This wasn’t how the summer of 2019 was supposed to go for Disneyland. The TDA suits had been planning for years for the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, fighting over budgets and parkwide projects that would help manage the huge crowds that would descend on Anaheim the moment Disneyland’s billion-dollar new land opened. Except huge crowds didn’t show up, not even modest crowds showed up, and TDA and Burbank have been scrambling since June 1st to respond to the light summer demand and underwhelmed customer response to the new land.
In this update we’ll discuss what got cut from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge that probably shouldn’t have, what could be added back by WDI and Anaheim’s Operations teams if Bob Chapek can put down his sharp pencil, what’s ahead for D23 Expo announcements for Anaheim in light of the bizarre customer response to Disneyland’s Star Wars land, and also what big Walt Disney Company secret project probably isn’t ready to be announced on August 22nd.
But then things began to take a turn back to the dark side more recently, with admission prices suddenly heading up too far and soon and the rather underwhelming public response to the Billion dollar Galaxy’s Edge expansion.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was announced four years ago by Bob Iger at the 2015 D23 Expo, just a few months after Bob Chapek took over the Parks Division from Tom Staggs. Staggs had spent several years shepherding the Star Wars mega-project through the corporate approval process, as its budget grew in the wake of Cars Land’s wild success and WDI was told to go really big on Star Wars. Over the next few years, Disney’s own senior executives and Imagineers publicly discussed details that would set this Star Wars land apart from any previous theme park land, practically re-inventing the theme park industry as we know it.
According to Disney executives via their own public statements from 2015 to 2017, Disney’s new Star Wars land would be brimming with interactive technology that would have aliens and bounty hunters and resistance fighters roaming the land and allowing park guests to “live their own Star Wars adventure” through role-play and interactive technology. Roaming droids would zip around the land, while a team at WDI was working diligently with the latest flying drone technology to allow space ships to arrive and depart at this outpost on the edge of the galaxy. CM’s staffing the shops and restaurants would already know whether your allegiance was with the scrappy resistance or the militant First Order. Live-action role-play and “immersive” adventure was to be found around every corner, with rooftop stunt shows pitting Stormtroopers and villains against Jedi’s and resistance fighters, and back alleys filled with aliens and suspicious characters who might want your help or just your Galactic Credits.
But what started happening by late 2017, not long after the last D23 Expo ended, was that almost all of those things got cut. By midway, through fiscal year 2018, the conventional wisdom among the senior executives now leading the Parks Division was that adding a new Star Wars land with two big E Tickets to Disneyland would be more than enough to pack in record crowds at newly elevated ticket prices. None of the immersive entertainment would be needed.
As Parks Chairman Bob Chapek settled into his new role, he began to take a second look at all the interactive stuff that WDI planned for the land, and what he apparently saw were only high labor costs and costly showmanship. One of the first things that Bob Chapek removed from the land was the planned C Ticket.
The C Ticket was going to be a unique animal ride that would send lumbering beasts on an elevated track around the entire land, while riders bounced around on bench seats mounted to the back of the beasts.
It would have been one of the most unique ride systems WDI had ever created, and was designed to remind Disneyland fans of a bizarre combination of the PeopleMover and the Horse Drawn Streetcars, as well as add constant kinetic energy to the land. But its high cost made it an easy target for Bob Chapek, who used the concerns from WDW’s Operations team over its low capacity to cut it permanently from the land’s budget.
The abandoned C Ticket areas are noted in orange letter in the composite map above:
A. Queue entrance
B. Queue ramp up to elevated track
C. Load/Unload area.
D. Vehicle maintenance facility
The original dinner theater is shown in blue letters;
A. The lobby bar that became “the Cantina”
B. The main theater dining room.
By early 2017 the planned dinner theater restaurant was moved to an iffy “Phase Two” status because it would have required highly paid AGVA (Union) performers and some animatronics to pull off the hourly show. Instead, Chapek asked Imagineering to focus on just the small Cantina, which was originally supposed to be simply the lobby lounge for the large dinner theater complex.
