By Christopher Palmeri
Walt Disney Co. unveiled the wildly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, providing an early look May 29 at the ambitious expansion of its original Disneyland theme park in Southern California.
The 14-acre (5.7-hectare) project is the largest-ever addition to the park that founder Walt Disney first opened in Anaheim in 1955 and takes its place alongside the well-known Frontierland, Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. Galaxy’s Edge opened to the public on May 31 and will be followed in late August by a similar expansion at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida.
CEO Bob Iger laid the groundwork for the debut almost seven years ago with the $4 billion takeover of filmmaker George Lucas’s “Star Wars” empire. The blockbuster deal, one of several under the 68-year-old CEO, spawned a new generation of space-adventure movies, toys, TV shows and now billion-dollar park expansions. It’s helped cement Disney’s status as the world’s largest entertainment company.
“This is the biggest thing that’s happened at Disneyland almost since it opened,” said consultant Dave Price, whose father helped design the original park for Walt Disney. “They spent a year under demolition just to create the location for Star Wars land.”
Heavy investments typically deliver a boost to Disney’s theme parks. Attendance at nearby California Adventure rose 23 percent to 7.78 million the year an attraction based on Pixar’s Cars movies opened. The Animal Kingdom in Orlando saw a jump, to 12.5 million, after the addition of “Avatar’’ land two years ago.
The company is girding for what’s expected to be record crowds at the $1 billion Star Wars expansion, while Anaheim is doubling the number of traffic cops on hand to direct cars and pedestrians. In March, the company announced its first-ever reservation system for the park, requiring Galaxy’s Edge guests to stay at one of its three area hotels or reserve spots online. The online reservations, which extend through June 23, were gone within two hours.
Disney is allowing guests four-hour visits to Galaxy’s Edge — after which they’ll be asked to leave. Colored wristbands will identify who came when. Last week, the company was auditioning applicants to serve as costumed stormtroopers. Candidates had to be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet fall, over age 18 and have a high school diploma.
In anticipation of long waits, the company is using passes that allow those queuing up for rides to leave the line to go to the restroom. It’ll also have employees in costume entertaining fans as they explore the new area.
Disney has been having employees try out the attractions for the past two weeks. It’s also using the opening to institute some other changes in park policy: eliminating smoking areas, banning strollers over a certain size and reducing the height of curbs to allow for easier access.
The new land is Disney’s most immersive yet, even for a company known for transporting fans to fantastical worlds. The idea, according to designer Scott Trowbridge, is to allow guests to discover the planet Batuu in the Star Wars universe, specifically a trading post called the Black Spire Outpost.
Galaxy’s Edge will feature two main rides. The first, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, will be open from Day 1. It’s sort of a classic Disney attraction that allows guests to pilot a spaceship on a smuggling adventure. The second, Rise of the Resistance, will be multistage, with a ride and interactive walking parts that mimic a fight with the evil First Order from the recent film series.
Through the Disney Parks app, guests will also be able to entertain themselves and participate in contests to find hidden creatures and battle an evil force looking to take over the park. Marked spots around the park will let fans turn their phones into scanning or translation tools that eavesdrop on imaginary conversations or translate Aurebesh, the written language of Star Wars.
There will also be plenty of opportunities to shop. Galaxy’s Edge will include a store that allows guests to design their own lightsabers, similar to what fans do at the Ollivanders wand shop at Universal Studios’ Harry Potter lands. At a price of up to $200 apiece though, they will cost four times as much.
Some exclusive merchandise will be offered in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland section for those not lucky enough to have reservations for Galaxy’s Edge. Other stores around the parks and in the Downtown Disney shopping district will also be stocked. Lines outside the park were scheduled to begin forming for those shops at 2 a.m. local time Friday.
Another first for Disneyland will be alcohol — served in Galaxy’s Edge at Oga’s Cantina, which was designed to replicate the famous jazz lounge from the first “Star Wars” film in 1977. The company hired composer John Williams to create an original score for Galaxy’s Edge. New food options at Oga’s, the nearby Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo, and fast-food stops like Ronto Roasters include oats with dragon fruit, smoked Kaadu pork ribs, wraps and blue milk.
Disney took a big gamble introducing two such lands within a few months of each other, spending $3.21 billion on its domestic parks in the last fiscal year. The outlays underscore the faith the company has in Star Wars and the pressure the world’s largest theme-park operator faces from rival Universal, which set a new standard for park design and immersive environments with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida in 2010.
In recent years, the parks have become Disney’s largest business in revenue and its second-most-profitable, after the TV networks led by ESPN. A single-day admission to Disneyland ranges from $104 to $149, depending on projected demand.
The acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012 almost immediately set park designers salivating over the potential for Star Wars, and the company began teasing fans with designs soon after. Construction began in 2016. Tight quarters in Anaheim forced planners to redirect the waterway plied by Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes and the Mark Twain Riverboat, according to theme-park consultant Price.
Disney has used the Galaxy’s Edge opening to refresh other parts of the park, including repainting the roof of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle a vibrant blue that’s perfect for photographs. Rival amusement-park operators such as nearby Knott’s Berry Farm have been investing in their attractions as well. Knott’s, owned by Cedar Fair LP, remodeled its river raft ride to include a frontier story line reminiscent of popular Disney themes.
“Both Disney and Universal are continuing their arms race,” said Matt Ouimet, a former president of Disneyland who’s now chairman of Cedar Fair.
Now almost 64 years old, the original Disneyland remains the second-most popular theme park in the world, after its sister park, the Magic Kingdom, in Orlando. In 2018, Disneyland attracted 18.7 million guests.
“The consumer is the one benefiting in the end from these new rides and attractions at a budget level I wouldn’t have believed rational 10 years ago,” said Ouimet.
• Contact Christopher Palmeri at [email protected]