Saturday, September 30, 2023

Some Guy Has Thoughts on the Star Wars Galactic Starcruser

 Today is the last Star Wars Galactic Star Cruiser voyage. 

Announced at D23 2017, three years after Diagon Alley opened and as part of Disney's "response" to Universal, the new hotel immediately sparked interest and speculation. How much would it cost? What would be involved? How long would the stay be? Would this be the true next step for themed entertainment? Will we get a Harry Potter experience?

Well, today, September 30, 2023, is the Star Cruiser's closing day. After a short 516 days of operation, shorter than Harmonious's 594 days by 2 1/2 months, the much-praised and maligned offering is shutting down. But Bob Chapek said the hotel was selling out months ahead of time, with tons of satisfied guests booking again. Turns out Chapek was kind of full of it, the Star Cruiser immediately started running into issues with guests and bookings. Soon after opening Cast Members were frequently being comped into the hotel to pad out the cruises while the staff on the ship were resigning due to mismanagement. 

So what happened? 

Well, I think there are a few factors in the failure of this ambitious themed entertainment experience...

Star Wars Hubris

Disney's been super weird about Star Wars since they acquired the franchise from George Lucas. From the handling of The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker, the botched production of Solo, mixed TV series, and the disastrous opening of Star Wars Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland. Hell Bob Iger even thought he could "just tweet out" Galaxy's Edge would open and the crowds would come. They did not.

Iger has a bad habit of just assuming things of the public. Assuming they'll plan out their whole days months before they arrive at the parks, for example, or that minimal advertising with tons of whispers of bottleneck crowds all summer leads to an attendance and revenue disaster at Disneyland.

This hubris extended to the marketing, advertising, and nearly all the decisions behind the Star Cruiser. The advertising campaigns for the experience were all over the place, with cringe-worthy ads and confusing explanations. I would link to the really bad explanation video but Disney expunged it from the internet and the only accounts posting it really don't like The Last Jedi if you get what I'm saying. Disney never nailed the elevator pitch for this experience and it shows; is it a high-end hotel or a LARP? The ultimate extension of your personal Star Wars adventure or an immersive theater experience in the Star Wars canon? There is more than one story floating around of a family arriving at the hotel completely confused about the experience they booked and frustrated with the offerings. "Stupid tourists" some might say, but really is that an excuse for one of the world's largest media companies?

Disney's "if we build it they will come" mentality just does not work.

Not for Florida

Friend of the site David Daut and I texted over the past few months on our feelings on the Star Cruiser closing. David got to experience it twice, and I was some a-hole with just Opinions and Thoughts ™️. One thing that kept coming up between us was the fact Californians LOVED this experience - I knew more people from LA and SF who did this than anyone on the East Coast outside of FL. 

The Imagineering Tax and Chapek Inflation struck the Star Cruiser hard. Even factoring in the room, park admission, dinner, snacks, and character experiences a minimum of $5000 for two days for two people is a LOT. In order for this to succeed in Florida and Walt Disney World's demographics it would need to be significantly less expensive, even the 30% off discounts offered in early 2023 didn't draw the crowds.

A majority of Walt Disney World guests are tourists flying into affordable accommodations. They want to go on rides, hit the pool, and eat at fun restaurants. They love merchandise and being on vacation. Do you know what kid's #1 favorite thing is from their WDW visits? The pool. The most popular things at Disney parks? Meet and greets. They travel for weeks at a time and create their own rhythm of life in the middle of the Florida swamps.

In California, a lot of guests are locals visiting after work and on weekends or tri-state locals on long weekend trips. Locals don't spend as much on food, merchandise, or experiences but they go a lot. And when you go a lot you want new things to do besides the rides and shows already in Disneyland. Plus, we have pools at home. LA is home to movie nerds, theming experts, and other nerds to keep an experience going for a long time. And finally, with a higher cost of living, we can spend more on frivolous things like a two-day Star Wars LARP.

Placing the first Star Cruiser in California instead of Florida solves tons of issues :
  1. Staffing - local artists and actors to fill the experience. Expand the stories out AND build a rotating bench of cast for the roles to prevent burnout and abuse.
  2. Affordability - $5k in California is different than $5k in Ohio or Georgia. More guests would be willing to buy into the experience.
  3. Expectations - instead of the vacation capital of the world it's the happiest place on earth. Locals buy into exclusive events and offerings more than at WDW, just see Club 33 and the parties.
  4. Design - The hotel with no windows and is all in-doors works better on Harbor Blvd than in Florida where the guests want sun.

