How big will the crowds be — and how long will people have to wait — when the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land opens at Disneyland next summer?
Lots of theme park fans and analysts are guessing what kind of effect Disney's new Star Wars lands will have next year on crowd levels at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, where Galaxy's Edge opens in fall. But as Disney Legend and IAAPA Hall of Famer Buzz Price once said, "guessing is dysfunctional; ignoring prior experience is denial."
So let us refer to prior experience to guide us as we attempt to forecast the attendance and operational effects of Galaxy's Edge. Fortunately, the theme park industry provides us many examples of major attraction openings, but the most instructive likely will be the most transformative attraction opening in recent industry history — the 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
Potter is why we are getting a new Star Wars land at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It is why we got Cars Land at Disney California Adventure and Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's why Walt Disney World expanded its "New Fantasyland" at the Magic Kingdom. Potter — in both the original Hogsmeade land at Islands of Adventure and the accompanying Diagon Alley land at Universal Studios Florida — helped drive a 71% increase in attendance at Universal Orlando's theme parks over the past decade (from 2008 to 2017), compared to an 18% increase among the rest of the Top 20 theme parks in North American between those two years, according to the TEA/AECOM Theme Index attendance reports.
But it was the "day one" crowd at the 2010 opening of the first Wizarding World that helped define the project's success to the general public. Fans began lining up on Universal Boulevard the night before the official opening. By the time that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and other stars of the Harry Potter movie declared the land open on the morning of June 18, 2010, a queue of tens of thousands of fans extended through Islands of Adventure, out the front gate, all the way to Universal Studios Florida's entrance, and then snaked through CityWalk. Fans reported waits up to eight hours just to get into the land.
How will Disney's Star Wars land compare to that? To answer that question we need to compare the relative popularity of the two franchises and the differences between the Disneyland and Universal Orlando Resorts, including the locations, facilities, and existing annual passholder bases. Then, we need to take what we know about Disney's operational practices to make some predictions about how Disney might adapt those operations to accommodate the expected crowds for the new land.
Let's start with what I am guessing might be my most controversial suggestion...
Harry Potter was a more popular franchise in 2010 than Star Wars is now.
The sixth Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had dominated the box office the summer before The Wizarding World opened, continuing a nearly decade-long string of box office success for the franchise, which built upon the phenomenal success of the Potter book series, which had sold hundreds of millions of volumes over the prior 13 years, already placing several of the titles among the best selling books of all time.
Unusual for a major entertainment franchise, Potter appealed equally across gender, and although the books were targeted at elementary and young adult readers, they developed a loyal following among the parents who read the books to or with their children, as well. This was no "Captain Underpants." In 2010, the final two Potter movies were still to come, and interest in the series, which had published its final book just three years before, might have been at an all-time high.
Let's compare that to Star Wars.
The 11 Star Wars films have grossed more than the 10 Potter films — $4.56 billion to $2.77 billion, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, but both franchises' most recent films have underwhelmed at the box office, with Solo: A Star Wars story beating only the animated Clone Wars movie in adjusted receipts, while Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald ranks last among the Wizarding World films, though it does remain in its theatrical run.
But we're not comparing Star Wars and Potter today. We are comparing Star Wars now with Potter in 2010. And by that standard, Star Wars is a franchise that has past its peak while Potter then was a franchise summiting toward it.
In addition, Universal's Wizarding World was the world's first significant Harry Potter-themed attraction. Legoland California and Warner Bros. Movie World in Australia had offered Harry Potter themes in playground and walk-through attractions, but no one had seen a legitimate Potter land or ride before. Star Wars, on the other hand, has had a substantial presence in Disney's theme parks since Star Tours opened at Disneyland on January 9, 1987. Disney also has offered Star Wars-themed Hyperspace Mountain overlays of its Space Mountain roller coasters and put on several Star Wars-themed events and shows at its parks over the years. Galaxy's Edge will not be the all-time debut of Star Wars in the parks that Universal's Wizarding World was for Harry Potter.
I am trying to track numbers to support this, but conversations with fans and people in the industry suggests to me that Star Wars' fan base skews significantly older than Potter's, too. Star Wars is a GenX franchise. Younger fans do not feel the same sense of ownership of the franchise that they do for Potter. That said, GenX is fiercely loyal to Star Wars and they have the money to take vacations to express that loyalty. But the hearts of the younger generation that drives this business lie with Potter. Star Wars also suffers from a gender gap to Potter, and older Star Wars fans' misogynistic temper tantrum over The Last Jedi isn't helping to close that.
Looking at retail sales data, I believe that Star Wars and Potter stand among the top five enduring entertainment franchises in the world, along with Marvel, Nintendo, and Lord of the Rings. Star Wars has more than enough fans to fill Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios to capacity for weeks following the opening of Galaxy's Edge at each park. But I would not infer that the crowd that comes to Disneyland on Galaxy's Edge's opening day will be larger than that which came to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in June 2010. Based on the relative popularity of the franchises alone, I actually would predict that the crowd for Galaxy's Edge might be smaller. (Hold your fire! Here comes the disclaimer...)
But relative franchise popularity is hardly the only factor in play here.
Disneyland vs. Universal Orlando
Disneyland attracts far more visitors than Universal Orlando, and the gap between Disneyland today and Universal before Potter opened in 2010 is even more pronounced, with 27.9 million visitors to Disneyland's two parks last year, compared with 10.1 million to Universal Orlando's two parks in 2009. By all reports, Disneyland's annual pass base dwarfs all other theme parks' in North America, including Universal Orlando's. But Disneyland almost certainly will open Galaxy's Edge on a date when all but its most expensive Signature, Signature Plus, and Premier annual passes are blocked out. Still, that likely leaves Disneyland with more annual passholders eligible to visit on Galaxy's Edge's opening day than Universal had when the first Potter land opened.
