A galaxy far, far away is finally opening up close to home next week.
The launch of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios on Thursday marks one of the most unusual and expensive moves Disney has ever made. The theme park giant built two nearly identical 14-acre lands devoted to the world George Lucas dreamed up, at a cost of $1 billion each. As Yoda said, "Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
The stakes are high in Florida. Despite nearly every prediction, crowds were light after Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disneyland on May 31. It was a disturbance in the Force that few saw coming.
“We couldn’t have been more wrong in our crowds prediction for Disneyland,” said Tom Bricker of the Disney Tourist Blog. “We were shocked by just how quiet the parks were. In fact, Disneyland was busier the days leading up to the debut than it has been in the weeks after.”
It might not just be Star Wars fatigue. The dark side of climbing prices might have played a part. Disney hiked summer ticket prices by 10 percent and annual pass prices from 10 to 22 percent in advance of Star Wars. The Disneyland resort also expanded blockout dates in the summer for lower-priced passes. And three years ago, Disney shifted to a tiered pricing strategy that makes peak-period visits like summertime more expensive.
Disney CEO Bob Iger blamed a fear of crowds for Disneyland’s attendance dip.
“Some people stayed away just because they expected that it would not be a great guest experience,” he said during a recent earnings call.
The attraction’s design is cinematic in scope, with towering rock spires that block out the rest of the theme park like a Jedi mind trick to immerse fans in the planet of Batuu. The setting is a smugglers outpost on the edge of the galaxy. It never appeared in any of the movies. But it looks like it could have, with its circular domed buildings and dusty marketplace. The land has a ride with a full-size Millennium Falcon spaceship and an Arabic-style market with loads of Easter eggs in signs and symbols.
The new space port is no doubt inspired by the success of the Harry Potter lands at Universal theme parks. Disney aims to make Star Wars fans feel like they have stepped into the world of the films. Instead of wands, they can pay $200 to build a custom lightsaber. Instead of Butterbeer, they can head to Oga’s Cantina to drink Luke Skywalker’s favorite blue or green milk, dairy-free, frozen beverages that can can climb to $14 when you add a shot of rum or tequila.
And like Universal’s recent lands, this has more shops and attractions than actual rides, which some fans have decried as thinly veiled upcharges. Only one experience so far, the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride, is included with admission. The rest is stores, restaurants and pricey souvenirs.
Another reason for the dip in attendance could be because the land isn’t complete. The park’s signature ride, Rise of the Resistance, won’t open until December in Orlando and January in California.
But Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort is a different animal, industry watchers note. California has just three on-site hotels with fewer than 3,000 hotel rooms, while Walt Disney World has a worldwide audience with more than 30,000 hotel rooms at more than two dozen on-site resorts.
Touring Plans, the website that uses complex statistical analyses to calculate daily crowd sizes and wait times at theme parks, estimates Hollywood Studios will be a solid 10, on a scale of one to 10, in its crowd calendar for the first few weeks of Galaxy’s Edge. It will be late September before the crowd size goes down to a reasonable 5 or 6, Touring Plans predicts, and then only on weekdays.
The California opening of Galaxy’s Edge was “operationally flawless,” said Touring Plans founder Len Testa. But it may have worked too well in controlling crowds. Visitors in Florida, unlike California, won’t need a reservation to get into the park on its opening days. Testa also noted that Disneyland has 60 rides and attractions, while Hollywood Studios only has nine, so the capacity is limited.
“We’ve never seen an advance reservation system like that, and we’ve never seen only half a land opened,” Testa said. “That, combined with the blackouts, made Disneyland really hard to predict.”
Walt Disney World held its first previews this week for select annual passholders. Twitter and Instagram feeds were filled with images of the shabby-futuristic Black Spire Outpost, where droids and film characters wander about and employees play characters in an outpost full of shady merchants.
Though the two coasts have nearly identical Star Wars lands, there are some differences in Florida. It’s boozier, with far more alcoholic versions of space drinks at the cantina and stands around the marketplace.
It will also be easier to get to. Disney has expanded its Extra Magic Hours program for on-site hotel guests. Hollywood Studios will open at 6 a.m. through Nov. 2, giving guests at Disney resorts a full three hours to roam Galaxy’s Edge before everyone else arrives.
The entrance to Hollywood Studios has changed, with 10 open traffic lanes from the parking lot, an upgrade from the old, two-lane entrance. There are nearly triple the amount of security tables. Disney is connecting the park to Epcot and several hotels via its new Skyliner gondola system, scheduled to open Sept. 29.
Florida is much hotter and more humid than Anaheim, and the stark space port of Batuu offers little shade. At the passholder preview in Orlando, a Disney blogger noticed there were umbrellas scattered around.
And Southern California isn’t plagued with rainstorms like Central Florida is in August. The lack of shelter in the marketplace was sorely missed during a downpour last week. “There is actually very little cover from rain in the entire land,” said a review on Disney news website BlogMickey.com.
Analysts predict fan devotion will win out in the end, though Disney might have to wait until the land is complete.
“Slipping attendance for Disney’s domestic parks in its latest quarter was a surprise," said Rick Munarriz, who watches the theme park industry for the Motley Fool financial investment company. "But it would be a shocker if we saw it again for the current and following quarter.”
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge features
Here’s what visitors will find when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens Thursday at Hollywood Studios:
Black Spire Outpost: A settlement on the planet of Batuu, roughly set in the time of the current movie trilogy, Episodes VII–IX. Expect random appearances by stormtroopers patrolling the land or characters like Chewbacca walking by.
Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run: The ride queue overlooks the space port where the Millennium Falcon is parked. Each of the six passengers is assigned one of three jobs to pilot the ship.
Oga’s Cantina: Inspired by the 1977 Star Wars cantina scene. Reservations on the park’s app can cut the wait time, and there’s a two-drink maximum. A wisecracking droid DJ known as R-3X, nicknamed REX, is voiced by Paul Reubens, who played Pee-Wee Herman.
Savi’s Workshop: You can make a reservation in the park’s app for a builder and two guests to make a $200 custom lightsaber.
Droid Depot: For $100 you can build your own droid and pay for upgrades like a personality chip. You can still visit the store without a droid to build.
Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities: "Artifacts” line the walls and the animatronic Dok-Ondar acts as overseer of the gift shop.
Marketplace: Inspired by the outdoor markets of Bangladesh. Find toys, clothes and stuffed animals at Jewels of Bith, Black Spire Outfitters, Toydarian Toymaker and the Creature Stall all lining a winding path.
Ronto Roasters and Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo: Quick-service restaurants. Use the park’s app to order and reduce wait time. The food is on-theme, with names like Fried Endorian Tip-Yip and Ronto Wrap.
Outpost Popcorn Mix: This marketplace stand sells sweet and spicy popcorn in bold purples and reds.
Milk Stand: Serves the blue milk and green milk favored by Luke Skywalker. Unlike at Disneyland, you can add alcohol to your milk in Florida.
The app: The Play Disney Parks app is another part of the experience, letting you unlock secrets of the land and increase interactivity.