Disney's Star Wars land and the future of theme park lines

June 1, 2019, 8:02 PM · Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opened to the public yesterday, giving Disneyland its largest and most expensive land ever, its first public bar, and the world's first themed land devoted exclusively to Star Wars.

But Disney's new Star Wars land might be even more significant for what it did not deliver — long lines to get in.

"Project Stardust" worked. Disney's plan to manage crowds in the park through physical and program changes helped prevent the hours-long queues that had become a tradition with major attraction debuts. With advance reservations required to visit the land between now and June 23 (and no standby queue), people who did not have a reservation to visit Galaxy's Edge on its opening day pretty much did not bother to show up at Disneyland yesterday. The result was smooth entry into the land for those with reservations... and a rare sunny day of low crowds throughout the rest of the park.

Yes, getting into Oga's Cantina or Savi's lightsaber workshop required patience, as long queues developed for those two low-capacity locations within the land. But with no Fastpass at Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, average wait times for the land's new ride stayed under an hour for most of the day.

It's not that people did not want to see Galaxy's Edge. All those advance reservations for four-hour slots between May 31 and June 23 got claimed within an hour and 45 minutes after Disney made them available on May 2. But strict ID requirements killed any aftermarket for the reservations and Disney's PR blitz helped ensure that few — if any — people showed up without a reservation and with the hope of getting in.

When Universal Orlando opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in June 2010, the queue of waiting fans extended for nearly a full lap around Islands of Adventure, out the front gate and through much of CityWalk. Fans reported waiting more than eight hours just to get into the land. Aerial photos of the queue went viral online and Potter's opening day became industry legend.

Potter was very much on Disney's mind as the company's leadership began planning what would become Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Executives initially wanted their Star Wars land to draw an even bigger crowd, in a longer line, to erase any thoughts that Disney was not the popular leader in the theme park industry.

But as that gut reaction needed to transform into an actual plan for the land's opening, Disneyland officials realized that what happened in Orlando could not — and must not — happen in Anaheim. There simply was not enough free space at the Disneyland Resort, nor on surrounding streets and freeways, to hold a Potter-like crowd. Whatever PR boost that Disney might claim by drawing a longer line of fans for Star Wars would be lost to the outrage from fans and the surrounding community over the gridlock that line would cause.

So Disneyland officials, smartly, chose a different path. And by doing so, they might have changed the course of theme park history.

Disneyland did three things to minimize or eliminate waits to get into Galaxy's Edge. First, it pushed back the opening of the land's largest attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which has led some fans to postpone visiting until the land is complete. That took some of the pressure off opening day. Then it implemented its reservation-only policy for the land's first three and a half weeks, the period during which fans with the resort's lowest-priced Southern California Select annual pass could visit the park before summer blockouts took effect. Fans also were limited to a four-hour visit, with Disney also retaining an option to restrict guests to one ride on the Falcon during their visit.

Finally, once the land opens to all ticket holders on June 24, Disney has developed a virtual queue to again limit the number of people physically waiting to get into the land, should it reach capacity. Throw in a series of refurbishments and walkway redesigns throughout the park, and Disneyland managed its Galaxy's Edge opening with ease. No long lines. No gridlock. And no significant number of complaints.

Make no mistake. Disney wanted to beat Universal and Potter with its Star Wars land. But instead of winning simply by attracting a longer line of fans, Disney chose instead to go for victory by playing a new type of game.

Did anyone really enjoy waiting in the hot Florida sun for eight hours to get into The Wizarding World? Or six hours to get into Disney's own Pandora - The World of Avatar, either? Puh-leeze. People might enjoy bragging about having worn that hair shirt as a sign of their devotion, but no one enjoys the actual time in those mega-queues.

After Galaxy's Edge, perhaps the standard for a successful theme park attraction opening will change. No longer might we have this industry-wide belt-measuring contest to see who attracted the longest wait time. (Which, frankly, creates an incentive to run a new ride at less than top capacity.) Disney has shown that you can open a world-class, highly-anticipated new land with no big queues at all. Disney has shown that theme park fans will accept new attractions on a reservation-only basis. And that opening new attractions that way can reduce and even eliminate adverse effects on other park operations as well as community relations.

Is this the new model for highly anticipated theme park openings? Maybe. We will see if anyone follows Disney's lead. (Including Disney, as it has a new Marvel-themed land opening at Disney California Adventure next year.)

But for now, Disney has made its claim that eight-hour queues are not the sign of a theme park's success. If anything, after Galaxy's Edge, those huge queues look more like a sign of an operational failure.

