Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) raised the bar for attractions when it opened its Wizarding World of Harry Potter at its Universal Studios Florida and California theme parks. These went beyond being just a section of the theme park. They are instead immersive lands where you feel like you're visiting a different place.
Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) made some effort to achieve that when it opened Pandora: The World of Avatar at its Animal Kingdom in Florida. That section of the park does make it feel like you're on a different planet. But, unlike the Harry Potter attractions, visitors had fairly low expectations because Avatar was one movie, with a limited backstory.
That's certainly not true for Star Wars, which has an extensive universe of films, television shows, books, and more. Tie Fighters and X-Wings, countless characters, and even minor details like Blue Milk are not only known to fans -- they also set up a certain level of expectation.
Disney met those expectations when it launched Galaxy's Edge this year, creating a land that's every bit as immersive as Harry Potter's. Investors in the company should ignore initial reports of low attendance at these new attractions at its California and Florida parks and focus on the longer-range viability of the largest additions the company has ever made to its theme park operations.
It's a whole new world
Disney made a smart choice in not setting its theme park addition on a known Star Wars planet. That would have been limiting and may also have led to visitor nitpicking. Galaxy's Edge is instead set on a new planet -- Batuu -- that conveniently has many of the features fans would expect in a Star Wars land.
That allows the company to offer a cantina that's a lot like the one where Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi met Han Solo and Chewbacca, without having to deliver a note-for-note replica. The same is true of the other sections of Batuu. They have a distinct Star Wars feel, but aside from the Millennium Falcon (which looks like it could take off), there's nothing specific from the movies to make comparisons to.
Galaxy's Edge also is the first Disney land where the cast members offer an immersive experience. They speak in modified English and throw around terms like "may the spire keep you" or wishing you "bright suns," since the fictional planet has more than one. Employees are all well versed in these terms but will make an exception if you ask where the bathroom is instead of calling it a "refresher," as would be the correct lingo.
It's a small touch that could have been hokey, but it's subtle enough to add to the immersive nature of the land. The same can be said of the shops, food stalls, and a mix of Stormtroopers, well-known characters, and Resistance personnel walking around. The bad guys act like bullies (with a Disney level of good fun), and the heroes mostly stick to the shadows. They'll pose for pictures, but more furtively than a traditional character meet-and-greet.
The biggest drawback of the land -- and the thing that has probably caused some future visitors to wait -- is that it only has one ride. Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run lets you take an active role in how the ride plays out as either a pilot, gunner, or engineer. That gives it a lot of repeat-visit value, but that does not make up for the fact that the second ride, Rise of the Resistance, won't open until Dec. 5 in Florida and Jan. 17 in California.
The lack of rides can be corrected
Disney has built an impressive land that's fun to walk around even though there's not much to do. Rise of the Resistance, which is supposed to be the signature attraction, will make Galaxy's Edge a more complete experience.
Two rides are generally the accepted minimum for a theme park land (Pandora has two; the Harry Potter sections in Orlando each have two, plus the train that connects the two separate lands). Offering only one makes it easier to put off a visit until the land is complete.
That makes sense, but shareholders should realize that once people do visit -- even in its current state -- they are likely going to want to come back. Galaxy's Edge is a leap forward for Disney: the company's first themed land that truly seems like another place, where the outside world pretty much ceases to exist. In the long run, that will be insanely popular with Star Wars fans and a driver for visits by even non-fans in the way that Harry Potter has been for Universal.
Yes, these lands were hugely expensive to build, at roughly $1 billion each, but Disney got its money's worth (or at least it will have once the second ride opens). Galaxy's Edge makes Hollywood Studios at Disney World a full-day park (one you plan to spend at least one day in during your visit) for families. And it makes Disneyland a lot more appealing to adults. That will drive revenue and make this seem like a very smart investment for the company.