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Doug Ridley remembers seeing the first Star Wars film when it came out in 1977 and snapping up all the toys he could persuade his parents to purchase.
Now 47, the criminal-defense attorney often dons a stormtrooper uniform with his fan club and plans to be one of the first guests at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge when the attraction opens at Disneyland on May 31. It won’t be cheap. Besides reserving two $800-a-night Disney hotel rooms that weekend in Anaheim, California, he plans to spend lots more on lightsabers, build-your-own droids, and other souvenirs, likely busting his annual travel budget.
“Last year we went to Ireland for the summer,” Ridley joked. “This year we’re going to Galaxy’s Edge for the weekend.”
Ridley represents a potentially lucrative demographic: fans who are older and more affluent than the typical young parents pushing strollers to Cinderella photo ops. With money to spend and time to travel all year long, they’ll help make Disney’s Star Wars investment an even bigger hit.
Disney and other theme-park operators have looked to broaden their customer bases in recent years, coming up with attractions and events that appeal to adults and empty nesters. That’s bolstered attendance outside the peak spring-break and summer periods, according to Bobby Palta, who studies the industry for the real estate brokerage CBRE Group Inc.
In Anaheim, Disney extended its annual food and wine festival at the California Adventure park by nearly two weeks to 54 days in March and April. More upscale dining options have been added in the parks and an adjacent Disney mall. A $99 evening event, 90s Nite, sold out Disneyland in March with special character appearances and music until 1 a.m.
The changes mirror what’s happening more widely in the area, according to Jay Burress, head of Anaheim’s tourism office. An upscale food court in an old citrus packing plant attracts tourists and locals, while two higher-end hotels, a JW Marriott and a Westin, are scheduled to open next year.
“For years this was known as a place for chain restaurants where families eat,” Burress said. Now, thanks to the changes Disney and others are making, “they are appealing to a different audience, a new audience in many ways, which is fantastic for us.”
While Disney doesn’t share information about park guests, data from the tourist office illustrates the changes. The average income of the 24 million visitors to Anaheim has climbed, with 47 percent earning more than $100,000 last year, up from 40 percent in 2012. More than half traveled without children, a shift from five years ago when families made up the bulk of guests.
The older customers are “phenomenal,” said Dara Maleki, who has hosted fans from past Star Wars events at his Pizza Press restaurants near Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. “It changes the game so drastically. They’re successful in their career. They have disposable income, and now they have a place to get really excited about.”
The new Star Wars land and a similar attraction opening Aug. 29 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando mark the largest-ever expansion for parks run by Walt Disney Co. And while the company’s latest “Star Wars” movies have stumbled a bit, there’s every indication fans will turn out for the new attractions. Reservations for the first three weeks at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland were gone in an hour and 45 minutes.
The resorts, Disney’s largest business by revenue, have been growing in importance for the Burbank, California-based entertainment giant as its most profitable division — TV — struggles with declining viewership. The company invested $3.88 billion in its parks last year, a 22 percent increase from the prior year. Attendance rose 4 percent, while guest spending was up even more at 6 percent, in part due to rising ticket prices and room rates.
Disney has introduced a pricing system based on projected demand, with single-day admissions ranging from $104 on slow days to $149 when crowds are biggest, making a day at the park comparable to orchestra seats at a Broadway show or lift tickets at a Colorado ski resort. With Galaxy’s Edge, the company unveiled a reservation system that will be in place until June 23.
Galaxy’s Edge will have elements for fans of all ages. There will be a simulated ride on the Millennium Falcon spaceship, and later in the year Disney will open an interactive attraction that mimics a battle between the First Order and the resistance.
Between rides, guests will be able to wander through a trading post on a fictional planet and interact with Disney employees in Star Wars costumes. The company has barred strollers above a certain size in the parks because of the anticipated crowds.
In a first for Disneyland, Oga’s Cantina in Galaxy’s Edge will serve alcohol, including a Jedi Mind Trick craft cocktail and Bad Motivator IPA, a sign the company recognizes the importance of adult visitors. At Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, an animatronic shopkeeper will interact with guests looking to pick up faux treasures from another galaxy, such as rare kyber crystals. There’s even a store for interstellar bling, the Jewels of Bith.
Some fans are planning multiple excursions to Galaxy’s Edge. Aaron Pulkka, a former Disney park designer and now head of production at the interactive entertainment company Two Bit Circus, plans two trips this year, one next month with his 24-year-old daughter and another weeklong visit in the fall with friends from the East Coast.
“I am 50 years old, but still as excited to go as when I was a kid,” he said.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.