “Disney is designed for data. They take pictures of you and your kids at the gate. You need the app to book rides and get food. Forget it, you’ll give up your privacy as soon as you walk in the door. Anyway, you need the app to get into Rise of the Resistance, which is super awesome.”
I pressed: Couldn’t I go without the app? “I would never do Disney without those passes,” she cautioned. “Otherwise it’s hell in two- or three-hour lines, zero chance of doing the Star Wars rides. Zero chance if you wanna have fun.”
My friends’ advice clashed with my extreme approach to data privacy, especially when it comes to my family. Starting before my kids were born, I made sure no private companies collected traceable data about them—at least, nothing that could be aggregated across services or platforms to identify them or to target me as a mom. I bought everything—from pregnancy tests to diapers to clothes—in cash. At home, I built up an entire alternative tech ecosystem: privacy-oriented browsers and blockers, firewalled machines and accounts, and multiple concurrent email addresses. I’ve never even swiped a credit card or a discount card for children’s goods at the till. It’s been nine years and counting, and I have yet to see a single ad for diapers, daycare, or summer camp.
Yet my friends assumed I would sweep it all away for the park’s magical app. This portal to Disney’s data-collecting infrastructure would make everything “so convenient” and “super awesome”; without it, apparently, I had “zero chance” of having fun.
I wondered if I could avoid these new tracking systems if I disagreed with them. I wanted to just go to Disneyland, like I did in the ’80s. The lines for rides and lunch were boring, sure, but at least no one was watching over your shoulder.
How inconvenient could it be to avoid tracking? I decided to find out.
In making the tracked path appear convenient, companies go to great lengths to make it inconvenient to go without.
I texted my friend Alex, who once worked in Disney’s data department. “What does the app collect? What do they do with it?” Alex warned me that in Florida with the wristband system I wouldn’t stand a chance. But in California, Alex reassured me, there were still a few loopholes at the park. Yes, your photos could be used for facial-recognition training. No, you don’t need the app to find wait times: touringplans.com is better and it’s not owned by Disney. Yes, FastPass on the app saves time and it also records when you get into an express line or join a ride. No, they can’t give recommendations like “kids who watched Encanto on Disney+ also liked Alice’s Teacups ride”—yet. (But that’s not a technical problem, just an organizational issue common to big companies with siloed units. Just give it time, a new requirement for gender and birthdate data, and a few more data science PhDs.)
If I had to run this app, it sure wasn’t going to be on a cell phone where it could access my contacts, location, or SIM information. I jumped on eBay and scoured the listings for a burner device. I needed something new enough to run Genie, but old and busted up enough not to break the bank—a daytrip to Disneyland is expensive enough without throwing a new phone in the mix. It needed to be entirely clean, no data, and no SIM. I’d connect to park Wi-Fi or tether to my ultra-privacy conscious Linux phone in a pinch.
Buying the tickets wasn’t straightforward. Disneyland.com didn’t work on Tor, my preferred untraceable browser, so I downloaded a few alternatives and cued up a series of privacy tools. I spun up Mozilla’s VPN for good measure (“browsing from Alabama,” why not?). For the required Disney ID, I created a fresh email address on mail.com and an obfuscated credit card using Privacy.com. But the system required names and birthdates before I could purchase each outlandishly expensive ticket.
I called Disneyland’s 1-800 hotline from a burner number, sitting patiently through 28 minutes of soft hits from Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King before I reached a concierge named Allison. I patiently but firmly explained my resistance to giving my kids’ names and birthdates to an entertainment company. Her friendly demeanor never wavered. The names on the tickets don’t have to match any government-issued ID, Allison explained. They’re just associated with your account as you move through the park. Any name will do, although “Goofy” or “Woody” would raise eyebrows.
Still, there’s simply no way to avoid pulling your mask down for portrait photos at the gate. That’s simply “for your safety,” Allison intoned. How odd, I thought. I wasn’t planning to do anything unsafe. I was just trying to go to Disneyland without the company recording everything about me and my children—which, in my estimation, actually was “for our safety.”
I dashed out to grab some drugstore makeup to paint our faces with insignia from Cars and Star Wars. The random blocks of bright white, iridescent gold, and thick blues and reds reminded me of the Zinc sunscreen my own mother painted on my face for our Disney trips in the 1980s. She was protecting us from sunburn, I was warding off facial recognition systems.
