Data Science, Disney, and the Future of Children’s Entertainment

  • Siobhan O’Flynn


Data science has fundamentally changed the children’s film and episodic content industry, shifting the emphasis from human-led content creation to algorithm-driven marketing. Advances in AI, machine learning, deep-learning neural nets, increasingly sophisticated algorithms, and “cross-browser fingerprinting” have led to a depth of data analysis that literally capitalizes on the wealth of data points each user generates via online activities, children included. This chapter examines what can be gleaned with regard to existing data science practices of The Walt Disney Corporation, YouTube, and Netflix; the gray zone of how children’s online privacy is (and is not) protected; what is compromised for the personalization of content and experience; and implications of current practices for the future.


  1. Alexander, Julia. 2017. “Disney Announces a Westworld-Like, Fully Immersive Star Wars Resort.” Polygon, July 15.
  2. Anderson, M. T. (2002) 2012. Feed. Cambridge: Candlewick.Google Scholar
  3. Armitage, Hugh. 2018. “Classic Marvel Storylines Already Hinted at for Phase 4.” Digital Spy, October 5.
  4. Auty, Dan. 2017. “Disney’s Animated Olaf Short Film Is Pulled from Pixar’s Coco.” GameSpot, December 5.
  5. Bąk, Sławomir, and Peter Carr. 2017. “Deep Spatial Pyramid for Person Re-identification.” The 14th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Video and Signal-Based Surveillance (AVSS).
  6. BBC News. 2014. “Frozen Becomes Fifth-Biggest Film in Box Office History.” BBC News, May 27:
  7. Barnes, Brooks. 2013. “At Disney Parks, a Bracelet Meant to Build Loyalty (and Sales).” New York Times, January 7.
  8. Barnes, Brooks, and Michael Cieply. 2009. “Disney Swoops into Action, Buying Marvel for $4 Billion.” New York Times, August 31.
  9. Bridle, James. 2017. “Something Is Wrong on the Internet.” Medium, November 6.
  10. ———. 2018. “How Peppa Pig Became a Video Nightmare for Children.” The Guardian, June 17
  11. Brown, Jennings. 2017. “Disney Is Building Facial Recognition to Figure Out When You’ll Laugh During Toy Story 5.” Gizmodo, July 26.
  12. Bruni, Isabella. 2018. “Will Elsa Have a Girlfriend in 2019 ‘Frozen’ Sequel?” NBC 5 Chicago, March 1.
  13. Business Reporter. 2017. “Taking the Mickey: How Disney Uses Analytics to Tell Stories.” Business Reporter, May 24.
  14. Campbell, Angela J., and Chris Laughlin. 2018. “Request to Investigate Google’s YouTube Online Service and Advertising Practices for Violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.” Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
  15. Cavna, Michael. 2017. “Here’s Why That Irritating Olaf Short Film Doesn’t Work as a Lead-Into ‘Coco.’” The Washington Post, November 29.
  16. Chiang, Doug. 2017. “D23 2017: Doug Chiang Talks Designing Star Wars-Themed Land for Disney Parks.” Doug Chiang interview by, Disney, July 14.
  17. Corless, Tom. 2017. “Disney Files Patent for Theme Park Rides Controlled by Guest Emotions.” WDW News Today, January 30.
  18. Covington, Paul, Jay Adams, and Emre Sargin. 2016. “Deep Neural Networks for YouTube Recommendations.” In Proceedings of the 10th ACM Conference on Recommender Systems, 191–98.
  19. Deng, Zhiwei, Rajitha Navarathna, Peter Carr, Stephan Mandt, Yisong Yue, Iain Matthews, and Greg Mori. 2017 “Factorized Variational Autoencoders for Modeling Audience Reactions to Movies.” 2017 IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), 6014–23.
  20. Dickerson, Joseph. 2013. “Walt Disney: The World’s First UX Designer.” UX Magazine, September 9.
  21. Disis, Jill. 2018. “Disney Would Dominate the US Box Office If It Buys Fox.” CNN Business, July 17.
  22. Dispatches. 2018. “Inside Facebook: Secrets of the Social Network.” Directed by Toby Paton. Television. Channel 4 (UK), July 17.Google Scholar
  23. Egelman, Serge. 2017. “We Tested Apps for Children. Half Failed to Protect Their Data.” The Washington Post, July 27.
