The Long Road to Disney's Star Wars Land

August 20, 2015, 11:53 AM · Is Star Wars Land something unprecedented for the Walt Disney theme parks? Are the planned new lands at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios a response to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Are single-IP themed lands, such as Star Wars Land and Harry Potter, the future of the theme park industry?

Star Wars Land
Star Wars Land concept art courtesy Disney

I've been doing a lot of interviews with newspaper and radio journalists ever since Disney announced Star Wars Land last weekend at the D23 Expo in Anaheim. And those three questions have figured into almost every interview. They represent an attempt to cast Disney's plans in a classic underdog narrative, where an established industry leader is forced to change its ways to meet a challenge from an upstart — in this case, Universal with its Harry Potter lands.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida

But that narrative really doesn't fit what's happening here. First, casting Disney's plans for Star Wars as a response to Potter is simplistic. Like any smart, successful company in the entertainment business, Disney competes with much more than any single competitor. The question consumers ask themselves isn't: "Should I go to Disney or Universal?" It's "What I am going to do with my vacation time this year?"

Disney competes with Universal for people's vacation time, but it also competes with national parks, beaches, spa resorts, Broadway shows, family visits, and even stay-cations at the local movie theater, mall, or amusement park. That is why Disney, and Universal, have created resorts that offer a wide range of experiences to compete with all those alternatives... and why their marketing encourages you to bring the extended family with you, so that you don't have to decide between Disney or Universal and visiting your relatives for the week.

Despite all the fancy pools, man-made beaches, shopping districts, Broadway-style shows, movie theaters, on-site spas and awe-inspiring vistas that they offer, however, theme parks' unique selling point remains the opportunity to walk into and experience a fully immersive themed physical environment where you can spend time with beloved characters. Natural environments are wonderful, but they offer something different that the opportunity to engage yourself (and your imagination) in an ongoing narrative. Movie and stage shows provide amazing entertainment, but viewers are limited by their seats in the audience. They can never walk into the action and experience it on their own terms, they way they can in a great theme park attraction.

Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands, especially the new Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida, have illustrated how powerfully a theme park land can engage and reward visitors' imaginations. The Harry Potter franchise appeals across generations and genders, and it offers a rich encyclopedia of detail that empowers designers to create an environment that can fill not just an entire land in a theme park, but multiple lands. Star Wars offers the same opportunities for Disney's designers.

But Harry Potter was hardly the first example of a theme park devoting an entire land to a single IP [intellectual property]. And that's the second point upon which we depart from the proposed narrative. Single-IP lands have been around for decades... and date to the opening of Disneyland itself.

A single-IP land is nothing new in Disneyland. The very first single-IP land may have been the park's Adventureland, which was themed to Disney's True Life Adventure nature documentaries. The land opened in July 1955 with a single attraction, the Jungle Cruise, which represented the opportunity for visitors to take a "true life" tour through exotic scenes they might have seen in Disney's nature films.

Jungle Cruise
On Disneyland's Jungle Cruise

(If the idea that Jungle Cruise was based on a nature documentary seems strange today, remember that the current 1930s theme for the ride dates only to the introduction of the Indiana Jones Adventure next door in 1995, and that the ride's famous campy humor has only intensified over the years. Today's Jungle Cruise simply isn't anywhere near the same experience that it was in 1955.)

What about a land based on an IP developed by an outside source? Disney created the first immersively themed outdoor attraction space devoted to a single IP developed outside the company just one year after Disneyland opened, with debut of Tom Sawyer Island in 1956. No, Tom Sawyer Island isn't an official "land" within Disneyland, but at a little over three acres (nearly seven if you count the surrounding Rivers of America), TSI is comparable in size to some theme park lands.

Disney opened another land based on a single property in 1972, when it opened Bear County, based on the Country Bear Jamboree show developed for the proposed Mineral King ski resort and opened the previous year at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Florida. Disneyland's most recent single IP land was Toontown, which opened in 1993 and was based on the characters and imagery of the 1988 Touchstone/Amblin production Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Disney included only its own characters in Toontown, omitting cartoon characters from Warner Bros. and other studios that appeared in the film, so one can argue that Disney's Toontown is not a single-IP land, but a partial IP land. Still....)

