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.