  24. Ehrenkranz, Melanie. 2018. “New Mexico Sues Google, Twitter, and App Developers Over Games That Allegedly Violate Kids’ Privacy.” Gizmodo, September 17.
  25. Escobedo, Joe. 2017. “Transmedia Will Shape the Future of Hollywood and Fortune 500 Firms.” Forbes, July 1.
  26. Federal Trade Commission. 2018. “FTC Warns Gator Group, Tinitell That Online Services Might Violate COPPA.” Federal Trade Commission, April 27.
  27. Ferreira, Victoria. 2015. “Las Leyendas to Be First Animated Netflix Original Series Produced in Latin America.” Netflix Media Center, September 17.
  28. Fickley-Baker, Jennifer. 2018. “8 Things We Know About Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney Parks so Far.” Disney Parks Blog, January 12.
  29. Fritz, Ben. 2015. “How Disney Milks Its Hits for Profits Ever After.” The Wall Street Journal, June 8.
  30. Fung, Brian, and Hamza Shaban. 2017. “These 42 Disney Apps Are Allegedly Spying on Your Kids.” The Washington Post, August 7.
  31. Gartenberg, Chaim. 2017. “Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige Says the Next 20 Marvel Films Will Be ‘Completely Different.’” The Verge, November 27.
  32. Genauer, Reid. 2017. “The Story of Data Driven Storytelling.” Towards Data Science, June 12.
  33. Gomez, Jeff. 2016. “Children’s Media in the Digital Age.” Medium, October 4.
  34. Goodin, Dan. 2017. “Now Sites Can Fingerprint You Online Even When You Use Multiple Browsers.” ars Technica, February 13.
  35. Hazelton, John. 2016. “Big Film, Big Data: How Analytics Is Shaping the Business.” ScreenDaily, June 16.
  36. Heneghan, Carolyn. 2014. “Why Disney’s MagicBands Are a Cash Cow in the Making.” The Motley Fool, July 15.
  37. Hosea, Maeve. 2016. “How Brands Like Disney Tell Business Stories with Data.” Marketing Week, September 14.
  38. Hughes, Mark. 2013. “What Made ‘Oz’ so Great and Powerful? Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez Tells Us.” Forbes, March 15.
  39. Interana Blog Staff. 2017. “Why the Defenders Is Netflix’s Biggest Behavioral Data Play Yet.” Interana, October 12.
  40. Kang, Cecilia. 2014. “Walt Disney’s Profit Rises 27 Percent on Strength of ‘Frozen’ Movie Franchise.” The Washington Post, May 6.
  41. Karantzoulidis, Steve. 2017. “Disney Theme Park Researchers Unveil Face-Tracking Video Surveillance Software.” Commercial Integrator, September 6.
  42. Kuang, Cliff. 2015 “Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband.” Wired, March 10.
  43. Lang, Brent. 2018. “Disney Outlines Streaming Service, Will Launch in Late 2019.” Variety, August 7.
  44. Laporte, Nicole. 2018. “Why Hulu Matters so Much in the Disney-Comcast Fight Over Fox.” Fast Company, June 4.
  45. The Leadership Network. 2016. “How Disney Creates Digital Magic with Big Data.” The Leadership Network, October 5.
  46. Leavitt, Selina. 2014. “Angelina Jolie Admits Maleficent Character Was Shaped by Rape.” Inquisitr, June 12.
  47. Lenker, Maureen Lee. 2018. “Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Disney’s Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” Entertainment Weekly, August 17.
  48. Lewis, Paul. 2018. “‘Fiction Is Outperforming Reality’: How YouTube’s Algorithm Distorts Truth.” The Guardian, February 2.
  49. Locklear, Mallory. 2018. “YouTube Is Still Plagued with Disturbing Kids’ Videos.” Engadget, March 23.
  50. Littleton, Cynthia, and Ricardo Lopez. 2018. “Disney, 21st Century Fox Shareholders Vote to Approve $71.3 Billion Merger.” Variety, July 27.