And if we walk across the esplanade to Disney California Adventure, we will find the most immersively detailed example of a single-IP land at a domestic Disney theme park in Cars Land, based on the Disney/Pixar animation franchise. Outside of the United States, at Tokyo DisneySea, Disney has created single-IP lands devoted to the works of Jules Verne (Mysterious Island) and the Disney animation hit The Little Mermaid (Mermaid Lagoon). A Frozen-themed land is also under development at the same park.

Mermaid Lagoon
Mermaid Lagoon at Tokyo DisneySea

Even if we want to restrict the narrative to single-IP lands based on properties not in the public domain and licensed from an outside company, Universal's Harry Potter still wasn't the first to the table. Knott's Berry Farm established that model with its Camp Snoopy back in 1983. And half the lands at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando were based on single outside IPs when the park opened in 1999: Seuss Landing, Marvel Super Hero Island, and Jurassic Park. (The first two were licensed. Only Jurassic Park was owned by Universal.)

So single-IP lands are not the future of the theme park industry. They are the past and present of the business, as well as part of its future. Star Wars Land will not disrupt Walt Disney's vision for Disneyland, as a single IP-based land was part of his park from the very beginning. And Star Wars Land is no more a response to Harry Potter than Harry Potter was a response to all the other IP-based attractions that preceded it.

The theme park industry has been evolving since even before the moment that Disneyland opened in July 1955. Star Wars Land will represent another step in that evolution, as did Harry Potter, Cars Land, Toontown, Camp Snoopy, and even Adventureland before them all. As with all those other lands, Star Wars Land ultimately will be judged on the quality of entertainment and value that it provides to its guests.

And like all the theme park fans who eagerly awaited those previous themed lands, I can't wait to see what Disney does with Star Wars.

Replies (26)

August 20, 2015 at 12:09 PM · Great stuff, Mr. Niles. You make a couple of great points, both of which I had not previously considered. Well done.
August 20, 2015 at 12:26 PM · Great article! Love your work!
August 20, 2015 at 12:34 PM · When does Disney cease to be Disney? With the purchase of high profile IP's Avatar. Star Wars and Marvel where will it end? Its high time Disney started creating it's own high profile IP's instead of buying somebody else's.
August 20, 2015 at 12:53 PM · Mmm, Mr. Niles, I don't quite agree with the idea that Adventureland was Disneyland's first "single-IP" land. The four original realms of the park were based on broad ideas (wild wilderness, fairy tales come to life, future living today, unexplored jungles) that could incorporate many complementary icons and attractions from various origins. True, Adventureland opened with one attraction, the Jungle Cruise, but not long after that it also introduced the Tiki Room, an original non-IP show, and the Swiss Family Treehouse, based on the film that was well suited for the land. I think Mickey's Toontown is a much better comparison to Star Wars Land, in that the intention of the land from the beginning was to bring one central idea based on existing IP (visit the place where Mickey and his pals live) to life, and it has pretty much stayed exactly the same since it opened.
August 20, 2015 at 1:01 PM · Just yesterday, my husband and I were talking about just this topic. Although, ours was more of what would happen to the Harry Potter franchise in 10-15 years or so. The movies will be outdated (the books will still be around) and the kids will be looking for something different. Neither of us could see the appeal to the masses in that time frame. However, Star Wars has only grown in popularity since the 70's (when I, ahem, saw it for the first time and was amazed) and consistently brings new fans to the table. Harry Potter's world has a limit based on the ending of the story. Don't get me wrong, Universal made that land incredible. The appeal of a good "value" will always be there but may not bring in NEW fans as the years progress.

