Disney raised more questions than it answered at the D23 Expo with the announcement of plans to unveil Star Wars Lands at Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla.
Here’s what we know so far: The new 14-acre lands will each feature two attractions set in a remote frontier town on the outer rim of the “Star Wars” galaxy. No opening dates have been set for either the California or Florida projects. The Disneyland version will start construction in 2017 in the Big Thunder Ranch area of the park. A new “Star Wars” Season of the Force annual event will begin in 2016 in Tomorrowland.
Let’s take a closer look at the most glaring unanswered questions about the new Star Wars Land coming to Disneyland.
1. What attractions will be in Star Wars Land?
As you might expect, Disney is being vague about the details. And with plenty of time before the new land opens, plans can and likely will change.
On paper, the two unnamed attractions sound a whole lot like Star Tours.
The first ride promises a battle between the First Order and the Resistance. Without delving too deeply into “Star Wars” lore, the short description reveals one important take-away: The back story of the ride will be set in the world of the upcoming film trilogy rather than in any of the previous six films. Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger has been insistent that Walt Disney Imagineering focus “Star Wars” storytelling efforts on the future of the franchise rather than the past.
The second attraction will put visitors behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon. How a Millennium Falcon mission will be different from a flight aboard the Starspeeder 3000 spacecraft in Star Tours remains to be seen. Concept art of the new land shows a Millennium Falcon docked in front of towering buildings built into sheer cliffs.
2. Why build Star Wars Land in the Big Thunder Ranch area?
Big Thunder Ranch was always one of the rumored options of a future home for the “Star Wars” universe in Anaheim. It’s the largest relatively undeveloped parcel of property at Disneyland and certainly the most underutilized and least-visited area of the park.
The other options in Anaheim for a Star Wars Land were Tomorrowland, Mickey’s Toontown, an undeveloped corner of Disney California Adventure and the future third theme park currently serving as employee parking. All of those scenarios had built-in challenges -- including bureaucratic hurdles and storytelling obstacles.
Disney needed a trouble-free location that would allow for a relatively quick response to a looming threat: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opening in spring 2016 at Universal Studios Hollywood. The Big Thunder Ranch location offered the most upsides with the fewest downsides.
3. Why not build Star Wars Land in Tomorrowland?
It would seem like a no-brainer to turn all the Tomorrowlands at Disney theme parks around the world into Star Wars Lands -- until you step back and think about it for a bit.
On the surface, “a galaxy far, far away” sounds like a perfect fit for a futuristic land until you recall the first words in that famous opening crawl from the 1977 movie: “A long time ago.” The dichotomy of placing a world with a sweeping fictional history into an existing land depicting a visionary future would have presented storytelling issues right from the outset.
Then comes the challenge of making Tomorrowland look like the “Star Wars” movies. The magic of Wizarding World is that you get to walk into versions of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley that look like scenes from the movies. Which one of the spaceports in the “Star Wars” universe would Tomorrowland become? The new Star Wars Land is going to have to be much more than a mere Tomorrowland overlay to compete with Potter.
And then there’s the issue of blowback from passionate Disneyland fans. Scrapping one of Walt Disney’s original lands would be sacrilege. Especially if you’re replacing it with an intellectual property that is a relative newcomer to the extended Disney family. Disney wants fans to be excited about Star Wars Land, not riot over the removal of a sacred treasure.
4. How does Star Wars Land fit into the larger “Star Wars” universe?
The new land will be set in a remote frontier town on the outer rim of the galaxy on a gateway planet never visited in the previous six “Star Wars” movies.
This is actually a brilliant move on the part of Walt Disney Imagineering. The challenge in designing a Star Wars Land is deciding which world to visit in the vast fictional universe. Imagineering smartly realized it could never have done justice to the scale and scenery of Tatooine, Naboo or Coruscant. Inevitably, fans would have walked away disappointed.
By creating an all new experience, Imagineering gets a blank canvas to tell any “Star Wars” story from past, present and future films, television shows, comic books, video games and novelizations. The new spaceport can serve as the opening scene of any tale without locking the story tellers into a specific time, place or cast of characters in the ongoing epic space opera.