So even before Disneyland sells a single ticket to the land's opening day, it is starting with a higher attendance base than Universal did with Potter.
Disneyland also lies in the second-biggest metro area in the country. More than 13 million people live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, compared with just 2.4 million in Orlando's. That's a huge market to pull from for an opening day event.
But even though Disneyland is more popular and draws from a much larger home market than Universal Orlando, it's a smaller facility. The pinch point that will limit attendance at Galaxy's Edge will not be the land's entrance. It'll be access to Disneyland's parking facilities.
Since Disneyland's new parking structure should be (okay, better be) open by the debut of Galaxy's Edge, the addition of those 6,000+ spaces to the 10,000+ at Mickey and Friends and 5,000+ at Toy Story, plus a 1,000+ in Pumbaa, will give Disneyland more public parking spaces than Universal Orlando has in its 19,000-space parking garages. If Disneyland tries to open Galaxy's Edge on a Friday, like Universal Orlando did with Potter, weekday rush hour traffic on Interstate 5 will put the area around Disneyland into gridlock. The area already gets pretty bad on regular Friday afternoons when annual passholders flock to the park during evening rush hour.
Which brings us to...
Disneyland won't handle Star Wars like Universal handled Potter.
That's because Disney has the experience of the Potter openings, plus its own openings of Cars Land and Pandora, to guide its operational strategy. It doesn't want any part of a crowd so big that it elicits a public backlash due to traffic gridlock. Disney will do everything it can to manage its Galaxy's Edge crowd to prevent any potential bad publicity.
Disney already has instituted park-specific AP blockout calendars to keep crowds away from Galaxy's Edge for the first few weeks of its operation. I suspect, given the reasons stated above, that Disneyland will put the official public opening date for Galaxy's Edge (if there is one — stay with me here), on a Saturday or Sunday between June 22 and July 14, given its published blockout calendar.
Disneyland will not rely on a soft open period to ease crowd levels on an official opening date. That's because the original Wizarding World was soft-opened for more than two weeks to the general public and three weeks to hotel guests before its official opening. And people slammed the resort anyway. Disneyland will need a more advanced strategy to manage its crowds.
Paid preview or "first look" events almost certainly will be part of that strategy, as they were on a much more limited basis for Cars Land and Pixar Pier. Expect those to be open exclusively to D23 Gold or Disneyland Annual Pass members, at least initially, as Disney looks to "double dip" on revenue by requiring that you buy one of those to be eligible to buy a first-look ticket to Galaxy's Edge.
I also would not be surprised to see Disneyland suspend the sale of regular tickets to Disneyland park on the first view days of Galaxy Edge's operation, leaving the land open only to on-site hotel guests, high-level annual passholders, and others who buy designated tickets.
Or Disneyland could require a Maxpass purchase in order to make a reservation to enter the land. And then Disneyland could limit admission into the park to those with Maxpass reservations for Galaxy's Edge, effectively closing Disneyland to new entrants for the rest of the day once those Maxpass reservations are gone.
Disneyland could open advance Maxpass reservations (for the first time) to hotel guests and high-level annual passholders, too, effectively accomplishing the same thing as limiting the sale of regular tickets, as one presume the APs and hotel guests would snatch up almost all, if not all, of the Galaxy's Edge reservations for the land's first days of operation. This strategy also might help keep people from coming to the park with the hope of getting in, limiting the PR risk of clogged freeways.
But the best way to avoid a crushing opening-day crowd is simple — just don't announce an opening day. With no opening date to target, people will not book trips specifically for that date. It'll be like a perpetual soft open. Out-of-town visitors will distribute their trips more naturally throughout the summer. Locals might rush to the park when they hear it is open, but those who miss that initial surge might just choose to wait until the crowds die down a bit before trying to go.
I can't imagine Disney opting for that, though. Disney wants the publicity of a big, splashy opening event. I can't imagine Disney not scheduling a primetime ABC TV special promoting the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Disney will want every media outlet in the world talking about Disney hopes they will proclaim the greatest theme park attraction ever built. Disney is not going to just try to slide Galaxy's Edge past the public with the hope that the crowd levels won't be too bad. I suspect that some people within The Walt Disney Company might actually be disappointed if Galaxy's Edge does not elicit a longer line than Potter... or the opening of Star Tours back in 1987.
But Disney has a narrow target to hit to do that. It wants the buzz of a wildly popular opening, without it being so big that the crowd size clogs local freeways and elicits a backlash from the public and frustrated visitors. Disney's goal will be record attendance and revenue... with no refunds or apologies necessary.
Disney will know how many people it can accommodate in Galaxy's Edge in a single day of operation. Its first challenge is to find a way to limit the number of people coming to the resort on the land's opening day to just over that number (assuming the overload will go willingly to California Adventure.) Its second challenge is to get all those people to show up first thing in the morning on that weekend opening day — to get those Potter-busting aerial crowd photos that the company craves without overloading I-5 — and then to distribute the crowd throughout the day on the following weekdays until the crowd level settles into a sustainable level.
No, Disneyland will not draw 200,000 people for Galaxy's Edge's opening day. It probably won't draw even half that. But it will draw enough people to send a line out Disneyland's front gate and then through Downtown Disney and down Harbor Boulevard. Whether that is more or fewer people than filled Universal Orlando on Potter's opening day, ultimately, is irrelevant. Disney will ensure that Galaxy's Edge is the biggest entertainment story in the world on the day that it opens.
Now, will people who get in like what they see? What will be the public reaction to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge? Those are questions for another day.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.