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The Walt Disney Company has made a blockbuster business out of building fantasy-rich kingdoms and lands around the world that draw millions of visitors a year.
For its next act, the entertainment giant is looking to turn a patch of its Orlando resort into a new kind of luxury-meets-immersion hotel meant to feel more like a galaxy far, far away.
In an announcement last month at the fan event D23 Expo, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek announced that the company is planning a “revolutionary vacation experience” for Walt Disney World: a luxury resort that immerses guests in the universe of Star Wars.
“It’s unlike anything that exists today,” he said.
Chapek said visitors will have a “dedicated multi-day adventure” complete with “starship transportation,” characters, costumes, storylines, windows that show a view into space, and status as “an active citizen of the galaxy.”
“It is 100 percent immersive and the story will touch every single minute of your stay with us,” he said. “It culminates in a unique journey for every person who visits.”
Not surprisingly, the announcement prompted fans — and many writers — to swoon. HuffPost ran a story with this headline: “Wait, This ‘Immersive’ ‘Star Wars’-Themed Hotel Looks Awesome.”
And TechCrunch could barely contain itself, writing: “AHHHHHHH. Disney just announced something that’s potentially so damned cool that I hardly need complete sentences here: Immersive. Star Wars. Hotel.”
Robert Niles, founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, said that while the company had a lot of announcements at the event last month, few of them were groundbreaking. The Star Wars hotel stood out.
“This is why I think so many people are really excited and intrigued by this concept,” he said. “It truly is something different for Disney.”
Early Survey Gave a Sneak Peek
Hints of the plan emerged in April after Disney guests were surveyed on their interest in a similar concept, though it’s unclear how many of the details included in the survey will end up in the final product.
According to WDW News Today, the questions described a “continuous, story-driven entertainment experience” over the course of a two-night stay.
Guests would be able to choose if they wanted to watch or participate in a story, and would have themed activities to participate in. Meals, entertainment, admission to a new Star Wars-themed land at Disney Hollywood Studios, and the service of a robotic droid butler would all be included at a price of $900-$1,000 per guest, the story said. (A Disney spokeswoman told Skift the company has not released pricing on the experience yet.)
Chapek referenced that research when he made his announcement last month.
“You may have heard that we recently did a survey about an entirely new way to live your very own Star Wars adventure,” he said. “So today, I am thrilled to confirm that we are working on our most experiential concept ever.”
Disney has made huge moves with the intellectual property — IP in industry parlance — of Lucasfilm, which the company bought in 2012 for more than $4 billion. In addition to making more Star Wars movies, Disney is building 14-acre themed additions called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at parks in Orlando and Anaheim, California. Those lands open in 2019.
Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, has been pondering the project since he first started hearing rumors several months ago.
“Hotels now are such an important part of theme park operations because it’s what keeps people on property,” he said. “More importantly, what’s happening is with this hotel, it’s the first truly totally immersed theme hotel. And they couldn’t have picked a better IP to do this with and test the hotel concept.”
Disney has released few details about the hotel project, including when it will break ground or open. Also unclear: where at Walt Disney World it will be located; how much it will cost to build; what the price will be for guests; how big it will be; what “immersion” means in this context; or what kind of technology will be involved.
Asked if guests will be able to choose specific storylines to engage with or have the freedom to wander and interact without much structure, a spokeswoman said: “There will be many ways to engage.”
Niles is anticipating that Disney will start out slow.
“My inclination would be to guess conservative on this, that they’re not going to turn it into some kind of massive multi-player role-playing game,” he said. “But it’s going to be a really-well-decorated experience where it will be easy for your imagination to create a role in it, as opposed to Disney creating a role for you.”
He expects the company to gauge reaction and see what works, and “what doesn’t work, even more importantly” — and then maybe add more specific roles as a way to charge more.
Disney Cruise Line, which provides a virtual porthole on cabins inside ships to give a real-time view of the outdoors, could provide a blueprint for the hotel experience. The four-ship cruise line has given the company experience with entertaining people in a confined space for several days — and Niles expects that to come in handy.
“I think Disney’s going to apply a lot they’ve learned from cruise line,” he said. “I think that’s kind of the origin of the DNA … isolating people in a specific place, virtual windows. They’ve got a lot of information to start with, but they’re taking it to another level.”
A Kinder, Gentler Westworld?
While Disney didn’t make the comparison, just about everyone else has brought up parallels to the HBO show Westworld, about a kind of theme park full of lifelike robots that allows costumed visitors to interact and pursue their own storylines without any prohibitions.
That drama includes intrigue, double-crossing, murder, and sex — off-limits for Disney, of course. But those more adult themes aside, the comparison seems somewhat apt.