  51. Luscombe, Belinda. 2018 “Bob Iger’s Bets Are Paying Off Big Time for Disney.” Time, October 4.
  52. Madrigal, Alexis C. 2014. “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood.” The Atlantic, January 2.
  53. Marr, Bernard. 2017. “Disney Uses Big Data, IoT and Machine Learning to Boost Customer Experience.” Forbes, August 24.
  54. ———. 2018. “Netflix Used Big Data to Identify the Movies That Are Too Scary to Finish.” Forbes, April 18.
  55. Martin, Hugo. 2015. “Disney Parks’ Attendance Up 7%; Review of ‘Magic Band’ Positive.” Los Angeles Times, February 4.
  56. Mullaney, Tim. 2017. “A Master Class in the Magic of Success from Disney CEO Bob Iger.” CNBC, May 9:
  57. Mulvihill, Tom. 2018. “Video: Disney Teases Galactic Setting for Its Upcoming Star Wars Hotel.” The Telegraph, June 18:
  58. Neuroscience News. 2017. “Neural Networks Model Audience Reactions to Movies.”, August 2.
  59. O’Flynn, Siobhan. 2012. “Hunger Games Case Study: Defining Metrics of Success.” Transmedia Multiplatform & Convergent Resource Kit, October 13.
  60. ———. 2013. “Epilogue.” In A Theory of Adaptation, edited by Linda Hutcheon (2006). London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  61. ———. 2014. “Ruby Skye P.I. Case Study & Interview with Jill Golick.” Transmedia Multiplatform & Convergent Resource Kit, March 25.
  62. Olsen, Pete (@marvelentertainment). 2012. “Marvel Entertainment Text Post: Hi All.” Marvel Entertainment Tumblr, August 30.
  63. Olsen, Peter. 2013. “Taming Galactus: How Marvel Uses Graph Theory and NoSQL to Understand Its Fictional Universe.” Lecture Presented at Huge Company. Vimeo: Live Stream.
  64. Paul, Kari. 2017. “YouTube’s New Profiles for Children Have Privacy Experts Very Concerned.” MarketWatch, November 5.
  65. Ramachandran, Naman. 2017. “Netflix Enters Indian Kids’ Space with ‘Mighty Little Bheem’.” Variety, 16 October.
  66. Rense, Sarah. 2018. “Disney’s Millennium Falcon Ride Will Be Worth the Really, Really, Really Long Lines.” Esquire, April 12.
  67. Reuters. n.d. “Profile: Walt Disney Co (DIS).” Reuters US.
  68. Reyes, Irwin, Primal Wijesekera, Joel Reardon, Amit Elazari Bar On, Abbas Razaghpanah, Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, and Serge Egelman. 2018. “‘Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?’ Examining COPPA Compliance at Scale.” Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies 2018 (3): 63–83.
  69. Riesman, Abraham. 2018. “As the Financial World Crashed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe Took Shape.” Vulture, August 9.
  70. Rodriguez, Ashley. 2017. “Netflix Divides Its 93 Million Users Around the World into 1,300 ‘Taste Communities.’” Quartz, March 22.
  71. Romano, Andrea. 2015. “Consumers Are Rebelling Against ‘Star Wars’ Branded Fruits and Vegetables.” Mashable, December 14.
  72. ———. 2018. “New Details Reveal the ‘Star Wars’ Hotel at Walt Disney World Will Have Special Access.” Travel and Leisure, July 6.
  73. Sampson, Hannah. 2018. “Star Wars Is Disney’s New Hope to Transform Its Movie-Themed Park.” Skift, July 5.
  74. Schwab, Katharine. 2018. “The Clever Psychology of Disneyland’s Design.” Fast Company, September 4.
  75. Shaul, Brandy. 2014. “Disney Launches Summer Update in Frozen Free Fall.” Adweek, September 8.
  76. ———. 2015. “Disney Interactive’s Frozen Free Fall Surpasses 100 Million Downloads.” Adweek, September 15.