On another note, I had hoped that Disney would rework Tomorrowland with Star Wars Land. I figured that there just wasn't enough space to do what they wanted but Tomorrowland is so tired and struggles with a good identity. Disney's ability to tell great stories gets lost there. Mostly because tomorrow comes so much faster than it did in Walt's day. I am not completely against making it the Tomorrowland of Yesterday. Bring back some of the old attractions and show people what tomorrow looked like a long time ago and let them marvel at how far we have come. Sorry for going off topic. This article got me thinking...again.

August 20, 2015 at 1:06 PM · Great article. Robert makes some really good points that highlight the evolution of the "themes" of a theme park. Tom Sawyer Island is a really clever comparison and draws from an early entertainment medium, books! I wonder what Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) would have said to Walt Disney if he was presented with the idea of creating Tom Sawyer Island.

August 20, 2015 at 1:11 PM · I disagree with Harry Potter being "outdated" in years to come. Children will always grow up with the books and the movies and have an interest. Universal will always serve the "niche" they are now and growing. As a Universal A/P holder for 15 years and a former Disney A/P holder, I am looking forward to the long awaited, new construction at Disney. We go to Universal 7 - 8 times a year, but Disney only every 5 -6 years. It had become stale for adults. This and the other plans will give me a reason to go back, although I expect it will take a long time for Disney to get this ambitious plan done.
August 20, 2015 at 1:50 PM · There are hardly any IP's in the world that have such an fleshed out world as Harry Potter has. It plays on a few key locations that are visited frequently and are described in detail in those 7 huge books and even some additional books. What and where they eat, drink and shop are all a part of them.

Star Wars is a space fairy tail. The planets are just backdrops but it's hardly a fleshed out world. Except for Lord of the Rings I have a hard time finding another movie franchise that does that perfectly and is such a great fit for an immersive experience. In tv we have the Simpsons that fit that bill and it's also at Universal.

With the way Disney is going to do is probably the only way it could work. Building a new backdrop (planet) and inhabit it with stuff fans could recognize from the movies. The difference is that you will never feel you are walking in the Death Star or on Endor or Cloud City so it will never feel like walking in Diagon Alley. It will feel like Star Wars Land at a Disney theme park.

@Karen Potter won't outdate, the same like Snow White won't outdate. These stories are timeless. Potter is a coming of age story with a package that is timeless. Sure the movies will be remade like Disney is remaking their movies. I'm sue Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will add to the life of Potter even more. But in the end Universal is not afraid to pick up a wrecking ball and mow everything down to build new experiences. Wasn't it Walt himself who said Disneyland would never be finished. He would always tinker with it, change it and keep it relevant. It's the current conglomerate that resembles only his name but not his philosophy that keeps a huge museum running on the broken nostalgia record of their advertising spindoctors.

August 20, 2015 at 1:54 PM · I love how there are so many Disney purists out there who despise the very idea of having rides based on Pixar and LucasArts films because they are not "traditional Disney" and yet Tom Sawyer, a non-Disney IP, has been a Disney staple for almost as long as Disneyland has been around (grant it, none of those people are on this site, but they're out there!)

On a somewhat related note, we all love the new attractions attractions that Universal has put out lately (shocking, I know.) I mean, even being the biased Disney fan that I am, I have to admit that Universal is catching up. But apparently there are some who prefer Universal Studios as...well...a studio! A few weeks ago, I read an article written by someone who claimed that UOR's theme park rides are trying to be more like movies and how movies are trying to be more like theme park rides. I don't remember the specific details of the article, but he was basically one of those people who constantly complains of how cgi is killing cinema. For his theme park example, he used a Universal attraction that has long been closed called Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theater, which apparently pulled back the curtain to show how the show was made. But now that space is occupied by Transformers, which, rather than taking you behind the scenes, actually tries to make you feel like you're in a movie and is nothing but action and explosions. For his movie example he used Paciffic Rim, a movie that has an overly-cliched plot and seems to focus more on giant cgi robots fighting giant cgi monsters. This was a bit of a culture shock to me as I spend so much time on this website whose users constantly praise everything Universal does. What's my take on this? Well, I've always seen Transformers as an overrated Spider-Man clone, but I still enjoy the ride and find it to be one of the better offerings of the park. And I love going to theme parks because they help me forget about the troubles of everyday life, so why not make me feel like I'm in a movie? And I agree that a lot of films nowadays do seem to focus a lot on big action sequences. A lot of the action flicks that I've seen this year, such as Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and even the critically-acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road, seem to practically be begging on their knees to be turned into theme park rides. (And one of them technically already is!) But those are still really good, amazing films that I could watch again and again. And, quite frankly, not all modern-day action movies are like that! The first film I saw this year, American Sniper, is a war drama filled with lots of depth and emotion. It was pretty successful (especially for an R-rated film!) and, if I'm correct, even won an oscar. So what do you guys think?

