More “Star Wars” attractions are coming to Disney theme parks, and industry experts say the franchise is likely to play a bigger role at a place where movies are right at home: Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World.
Although Disney hasn’t released any details about its “Star Wars” plans, the space saga is “a more natural fit in that park than in other parks,” said Bill Coan, a former designer and manager with Walt Disney Imagineering who is president of Orlando theme-park-design company ITEC Entertainment.
“It’s a film-based product, and it’s got kind of a long history associated with the studios. They can update that park, which probably could use it by now. The franchise is terrific and … it’s probably the best spot. I can’t imagine it going anywhere else.”
Bob Iger, the chief executive officer of Walt Disney Co., told analysts last month that Disney will provide more details in 2015 — the same year it will release the series’ seventh movie.
The company declined an interview, but Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, said in a statement that “all the anticipation of the new Star Wars films has fueled our excitement and energy around how best to increase the Star Wars presence in our parks.”
With diehard fans and timeless characters, “Star Wars” could be Disney’s answer to the Harry Potter series that has sent attendance soaring at Disney’s rival, Universal Orlando. Experts say the “Star Wars” movies attract a broad range of ages. The franchise also could drive more merchandise sales.
Disney recently revamped Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, a project that included a new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster. It is building a land at Animal Kingdom based on “Avatar,” and some theme-park bloggers expect a new ride based on “Frozen” at Epcot.
But Disney’s Hollywood Studios hasn’t had a new major attraction for a while. Toy Story Mania opened in 2008, with an update two years later.
The park drew 10.1 million visitors last year, a 2 percent increase from the previous year, according to estimates compiled by the Themed Entertainment Association and the consulting company AECOM. It draws the smallest number of visitors of Disney’s four Florida parks.
“It has been perceived as sort of underperforming its potential,” said John Gerner, founder of Leisure Business Advisors in Virginia.
Casey McDonald of Asbury Park, N.J., agrees.
“They should just knock down all the back of this place,” said McDonald, who visited Hollywood Studios last week with her two young children. “Make a whole ‘Star Wars’ land. A whole ‘Star Wars’ park.”
The five-year-old American Idol Experience near the Star Tours ride at Hollywood Studios closed Saturday, and Disney has not said what will replace it. The closing has raised speculation that something “Star Wars”-related could go there.
Even before Disney bought Lucasfilm and took control of the “Star Wars” franchise in 2012, the two had a long relationship through Hollywood Studios. Devotees have flocked there for years to attend Star Wars Weekends. Children can attend a Jedi Training Academy there, engaging in lightsaber battles with Darth Vader. In 2011, Disney retooled Star Tours, one of the Hollywood Studios’ original rides, which takes visitors on a journey through key movie destinations.
Guests say they’d like to see characters regularly strolling through the park and other rides based on iconic scenes such as the Mos Eisley Cantina, filled with odd creatures, and the Death Star space station.
Orancio Arteaga, a “Star Wars” fan from Mexico, said he’d like rides with more thrills.
“Those crazy ones, like a roller coaster. A little more adrenaline,” said Arteaga, 40, who visited Hollywood Studios last week.
“Star Wars” could provide an opportunity for Disney to introduce another intense ride to attract “that young single [visitor] who has disposable income,” said Armen Shaomian, a professor with the University of South Carolina’s sport and entertainment management department.
When one analyst asked Iger last month whether Disney has a franchise that can drive as much interest as Harry Potter has, he responded that “‘Star Wars’ is going to be just that.”
While the low-key Hollywood Studios seems like a natural, there could be other options, too, said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com.
Just as Universal Orlando ended up putting Harry Potter attractions in both its parks, Disney could choose to spread out its “Star Wars” presence, Niles said.
It could “have all the Ewoks be over in Animal Kingdom along with the pretend animals from ‘Avatar,'” Niles said.
“They could put different lands in different parks and use that to guide people toward some of the less wildly popular parks.”