Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the ambitious 14-acre expansion coming to Disneyland this year, is opening earlier than expected —with a catch.
The massive, interactive attraction will debut at the Anaheim resort on May 31, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger told shareholders Thursday at the company’s annual meeting in St. Louis, Mo. An identical planned attraction at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., will open Aug. 29.
However, the highly anticipated attractions will not be, to use Star Wars-speak, fully armed and operational when they debut. Iger said that one of the main draws, an immersive experience called Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, will not be ready for the public until later this year.
Rise of the Resistance, a showcase attraction of the land, features multiple full-scale ships and vehicles and extensive animatronics. The experience, representing a Resistance mission gone bad, will move guests among multiple locations, where they will ride vehicles and encounter characters from the blockbuster franchise. Iger did not reveal when Rise of the Resistance would open, but noted that the project is “somewhat daunting” even for the dominant player in theme parks.
“We’re pushing the limits of imagination and innovation,” Iger said. “No one has ever attempted anything of this magnitude, and so it’s somewhat daunting even by our standards.”
Burbank-banked Disney had not previously revealed when exactly the public would be able to experience the new Star Wars lands, which are set on a distant planet called Batuu and feature game-like attractions such as Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and a Cantina-themed bar. The Anaheim version had been targeted to launch in June, with the Florida project set for a few months later in the fall.
Guests looking to visit Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland between May 31 and June 23 will need to make a no-cost reservation, Disney said.
Iger’s remarks, at the Stifel Theatre in St. Louis, came as shareholders narrowly approved a new, reduced pay package for the CEO. Shareholders voted 57 percent in favor of Iger’s revised pay package, a year after shareholders voted 52 percent against his compensation plan in a non-binding resolution that was seen as a stern rebuke to the entertainment giant.
Disney has recently made tweaks to its pay plan for Iger, following sharp shareholder criticism. The company this week cut $13.5 million from the executive’s annual target pay package, which includes bonuses and stock awards, to $35 million. Iger’s base salary will be $3 million a year, $500,000 less than an earlier plan proposed.
The company recently also increased the performance bar Disney must hit for Iger to collect more than $100 million in incentives he could earn as a result of Disney’s pending $71.3-billion acquisition of assets from 21st Century Fox. Iger said Disney is in the final stages of completing the landmark deal and that regulators should give final approval soon.
Iger remains one of the highest paid executives in media and entertainment. He received $65.6 million in fiscal 2018, a 80 percent jump from the prior year largely because of stock awards tied to his 2017 contract extension.
Meanwhile, with Disneyland expecting a surge in attendance when it opens its Star Wars land this summer, the Anaheim park is relying on a plan to ease congestion by eliminating visitor chokepoints, rather than putting strict limits on attendance.
Dubbed “Project Stardust,” the magical-sounding but actually pedestrian project was quietly launched two years ago in the often jammed amusement park, introducing tweaks such as shrinking or eliminating tree and flower planters, moving queue lines and designating areas as stroller-parking.
“We are preparing our legacy as we welcome a new galaxy,” Kris Theiler, vice president of the Disneyland Park, said during a recent tour of the park that unveiled some of the improvements, which are ongoing.
In terms that Southern Californians might understand, Disneyland is widening its pedestrian freeways to improve flow instead of limiting the number of travelers on those roads — though it has the ability to do so.
Visitor congestion has long been a problem in the theme park industry, but it has reached a crisis level in the last few years, with parks worldwide launching new lands and attractions based on characters and storylines from blockbuster movies and books.
When Universal Studios Hollywood opened its Harry Potter expansion in 2016, based on the hugely popular books and movies featuring the boy wizard, visitors arrived long before the gates opened only to stand in hours-long lines. A line of cars trying to get into the parking garages extended all the way to a nearby freeway exit.
Galaxy’s Edge — the biggest expansion in Disneyland history — could easily draw crowds that rival those of Universal Studios.
“You have several more generations that followed Star Wars than you have with Harry Potter,” said Martin Lewison, a theme park expert and business management professor at Farmingdale State College in New York. “If anything is going to top Harry Potter at Universal Studios, this is it.”
The land is expected to draw a surge of visitors to a park that has already been reporting increased attendance nearly every year since the recession a decade ago.
Besides adding physical improvements to ease crowding, Disney officials have also hiked ticket and annual pass prices and cut back the days some annual pass holders can visit the park.
A daily ticket to visit either Disneyland or the California Adventure park rose to $104 from $97 for low-demand days. The price of a daily ticket for peak-demand days jumped to $149 from $135.
Still, an analysis of wait times at the Disneyland Resort in 2017 by the Los Angeles Times showed that higher ticket prices have not reduced attendance.
Disney officials, who outlined several examples of Project Stardust, declined to discuss whether the park will take other measures to regulate or limit visitors to the new Star Wars land, though they promised to unveil such details at a later date.
Lewison said an even bigger challenge may be getting visitors to leave the new Star Wars land to clear space for other parkgoers to enter.
“Not only do they have to limit the entrance but they have to find ways to speed up the egress so that it doesn’t get packed,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges facing the park in the last decade has been the increasing number of families that crowd the walkways with infant strollers and guests using electric mobility scooters.
Project Stardust tackles the problem by designating several areas in the park away from pedestrian walkways for stroller parking.
One example is near the Jungle Cruise ride, where visitors had previously parked strollers haphazardly along the walkway. The park has now designated a nearby area where strollers can be parked.
Another example of the efforts to ease gridlock is at the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride, where the queue had previously wrapped around the snow-covered replica of a Swiss Alp mountain. The queue clogged adjacent walkways to nearby attractions in Tomorrowland.
To address the problem, Disneyland built a queuing area near the front of the attraction, where visitors are directed by stanchions and chains to a compact area of switchback lines.
At the It’s a Small World ride, queues for the attraction previously snaked along the front of the ride, crowding the adjacent walkway and parade route. To clear the walkway, the park moved back by several yards an adjacent gate that leads to a behind-the-scenes area, where parade floats are stored. The extra room that was created was used to build a larger queuing area that doesn’t block the walkway.
“You can now take a picture in front of Small World without seeing this huge queue,” said Kim Irvine, art director at Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative branch of the company’s theme parks.