It’s been a much-talked about rumor among fans and industry folks for quite some time: that The Walt Disney Company has been planning a massive Star Wars expansion for Disneyland. After all, the company dropped $4 billion on the Lucasfilm universe in 2012 – it only seemed to be a matter of time until its theme parks were heavily populated by Stormtroopers, Jedis and odd aliens from galaxies far, far away.
This past weekend during the D23 Expo in Anaheim, Disney’s chairman and CEO, Bob Iger, announced to a crowd of nearly 8,000 hard core fans that yes, the world of Star Wars is coming to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort. In Anaheim, the 14-acre expansion will be in the backstage area of the park, likely behind Mickey’s Toontown and Big Thunder Ranch. It’s very possible that even the Team Disney Anaheim building (you know the one – it’s been looming large next to the 5 Freeway in all of its yellow and green maligned glory since 1995) may be razed to make way for this new expansion in the years to come, since the company has recently purchased sizable new lots adjacent to the Disneyland Resort for its further evolution in Orange County. The exact footprint and what will be cleared remains the point of much speculation at this point online.
It goes without saying that just about everyone in attendance – and beyond – jumped to their feet and cheered with excitement and utter nerd ecstasy; as well they should – this was a major announcement. God knows, my inner child of the ’70s is totally stoked as well – it’ll be amazing to step into the new world that Walt Disney Imagineering has planned for us all and jump right into the Star Wars universe via exciting rides and attractions currently in development.
Here’s where the afterglow of the announcement wears off, and I sit back, pondering the impact of Star Wars on Disneyland itself. This is also likely to find Theme Park Adventure fans divided as well (it starts at the core in this case, as my partner in crime Johanna Atilano doesn’t feel as strongly as I do about this, considering it’s a done deal).
I’ve been holding out hope that Disney’s Star Wars announcements would mainly pertain to its Orlando property as well as international parks. Despite sight line balloons being spotted floating over the northern portion of Disneyland, despite wide-spread rumor that we’d lose Toontown or Tomorrowland for a major Star Wars implementation, I held out hope that the franchise would come to just about any other Disney park than Disneyland.
Disneyland has been shaped for the past 60 years into a delicate balance of different experiences. A virtual fantasy buffet of sights, sounds and impressions that together, combine to form arguably the most beloved theme park in the world; one that was envisioned by Walt Disney and his team longer ago now than most of us have been alive. Disneyland isn’t a haphazard accident; it has always been a carefully-planned and executed enterprise. Yes, unabashedly one of complete corporate synergy – Walt knew absolutely that Disneyland was to be – and was – a living extension of his company’s film and television assets. However, Walt Disney Imagineering has gone to great lengths over the decades to maintain that balance and thematic order at Disneyland, despite the presence of corporate sponsors and more recently, pop culture icons such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars that have been introduced into the theme parks. Disneyland is the near-perfect example of a modern-day theme park that designers around the world look to first when creating new attractions and experiences. It works, and it has worked beautifully for 60 years.
That delicate balance is about to change drastically, and will forever create an anomaly in the Disneyland experience for both guests and designers alike.
Here’s the elephant (or Bantha) in the room, so I’ll just say what most everyone is thinking: Disney’s world of Star Wars (even more so than Avatar – The World of Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom) is a blueprint replica of what Universal Creative has done internationally with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter installations. Strip away the intellectual property, and suppress the fanboy/fangirl urge to scream that Disney is superior in all ways to its competitors. The fact of this matter is simple: Universal Creative went forward with Harry Potter, and has taken the themed entertainment industry by storm over the past several years not once, but twice in Florida with both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. The new standard in (I’m gonna say it – get your drink ready) fully immersive, single IP-themed lands/areas has been set, and it was not by Disney. Regardless of how well Star Wars is executed at its theme parks, the fact will always remain that Disney has to play follow-up to Universal in this particular arena, and the business model of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the blueprint going forward as Disney creates Pandora as well as whatever is coming with Star Wars. Like it or not, Disney didn’t plant this particular flag – Universal did. From a fully self-sustaining land/area designed to keep guests busy all day, to themed food and beverage options (blue milk, coming right up!) as well as obscene amounts of exclusive merchandise – that ain’t a Disney evolution, kids; it stems from Universal’s Potter efforts in Orlando. That’s something that Universal Creative has become very good at; there’s a huge part of me that wishes that Disney simply keeps moving forward, creating large-scale theme parks and lands/areas with incredible attractions, because that is what they are best at, in my opinion.
Pop culture IPs are not at all new to the Disneyland experience. The boldest steps toward bringing outside cultural influences to the park took place under Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in the ’80s, when they engaged Lucasfilm to create Star Tours. Years later, the Indiana Jones Adventure came online in Adventureland; I can remember the red flags of Disney’s identity crisis that some journalists and fans threw up then – the water was tainted, and Disney would never be the same again. I disagree with that particular mindset, and have always loved both Star Tours and Indy; in fact, I can’t imagine them now not being part of the Disneyland experience.
