After years of hype, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is now open at Disney theme parks on both coasts — and it’s not doing what Disney expected or predicted.
The nearly-identical 14-acre expansions that opened in May in Disneyland and in late August at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are estimated to have cost $1 billion each. The idea of Galaxy’s Edge being anything but the biggest success in theme park history seemed impossible ahead of its debut, but Disney actually reported a 3 percent drop in attendance at its U.S. parks for the quarter that included the Disneyland opening.
Yet when it was suggested by CNBC that the recent elimination of an executive position at Disney parks was related to the disappointing Galaxy’s Edge performance, Disney pushed back aggressively.
“I will tell you that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has exceeded every expectation we’ve had,” Bob Chapek, the chairman of Disney’s Parks, Experiences and Consumer Experiences, told CNBC. “There is no there there to this being anything but a runaway success.”
The available evidence about Galaxy’s Edge suggests otherwise.
Yes, the opening was a flop
Like Chapek, certain segments of the Disney fanbase reject the very notion that the opening was a flop, accusing bloggers and other theme park media of cherry-picking low wait times or using misleading camera angles to unfairly portray the land as empty.
To be fair, Galaxy’s Edge critics have their own brand of hyperbole, prematurely deeming the land a failure. A controversial site called Cosmic Book News even promoted a baseless claim that it would be replaced by an “Aladdin”-themed land.
But the statistics don’t lie. According to Len Testa, president of Touring Plans, a subscription service that tracks wait times at Disney parks, crowds have been lower all around Disneyland since Galaxy’s Edge debuted on May 29.
“Before opening, we expected Galaxy’s Edge to drive anywhere from a 10 to 20 percent bump in annualized year-over-year attendance. I think it’s much closer to break-even or a slight decrease at this point,” Testa told Orlando Rising.
The Disney World version of Galaxy’s Edge hasn’t fared much better. Even with Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run attracting long waits on the land’s opening day, Testa said the overall crowd level at Disney’s Hollywood Studios has been a “1” on Touring Plans’ 1-to-10 scale every day since the Aug. 29 opening — even after the effects of Hurricane Dorian on Orlando travel had dissipated.
All of this is a far cry from pre-opening predictions. Bill Zanetti, a founding member of the University of Central Florida’s Entertainment Management Advisory Board, had told Orlando Rising in June 2018 that he expected 200,000 people to show up to Disneyland on the opening day of Galaxy’s Edge.
“I assumed that Disney would open the entire land at once, that they wouldn’t try to implement any crowd controls, and that they wouldn’t cut back on 90 percent of the live entertainment offerings in the land,” Zanetti said.
No one reason
Now that it’s been established that the opening did not go as Disney hoped, the question to answer is why.
The experts that spoke to Orlando Rising cited a variety of factors, among them being the incredible hype around the land that either exaggerated the real demand or scared away potential guests.
“I haven’t had anyone reach out to me about a trip to Walt Disney World specifically because of Star Wars happenings — ever,” said Michelle Fletcher Bulmer, co-owner of the Mouse & Muggle Travel Company. “Most of my clients think it’s neat, but they could take it or leave it honestly. There is the random grandfather or father who is really excited about Galaxy’s Edge, but for the most part, it hasn’t been a huge draw to my clientele. I have had some clients express concern about wanting to wait until 2020 for the ‘craze’ to die down before they experience it.”
Other explanations ranged from opening without the land’s marquee attraction, Rise of the Resistance, recent Disney ticket price hikes, the previously mentioned cuts to live entertainment and basing the land off the newer Star Wars films rather than the original trilogy.
“Why ignore the nostalgia?” Zanetti said. “They should have included a lot more references and links to the original six films in the new land. To completely ignore them is very strange, at least to me.”
The lackluster response to the land’s sole ride hasn’t helped. Testa said in reader satisfaction surveys Touring Plans has received since Aug. 29, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run was ranked 12th out of all attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, behind existing Star Wars experiences like Star Tours and the Chewbacca meet-and-greet at Star Wars Launch Bay.
“I think the lesson I’ve learned is that we should wait to see the quality of the rides before we start talking about crowds,” Testa said. “It’s really ride quality first, then land quality second, then everything else, that brings guests into parks.”
The silver lining for guests
There is one area where the openings on both coasts have been an unqualified success: operations. The guests who have come out to experience Galaxy’s Edge have not had to deal with long lines and technical glitches like those seen with Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
Access to the land has been largely unrestricted at Disney World and since June at Disneyland without the need for virtual “boarding groups.” Testa praised the park operations on both coasts and said there’s some truth to the argument that Disney simply avoided a chaotic, packed opening through operational efficiency and good management.
“The land has one ride that’s handling around 1,700 people per hour at its peak, two paid experiences with limited capacity, a small bar, and a few open-air shops. If Galaxy’s Edge brought in exactly zero additional guests to the parks, you’d expect the wait times at the parks’ other attractions to decrease slightly, just because of the additional capacity,” Testa said.
But that explanation doesn’t provide much comfort to Disney or its shareholders.
“Disney didn’t spend $1 billion per land just to slightly increase capacity and lower wait times throughout the rest of the park; they did it to build a signature land that drove guest demand,” Testa said. “So far there’s not a lot of evidence that has happened. To paraphrase John Shedd, ‘Galaxy’s Edge is great with no crowds, but that’s not what Galaxy’s Edge was built for.’”
While Disney has been justifying price hikes for years by saying its goal is to reduce large crowds at busier times of the year, the response from the company’s top brass to last quarter’s attendance drop shows this was not how they wanted Galaxy’s Edge to open.
“The company did want lower crowds at higher prices, but not this low,” Zanetti said. “They needed more people to sustain their business model, clearly, otherwise you wouldn’t see so many discounts and cutbacks.”
Zanetti feels one of the lessons Disney should take away from the opening is to avoid artificial attendance restrictions, like the reservation system used at Disneyland for the land’s first three weeks. “It’s better to let the market work on its own,” he said.
All eyes on Rise
The one thing that can change the narrative around Galaxy’s Edge is Rise of the Resistance.
From the beginning, the ride has been hyped as the true headliner of the land and one of the most technologically advanced attractions Disney has ever built. By opening the land without it, Disney likely caused some eager fans — included dedicated Disneyland passholders who may have bought a one-day ticket during their blackout dates — to hold off on visiting Batuu.
Disney has started its marketing campaign for the attraction in earnest ahead of the Dec. 5 opening at Disney World. A segment on ABC’s “Good Morning America” showed off the Star Destroyer hangar scene of the ride.
Whether this part of the land can live up to the hype remains to be seen. Testa’s co-host on the Disney Dish Podcast, entertainment writer Jim Hill, mentioned on the show’s Aug. 26 episode that Disney Imagineers “haven’t been able to keep it operating for more than an hour at a time.” This came just after select members of the media saw a portion of the ride and heaped glowing praise on its scale and ambition.
But none of that guarantees Rise of the Resistance will be a success — just like it didn’t for Galaxy’s Edge as a whole.
“Let’s hope they didn’t cut the budget on that ride or its rumored ‘hundreds of animatronics,’” Zanetti said. “If they aren’t there, I think there’s a small chance that people could be disappointed by the ride as well. But only time will tell.”
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