Untraceable tickets in hand, alter egos prepared, computer-confusing makeup applied, burner phone and credit card ready, and untraceable cash in hand, we headed to the park.
Our journey in Disneyland showed why its app is such a seductive idea: food when we want it, rides without waiting, an entire experience tailored around our little family. Parenting during the pandemic was rife with stress, exhaustion, unpaid labor, and family frictions. What family with small kids doesn’t want to avoid the inevitable fatigue, tantrums, and hunger that accompany a day out at the “happiest place on earth”?
Today’s companies manufacture conveniences like these to entice us to give our data away. They dangle these conveniences in front of us like a lure, waiting for us to give up precious data about ourselves, our children, our communities and friends. Too often, we take the bait.
What comes next is not convenient at all. Companies use that data to corral us into dead-end streets, to limit our choices, choose what we watch, and shuttle us into certain purchases over others. That data divides us into filter bubbles,3 helps spread misinformation like wildfire, drives wedges through families, and splits us up by political beliefs, race, gender, and social class. Thanks to data-munching algorithms, we are each on very different data-driven pathways through the same world: as if only people with the right data profile were given directions to Tomorrowland. Our journeys are lit by one “convenience” after another, but each path is paved with fool’s gold.
These small conveniences are an entreaty to forget about what we are losing in return. If Disney’s only goal was improving guest experience or safety, their park wouldn’t be so busy feeding a Big Brother–esque surveillance infrastructure to rival China’s Social Credit System.
It’s not just Disney. Just shopping at a store is now pricier without an app, a loyalty card, coupons, or a digital wallet that traces your consumption patterns and habits. Just chatting with friends is now laced with trackers, bots, beacons, and other technological hitchhikers listening in: lock these out and websites break or connections are lost. People who don’t have the app, haven’t logged in, or didn’t get the discount code face more and more barriers. Resistance no longer feels like a reasonable option, even if it is the responsible thing to do.
We don’t often talk about “convenience” when we talk about data privacy, but we should. In the game of personal-data gathering, convenience is the bait. Privacy is essential to a well-functioning democracy, but companies have noticed that we are willing to throw it away and declare it “dead” for the sake of a few manufactured conveniences.
Worse, in making the tracked path appear convenient, companies go to great lengths to make it inconvenient to go without. What was once just a normal experience—an untraceable day at Disneyland—is a disappearing option, one now layered with extra time, cost, and expertise. In other words, these “conveniences” are manufactured, but the resulting inconveniences are not.
There must be more opportunities to opt out without going to crazy extremes. If companies wish to manufacture convenience as a lure, they cannot invent parallel challenges reserved for those who choose to resist.
Our untraceable Disneyland trip revealed just how far companies will go to glean precious data about our families. In many ways, it was the perfect sociological experiment: a breach of social expectation that reveals the hidden assumptions and infrastructures we are supposed to accept, without question. Evasion showed me just how elaborate the surveillance regime had become and how complicated it was to resist. And it revealed all those enticing “conveniences” as little more than an invented fiction. They were yet another ride in the theme park, one that made guests feel they were winning some invisible game, while losing their precious autonomy at the same time.
But here is the secret. Even missing the manufactured conveniences and taking on additional inconveniences, we had a blast. So what if we waited in a few lines, the kids complained in the heat, and I couldn’t order lunch remotely? So what if we got lost a few times, my burner phone dropped connection, we had to walk 20 extra minutes to take out cash when we ran short, and we didn’t know when the fireworks started? The kids met their Pixar heroes and had a lightsaber duel with Chewbacca. Meanwhile, I was riding high on my own personal “spy-versus-spy” adventure the whole day.
As far as any person or algorithm at Disney knows, “the MacDonald family” enjoyed a lovely day at the park. That’s all they need to know.
This article was commissioned by Mona Sloane.
- Yves-Alexandre De Montjoye, Laura Radaelli, Vivek Kumar Singh, and Alex “Sandy” Pentland, “Unique in the Shopping Mall: On the Reidentifiability of Credit Card Metadata,” Science, vol. 347, no. 6221 (2015). ↩
- Patrick Ishizuka, “Social Class, Gender, and Contemporary Parenting Standards in the United States: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment,” Social Forces, vol. 98, no. 1 (2019). ↩
- Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think (Penguin, 2012). ↩