Disney’s D23 channel recently posted a bunch of videos on their YouTube channel. One such video was called Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge: Storytelling Through Merchandise.
After sitting through the 35+ minute video it was clear that the merchandising team took a page from the Wizarding World merchandising team. I remember walking through the Wizarding World for the first time at Orlando Universal Studios where you could not only purchase wands and robes but also visit Hogwarts and get Butterbeer. It FELT like you were in the world of Harry Potter. It was a mic drop on anything at Disney World or the Disneyland Parks because there was no franchise that Disney had invested in THAT much for a completely immersive experience. As I Potter fan at the time, I was thrilled but, as a Star Wars fan, I was envious. I wished I could buy authentic licensed items that looked like they came straight from a planet in the Star Wars universe.
For Disney, the launch of Universal’s Wizarding World was added salt on a wound. It was the experience that Disney failed to have the vision for, pitching to JK Rowling a revamp Buzz Lightyear ride with wands and a petting zoo for magical creatures. Competition can be a wonderful thing and Harry Potter fans won in the end with Universal Studio’s Wizarding Worlds that are now in three of Universal’s parks: Orlando, Hollywood, and Osaka with one under construction in Beijing.
And so, began an innovation war between the two brands: Disney came back with Cars Land in Disneyland and Pandora in Disney World, while Universal expanded the Wizarding World in Orlando with the Hogwarts Express and Diagon Alley. While both Cars Land and Pandora have been a success and have boosted attendance for both Disney California Adventure (Now Pixar Pier) and Animal Kingdom, they still lacked the level of consistent detail throughout the park. All of the staff members working in the park have to stay in character and have to pass a knowledge test on the books so interactions with visitors will be even more genuine. From the architecture of the buildings that house the ride to the shop signage and displays to the packaging details, the Wizarding World had a level of consistency that Disney’s lands were missing.
In 2015, three years after Disney purchased Lucasfilm, then CEO Bob Iger officially announced that Star Wars-themed lands would be coming to the Disneyland and Disney World parks. This would give them a perfect opportunity to truly create an immersive space tucked inside the parks. The buildup for Galaxy’s Edge was massive as more details were revealed about the land, rides, and experiences: it would be a real location in the Star Wars universe called Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu, there would be a life-sized Millennium Falcon in the center of the land that would house the first ride, Smuggler’s Run, and the second ride would be a mixed ride system call Rise of the Resistance. Theme parks are constantly changing and adapting but, now that we are over a year from the opening of both Galaxy’s Edge lands, we can look at the first iteration of the parks from a marketing and creative viewpoint and the great and not so great executions.
First, the great. It was genius to create a completely new place within canon instead of recreating an existing location that people had already seen on film or TV. Disney Imagineers and the Lucas Story Group had creative freedom to shape a world that Lucasfilm could build lore around, and sell back to visitors.
Second, by making it an outpost, it seamlessly integrates retail and merchandise throughout Galaxy’s Edge without feeling like too much or out of place for visitors. It is a marketplace in the Star Wars universe so it is a marketplace in Star Wars land. Curating the look of market stalls with “cheaper” goods presents a good contrast to the higher-end Dok-Ondar’s antiquities, which sells things like lightsabers of famous Jedi, kyber crystals, medals, and statues. Dok-Ondar, who was casually mentioned in Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018 while the park was still under construction, has his own back story that involves familiar characters like Han Solo, Chirrut Îmwe, and Doctor Aphra. He collects valuable artifacts and antiques for his shop on the Black Spire Outpost, thus is animatronic in-store when you visit.
Third, having experiences like the Droid Depot where visitors can build and customize their droids or can buy pre-made droids or parts. The price point is not painful ($100 upfront for building a droid and that includes a themed carrying box). There are also add-ons like a personality chip and a droid carrying a backpack ($13 and $50 respectively).
The not-so-great is the other end of some of these cool personal experiences: cost and time. Savi’s Workshop, like the Droid Depot, is a pay-to-play experience with a $200 price point. That is not a kid-friendly price but the idea of building your own lightsaber would absolutely appeal to all ages. The recommended age for Savi’s workshop is five (and at least one member of the party has to be 14+) but the lightsaber hilts are made with higher quality materials, and heavy so it’s mixed messaging of audience. Even though it would be backtracking, they should raise the recommended age. A five-year-old would want to play with a lighter lightsaber and there are cheaper ones sold at regular retailers.
