The opening of Rise of the Resistance at Disney Hollywood Studios on December 5 marks the end of the beginning of Galaxy’s Edge, so this seems like a good time to review the history of the land from the initial announcement to now. What follows here is my personal account of the complete story of Galaxy’s Edge, including my opinions on the new land and how it operates. Of course, this is a TouringPlans post, so it will also break down park operations, wait times, crowds, and trip planning in the post-Galaxy’s Edge version of Walt Disney World.
In The Beginning
A Star Wars land was first publicly announced by Bob Iger at the D23 Expo on August 15, 2015. Construction began at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World on April 14, 2016. In February 2017, Iger stated that the lands were scheduled to open in 2019 at both locations. In May 2018, it was announced that the Disneyland version of the land would open in summer 2019, followed by Disney’s Hollywood Studios version in late fall 2019. In February we got details about what to expect with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Finally, in March 2019, specific opening dates were announced: May 31, 2019, for Disneyland and August 29, 2019, for Walt Disney World. With the announcement, we were told that the lands would open without Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and without FASTPASS/FastPass+. On July 11, 2019, Disney announced the opening dates for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance: December 5, 2019, at Walt Disney World, and January 17, 2020, at Disneyland.
In the build-up of the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Disneyland warned guests that access may be limited due to capacity limitations of the land and park. For the first few weeks, it was required to have a reservation to enter the Star Wars land. Hotels in Anaheim raised their rates for Summer 2019. All the hype scared people away from Disneyland. Summer 2019 had lower attendance than a normal summer.
Learning from the underwhelming response to Galaxy’s Edge in California, the hype for Walt Disney World was eventually toned down. Although scary language was initially present on the Walt Disney World website, warning guests that Galaxy’s Edge or Hollywood Studios could fill to capacity, by mid-summer Disney gad removed all language from its website about limited access.
Opening Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in stages was a bit of a surprise. From Disney Parks Blog: “In light of tremendous demand, Disney made the decision to open the land in phases to allow guests to sooner enjoy the one-of-a-kind experiences that make Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge so spectacular.” In hindsight, opening a land without its headliner attraction was a mistake. The early opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was to increase revenue, not guests’ demand. The unintended consequence here is that in the future Disney probably will not open a new land without its headliner.
Operations at Walt Disney World
On May 4, 2019, Walt Disney World announced “Extra, Extra, Magic Hours.” Disney’s Hollywood Studios offered daily Extra, Extra Magic Hours from September 1 through November 2, between 6:00 and 9:00 a.m. Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom parks had Extra, Extra Magic Hours every day between August 29 and November 2, between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. The large crowds that did not materialize in California also did not show in Florida. As a result, the Extra, Extra Magic Hours provided some of the lowest-wait touring ever at the resort. It was quickly clear that these Extra, Extra Magic Hours every day for 2+ months were unnecessary, but they had been announced in advance, and Disney almost never reduces published park hours. The unintended consequence of Extra, Extra, Magic Hours is that Disney did not announce any extra park hours prior to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance opening. After the opening of Rise of the Resistance showed that interest was strong, Disney changed the Hollywood Studios opening time to 8:00 a.m. on most days in December. Then a few days later Disney adjusted opening times even earlier, to 7:00 a.m. Having taking proactive measures to handle a demand that never materialized for Fall 2019, in with Rise of the Resistance Disney is taking a reactive approach, prudently adding park hours only after demand is demonstrated.
The staggered opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is rumored to be a result of delays in the construction of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Instead of postponing the opening of the whole land, Disney decided to finish everything other than that marquis attraction. Rumors continued that Rise of the Resistance was behind schedule. Some people were expecting Disney would not make the December 5 opening date. Postponing the opening date would have been a public relations nightmare. The ride did open on-time, but it continues to operate with frequent break-downs, and lower-than-needed capacity.
Disney’s park operations came with an elegant solution to the predicament in which they were placed. Their solution for running a high-demand attraction with poor reliability and low capacity is a virtual queue. This virtual queue system, called “boarding groups”, limits the number of people waiting for the ride, and guests can maintain their location in the queue even if there are operational problems. Being a virtual queue, guests are able to ride other attractions or even leave the park.
To learn more about the Boarding Groups watch our YouTube video.
There are many unintended consequences of the boarding groups.
One rule with the virtual queue is that guests must be in the park before joining a boarding group. Since the number of people who can join a boarding group is limited, people are getting to Hollywood Studios early: very, very early. People arrive 2-3 hours before the park opens.
The unintended consequence of people arriving so early is that Disney is opening the park early. Even with a posted open time of of 7, 8, or 9 a.m., the park has been opening between 6 and 6:30 a.m. It appears that Disney is prepared for the entire park to be open that early. Disney has learned that guests will arrive 2 hours before the park opens. If they did announce a 6 a.m. opening time, guests would probably arrive at 4 a.m.
