The opening of Disneyland’s Star Wars land seven months ago represented the park’s biggest expansion and a $1-billion investment that Walt Disney Co. executives hoped would pay off with booming attendance and a surge in the sales of space-themed food, glowing light sabers and plush Yoda dolls.
It didn’t quite work out that way. After a crush of initial enthusiasm, crowds were noticeably thin last summer.
With the public debut Friday of the final piece of the 14-acre expansion — a high-tech, immersive ride dubbed Rise of the Resistance — Disneyland can begin to gauge the success of that investment and determine if the park can handle fans expected to flock to the much-anticipated attraction. The land opened May 31 with only one ride, several retail shops and a handful of eateries.
During a media preview Thursday, Disney engineers and executives expressed confidence in the overall success of Star Wars land and in a crowd management plan called “Project Stardust,” which was launched two years earlier and included widening footpaths, removing benches and trees and banning extra-wide strollers and wagons. The effort was designed to keep foot traffic moving.
“We’ve had time to prepare and we’ve taken advantage of that time with all of our park enhancements to make our park easier to use,” Scott Trowbridge, the park’s creative executive, said in an interview.
He noted that an identical Rise of the Resistance ride opened Dec. 5 at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, giving Disney engineers time to work out any glitches before the same attraction opened in Anaheim.
But Disneyland is about 99 acres in size, less than a tenth of the size of the combined theme parks in Walt Disney World, making crowding a potentially bigger headache.
“Our operating team here is the best in the business,” Trowbridge said. “I feel like we are prepared to welcome our new resistance recruits.”
Disneyland eliminated all smoking areas in the resort to make more space for footpaths and sidewalks.
Rise of the Resistance has been billed by Walt Disney Co. representatives as the entertainment giant’s most technologically advanced attraction so far.
It relies on several pre-existing technologies, such as animatronics for some of the characters, and a drop-tower effect for a sequence when the space pods carrying the riders plunge and shift to simulate a ride in space.
The attraction combines those with more advanced technologies such as holograms of popular Star Wars film characters and vehicles that run without metal tracks. High-definition projection screens and pyrotechnics are also used to help depict battles scenes that take place in distance space or within feet of the riders.
Unlike the Disney employees on other rides who greet visitors with a smile, the attraction employs dour-faced staff to play the part of evil First Order minions.
At Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, the Rise of the Resistance ride has suffered several breakdowns since opening, disappointing riders who waited hours for the ride. Some guests who were denied access to the new attraction were offered free park passes instead.
Trowbridge couldn’t promise a glitch-free debut in Anaheim but said his engineers have tried to learn from the Florida problems.
“It’s a complex and ambitious attraction and we occasionally have those glitches but every day we are finding those things, making those improvements,” he said.
The cash registers are sure to stay online. About a dozen new souvenirs began selling even before the ride opened. Rise of the Resistance T-shirts go for $35. Hats are $30 and a commuter mug is on sale for $25.
So far, the public response to the new land at the Anaheim park has been mixed, so it’s unclear how Disney and Star Wars fans will react to the new ride.
Immediately after the opening, the land was jam packed, with lines for its original attraction, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, stretching beyond 90 minutes at times.
The park was forced to add new crowd control measures to visit Oga’s Catina, a space-themed bar where visitors can order alcoholic drinks, snacks and coffee, and to enter Savi’s Workshop, a store where Star Wars fans can build a custom light saber for $200.
Disney executives described the opening as a success, but in August, during the first earnings report after debuting the new land, the Walt Disney Co. revealed a 3% dip in attendance for its domestic theme parks. Earnings in the parks and consumer products segment, however, were up on increased visitor spending and ticket prices.
But on Dec. 27, Disneyland reached capacity, forcing park workers to temporarily stop selling tickets and direct visitors to the adjacent California Adventure Park.
To handle crowds at the new ride, Disneyland will institute a virtual queuing system that requires visitors to use the Disneyland smartphone app to join a “boarding group.”
Park goers without a smartphone can join a group by getting an old-fashioned paper ticket from one of two kiosks in the park. The paper ticket will show the number for the boarding group. Display screens in the park will notify guests when it’s time to board.
The smartphone app gives reservations for a boarding group only during park hours, not before.
Because the new ride will rely heavily on visitors’ cell phones, Disneyland representatives say the park has been working for years to improve cell tower service and Wi-Fi access throughout the resort.
The demand for Rise of the Resistance at the Florida park has been so high that reservations for boarding groups were filled for the entire day within minutes after the park opened, visitors have reported on social media.
In Anaheim, guests won’t be able to make reservations for the new ride until the park opens at 8 a.m., but for fans who want to arrive earlier, the Toy Story parking garage will open at midnight.