The opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Walt Disney World caught us off-guard in more ways than one…
Disney’s most ambitious land to date came with unprecedented anticipation and expected criticism. In the year leading up to opening day at Disneyland on May 31st, 2019, no one knew fully what to expect. Would Disney attendance skyrocket, interrupting long-held crowd patterns throughout their parks? Would Imagineers lofty concepts for the land pan out or fall flat? Could they woo an increasingly volatile Star Wars fan base, split between strict loyalists to the classic trilogy, younger guests raised on the prequels, and longtime Star Wars fans eager to see a broader take on that galaxy far, far away?
Polarizing reactions were to be expected, but the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge proved uniquely so—to the point guests still can’t fully predict if the land is a win or a flop yet. A few predictions that panned out included Disney’s implementation of virtual queues, boosts to attendance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and even the theory that concepts for the land follow a format similar to a live action MMORPG.
However, there are a few areas surrounding Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge that completely took us by surprise…
1. Surprisingly good crowd control
One of the biggest fears surrounding Galaxy’s Edge was that the land would turn into an absolute madhouse for crowds—after all, Star Wars is one of the most beloved intellectual properties of our day. If fans turned out for the opening of The World of Pandora, a land based on a film that never gained a strong fanbase after an initial booming release, surely Galaxy’s Edge would prove one of the biggest draws in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Memes even circulated that the majority of the land would simply act as a queue area for Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run.
To mitigate this issue, Disney put a number of crowd control policies in place for the initial opening at Disneyland, including a reservation system and a strict virtual queue. Guests were warned that a Disneyland admission would not guarantee them access to the land, and each guest was even given a time limit for their visit. Reservations disappeared quickly, and as expected, fans arrived on opening day en masse.
However, it turned out Disneyland did a little too good of a job at their crowd control.
Guests reported that Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland felt weirdly empty, especially once opening week passed. Disney eventually did away with the reservation system, but the land stayed fairly quiet throughout the summer. Rumors circulated that Galaxy’s Edge was a bust, and fans sat on edge wondering how things would go for the opening of the second land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Disney changed their tactics for the Disney’s Hollywood Studios opening, doing away with the reservation system and opting for a higher guest cap paired with a more generous virtual queue. Despite negative press, fans showed up in huge numbers, to the point that Disney opted to open the park an hour early just to accommodate the eager crowd. We wrote about our own experience at the Galaxy’s Edge opening in detail, but one thing caught our attention immediately, and it may just explain what went askew with the Disneyland opening.
Galaxy’s Edge is a brilliant network of crowd sponges.
We tend to unconsciously associate long lines with success at a theme park. When Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, guests (including our own editor) waited over twelve hours just to ride the ride, a scenario that screamed triumph for Universal. However, when asked about why Galaxy’s Edge hadn’t drawn a similar scene, Bob Chapek shot back with a profound point that ten hour lines aren’t indicative of success, at least not in Disney’s eyes. Indeed, it was the very scenario they wanted to avoid.
The truth is, long lines are the worst part of any day at a theme park, no matter how good the ride at the end might be. The best way to mitigate long lines is to give guests reasons to spread out—crowd sponges like shops, dining, character encounters, interactive games, Photopass opportunities… anything to keep guests from pooling into the same queue at the same time. Disney absolutely pulled this off with Galaxy’s Edge by giving guests tons of things to explore across a large area, to the point that the land can be quite busy and not feel “crowded” like we would normally expect (unless you step into the Droid Depot—that place is always busy). The virtual queue prevented too many guests from filling the park at once and provided a much more pleasant waiting experience than camping out under the bright Florida sun. To improve matters further, the queue for Smuggler’s Run moves at veritable light speed compared to other attractions like Avatar: Flight of Passage.
In short, Galaxy’s Edge was brilliantly designed in the area of crowd management, making for a much smoother guest experience with far less waiting than anyone expected. Unfortunately, this boon may have had a downside…
2. The attendance issues
This is the one major negative that has hung over the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The truth is attendance for this first year at Galaxy’s Edge honestly did fall short of everyone’s expectations, even if Disney and many Star Wars fans still count the land as an overall success.
Most everyone expected staggering crowds similar to what we saw in the World of Pandora for the opening of Galaxy’s Edge. The idea of insane crowds may have made some guests gun-shy about committing to a vacation for the land’s first year, and bad press following the Disneyland opening may have driven them to delay even further. Ironically, when the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, the same thing happened—the press called Disney’s Florida project a failure due to the low attendance, but it turned out, many people who were interested in the park had hung back for fear of staggering crowds.
A number of factors may have contributed to the lower attendance numbers. For one thing, there is a genuine sense of fan frustration over elements of Disney’s handling of Star Wars as a property. It’s become a very polarizing subject, with fans starkly divided into camps who enjoy all of the new material, those who appreciate portions of it (e.g. some fans hated The Last Jedi, others loved it—same thing with Solo: A Star Wars Story), and those who wouldn’t have been happy with anything short of a land based on the original films. Frankly, it can be argued that Disney made the right call setting their land in a world where original stories can be told-- a place where Disney could pay tribute to every corner of the saga easily, no matter how it may expand in the future. Still, this has proven a point of contention that may have kept some fans away.
The other issue that likely affected attendance was Disney’s choice to stagger the opening of the land’s two main attractions. Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run opened with the land in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, but Disney chose to delay the opening of the Galaxy’s Edge’s most anticipated attraction, Rise of the Resistance. Staggering the attraction openings may have seemed smart from a logistics point of view, but it seems likely that this strategy backfired on Disney, causing guests to delay their vacations until the new ride opens.
Only time will tell if attendance improves, but things are looking up overall for Disney. If nothing else, Rise of the Resistance looks like it could prove to be their best attraction to date, something finally up to par with Universal’s ever-increasing line of technological marvels.