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Replies (23)

June 1, 2019 at 8:37 PM

Good article and clear how Disney learned from the past (both their own parks and Universal) on how to handle the massive crowds. I was concerned we'd hear of huge gluts and crammed pathways but so far, it sounds like things are going pretty well which does show you don't need park-long lines to prov an attraction is a hit.

It also helps with customer satisfaction as few things turn folks off than a two hour wait for a three minute ride but this promises to push things up and could be a great method to copy for other parks.

June 1, 2019 at 8:51 PM

No reservations when Orlando opens might be a different story. But I'm sure even a virtual queue could help.

June 1, 2019 at 9:31 PM

Seriously, does it really matter about opening week? This is only delaying the super long waits and overcrowding that will definitely come! Unless ROTR is other worldly they did not beat Potter. Nobody throws out their butterbeer, blue green milk is a joke! I absolutely LOVE the original Star Wars trilogy but have zero interest in GE

June 2, 2019 at 5:07 AM

Just because some people don’t like the milk or it doesn’t beat the one great thing about Universal doesn’t mean its a failure, as MrTorrance implies. If 80% of fans say they enjoyed it, that’s not everyone, but most people. Its not about being the very best, or if everyone loves it. Its about doing things with enough creativity and attention to detail that most people will enjoy it. Galaxy’s Edge has done that.

June 2, 2019 at 12:01 AM

To be fair here - on the subject of queuing - since the opening of The Wizarding World, Universal actually has been more aggressive than Disney in opening attractions with virtual queue and no standby. Heck, that's pretty much the entirety of Volcano Bay.

But Disney doing it... and doing it with an IP as big as Star Wars, sends a huge message to the rest of the industry (and frankly, to us as customers) that "this is the way it's gonna be." Now we will wait to see who hears that message and starts making operational changes as a result.

I am keeping my eye on Universal Orlando's new park for this. Between what Universal learned from Volcano Bay and what they are seeing with Galaxy's Edge, I would be shocked if Universal opened that park with a bunch of traditional standby queues. This industry is moving (at least at the high end, where Disney and Universal live) toward more advance planning and away from just-show-up-and-wait.

June 2, 2019 at 2:08 AM

Hmm I’ve got to disagree with Robert. I think Disneyland did a great job with the opening of Galaxy’s Edge, making sure guests with reservations were able to get into the park. But the Disneyland Resort looks very empty for once and it’s not sustainable to keep parks not full of guests eating, drinking, purchasing, etc.
They still have a lot of challenges ahead including if they can open the new parking structure before June 24th.

I think Disneyland ‘s Galaxy’s Edge is an anomaly but the next big land that should copy their example is Super Nintendo Land in Osaka, considering it might be a huge IP in a small park/resort.

June 2, 2019 at 2:10 AM

Mr Torrance, Butterbeer is an abomination - one of the most disgustingly sweet, cloying and horrible things I have ever tried to drink. I threw most of mine away....

June 2, 2019 at 2:12 AM

Most of us feel free to enjoy theme parks and attractions regardless of which company operates them. It's not like you'll get expelled from Hogwarts for also enjoying a visit to Black Spire Outpost or banished from Pandora for also enjoying Hagrid's Magical Creatures. It is wonderful to have many quality theme park experiences to enjoy so enjoy as many as you can :)

June 2, 2019 at 6:03 AM

The top floor of the queue was never unglassed...

June 2, 2019 at 8:54 AM

Robert, I actually hate virtual queues. If I go to Volcano Bay I do early admission while the virtual queue is shut off and then leave when they are activated. It might somewhat work at VB, but that's because you have the wave pool and lazy rivers. If the entire regular park was virtual I probably would stop going or definitely not get an AP for sure. Fallon is an OK ride, but I never do it because of the VQ being so annoying, and I know many people who think that.
I went to Disney every year until I experienced 2 with FP+, now I only do Universal and it is mostly due to Express Pass vs. FP+ (It all has to do with not having to plan anything, just enjoy the day).
Virtual queues in the entire park will have me do non theme park vacations every year.

June 2, 2019 at 11:09 AM

Let's see what the summer brings. I am certainly with you Mr. Torrence. FP+ has ruined WDW for my family, and my hope is that Disney figures out that there is a better way. I do not think the WDW system would work with GE, and they know it. I have been glad that they have been open to other options, and it appears to be working. On the more rabid sites, the people are flipping their lids on what to do when GE opens in Orlando. It is almost comical. You can see a post where people explain that there will not be a fast pass for GE then the very next several posts ask what tiers they will be on. While UO's system is pay-to-win, at least their hotels are priced lower than Disney's moderate hotels. I almost wonder what Disney's wait times would be if they just eliminated all forms of ride reservation entirely. I bet it would be an improvement.