Poor Disney Communication
Part of the poor communication is that front-line Cast Members simply lack answers. Operations are changing from day to day, and Disney is learning how things are working each day. Free from the burden of adhering to any published long-term schedule or operational procedures, Disney can easily change its plans.
Disney has standard responses for many questions, and management (which should have internal expectations for ride operations) withholds information from Cast Members so they don’t have to withhold the information from guests. As a result, guests hear things like: “We don’t know when the ride will open,” or “We don’t know when the park will open,” or “We don’t know when the boarding groups will fill up.”
The standard response regarding Disney transportation is that buses start running 45 minutes before the park opens. Typically buses run earlier due to restaurant reservations and tours, and Hollywood Studios buses are currently starting at 6:30 a.m.
One unintended consequence of opening the park prior to published park opening is some great touring at Hollywood Studios. Not only are there fewer people in the park, the FastPass+ queues are closed. Therefore, all the capacity of the rides goes to the standby queue. This allows the standby queues to run 50-100% faster. Another unintended consequence of opening the park early and the rush to join the virtual queue is that the peak wait times at all attractions happen earlier in the day. Currently, we are seeing peak wait times between 9 and 11 a.m. instead of 3 and 5 p.m. With many guests being able to ride everything early, they can leave once they ride Rise of the Resistance. Evenings at Hollywood Studios are seeing lower than average crowds.
The table below shows when the peak wait times for Hollywood Studios attraction occurred since Rise of the Resistance opened, and the same time in 2018.
|Slinky Dog Dash*||1 PM||12 PM|
|Alien Swirling Saucers*||12 PM||11 AM|
|Rock Coaster||3 PM||12 PM|
|Star Tours||2 PM||11 AM|
|Toy Story Mania!||12 PM||10 AM|
|Tower of Terror||2 PM||11 AM|
Below are the average wait times for Hollywood Studios attractions for the 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. hours, since Rise of the Resistance opened, and the same time in 2018.
|9 AM||7 PM|
|Slinky Dog Dash*||98.9||73.8||58.1||51.2|
|Alien Swirling Saucers*||33.3||33.6||25.1||18.6|
|Toy Story Mania!||42.9||50.3||32.5||28.1|
|Tower of Terror||28.7||49.0||52.0||29.7|
* Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers opened June 30, 2018. Wait times were elevated in 2018 as they were new attractions.
Full Boarding Groups
The virtual queue fills up very quickly. If the virtual queue is not filled before the park opening, it will be filled within the first hour the park is open. Some guests who cannot enter the virtual queue will skip Hollywood Studios and try a different day.
The limited space in the virtual queue is keeping attendance down at Hollywood Studios. The early entry is letting people ride most attractions early. The method for computing the park’s crowd level is based on the average wait time of attractions between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. With peak wait times occurring earlier and wait times tapering off faster, the actual crowd level we post on the website are unexpectedly low. A crowd at 8 a.m. will feel like a 10 on most days, even though the afternoon will be calm.
Extra Magic Hours
Sunday, December 8, 2019, was the first day Hollywood Studios had Morning Extra Magic Hours from 6 to 8 a.m. Before Sunday it was not clear how the virtual queue would work. It was earlier announced that Rise of the Resistance would not be open during Extra Magic Hours. Once guests were in the park, it was announced that the virtual queue would open at 7:45. This meant that a guest who got into the park at 6 a.m. did not have any advantage over a guest who entered the park at 7:44 a.m. This also meant that guests who were not staying at an on-site hotel had little-to-no chance of getting in the virtual queue.
Basically, Morning Extra Magic Hours is a disadvantage for most people. Morning Extra Magic Hours at Hollywood Studios have been removed on December 15 and 22 and into January, replaced with evening Evening Extra Magic Hours from 9 to 11 p.m. As long as the virtual queue is used, I would expect to see fewer Morning Extra Magic Hours at Hollywood Studios.
The current tier structure for FastPass+ is frustrating. With the early entry, and the ability to ride most everything before the park opens, it is best to use your FastPasses at a different park.
While early entry is happening at Hollywood Studios, park-hopping can be used very efficiently at Walt Disney World. On days you want to ride Rise of the Resistance, you need to arrive very early to Hollywood Studios. By the time you ride Rise of the Resistance, you have likely experienced everything else on your plan. If you don’t care to ride Rise of the Resistance, visit a different park in the morning and go to Hollywood Studios in the late afternoon, after the early crowds have left.
Future of the Virtual Queue
We have no idea how long Rise of the Resistance will use a virtual queue. Considering how bad the opening of Rise of the Resistance could have gone, the virtual queue made the opening go very smoothly. Most people who have used the virtual queue like it, and wish to see more virtual queues. The problem with a virtual queue is that people in the virtual queue have to go somewhere else physically. A park like Volcano Bay with only virtual queues does not work great, but I could see a having a single attraction in each park with a virtual queue working well for Disney and for its guests.
What are your thoughts about the unintended consequences surrounding Star Wars at Disney’s Hollywood Studios? Let us know in the comments.