The Star Wars saga has multiple episodes. So will the theme park lands built around it.
Disney Parks & Resorts announced Thursday that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will open earlier than expected at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida — though not every piece will be up and running.
Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which the company describes as “the most ambitious, immersive and advanced attraction ever imagined,” will open later this year. Phase one at each park will include the 14-acre land itself, shopping, dining, and the ride Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
“In light of the tremendous demand, we’re going to let guests explore those lands a bit earlier than we had originally planned,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said during the company’s annual shareholder meeting Thursday.
Earlier, Disney had said the California addition would open in summer of 2019 and the Florida land would debut in the fall. Instead, the company said Thursday that Disneyland’s Star Wars land would open May 31, followed on Aug. 29 by the Florida expansion at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
‘Mayhem … in a Good way’
Greg Antonelle, chief brand officer at Disney-focused travel agency MickeyTravels, said many clients had already booked Disneyland trips in June and late November/December visits to Walt Disney World based on the previously released timing.
Thursday, he said in an email that the agency was “swamped today with calls, emails, texts, Facebook messages, etc.” to book their vacations for the new dates.
“Quite frankly, it’s mayhem…in a good way!” he said. “The anticipation for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has been huge. Now that the dates are official, people are so excited to book their vacations so they can be among the first to experience the new land.”
Antonelle said he hasn’t heard any hesitation about the phased opening.
“I think people are just excited to be one of the first in, post their photos of them in the land on Instagram, and be able to talk about it 5, 10, 20 years from now as a historic event,” he said. “It really is hysteria for Star Wars fans today!”
Anticipating that hysteria, Disney said visitors to the Star Wars land in California between May 31 and June 23 will need to make free reservations to get in, on top of buying admission to the park. Anyone staying at a Disneyland Resort hotel during that time will be assigned a slot.
The company is not requiring reservations for the Florida park after it opens in August, but warned that capacity will be limited.
“No one has ever attempted anything of this magnitude, and so it’s somewhat daunting, even by our standards,” Iger said. “But we’re really proud of what we’re building at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.”
The Harry Potter Effect
Industry watchers see a precedent in the opening of a richly detailed and immersive Harry Potter-themed land at Universal Orlando Resort in 2010.
“It’s a very sophisticated, complicated level of entertainment that they’re bringing to us,” said Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services. “It’ll be the most highly technical program that we’ve seen around [intellectual property] since the introduction of Harry Potter.”
Attendance at Islands of Adventure, where the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, increased nearly 30 percent in the first year, according to an industry estimate.
As Disney has invested in its own parks, Universal owner Comcast has poured money into Harry Potter-related expansions. The next addition, a roller coaster called Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, is set to open June 13 at Islands of Adventure in Orlando — just a couple weeks after the first Star Wars land rolls out in California. Universal also has plans for Nintendo-themed lands, and is expected to announce an entirely new park in Orlando.
“I think the armaments war between Universal and Disney has risen to its peak,” Speigel said. “It’s going to be full-blown now.”
Speigel said he expects to see attendance increases of greater than 25 percent after the Star Wars openings.
The Phased Approach
Last month, Iger said during an earnings call that he wanted to keep the marketing budget low for promoting the new Star Wars lands.
To Speigel, opening the additions in stages sounds like “smart marketing on their end.”
“It puts it out there in front of the people; it does more than whet their appetite,” he said. “It doesn’t satiate it, but it does give them a good portion of what’s coming.”
He expects to see fans show up for each stage.
“You don’t just want to play 16 holes of golf, you want it all,” Speigel said. “So you come back.”
But Robert Niles, founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, said in an email that he was “stunned” by the decision to open a land that isn’t 100 percent finished.
“For something that Disney very clearly intended to set a new standard for theme park attractions, opening with anything less than their best seems a big creative and PR risk to me,” he said.
Niles said the company took some flak for opening an area, Pixar Pier, before it was complete at Disney California Adventure last year. But he acknowledged that the “unusual opening” of the Star Wars lands could be forgotten by next year if the Rise of the Resistance ride lives up to the hype and crowd control plans are successful.
“But that’s a bit of a gamble, and Disney was promoting this project as a sure thing,” he said. “Again, it’s all a bit puzzling.”