Imagineering Hubris

For over a decade, Imagineering has been developing a storytelling software package for growing narratives in an interactive setting. In layman's terms, how can Disney operations control a LAPR, Live Action Role Playing, experience? Disney tested the waters with The Optimist in 2013 and Legends of Frontierland in 2013 and 2014 and even Knotts tried it out in 2016 with with Ghost Town Alive. For more on these, read Hastin's build-up to the SWGS article. Imagineering tested the gameplay systems and fine-tuned them, but too much relied on Cast Member knowledge and skill. The first big test of this gameplay was Galaxy's Edge, but after budget reshuffling under Chapek, the add-on became a standalone experience supported by a Star Wars hotel. The tests with a few hundred over one park day expanded too quickly. 

Testing the gameplay systems skipped a massive step - overnight stays. This might seem like a small jump,  guests will go back to their rooms and rest when not experiencing the highly planned set pieces. After all, this is just like a cruise on water, right? No, it wasn't. Guests went waiting for things to do during off times, including issues with what to do with the youngest children and the binge drinking by adults at night (the latter of which led to several Cast Member resignations).

A proper overnight test would have given Imagineering the data and backing to push for a better in-room and expanded in-ship experience. For example, the rooms on the Star Cruiser are most charitably described as "serviceable" and "you won't be in them that long anyway". This is not what you want guests saying about where they'll spend 1/3 of their time on a $1250 per person per day experience. Justify the indoor pool, fitness center, and hang-out spaces - everyone wants to be on a space lido deck! Show why the rooms should have more fun things to do in them AND why maybe spring for the good mattresses. 

It's a shame to see how much WDI play-tested the game only to not even attempt to figure out the other 1/3rd of the show.

Performing overnight tests would have done two things - test the most volatile aspect of the experience and build hype. Especially the last part, imagine if the Star Cruiser had legitimate "oh my god we did a test and it was amazing but it was super limited time" hype behind it? Years of people asking when it'll return, for how long, and when Disney will FINALLY make it permanent and not just a test in a random hotel. You have a new, unique experience so why not get your fans to refine the message on your behalf? And most importantly if the whole thing blows up there is no concrete poured or assets to depreciate.

Not a Good Cruise

The central conceit of the Star Cruiser is the space cruise ship, and frankly, it's not that good of a cruise. Seriously, think about cruising and what it involves. There are dozens of different daily activities on the ship, let alone the excursions when at port. SWSC largely had a set list of things to experience with a checklist of items to complete to see everything. Instead of having the cruise cater to them, the guests had to cater to the cruise.

This ties into the mixed marketing of this experience, it's not quite a high-end cruise-on-land and it's not quite that Star Wars LARP for all fans. It was a limited theatrical experience with in-park elements, mini-games, and intimate guest interactions. This is not bad, that's actually great! But it's not a cruise. 

Imagineering should have considered another conceit for the experience - travel to a Star Wars planet for a resort experience. Say it's a tropical climate even to justify outdoor activities and a pool. But structure all the LARPing around the resort, a resort which so just happens to offer daily shuttles to other planets of course! Nearly everything works just as well if not better as a resort, not a cruise. Lightsaber training in a remote, dank cave similar to Luke's Jedi training? The defense segments are now gunner positions at a nearby resistance base. Get what I'm saying?

Why I'm Hopeful

One or two of these issues could have been overcome, but all of them? The Star Cruiser was not set up for success by the company and was left to flail in the wind before it was put out of its misery under different leadership. Star Cruiser will now live on as stories of those who got to experience it - it will form its own mythology, cult status, and over-inflated emotions. After all, now it can live in the memories of fans away from the cruel factors existing in the real world.

Lots of Star Cruiser fans are very dismayed over its closing and the future of Imagineering and the future of the parks. Despite Disney's public face plant with the Star Cruiser, I am still very hopeful for the future of theme parks, themed entertainment, and hell even Imagineering. 

First, I'd argue the failure of the Star Cruiser is a good thing. It's a much-needed wake-up call for a company that has attempted to convince itself for twenty years they are in a blue ocean. What Disney needs is a period of consistent attraction investment in the domestic parks to refresh and improve what is already here. There is a reason why all new attraction rumors vanished, with Josh on stage showing off some ideas two years in a row, yet there were well-founded and placed rumors of Marvel and Indiana Jones-themed Star Cruiser-like experiences. To pretend this wasn't going to be Disney's focus from now on out was pure denial.