Speaking of experiences, there are still only two rides in the land, which means there are two things you can do for free (excluding the cost of admission). You can use the Galaxy’s Edge app which is free to interact with certain elements of the park but that’s all. You can’t even visit Oga’s Cantina without a reservation, which means you have to order from their pricey menu, but they do serve alcohol.
There is no ride like It’s A Small World or Peter Pan’s Flight that can just be a simple ride that can move a lot of people out of the heat (or cold), relax for a few minutes, and be great for smaller children. That might come one day but the two existing rides, Smuggler’s Run and Rise of the Resistance, require brain activity as you are either navigating a simulation ride or getting out of a vehicle and moving to another. It is understandable that actually doing something during these rides is part of the immersion but I would argue that even Universal’s Wizarding World has a slow ride in the Hogwarts Express train.
It seems like Galaxy’s Edge is still trying to find its balance between adults and kids. There is a reason why Magic Kingdom is the most visited park, there are more all-ages rides and experiences and most don’t cost additional money. Galaxy’s Edge seems like it is more for kidults, people who love Star Wars, are old enough to have a good-paying job, and will spend extra income on things like lightsabers or statues of their favorite character. People like me.
It cannot be overstated how important a focus and consistency in design for both Wizarding World films and parks have helped sell merchandise. This is all because Warner Brothers have had the same design studio since the beginning, MinaLima. Every single item, for sale and to look at, feels like it is from the Wizarding World. That is quite the head start and, listening to the merchandising team from Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge talk about how they had to track down the original jewelry designers to make Princess Leia’s necklace from A New Hope, it sounds like they are attempting to at least keep up with Universal. Of course, they are not completely flying blind as they have the Lucas Archives and Storyboard team to help pull props for replicas and make sure the details are correct.
It is telling that some of the bestselling and valuable merchandise in Galaxy’s Edge comes from the animated TV shows. Items like the holocrons and kyber crystals and creatures like Loth-cats made their debut in The Clone Wars and Rebels and things like this further build on the value of those animated shows within the lore of Star Wars.
And now that they have Star Wars lands that act as points of purchase for in-universe items, they can quickly get replicas into consumer’s hands. Corporate synergy will be used full-force as Disney can also plan to introduce characters, items, and food into the parks at the same time a show or film launches.
On a potential downside, by setting Black Spire in the sequel trilogy era, you will not see younger versions of Princess Leia, Luke, or Han or any character that existed and died before the events of The Force Awakens. It will be interesting to see how this evolves as we get further away from the Sequel Trilogy. But it currently presents this weird conflict with the immersive experience given Galaxy’s Edge came out before the final film in the Skywalker Saga. You know, the film where Galaxy’s Edge regulars Kylo Ren and General Hux, SPOILER ALERT, died. This could all change and rides can, and will, be updated as time passes but, for now, Disney Parks are stuck in the Sequel Trilogy timeline. That means none of your future favorite High Republic Jedi will be walking around, but you will most likely get to purchase their lightsabers from Dok-Ondor.
The Wizarding World still has an edge over Galaxy’s Edge but the one thing that Disney can now claim to have first is a themed immersive resort hotel. This luxury hotel, dubbed the Galactic Starcruiser, doesn’t currently have a price tag (it will be huge) but it is also built as an experience. Guest will pay for a two-night stay on a starship on their way to Black Spire’s Outpost, and meals and activities will be part of the package. It sounds like you will be tethered to the hotel in the same way you are on a Disney Cruise Line, which sounds both cool and unsettling. This will not be for everyone but it will definitely be a bucket list item for a lot of Star Wars fans. The hotel will have significantly less capacity than most Disney World resorts so it is another experience tailored for a smaller group of people with a likely, higher price tag.
Immersive theme park experiences are the evolution of studios gobbling up franchises and, as long as Disney can continue to do something new and interesting, I don’t think many people will mind paying the price of admission.