August 20, 2015 at 2:00 PM · I don't think Star Wars Land is intended solely as a Potter Swatter. Disney would have taken full advantage of that IP, no matter what Universal did. I do think the quality and immersiveness of Wizarding World will force Disney to aim high with this upcoming land. Certainly the concept art looks extremely promising!

If they do a good job, DHS might surpass MK in popularity, at least for the first couple of years. That would be quite a feat!

August 20, 2015 at 2:09 PM · Well, if Disney would have agreed to JK demands, I can guarantee you Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley would be just as well built and painstakingly themed to the same standards as Universal.

The real winner in that whole debacle is Disney fans. Yes, Universal has raked in untold sums of cash since the new lands opened, and yes, the Disney expansion moves are a direct result of that success and attention.

The difference is, Universal has had 5 years of record attendance and profits whereas Disney is probably 2-3 years out on Avatar and a couple years longer on the others.

Disney does not skimp on theming or details, they are just cheap when it comes to construction costs and timelines. I hope they step it up to a fever pace on these new additions.

Theme park fans win, period. Maybe TH and I will meet up for a drink at the Mos Eisley Cantina. I'm buying the whatever the signature drink is.

I doubted the ability to bring Star Wars to life, but the solution they came up with is brilliant.

August 20, 2015 at 2:35 PM · Disney does not do single IP lands even if they do it. See what I did there. Toontown was based on Roger Rabbit, but not exclusively Roger Rabbit. Mickey and Minnie Mouse have places there too. Tom Sawyer Island was part of Frontierland. Indiana Jones Ride and Jungle Cruise are both part of Adventureland.

Star Wars Land, while by name is single IP, isn't based on the original six movies, but a new creation that includes Star Wars characters and vehicles. The land doesn't look like anything from the movie. It gets it's own backstory and look and rides. It is quite unique that it will get a cantina, but not from Tatoonie. It will get a Millennium Falcon, but not have a space port at any place it actually landed in in the movie. The extent of immersion depends on whether it matters to you if it isn't based on the two movie trilogies. Therefore, you have to say Disney succeeded again in giving us a general topic Star Wars and not different in approach than general topic Toontown or Adventureland, whereas the Wizardling World of Harry Potter is a definite place with Hogswarts Castle, Hogsmead, and Diagon Alley.

Maybe Disney succeeded in kicking the can only so far. In the past, I thought Star Wars could have been built in DCA with a desert landscape like Tatooine and built beyond Cars Land. They will do a Star Wars style "Hogwarts Express" by having a train that travels from Disneyland (near Star Tours) to DCA. Not having a specific place from Star Wars featured in Star Wars Land is its biggest weakness and risk.

August 20, 2015 at 4:47 PM · Given Toontown was also in Bonkers, calling it a single IP land is very much a stretch...

I also wouldn't consider a "Jules verne land" to be a single IP.... his works are all their own IP. By that standard, isn't Disneyland a single IP park on the basis that everything in there is Disney?

Everything else seems spot on though.

August 20, 2015 at 4:54 PM · "Not having a specific place from Star Wars featured in Star Wars Land is its biggest weakness and risk."


Anon, In theory, from a creative standpoint, it would be more impressive to have a specific location, but realistically, the "Star Wars universe" doesn't take place in a singular location. That franchise is way too large (How many locations does the revamped Star Tours showcase?)