  77. Sheetrit, Guy. 2018. “4 Ways to Apply Data Science to Social Media Marketing in 2018.” Adweek, January 23.
  78. Shelton, Jacob. n.d. “Movies That Made More Money on Merchandising Than at the Box Office.” Ranker.
  79. Sims, David. 2016. “The Transformers: The Last Knight Trailer: What the Hell?” The Atlantic, December 6.
  80. Smith, Craig. 2016. “How Many People Visit Disney Parks Each Year?” Disney News, May 27.
  81. Smith, Michael D., and Rahul Telang. 2018. “Data Can Enhance Creative Projects—Just Look at Netflix.” Harvard Business Review, January 23.
  82. Spangler, Todd. 2018. “YouTube Kids App Now Lets Parents Handpick All Videos and Channels.” Variety, September 13.
  83. Starlight Runner Entertainment. n.d. “Transmedia Storytelling & Creative Franchise Design.” Starlight Runner Entertainment.
  84. Team. 2017. “Welcome to Batuu: Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Planet Revealed on Star Tours.”, November 17.
  85. Subedar, Anisa, and Will Yates. 2017. “The Disturbing YouTube Videos That Are Tricking Children.” BBC News, March 27.
  86. Sultan, Sarah. 2017. “Data Science Is Revolutionizing Film.”, February 23.
  87. Thompson, Derek. 2014. “The Reason Why Hollywood Makes so Many Boring Superhero Movies.” The Atlantic, May 13.
  88. ———. 2016. “Hollywood Has a Huge Millennial Problem.” The Atlantic, June 8.
  89. ———. 2018. “Disneyflix Is Coming. And Netflix Should Be Scared.” The Atlantic, May.
  90. Trowbridge, Scott. 2017. “12 Days of Disney Parks Christmas: Update from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.” Disney Parks Blog, December 16.
  91. Truitt, Brian. 2017. “You Won’t Believe What Shows Lead Viewers to Watch Netflix’s Marvel Series.” USA Today, August 22.
  92. Vary, Adam B. 2012. “‘Brave’ Director Brenda Chapman Breaks Silence on Being Taken off Film.” Entertainment Weekly, August 15.
  93. The Walt Disney Company. n.d. “Cookies Policy.” The Walt Disney Company.
  94. ———. 2017. “The Walt Disney Company Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year Earnings for Fiscal 2017.” The Walt Disney Company, November 9.
  95. The Walt Disney Studios. 2018. “Director, Analytics—Disney Movies Anywhere.” Data Jobs.
  96. Walt Disney World. n.d. (a). “My Disney Experience—Frequently Asked Questions: What Is Radio Frequency (RF) Technology and How Is It Used at Walt Disney World Resort?” Walt Disney World.
  97. ———. n.d. (b). “MagicBands & Cards—Frequently Asked Questions.” Walt Disney World.
  98. ———. n.d. (c). “My Disney Experience—Frequently Asked Questions: What Information Should I Know My Privacy and MyMagic+ at Walt Disney World Resort?” Walt Disney World.
  99. Watercutter, Angela. 2017. “Netflix Is Using The Defenders to Understand Its Audience.” Wired, August 22.
  100. Weintraub, Steve. 2018. “Exclusive: Future ‘A Star Wars Story’ Spinoffs on Hold at Lucasfilm.” Collider, June 20.
  101. Wilkinson, Alissa. 2017. “Why the Frozen Short That Played Before Pixar’s Coco Kicked Up so Much Controversy” Vox, December 14.
  102. Woolverton, Linda. 2014. “‘Maleficent’ Writer: I Cried Writing Angelina Jolie’s Big Moment (Q&A).” Linda Woolverton interview by Aaron Couch, The Hollywood Reporter, June 2.
  103. YouTube Creator Academy. n.d. “Lesson: Search and Discovery on YouTube.” YouTube Creators.
  104. Zorthian, Julia. 2015. “How Toy Story Changed Movie History.” Time, November 19.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Siobhan O’Flynn
    • 1
  1. 1.University of TorontoTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations