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Star Wars Land Is Proof Disney Has Lost Its Way

Disney Star Wars Land

Last Thursday, the Walt Disney Company unveiled one of its largest and most promoted attractions ever. The new Star Wars Land, called Galaxy’s Edge, opened at its Hollywood Studios complex in Florida, coming on the heels of a similar Star Wars Land that opened at California’s Disneyland in May.

The Disney hype machine has long since kicked into warp speed to promote the new land, but one might suggest a note of caution. I have owned a handful of Disney shares since childhood and have followed the company closely as a result. Yet when I travel to Los Angeles this month, for the first time in my adult life, I have no intention of visiting Disneyland while in Southern California.

Apart from the fact that I don’t particularly follow “Star Wars,” two related factors explain my ennui — and Disney’s existential dilemmas.

Endless Efforts to Upsell

The company’s most recent shareholder earnings report suggested trouble ahead, as Disneyland attendance actually dropped following Star Wars Land’s opening in California. As the Wall Street Journal noted last week, “The company blames itself … claiming that its own promotion of the park sparked ‘tremendous concern’ about crowds, actually deterring visitors. That may be true from a certain point of view, but higher prices for park tickets and local hotels surely didn’t help either.”

On the latter front, Disney, by its own admission, has become “wary of appearing to gouge customers … and going against founder Walt Disney’s vision of affordable family entertainment.” Despite executives’ concerns, examples of Disney’s attempts to upsell customers abound:

  • The $299 “preview” of a new attraction at Disneyland last year, amounting to a $50-per-hour charge for the six-hour event.
  • The MaxPass option at Disneyland, costing $15 per day. This charge gives the added convenience of making Fastpass reservations for popular rides through a mobile app rather than in person at the attraction itself. (The MaxPass also includes unlimited photo downloads, but many guests, particularly those who live in Southern California and visit the parks regularly, have little use for this feature.)
  • An additional charge for premium parking. This charge eliminated one of the advantages of arriving early in the morning: command of the closest parking spots in Disney’s massive parking lots. Instead, Disneyland guests now pay an extra $15 for that privilege — over and above the existing $25-per-day cost for “regular” parking. (Disney World guests pay $20-25 more per day for premium parking.)

Playground for the Rich

All these options have the same general theme: In a place infamous for its long lines, people willing to pay upcharges can move to the head of the queue. On the one hand, both Disney and guests are engaging in rational economic behavior and maximizing profit, whether monetary (in Disney’s case) or logistical (guests who don’t want to wait in line).

At a certain level, however, Disney will make visits unappealing — through high prices, longer lines for those who cannot afford the upcharges, or a combination of the two — for middle-class families. Because Disneyland in California (as opposed to Disney World in Florida) relies so heavily on Los Angeles-area residents for its guest base, Disney continues to retain somewhat more affordable (or less unaffordable) options for Southern California residents, which grant park access only during less-busy periods.

But for this potential guest, Disney doesn’t seem worth the money and hassle. Seeing Disney’s California parks (Disneyland and California Adventure) would realistically require an outlay of at least $500, including park tickets, parking, meals, and MaxPass for two days. All that to wait in line for a Star Wars Land I care little about seeing? No, thanks.

Lack of Creativity

Star Wars Land also points at another problem facing Disney: its lack of creativity. For all of its founder’s imagination and innovation — the first talking animated short, the first feature-length animated film, the first major theme park, and many more — Disney has rapidly developed a new identity. In the past decade, the company has evolved from a content-generating organization focused on creating new stories to a marketing monolith singularly focused on milking every last dollar out of the brands it already owns, many of which Disney played no part in creating.

Disney’s parks reflect this trend. While the Disney parks have always featured some Disney-themed rides — Dumbo the Flying Elephant among the most noteworthy — some of the most iconic rides at Disneyland, from the Matterhorn Bobsleds to the Haunted Mansion to Pirates of the Caribbean, had nothing to do with Disney films. (The latter two eventually became Disney movies, but well after the rides were developed.) But over the past decade, Disney has largely developed theme park attractions based on its existing film properties:

  • Cars Land at California Adventure, an area opened in 2012 based on the Pixar film franchise
  • A “Frozen”-themed boat ride at Epcot in Disney World, which in 2016 replaced a previous ride focused on Norwegian culture
  • Pandora: The World of Avatar, which opened at Animal Kingdom in Florida in 2017, based on the James Cameron film franchise
  • Toy Story Land, which debuted at Hollywood Studios in Florida this year, based on another Pixar franchise.

Focusing on Sequels, Remakes, and Marketing

The opening of Star Wars Land therefore represents the continuation of a trend defining the term of current Disney CEO Bob Iger. As Iger has acquired more entertainment companies — Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009, Lucasfilm in 2012, and 20th Century Fox earlier this year — he has focused on bringing characters and stories from those platforms under the Disney brand.

The parks’ theming, however, has suffered from these changes. In 2012, Disney officially completed a relaunch of its California Adventure theme park. The company spent more than $1 billion completely renovating its second California park to compensate for a cheaply built and incoherently themed park that scarred the Disney brand.

Yet five years later, the company replaced its Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride, which perfectly fit the Art Deco motif in the renovated park, with new “Guardians of the Galaxy” theming, because Marvel. Methinks the late Roy E. Disney, nephew of founder Walt, who twice during his lifetime helped oust CEOs of the company that bears his family name, might look askance at the way Iger has attempted to shove its new brands into every corner of the Disney parks.

With the company expanding to include franchises not traditionally associated with the Disney name, and with most of its creative content coming from existing, as opposed to new, brands — another “Star Wars” sequel or remake of an animated classic, anyone? — the company appears at a crossroads. Has a company whose founder said, “We do our best when we work with our own stories,” become, as one movie reviewer recently noted, “creatively bankrupt” and “eating its own tail” by focusing almost exclusively on sequels, remakes, and marketing? Can Disney continue to provide quality and innovative entertainment at affordable prices for families?

In his 14-year tenure as CEO, Iger has vastly expanded the Disney company’s empire. But as the underwhelming launch of Star Wars Land in California indicates, the continual acquisitions may have given the company a case of indigestion, and an identity crisis to boot.