Yes, a single location could have been chosen, but even then, everyone wouldn't be pleased. (Tatoonie, hoth, death star, cloud city. etc.)

By creating a hub "at the end of space", even if it is general, you'll be able to incorporate any & all characters. The land will most likely have folks from the prequels to the upcoming films.

If an entire Star Wars theme park were being constructed, individual lands / locations would be expected, but for a single land within an existing park, this seems like the most logical choice.

August 20, 2015 at 5:35 PM · Considering that Tatooine is featured in the first episode of each trilogy and likely the next trilogy from the previews that everyone has seen, no one will complain if you start with Tatooine first. Then tack on the impressive Coruscan in phase 2. But they went with something entirely different and unknown unless they are hiding plot points from the next trilogy.

It seems most characters make a trip to Tatooine. It is more correct to say everyone comes to Tatooine to do their business plus R2D2 and C3PO.

August 20, 2015 at 5:38 PM · It's funny to read about how Universal's Harry Potter lands were the first to develop not only first class rides, but immersive lands. It's like not one Disney park or ride ever existed before HP.

While Potter enthusiasts were wrong, they also raised a valid point. Massive lands like Disney creates didn't need to be built to accommodate the masses. They could be smaller in scale thus creating a much better immersive feel.

It will be interesting to see how many acres Disney's STAR WARS land dedicates to explore/experience vs retail, bathrooms, back of house, rides. Disney will need to balance guest immersive satisfaction vs ride pass through vs possible lost sales from people leaving an over crowded land.

It will also be interesting to see if STAR TOURS in Anaheim is moved? If moved, will it be repurposed as one of the two eTickets or will moving it offer a third eTicket?

If it's not moved, will that immediately destroy the immersive experience because you may have walked by STAR TOURS to get to STAR WARS land? Or while you're enjoying the immersive STAR WARS land, will it not be a complete immersive experience because you'll know to ride STAR TOURS you have to leave STAR WARS land?

It's important to remember STAR WARS land is not a reaction to Comcast's quarterly earnings PR machine. During the period of Comcast's ride/attraction update/replacement build Disney's Park earnings were also exceeding expectations. Every theme park enthusiast always knew more STAR WARS and Indiana Jones were coming, from the minute they read/heard about the Lucasfilm acquisition.

Due to limited land and aging rides/attractions Universal will continue to update/replace. Disney will continue to address their half day parks and step-up their classic rides enhancement program. Each offering a better experience to their guests.

August 20, 2015 at 6:05 PM · That true on Tatooine, but there has to be a reason why this particular version was chosen. I'm sure in the preliminary stages, the setting was discussed.

I'm certain that plot points from the new trilogy are being hidden (Everything from the casting to character names has been slowly revealed, so I'm not surprised about anything being concealed from the public)

Plus, by the time this land opens the second (or third) movie will have already been released, so I'd also expect to see some sort of "reference", or even a scene or 2, based in this new land.