June 2, 2019 at 11:52 AM

I think trying to be divided between “Disney fans” and “universal famns” is silly. They both need each other. Universal would just have a “worthy” single studio tour without Disney to take inspiration from, and Disney would have continued to rest on their post-Epcot success without Universal to challenge them. The success of each brand pushes the other.

June 2, 2019 at 12:02 PM

While I don’t like how reliant using FastPass+ is on advanced planning, I do like the virtual queues and Universal’s Express passes. Fallon’s virtual queue lobby/game/waiting room space is a much more relaxed way to spend one’s time than in a line, frankly. And not having to wait whatsoever (or plan ahead) with Universal Express entirely changes the theme park experience, IMHO.

I think the ‘game-changer’ moment with regards to premium theme park operations will be if they can pull off ‘Rise of the Resistance.’ For all intents and purposes, this is two or possibly three rides in one, with the queues that link the rides now ‘a part of the show.’ If Disney can manage the movements of thousands of guests per hour through these queues and rides under the ‘Rise of the Resistance’ single attraction banner, that’s a whole other level of storytelling to add to Imagineering’s toolbox.

Let’s apply ROTR’s paradigm to Ant-Man, for example:
First queue leads you to Pym Labs.
First ride is the effects-laden shrinking of you (basically a room move or switch).
Second queue is the inside of a computer.
Second ride is the Pooh vehicles traversing the computer.
Third ride is a ToT drop ‘out’ of the computer.

June 2, 2019 at 12:12 PM

To be fair to the "Universal fans," there was an extended period of time where Disney was content to rest on their laurels and take your money while Universal was knocking a lot of hits out of the park, and "Disney fans" were basically insufferable during this period.

And listen, I'm not blaming Disney here. (Disney is a business: if you're going to give them premium cash for the honor of experiencing Primeval Whirl, that's a poor choice on your part, and a smart, easy choice for Disney. One could easily make the same argument for the entirety of Paradise/Pixar Pier). We should at least be honest and critical, versus being blinded by brand and fandom.

June 2, 2019 at 12:19 PM

WDW has to introduce fast pass into SWGE sometime down the road. It's how us passholders will get to ride the 2 star attractions. As I've said many times, FP+ works perfectly for being local and a pass holder. I do feel for you guys who come here on vacation, and I fully understand your frustration with the system.

But we (passholders) need FP+ and the sooner they introduce it into GE the better. The wait time for the virtual queue will most likely be longer than the time I plan to stay at DHS ... LOL .. :)

June 2, 2019 at 3:53 PM

I’m not so sure that Disney is very happy with how the opening is going. They had a lot of extra cast members there opening day for expected large crowds. They can’t be happy with an empty park for the past 3 days. Restaurants and stores with hardly anyone there. And the many pictures online of an empty park has to be kind of embarrassing I would think. Mixed reviews of the Millennium Falcon ride and a lot of negative reviews of the food including the big signature Blue and Green Milks. So I’d love a reservation system for WDW but will be surprised if they do it after all of this. They are even closing today on a Sunday at 6pm. I don’t know what the closing time was supposed to be but every other days are expected to be midnight so guessing today was supposed to be midnight too.

June 2, 2019 at 4:49 PM

June 2 closing time wasn't changed, there's a scheduled private event for the travel and tourism convention tonight. International Pow Wow IPW in Anaheim June 1 through 5 and has their exclusive Disneyland event tonight, planned long ago.

June 2, 2019 at 4:57 PM

Ok good glad it was scheduled. Seeing the wait times at Disneyland makes me wish I was there!

June 3, 2019 at 8:13 AM

I'd rather look at this from a slightly different perspective. What's missed here is that Disney bumped the debut of Galaxy's Edge at both DL and DHS up by at least a month based on most reports. Robert had been pegging Disneyland's most anticipated addition as opening in mid-late June for well over a year before the company dropped the bombshell that it would actually open in late May. What we're actually seeing right now is a publicly accessible "soft opening" for Galaxy's Edge that would traditionally occur off and on for a few weeks before an attraction's official opening. Soft openings are essential for operators to train staff, tweak procedure/policies, and to ramp up rides and attractions under more realistic stresses before they're fully unveiled to the public. Disney usually does this by inviting random park guests onto new rides and lands shortly after the cast member preview for a few weeks after all of the ride testing and staff training were complete. They would typically only operate the attractions/lands during the soft opening period for a few hours a day, but guests would crowd the parks during these periods hoping to be selected as the lucky few from the general public to experience the new attractions before their public unveiling. However, if Disney called this period a "soft opening", it would scare a lot of guests away who would not want to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets, souvenirs, and food from a land still undergoing "testing". So Disney has change the terminology to "reservation period", and publicly announcing that the land's cornerstone attraction would not be open just yet, and they still had guests falling over themselves to get a 4-hour spot to see an incomplete Star Wars land.

With this reservation system, Disney has essentially created a more organized, regimented, and controlled version of a soft opening. The only difference here is that instead of just showing up at the park hoping to be one of the lucky few selected to go into Galaxy's Edge before the June 24th formal opening, they were able to reserve their guaranteed shot. Anyone making projections or interpreting the success/failure of Disney crowd control needs to view the current operational status from the perspective of a soft opening. The short lines and limited crowds are likely deliberate decisions by Disney to keep things under control while they train staff, work out operational kinks, and slowly ramp up ride systems to eventually handle massive crowds. This is a deliberate decision by Disney not to avoid another Harry Potter, but to allow them to control crowds and temper expectations during the land's "break in" period.

The real challenge for Disney will be when they take the governors off, and how (or if) they control crowds within Galaxy's Edge starting on June 24th. It's clear from the speed at which the reservations were snapped up (and lines/crowds within the land) that Disney is significantly limiting access, and not only is that making for a positive experience within Galaxy's Edge, but reports are that it's also limiting overall crowds within Disneyland with lines for other attractions throughout the park much shorter than usual. They've just completed the first weekend of operation, so perhaps Disney is still making assessments as to how this reservation system has met their goals/expectations, but I think within the next week Disney will need to make some decisions as to what's going to happen on June 24th. That's when this "soft opening" period ends and more normal operations begin, and when we will really find out how serious Disney is about controlling crowds.

June 3, 2019 at 9:23 AM

Couldn't agree more with this article. Every time I've had a discussion the last few years about Galaxy's Edge that 8 hour line at Universal is always brought up. What an absolute nightmare that would be stand in that line. I'm actually hoping they do something similar at WDW. The extra extra magic hours might as well not exist for me because I don't want to go at 6am.

June 3, 2019 at 1:44 PM

I really think they should implement some kind of virtual queue at DHS. EEMH favors people crazy enough to get up at 4 a.m....

June 3, 2019 at 1:58 PM

I don't know ThemeC. There have been quite a number of complaints with the way Disneyland has been managing these reservation periods. The biggest issue is that 4 hours is not always enough time to complete all of the experiences within the land even with limited crowd sizes (and RotR not even open yet). Guests have been naturally drawn to the Falcon ride, but in doing the ride first, you're essentially giving up any chance of spending time in Oga's Cantina or Savi's Workship. Those two experiences have extremely limited capacity, and if you don't get in line for those within the first 45-60 minutes of your 4-hour reservation, it's unlikely you will get into those at all (and that's even with a $200 price tag on Savi's). Also, Disney has been intermittently prohibiting guests from re-riding the Falcon. The policy seems to be inconsistently administered, but even if you want to hop back on in an attempt to experience the ride from a different seat, CMs are turning guests away during the last hour of reservation interval (when there's overlap between time slots) or if the standby line is longer than 30 minutes. If you haven't ridden yet (if you did Savi's of Oga's first), you are being allowed into the Falcon line during the last hour of your 4-hour window.

So while there are some clear advantages to this reservation period, there are some definite drawbacks. It will be very interesting to see what Disney does on June 24th, which will probably mirror what they do at DHS. Personally, I'm hoping they integrate a entry reservation system with MaxPass (untethered to the rest of the attractions at the resort - like World of Color and Fantasmic!), but allowing guests to spend as much time in the land as they'd like. However, once they leave, they cannot return unless they get another entry pass (assuming they are still available). This will give early-arriving guests the biggest advantage, but still allow for guests to enter during the afternoon and evening as early arriving guests leave. The capacity of the land will also increase significantly when RotR opens, so Disney may need to tweak things as the true headlining attraction opens later this year.

June 3, 2019 at 10:48 PM

It doesn't sound ideal but to me it would still be a million times better than waiting for hours to get into a land. I'd much rather have a time slot to get a feel for the land knowing I'd be coming back over and over eventually some time in the future.

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