Themed narrative experiences like the Star Cruiser are not dying. MeowWolf and OtherWorld continue to expand to new markets, each offering interactive art and narrative experiences. Sleep No More in NYC is a fantastic 2 1/2 hour story experience with one-on-ones and a story to discover. Here Lies Love on Broadway puts guests in the middle of a dance floor for a musical experience. HLL's co-creator David Bryne experimented in Denver with Theater of the Mind, a guided narrative look at how we perceive the world. With a willing demand from the public, at a correct price, and their own pride at stake I don't think this is the last time Disney is going to attempt an interactive storytelling experience.

Disney bet big on this new overnight storytelling concept, but the Star Cruiser was just not something sustainable, and that's fine. There are rumors coming out of Disney that the ship will be stripped for concepts, either to add to Galaxy's Edge or as an add-on experience to a day in the park. Maybe this was always the endpoint - the same elements designed for a park, removed to a deluxe hotel experience, returned to the land it came from. The same shuttle that would have taken guests from the Star Cruser to Batuu is now taking Batuu guests to a dining experience. Better ideas have died worse fates.

But I do not blame the fans, Cast Members, Imagineers, or the salaried daily staff behind the Star Cruser for its shuttering. Instead, it's people long gone who should shoulder the blame. They ignored the warning signs - we are just paying for their sins. Your love of this experience isn't any less valid after this article than the day you first stepped on the Haylcon, and it is the fandom that will keep the Haylcon alive. It's part of the reason why I feel hopeful for the future. Disney can stomp and pout but guests will vote with their feet.

What I find frustrating and worth our ire are the systems and executive structures that collectively mold good ideas into awkward and lesser ones. Star Wars Galactic Starcruise was pure hubris that burned bright, fast and deserved better. But that's another, older story for another time.


You can find good friends David and Hastin discussing this experience on our podcast, I highly recommend it. David also wrote a fantastic article for us about his experience on the Halcyon and Hastin wrote about the lead-up to the Star Cruser's opening. I hope to have them on the podcast soon to debrief them from their last cruise.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

PODCAST - Minion Land, DreamWorks, and Epic Universe with Alicia Stella

Today, Joe is joined by the prolific theme park writer and video producer, Alicia Stella! In this episode, we discuss pickles, escape rooms, Minion Cafe, Villain-Con's pros and cons, USF's 2024 additions, and finally Epic Universe!

Saturday, May 6, 2023

It's The Capacity, Silly

Hi Bob, it's me, Joe. I saw recently you had some thoughts on using pricing as a capacity restrictor. You are starting to realize a few things are very wrong at the parks, so let me walk you through your issues and my thoughts on what the issue is and how to fix it.

How We Got Here

After Walt Disney World stole all of Disneyland's presents in 2005 the war began. The Disney War was the ouster of Michael Eisner and your hiring for the first time, too. Congrats! After this development money at Walt Disney World started to dry up, with less and less capital going for permanent attractions and more spent on temporary entertainment or festivals. This of course helped through the 2008 Great Recession.

You know Potter changed everything, you green-lit the amazing Carsland and DCA 2.0 redo. But we got diminishing returns from the eventual re-dos of DAK, DHS, and Epcot - the constant meddling of marketing and cost-cutting has caught up. Remember this art, Bob? Do you think the Epcot redo was successful? I don't think it was successful. And I think there are other major projects that didn't land either - shall we discuss the Galatic Starcuriser?

What I really think messed y'all up is with FastPass+. Look, I think there is some really GREAT stuff with FP+ like moving all the dining to a central online system, modernizing all of WDW's data infrastructure, installing WiFi in the parks, and lots more. But FP+ was so costly and limiting that everything needed to be "on" the FP system. So instead of investing in new attractions y'all invested in ways to spread people through existing properties IMMEDIATELY. That's how we got those awkward benches in rooms, just to have a place for capacity reasons. And this whole issue gets exacerbated with Genie+.

Then you resigned before COVID-19 and Chapek took over. The maintenance in the parks have taken a hit, with numerous situations of rides failing, like TTA, Jungle Cruise, and Haunted Mansion. As I spent a week writing this article Pirates suffered a 7-hour downtime on a weekend. How can a theme park run reliably with such downtime? No wonder you can't lift reservations if daily guest capacity fluctuates by 14,000?