5. Will Star Tours eventually move to Star Wars Land?
The most obvious problem for Disneyland is how to resolve the storytelling disconnect of having the old Star Tours attraction on the opposite side of the park from new Star Wars Land. Storytelling is paramount for Disney and having characters anchored to their homes in Disneyland is of utmost importance. You don’t want C-3PO and R2-D2 living in Tomorrowland when fans are looking for their favorite droids in Star Wars Land.
I suspect we’ll see Disney resolve the place-setting problem before Star Wars Land opens. One solution would be to move Star Tours into the new themed land, but that seems like a lot of work for what’s essentially a 1980s-era ride. A more logical fix would be to retheme Star Tours to something new like the $100-million Iron Man Experience simulator ride going into Hong Kong Disneyland.
6. Why is Disney rolling out its “Star Wars” launch in two phases?
The answer is simple: Potter.
The first shovel is not expected to go into the ground for Star Wars Land until 2017, a year after Wizarding World West opens for business. Disneyland needed a stop-gap solution that would address the Potter problem now, preferably before Wizarding World opens.
The answer was the Season of the Force, a version of the wildly successful seasonal Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. Fans have been clamoring for Disney to bring the event to the West Coast for years. The quick-fix solution grants fans their wish and lets the Mouse land a quick jab to the jaw of a certain boy wizard.
The 2016 event will see a Hyperspace Mountain overlay of the indoor roller coaster, a “Star Wars” fireworks show with a soundtrack by composer John Williams and a pop-up restaurant called Galactic Grill.
But even before the Season of the Force arrives in Anaheim, Disney will roll out some “Star Wars” fun that will serve as the opening salvo in what’s expected to be a full-fledged Wizarding World War. Later this year Star Tours will get a new mission based on the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” film, Star Wars Launch Bay will offer walk-through tours of props from the new movie and the Jedi Training Academy will introduce new characters and stories.
7. Does Disney really need to be so worried about Potter?
Disney is still licking its wounds over the loss of the Potter franchise to Universal. Walt Disney Imagineering reportedly drew up plans for a Wizarding World of its own. ‘Potter” author J.K. Rowling preferred the Universal approach.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter had a devastating effect on attendance at rival theme parks in the Orlando area when the spectacular new land opened to rave reviews and monster crowds in 2010. The biggest effect was to so-called “second day” parks like SeaWorld Orlando that count on Walt Disney World vacationers to take a break from the Disney bubble for a day or two after visiting the Magic Kingdom.
Disney doesn’t release attendance figures, but the Potter effect appeared to dampen attendance at its own “second day” parks -- particularly Disney Hollywood Studios, which is also getting a new Star Wars Land.
It will be interesting to see if Wizarding World West affects attendance at Southern California parks such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain. Will families with teens looking for bigger thrills than Disney offers opt for the Potter magic over Knott’s or Magic Mountain coasters?
For Disney, the concern is California Adventure. The Orlando and Southern California theme park markets are very different, but Disney doesn’t want to see California Adventure take an attendance hit just as the oft-maligned park is starting to turn the corner. Star Wars Land might persuade the Disney faithful to spend another day in Anaheim rather than journey up the Santa Ana Freeway to see that newer castle beckoning from the north.
8. When will Star Wars Land open?
Disney hasn’t announced an opening date for the new land, largely to avoid future reports of delays or setbacks when the inevitable complications push back the debut.
Construction in Anaheim won’t begin until 2017, which means we’re probably looking at a 2019 unveiling. It would be highly unusual for a construction project of this size to take less than 18 months to complete.
So why announce Star Wars Land now if we won’t see any tangible work for two years? You guessed it: Potter.
The Star Wars Land announcement is largely just gamesmanship on Disney’s part, designed to blunt any chest-thumping by Universal.
Disney’s announcement of the new Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2011 -- a full six years before the themed land opens -- was largely viewed as a hurried response to the success of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
An equally anxious Universal returned the favor by announcing the westward expansion of Wizarding World just before Cars Land opened at California Adventure in 2012.
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