“I think it’s an adaptation of the Westword concept done in the Disney best sense, where it’s entertaining and family fun,” Speigel said. He expects to see robots, live actors, and animations as part of the experience at the Star Wars hotel.
“You’re going to have aliens checking you in,” he said. “All the people who work there are going to be in costume, makeup, you’re going to see storm troopers marching through the lobby, you’re going to see Jabba the Hutt, laser sword fights.”
The anticipated use of robots fits into the industry trend toward automation, Niles said. Some hotels — including one at Universal Orlando — use robots to make deliveries to rooms, while cruise lines have employed robots to do tasks including giving directions to passengers and bartending.
“Here, it’s themed!” Niles said. “It’s almost like they have to do it….They have an opportunity here to kind of beta test, if you will, automating a lot of the process, which ultimately can save you on labor costs once you recoup the capital cost of developing this system.”
In other words: These are the droids you’re looking for.
Scott A. Lukas, a cultural anthropologist who has written books on themed and immersive spaces and an amusement industry consultant, said he was reminded of Westworld, historical reenactments, and live-action role playing when he heard about the project.
Even with a family-friendly approach, Lukas wonders how guests might react to an intense level of engagement.
“Is it going to be kind of creepy if you experience it at its full level?” he wondered.
He said the challenge would be finding the right guests: Travelers who crave intensive interaction with a Star Wars theme and can drop a significant amount of money.
“I just don’t know if people want this level of interactivity,” he said. “On the one hand this is amazing and will be a new potential to explore something other than screens and glasses at home. On the other hand…even if they work out the low-level-user guest, I still wonder if everybody will be into this level of commitment.”
But Randy Garfield, who spent nearly 30 years at Universal and Disney before he retired as president of the Walt Disney Travel Company in 2014, said he doesn’t worry about whether there’s enough demand for a product like the Star Wars hotel.
“Disney has rarely, if ever, misjudged consumer interest in products,” he said.
He said it’s too early to talk about the best way to market the experience, but the audience seems huge.
“It won’t be difficult to market this product at all,” he said. “This is a sales and marketing dream really — not only with a huge database of past guests, but people who go to Comic-Con, and people who are Star Wars fans.”
Beyond Basic Immersion
Plenty of hotels, of course, have immersive qualities thanks to strong themes — from the gondolas and gelato in the Venetian in Las Vegas to the animal-filled vistas at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge to the toy-themed Legoland Hotel. Theme parks also create worlds for visitors to immerse themselves in for hours, such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal parks and Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but that level of engagement typically doesn’t follow guests to their hotel rooms.
Lukas said the Star Wars project sounds more like “total immersion,” where the “guest is taken into another world, story, or place through the use of as many senses as possible.”
“The level of immersion and storytelling, I can’t think of anything in the past that has had this,” he said.
Garfield said he wasn’t surprised by the announcement given the company’s history of innovation and drive to integrate intellectual property into various parts of the business.
“They’re always going to try to raise the bar,” he said. “To me, seeing Bob Chapek talk about how it’s going to be an immersive experience with guests being costumed … I think that’s just another element of enhancing guest engagement and making them part of the story.”
Niles, of Theme Park Insider, expects the whole industry to be watching carefully and learning.
“Something you live with for a day or two, that’s something different, not just for Disney, for the industry,” he said. “It’s not something that’s ever been done on any type of substantial scale before. I think a lot of people are really excited to see what Disney ends up doing for this and what kind of model it creates for the rest of the industry. Fans have been clamoring for Universal to do something like this with Harry Potter forever. There’s a ton of IP out there that would lend itself to that kind of treatment.”
Your Move, Universal
Several industry observers said they expect Universal to answer with some kind of a hotel themed after the Harry Potter franchise created by J.K. Rowling, given the company’s success with the Wizarding World in multiple theme parks.
“If I had to bet, I’d bet that’s under way in design right now,” said Speigel, of International Theme Park Services.
A spokesman for Universal said only: “We don’t comment on speculation and rumors.”
Garfield said Universal has shown it is committed to “immersive experiences that surprise and delight the guests” just like Disney is. While he praised the additions being made by both Disney and Universal, he pointed out that Universal has more constraints on the hotel side. The Comcast-owned theme park operator has significantly less land to work with, and Loews Hotels operates Universal’s on-site hotels in Orlando while Disney runs its own hotels.
“Anything [Universal] wants to do to expand into a different area is going to require the commitment and participation of a partner,” Garfield said. “The folks at Universal are smart and they know what they can deliver. And if they believe that having a Harry Potter-type hotel makes sense to them, then certainly that will be a priority.”
Whatever comes next, Speigel said he thinks Disney’s Star Wars concept will be a launching point for hospitality.
“It’s the first step in the evolution of what we’re going to see as themed hotels, not only in theme parks but in the hotel industry in general,” he said.