I feel pretty convinced that if Chapek's consultant-backed staff reductions would have decimated the parks division and WDI might not have survived. Chapek had one goal - make them pay, fuckos. The fact is, when you took over there was nothing left for Walt Disney World when you came back. You had a VP ready to quit, and your golden company ATM was finally about to break down.

It's The Capacity, Silly

Here is a list of attractions that have shut down at WDW without a capacity replacement. By that I mean an attraction of equal capacity was added. Example: SDMT and LM are capacity replacements for 20K and Snow White Scary Adventures.
  • Tomorrowland Theater
  • Stitch's Great Escape
  • Wonders of Life
  • Innoventions
  • ImageWorks
  • Voyage of the Little Mermaid (DHS)
  • Primeval Whirl
Damn. Oh, wait we forgot parades and nighttime shows.
  • Magic Kingdom nighttime parade
  • DHS daytime parade and entertainment
  • DHS nighttime fireworks
  • DAK nighttime show
  • DAK parade
Seeing the problem now? Sure, some things have added capacity! There is more walkable space in DHS, and the replacement for the backlot tours is four new rides. But you also see the issue of Animation Courtyard, right?

Bob, your product never expanded to meet the demand. All this money and, most importantly, time, was wasted on things that never added ACTUAL capacity to the parks. Your shuffling of the deck chairs has ended, and the boat is still going toward the iceberg. But there are solutions.

Add Rides and Shows

So simple it might just work!

Seriously, add attractions like rides, shows, and interactive experiences to the parks. Yes, it will take time and lots of money, but holy hell this is the solution to so many of your problems. Here are some things that can be done relatively quickly:
  • Stitch replacement attraction
  • MK nighttime parade
  • Play Pavilion
  • Rivers of Light replacement
  • DAK parade
  • Primeval Whirl replacement
Those things can be completed, roughly, within the next 24 months. That's probably your best bet for attraction guests who come down for Epic Universe to skip Universal's old parks and see your new stuff.

Long term you need more investment and it will cost you:
  • Long-term Tomorrowland redo to address CoP and Buzz
  • Update the 50+-year-old IASW and Peter Pan's flight
  • Finally fix the Imagination Pavilion
  • SSE ride system overhaul and refurbishment
  • Replacing Voyage of the Little Mermaid and Star Wars Launch Bay
And that's just returning capacity to the park, not actually expanding to fit a new group of guests...


Orlando has grown nearly 60% between 2000 and 2022. Disney's parks have, on the whole, remained the same capacity or decreased. Since the 2008 financial crisis and recession, more and more people have moved to Orlando or remained after a college degree or internship. Even more moved when Work From Home became a larger option, with Disney fans justifying the move in various ways. Now legions of influencers descend on the parks and things feel even more askew than before.

The parks don't just need a return to their old capacity but an EXPANSION of that capacity.

Regional Entertainment

Disney got burned good with regional entertainment, but the fact is this was a management failure, not a product failure. Look at Paul Pressler for crying out loud. But Disney has had a ton of luck with regional touring entertainment, from Disney on Ice to Broadway tours. There is a huge pent-up demand for Disney content in major regional centers. DisneyQuest was too expensive to operate, Disney's America would have been a big question mark. Instead here's what I'm thinking:

  • Retail - Complete revamp of The Disney Stores with new a focus on three things - guarantee plush of new movie characters to build trust, Disney vacation travel advice and booking to branch the parks and stores, and finally tie shopDisney and Disney Stores together more with returns and shipping to the stores.
  • Regional Kids Parks - Merlin built the formula and now Universal is jumping into the game, so Disney should toss its hat into the ring. Finally built the Mickey Mouse Park everyone joked Disneyland would be. Park would have some small flat rides, playgrounds, water features, pools, shows, and dining. Offer character breakfasts fireworks dessert parties, heck, and even build an on-site hotel with DVC.
  • Touring Entertainment - Pixar Putt is a touring mini golf themed to Pixar. It's cute but expensive, and exactly what Disney should be doing. The demand is there and people want to get out and move in the post-lockdown world. 

Y'all have a lot of debt, poor company structure, and a streaming service that's bleeding money. It's not going to be easy to approve tons of attractions while the WGA is on strike, you WILL be targeted for it, but you have to do it. People want to give you money, yet for over a decade WDW has let dollars pass over their head while picking up pennies.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

PODCAST - Parkscope the Reboot

Hello world!