August 20, 2015 at 6:26 PM · Tattooine sucks that why everyone is always trying to get off it. So building a hangout place there isn't wise... It's not Hogwarts or Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley.
Harry Potter love isn't going to die off any time soon. Books are more personal than movies and kids will continue to grow up on HP. Plus new Fabtastic Beasts films
I do think Star Wars Land is a response to Wizarding World by virtue of the fact it's an attempt at a completely immersive single IP land when they could have used that money and made multiple new rides of varying IPs throughout the park.
August 20, 2015 at 9:53 PM · image
This would have been nice!
August 21, 2015 at 7:14 AM · Great article, Robert! One thing that I'm noticing with all this is that, although Universal has been influential as a competitor, its really J.K. Rowling that has pushed the speed of theme park evolution over the last five years. It is her insistence on creating as many details that don't break show as possible that has allowed for, for instance, the absence of Coca-Cola or Pepsi products within the Wizarding World. To me, that is the revolutionary change. It is truly magic to get to a land that is supposed to exist in a magical version of the U.K. and not see an American soda fountain machine. The funny thing is that while Disney and Universal both do cobranding on soda, Starbucks, and many other products, Disney has generally been the more careful with making sure that the co-branding still fits the Disney "feel." But they can and will learn from the success of H.P. and Simpsons that even more than their favorite brand of soda, sometimes what guests want is a total break from their regular realities.
August 21, 2015 at 8:26 AM · I just want to add to the voices that can not understand why people think Harry Potter is a flash in the pan.
I was in my late 30s when I read the first book, and I bought all the following books the day they were released. The day after I saw the last film, I began rereading the books for a second time just to remember all the details in them that the movies were not able to include. I have friends who have kids and the Harry Potter books are now being read to them. These are fantastic stories that will be just as beloved and shared as any of the classic stories Disney has told. The Star Wars universe is just as powerful. Frankly, I can't explain Avatar in the same way, but Disney must know something because I find it hard to believe the mouse would invest so much money in a single (although very profitable) movie. Only time will tell, but not about Potter. That will go on.
August 21, 2015 at 10:10 AM · As mentioned before the books have almost no equal in literature for sales. I think the lowest one was in between 60 and 70 million copies range. What's really surprising is the Top 3 Books of all time are Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I always thought a great 'Main Street' Entrance Land to a theme park would be Dickens' London but alas maybe its perfect home would have been IOA with its Literary Aspect but Port of Entry is great also.
August 21, 2015 at 10:10 AM · As mentioned before the books have almost no equal in literature for sales. I think the lowest one was in between 60 and 70 million copies range. What's really surprising is the Top 3 Books of all time are Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I always thought a great 'Main Street' Entrance Land to a theme park would be Dickens' London but alas maybe its perfect home would have been IOA with its Literary Aspect but Port of Entry is great also.
August 21, 2015 at 4:23 PM · I think Disney is making a mistake. The broader themes of the older more realistic Tomorrowland and Adventureland were much better then the lands with cartoon IP.

Plus how will Frontierland and Fantasyland transition to Star Wars? I think that space would have been better to expand Fantasyland with an Aladdin or Lion King ride. Star Wars would have been better used to fix Tomorrowland. Speedway could be Pod racing, people mover could have been land cruisers and astro orbiter could be x- wings and tie fighters. Now the weakest Land at Disney is going to go at least another decade before an update.

August 23, 2015 at 7:08 AM · The big thing your missing is that what Universal did is not just about an IP based land - it's the immersive part. Today when you go to any of the Disney lands you mention, you see and can purchase any number of things from the real world. And the cast members, while wearing a uniform themed to the land, are clearly still real-world theme park employees. Today at the Tatooine-based StarTours gift shop - you can buy Disney characters like Minne dressed as Princess Leia, and T-Shirts and toys based upon Darth Vader, et cetera. Disney's Star Wars Land is a direct response to Universal because it is the first time they are doinga truly immersive land. Presumably you won't be able to buy any of those things there, and cast members will be in full costume. Like Diagon Alley - I'm sure the idea will be that there are no glimpses of the real world once you're in the land. So let's give credit where credit is do. Disney recjected this kind of immersive approach when they rejected JK Rowing's demands about the immerison level. Now they have seen the light.
August 26, 2015 at 10:24 AM · I do hope DLR moves Star Tours from Tomorrowland to Star Wars land! As a fan, it would throw the experience off. Having Star Wars attractions in 2 different areas is just not right. Star Tours would fit in perfect in the new Star Wars land :) Speaking of Tomorrowland, it has had a odd feel to it for a while now. Starting with the entrance's weak! Autopia needs to be electric, people are inhaling gas fumes for crying out load..smh! Or use that space for a E ticket ride. If there are any DIsney officials reading this "revamp the People Mover!" For the very least it would fill a big void in the current depressing section of the park. Everything is so out dated in Tomorrowland! A futuristic make over for the entire section is much needed!

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive