Turning Point: The Force Awakens at Walt Disney World's Sleepiest ParkBy David Mumpower, Tuesday, December 27, 2016 03:17
Leveling up from four Star Wars Weekends a year to a constant presence is the most important turning point in the history of Hollywood Studios.
Literally since opening day, Hollywood Studios has struggled with negative headlines and disappointed vacationers. Park planners understandably took notice of an annual event that spiked attendance and revenue. The second wonderful aspect of Star Wars Weekends was that fans happily paid theme park markup prices for exclusive Star Wars-related merchandise. They also attended expensive restaurant experiences like Jedi Mickey’s Star Wars Dine so regularly that Disney eventually added a breakfast version of the character meal. In other words, Star Wars fans didn’t just show up. They spent more money than the average Disney guest.
In 2012, a landmark event happened in the history of Lucasfilm. The Walt Disney Company purchased it for $4 billion. While Lucas himself has lamented this decision, Disney has not. The first Star Wars movie released under the Disney umbrella earned $2 billion worldwide, while merchandise for the first year of the film was expected to approach $5 billion. Disney has been cagey about the exact numbers, but the belief is that the Star Wars investment has already paid for itself.
Still, nobody is as reverent about themes and brands as Disney. They know that their parks are the best place to entice fans to spend their disposable income. An expansion of Star Wars in terms of park presence was always a slam dunk. At the 2015 D23 Expo, CEO Bob Iger confirmed one of the loudest rumors in recent park history. Disney would close some of the less desired attractions, stores, and restaurants in Hollywood Studios. In their place, Imagineers would construct Star Wars Land.
And millions of fanboys emoted simultaneously, their deepest wish suddenly on the cusp of becoming a reality.
Yes, Hollywood Studios is about to change. It will become something akin to Universal Studios Florida, a park with a long and storied history that suddenly garnered respect when it added the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Disney had the first shot at that particular intellectual property (IP), but they passed. The company has historically resisted gigantic offerings for IPs that they didn’t own.
In the case of Star Wars, they’d previously made a couple of exceptions, and it’s possible that they might have made another one if Lucas and Disney had agreed to a Star Wars themed land back in the day. Once Disney became the sole owner of the product, however, the addition was a foregone conclusion. Best of all, nobody does theming like Disney, and that means that no matter how impressive the Harry Potter expansions are at Universal Studios, Star Wars will blow them away.
Disney has already announced a pair of attractions for the expansion. The first one will place the rider in the middle of a conflict between the First Order, the new bad guys from The Force Awakens, and the Resistance, the heroes who recently added an impressive recruit named Rey. It’ll provide much of the whizzbang action shown in Star Tours, only on what rumor-mongers suggest is a trackless dark ride. It’ll instantly become the first trackless Disney ride in North America on arrival.
Of course, the bigger deal to Star Wars fanatics is that they can finally get behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Disney promises it’ll deliver on the dreams these fans have had since the movie’s release in 1977. Along those lines, one of the restaurants will mimic the unforgettable cantina scene that defined 20th century cinematic science fiction. And park planners are so confident in these three features and others yet to be revealed that they’re expanding the parking lot of Hollywood Studios at the same time that they build the rides.
For the longest time, Hollywood Studios has fought to avoid last place among the four gates at Walt Disney World. And it’s lost that battle in recent years. When Star Wars Land rolls around in 2018, it has a chance to move all the way up to second place. Even though it’s a million people per year behind Epcot, it would need a smaller increase than Universal received with its first Harry Potter expansion. That park has gained roughly four million annual visits since they introduced magic. Imagine what light sabers and the Millennium Falcon can do for Hollywood Studios! The least of the Disney gates right now will become the most ascendant next year.