Here’s the key difference: we didn’t lose an entire land to gain these IPs. Tomorrowland didn’t become Star Wars Land. Adventureland didn’t become Indyland. Those sections of the theme park remained true to their original identities and incorporated these new stories into the fold, expanding and evolving the preset ideals of a land of tomorrow, or land of mystery and adventure. And, each has worked beautifully within the Disneyland experience for decades.
An entire land – and a big one at that – devoted to one single IP at Disneyland throws off the deliberate balance of its ecosystem that has been carefully designed and cultivated for the past six decades. In short, Disneyland will be completely lop-sided with the addition of a single Star Wars land, creating a sharp contrast between its own zones for the first time in history. It’s happened to Universal Studios Florida – after spending hours in Diagon Alley, when you emerge back into the rest of the theme park, everything else seems old and completely bland after the complete bombardment of the senses that Potter delivers. It’s kind of like visiting your grandmother’s house and watching her old tube television after you’ve left your 72-inch HD flat screen TV at home; it’s mentally and visually jarring. Anyone who has been to Universal Orlando knows what I am talking about; the same exact thing will happen here at Disneyland. Star Wars will be developed as an ultra-dense “HD” land – and the rest of the park will really show its age, despite gallons of new paint and a dump truck filled with pixie dust. I sincerely worry that younger generations of Disneylanders will drag their parents through the park making a beeline for Star Wars land and will completely write off “the old rides and lands”.
For the first time, Disneyland will absolutely have an identity crisis – it will be defined by Star Wars exactly the same way both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida have been redefined by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The discussion now goes, “Dude! You have to visit Potter at Universal when you go to Orlando!” rather than, “When you visit Universal’s Islands of Adventure or Universal Studio Florida, you have to check out their Harry Potter lands!”
The same shift – and it may seem very slight to you – will occur here in Anaheim, and Disneyland will no longer be the “star” of its own show; Star Wars will be.
I love the idea of the new expansion heading for Disney’s Hollywood Studios (name to be changed soon), and I would have totally been satisfied with the announcement that it was to be a major expansion at Disney California Adventure. Those parks are perfect for Star Wars simply by their core design. Hell, if it were my sandbox, I would have developed an entire theme park – Disney’s Star Wars Universe – in Orlando, and each of the lands would be their own planets. There’s enough room there, and the company has more than enough cash for such an ambitious project (my guess is, such a Star Wars park would cost between $4 and $6 billion to do right); there’s just no way Disney would ever make such a commitment, regardless of the cash cow that is Star Wars.
When the announcement was made this past weekend at D23 Expo that Disneyland would be the new home of Star Wars, I winced, quite honestly. All I’ve been doing the past several months – very publicly – is trying my Jedi powers out by waving my hand each time the discussion comes up and saying, “This isn’t the park you’re looking for.” So much for my Jedi influence.
Star Wars is coming to Disneyland, and no amount of reasoning will deter that now. I honestly thought that Imagineering would recognize the permanent unbalance such an installation at Disneyland will create, but I was wrong (although I still and always will believe that there are plenty of peers and Imagineers that will agree with my sentiments). Next comes the awkward subject of what to do with Star Tours in Tomorrowland; that’ll be a huge quagmire of a major Star Wars attraction (that’s about to be updated to include The Force Awakens) living and existing in the same park outside of the new land designed to be the all-encompassing manifestation of the Star Wars universe. My guess is, Disney will let that be as long as possible (although it’s a glaring disconnect), and ultimately, we may see Star Tours actually moved within the park to the new area. It’s not that hard, really – four simulators can be picked up and plopped down in a new building relatively easy. Or easier yet, Disney may simply build a new facility with new sims and plug the media into the new space, while converting the existing Star Tours attraction into the Iron Man Experience, which is about to come online in Hong Kong using the same technology as Tours. I’d be fine with that, and it makes perfect sense.
The discussion has already come up regarding the over-crowding that Disneyland already experiences due to its over-population of annual passholders, and what the impact of this Star Wars land will have on that issue – and it’s a serious question; one that will be debated and discussed for years to come as construction begins. My guess is, we will see all but Premium and Deluxe passes eliminated before Star Wars comes online. And if you think ticket/pass prices are high now… Just wait. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of admission/pass pricing now – there’s plenty of time for that (and my stance may surprise you). Suffice it to say, Disney has a lot of internal come-to-Jesus decisions to make about its current operations at Disneyland; because they will not work as-is with Star Wars being added to the mix.
Whatever side of the trench you find yourself on in this discussion, one thing is for certain: we’ve got a long time to debate these issues. Bob Iger and the other Disney folks were very careful to say, “Now, these things take time…” during the unveiling announcement this past weekend. They’re serious about that. Word on the street (and a very educated guess, considering the rate that other projects such as New Fantasyland and Avatar move forward at) is that we won’t see Star Wars open at Disneyland until at least 2020 or 2021; five or six years from now. Anything sooner, will be extremely surprising and unlikely because Disney simply does not work that quickly.
It’ll be exciting and interesting to see Star Wars come to pass at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the years to come. However, when your kid tugs on your hand and makes a stink about going to Star Wars land rather than Space Mountain or The Haunted Mansion, just remember this conversation. And may the Force be with you.
– Rick West