By 2017, the most cynical execs in Burbank defended the removal of the dinner show by insisting visitors would Instagram photos of their high priced cocktails and thus be entertained just as much as they would have been watching an expensive to operate dinner show. The showy extras of the new land that escaped the cuts were mostly relegated to the upcharge offerings in Oga’s Cantina and Savi’s Workshop, although the union actors who were originally supposed to host those two unique experiences were also cut.
Instead of professional performers, by 2018 Chapek’s team had pivoted to an idea that the much lower paid Operations Castmembers who would staff the shops and rides and restaurants could be used to elevate the experience at a cheaper pay scale and would interact with the visitors with themed phrasing and gimmicky greetings. All of the interactive land performers, the roaming droids and drones who would be controlled remotely by higher-paid professional puppeteers, plus the rooftop stunt shows and unique alien characters that would not have come cheap were all cut by early 2018.
Going into the 2019 fiscal year Disneyland’s Entertainment department was left with the simple task of moving some of the preexisting Star Wars staffing and costumes over from the lightly attended Launch Bay facility in Tomorrowland into Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Since the popular Jedi Training Academy was cut from Tomorrowland months ago, they didn’t even expand the park’s entertainment staffing to open the new land with a bare-bones entertainment crew. The sparse entertainment offerings in the land this summer are a weak shadow of the original plans WDI had just a couple years ago. The initial response and reviews speak for themselves. The panic in TDA this summer is real.
Disneyland attendance dropped by double-digit percentages this summer compared to last summer. While the increased AP blockouts were part of that as Annual Passholders make up approximately 35% of annual attendance for Anaheim, the aggressive peak pricing calendar is a bigger driver of this summer’s weak attendance. Throughout the spring Disneyland was seeing drops in attendance on weekends that charged the Peak price of $149 per day, compared to the Value and Regular ticket days between $104 and $129. Any Anaheim manager could see that happen as the ticket pricing rose and fell with the days of the week, and it’s widely understood that Disneyland simply got way too aggressive on their ticket prices that are used by a majority of Anaheim’s visitors.
Like the NFL, but even more expensive…
Disneyland’s aggressive ticket pricing is controlled by the Senior Vice President of Commercial Strategy for the Disneyland Resort. That SVP role was brought to Anaheim in early 2017 by Bob Chapek and Michael Colglazier specifically to try to monetize as much of the park experience as possible and carve out every penny of profit imaginable. Based on the belief that crowds would be record-breaking for Star Wars, the Peak ticket price soared to $149 for 2019.
So where does TDA and Burbank go from here and what do they say about it at D23 Expo? Is there enough time to add back at least some of those interactive elements and professional performers by the time the Rise of the Resistance ride is ready to open this winter? The C Ticket ride is gone for good, but the droids and interactive characters could be added back. The land already has the technology and infrastructure designed in to support everything WDI wants to do with interactive entertainment. But it’s going to take creative vision backed by a real budget to pull off. The future entertainment plans for Galaxy’s Edge will be something to listen for at D23 Expo when Bob Chapek gets up on stage on Sunday afternoon for his official Parks presentation.
The budget for Star Wars land’s signature attraction, the Rise of the Resistance ride was also cut a few years ago, mainly for the exterior elements and architecture the queue and pre-show was supposed to have.
The Rise of the Resistance ride remains very promising but is still rife with problems and endless delays, owing to its cutting edge trackless ride system and ambitious scale. The timetable to get this complicated ride open this winter is going to be very tight, and judging by the current inability to keep the ride running on either coast for more than an hour at a time, when it does open there will be daily hours-long downtimes and likely entire days when the ride is simply unavailable. It would be wise to have at least some of those original performers and interactive elements added to the land by the time Resistance opens this winter, if only to alleviate the disappointment the daily extended downtimes are likely to have on frustrated customers.
The executives at WDW seem to have bitten off more than they can chew by committing to an early December opening, which was driven almost entirely by a desire to keep their 30,000 hotel rooms full during the Christmas season. TDA’s executives successfully lobbied Bob Chapek to wait as long as possible before opening, as they had no desire to open this troubled new ride just before the busiest weeks of the year. It will be interesting to see which strategy worked out best on each coast; being over-optimistic in an attempt to pack hotel rooms at peak Christmas rates, or waiting for the dead of winter to open what promises to be a very unreliable new ride.