After a hiatus, the show is back! Joe has RSV or something and is joined by Andrew Hyde from In The Loop fame. We discuss Kennywood safety, Dynamic Attractions filing for bankruptcy protection, Disney sobers up and realizes they have a capacity issue, and finally Universal's new parks.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Universal's New Regional Entertainment Push

Sometimes you leave things in the drafts too long and it spoils. That was me with an article about Universal's plans into regional entertainment. I'd cover the Toothsome that opened in Philly and the trademark filings. Then it sorta split off into the PortAventura article but another part was about other local attraction rumors. I largely wrote off the concept in my head, DisneyQuest had failed, so would this.

This makes this past week's announcement of a new mini-theme park in Frisco, Texas, and Las Vegas, Nevada so wild. Many of us had written such rumors are decades-old speculation and tomfoolery run amok, harking back to a day when Disney was about to announce a theme park in insert major city here was comment theme park gossip blog fodder. "Disney is building a theme park in Texas" is a meme from the 90s!

Anyway, these will be two very different projects. This article will combine officially confirmed information with my own informed speculation, blue-sky ideas, and informed guessing. Quote at your own risk!

Universal Kids Mini-Theme Park - Frisco, TX

A 25-acre park on a 47 acre plot of land. Park is a themed family entertainment center with a focus on kids. Seriously, it's focused on kids and features meet and greets, play areas, small flat rides, and family coasters. Attractions are small in scale but fit into something slightly larger than Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. In front is a hotel, which claimed to be 300 rooms but could be an ad-lib, and highly themed entryway reminiscent of the DreamWorks logo. Inside we can find lands based on Kung Fu Panda, Jurassic Park Camp Cretaceous, Shrek, Trolls, and Madagascar - all DreamWorks movies. So no Nintendo, no Secret Life of Pets, no Harry Potter, no Minions. We'll get into that later.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Is Universal Acquiring PortAventura World?

Some interesting smoke is spreading around the themed entertainment community. In November The Coaster Kings said rumors are spreading in the Spain coaster community that Universal is kicking the tires over PortAventura World, a theme park resort they owned majority ownership of from 1998 till 2004. But why would they acquire such a park? Does this fit into a larger plan for the parks and resorts division? Let us discuss some.

PortAventura World is a theme park resort comprised of two parks - PortAventura and Ferarri Land. The resort also features several hotels, seasonal events, a golf course, a water park, and a train line to Barcelona, Spain. Famous rides here include Red Force, the tallest and fastest coaster in Europe, Shambalha a B&M hyper coaster, and the upcoming Uncharted indoor coaster by Intamin and Sally Dark Rides.

Why would Universal re-purchase this park? Well, for starters the Parks & Resorts division is still seen as a growth market for Universal, and adding more resorts to the chain would diversify the portfolio of products and spread risk. Right now the industry is in a contraction after COVID with multiple undervalued assets available. Universal could see this as the perfect time to add another resort in an underserved market.

But, will it actually happen? I believe there's a very good chance it happens. It makes sense, Comcast is hungry, and my guess is the price is right. Universal purchasing PortAventura World would be the biggest story in themed entertainment this year (minus any park closures). In fact, the deal could already be closed and an announcement is on the way. It is also very possible Universal has entered an operational agreement with PortAventura, where the investments come from other but Universal operates the day-to-day operation of the parks.

If it happens, what will change at PortAventura? Universal trademarked Hollywoodland Universal Studios in Span back in April 2022 which could apply to the resort or just PortAventura. Ferrari Land will remain as is since the contract remains in place. As for characters, stories, and other attractions moving to the resort, it's too early to tell. Heck, they still use the same Express Pass signage from the early 2000s! Major improvements will likely be made to operations, phone apps, and more to create a more consistent experience with Universal's other parks.

If it happens, what will change at Universal's other parks? Not much in the short term, approved projects will go forward without much change. I don't believe it is likely that future projects are impacted by this, the investment will come from the Board of Directors. The park is also popular and profitable as is, which would avoid a Disneyland Paris situation. Universal working with Ferarri on their licensed park could lead to Ferrari attractions in the USA or Japan, but that seems the least likely outcome.

What are your thoughts about this new rumor? Leave them in the comments below.