Is Disney's Star Wars Galaxy's Edge a "Failure?"


It's a very odd phenomenon. Disney recently opened its most ambitious and expensive theme park expansion in a very long time at Disneyland. It's had four weeks of a reservation-only period and now several more weeks of being fully open - and the park is being described as a "ghost town." Attraction waits are incredibly low throughout the park - not just in Galaxy's Edge. People are saying that they haven't seen wait times this low in Disneyland for decades.

So does that mean that Galaxy's Edge failed?

Well, on the one hand, I suppose we have to define "failed," and also ask whether it's reasonable to even discuss this when the park land hasn't been open very long at all (and the second, arguably more impressive attraction, "Rise of the Resistance," hasn't even opened yet).

I think in one sense, it's entirely reasonable to be wondering why the land has such low attendance, even only a few weeks in. If you follow theme park news, you know that new lands frequently get swamped with crowds and stay crowded for a very long time - even new lands that aren't THAT exciting. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter had perhaps the most famous crowd levels and wait times, but there were big crowds for Pandora: World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom, and even (to a lesser extent) Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios. So what gives?

Well, it's pretty easy to make excuses for Disney at this point. Here are some possible ones:

1) Disney and the theme park media were WAY overzealous in predicting overcrowding and disastrous traffic snarls for this new land. So a lot of people decided to stay away and wait "for the crowds to die down."

2) Summer has actually become a slower time for theme parks over the years, as people have figured out that spring and fall are more pleasant seasons to visit, and at Disneyland, at least, annual passholders are blocked from coming during most summer dates.

3) The second attraction, Rise of the Resistance, hasn't opened yet, so many fans were probably putting off their one trip until both attractions were opened at the same time.

It seems to me very likely that all 3 reasons have had an impact on low attendance levels. But here's the thing that really bothers me about all this...

If Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge was as overwhelmingly popular as people thought, there should be a lot of fans who wouldn't CARE about those things. They would gladly brave the summer heat. They would gladly queue for four hours. They would eagerly plan TWO trips. Where are those people?

If you think about it, every franchise is going to have fans who fall into one of two categories: the "I'm so die-hard I will camp out overnight in front of the theater in an elaborate costume to consume more of this content!", and the "Well, I like the franchise all right, but maybe I'll wait for the crowds to die down a bit first before enjoying the content." For Star Wars Galaxy's Edge, it appears that the percentage of fans in the latter category is remarkably high - possibly almost all of them.

If that's true, that doesn't mean that Disney won't eventually make a profit or turn the park around. It just means that they overestimated the hardcore devotion of the Star Wars fanbase. Star Wars is not Harry Potter, as much as light sabers should be like wands and blue milk should be like butterbeer and Batuu should be like Diagon Alley.

When you listen to the complaints of Disney and Star Wars fans, they seem to center primarily on two things: high prices and overemphasis on the new trilogy over the original. It is true that Disney has been jacking prices up dramatically for years now, so that's almost certainly a factor.

To me, though, the real mistake Disney made was obvious from the beginning. They built a land whose primary appeal was intended to be familiarity and recognition (like virtually everything Disney does these days), but then they removed the most beloved things that people are familiar with and recognize. There's no Luke or Han or Leia or Darth Vader in Galaxy's Edge. There no Boba Fett or Yoda or Jabba the Hutt or Obi-Wan Kenobi or even, for younger folks, Qui-Gon Jinn or Darth Maul or Mace Windu. If the thinking was that Star Wars Land was a home run because it would just cream off the endless enthusiasm of an existing fan base... then why not build it to hit people over the head with Original Trilogy nostalgia? (I wouldn't care about that myself, but this land was never going to appeal to me anyway :P)

Disney made a very weird decision in (1) setting the land exclusively in the timeline of the new trilogy, and (2) trying to give the land a totally coherent story and world. The first decision was almost certainly made for "synergy" reasons - the infamous word Disney executives use to justify slapping Disney-owned franchises all over the theme parks so that all the various entertainment media boost each other's sales (in theory). Disney wanted the new land to promote their new films as much as possible - I'm sure that played a major role in justifying the expense in the first place.

The decision to make the themed land "coherent" (my favored terminology) is more interesting. There are two possible explanations for this - (1) Disney, having no creativity or understanding of the products they sell, simply decided to emulate the Harry Potter model as closely as they possibly could, and coherence came with the package. Or... (2) Imagineers negotiated for more coherence in an attempt to try to "one-up" Universal by doing something more risky and artistic - create a living, breathing world out of a theme park land that guests could participate in a more active way. Either way, it was, I think, a spectacularly terrible idea. Coherence in a theme park land is, in my opinion, virtually ALWAYS a bad idea.

If the goal of coherence is to never spoil the illusion that you've traveled to a magical other world, you've failed the moment you plop your theme park land adjacent to log flume with singing animals on it. That kind of illusion requires a portal of some kind, and even a slight amount of real-world plausibility (haunted houses can achieve this, actually). Galaxy's Edge doesn't even attempt it. Consequently, all coherence does is place severe and totally unnecessary restrictions on what you can do with the land. The real Three Broomsticks Tavern wouldn't sell Coca-Cola products. Popular original trilogy characters wouldn't show up at this point in the timeline. And so on, and so forth.

It also serves, paradoxically, to highlight any inconsistencies or illusion-breakers that remain. Those visible roller coaster tracks from Dueling Dragons were far more jarring to guests at Hogsmeade than they were to guests at the more generic and more incoherent Lost Continent that used to occupy that space. When cast members do a poor job of acting/role-playing, that feels more painful than if the land permitted them just to be regular, friendly Disneyland cast members.

So you wind up with a huge, expensive land built to take advantage of a rabid, pre-existing fanbase - but then you don't REALLY give the fanbase what they wanted. Do they hate the new land? Do they have problems with it? I doubt that very many people just full-on hate it, or even dislike it. But even if they don't, their excitement is much less likely to reach "die-hard" levels.

It's the same with the current trilogy. I have heard a number of people defend the new films from the overheated carping of the original fanbase, and I think they occasionally make good arguments, and I believe them that they genuinely enjoyed the new films. But there's a huge difference between "the new films are perfectly fine movies that don't deserve all this internet hatred" and "I love these new films so much that I'm going to buy all the novels and doodle starship schematics in my schoolbooks and obsess about this new film world for the rest of my life."

And that means there are far fewer people willing to brave potential crowds, summer heat, high ticket prices, and other obstacles to see Galaxy's Edge.

What do y'all think?