ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Disney announced earlier this year that the company would be closing its Star Wars-themed “Galactic Starcruiser” hotel, with its final voyage scheduled from Sept. 28-30.
The announcement came as returning CEO Robert Iger implements his plan to cut back on an estimated $5.5 billion in costs for the company, including thousands of job cuts and the cancellation of its Lake Nona project.
While the hotel wasn’t spared in the company’s cost-saving measures, former Disney Imagineer Ryan Harmon told News 6 that there were steps Disney could have taken to make it work better.
Harmon worked as a show writer and concept designer for several Disney projects before taking on the role of president at Zeitgeist, a California-based production company that helps design attractions for entertainment brands.
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He discussed the Galactic Starcruiser hotel with News 6 and pointed out that the project wasn’t exactly budget-friendly.
“They created an experience that only can host up to (about) 400 guests... When you have that few guests, you cannot operate with a large staff because those people cost a lot of money,” Harmon said. “And the concept they developed is very heavy on employees — employees who wear costumes and are part of the story.”
The hotel features an immersive experience that allows guests to role-play as characters in a unique story within the fictional Star Wars universe. However, that acts as a double-edged sword, Harmon explained.
“The hotel did not have a pool, not sure it had a gym. It was kind of Star Wars all the time, 24/7,” he said. “And for somebody who is a floater and probably even a swimmer, it’s too much!”
Harmon’s colleague, Joe Lanzisero — another former Imagineer who worked with Disney for nearly 40 years — explained that “floaters” are those who know about a certain franchise and might even like it, even though they haven’t seen many of the movies. Meanwhile, “swimmers” are bigger fans of the franchise who are more invested than the floaters — but they still aren’t the biggest.
That title goes to the “divers,” but there just aren’t enough of those sorts of fans to sustain the hotel, Lanzisero argued.
“I think where Disney kind of lost their way with the whole Star Wars book — with the Galaxy’s Edge and with the hotel — is that they went in with this assumption that everyone was an Uber fan, everybody was a diver,” Lanzisero said. “That everybody coming into the experience would have a deep, deep, deep understanding and connection with the brand.”
Harmon added that the cost of the hotel was too much for those who aren’t huge fans of the original source material.
“It’s really hard nowadays to justify spending anywhere near $1,000 to $2,000 a night to stay in what’s not even a very nice hotel to be part of the story,” Harmon said. “It’s just, it’s beyond people’s reach, I think, especially during the pandemic.”
According to Lanzisero, Disney could have made the hotel more attractive for the floaters and swimmers by bringing in more of the original cast of characters, rather than just characters from newer movies.
“So many people have that idea of the Star Wars universe that was formed by those earlier films. And I think we’ve had kind of an oversight on Disney’s part not to let people spend more time in those worlds, choosing those worlds from the earlier films and those characters from the earlier films,” he told News 6.
As an example, Harmon noted that he visited Galaxy’s Edge in California years ago around when “The Mandalorian” TV series had initially been released. At that time, he couldn’t find any Baby Yoda dolls for his young daughter.
“The employees literally told us that Grogu — or Baby Yoda — does not exist in that world,” Harmon explained. “That land or place exists between this story in this film this year, and that character doesn’t exist at that time.”
Harmon argues that because the resort tried to emphasize the franchise’s canon by removing characters that didn’t belong — much like how Galactic Starcruiser omits characters to let guests explore the modern films — they were leaving money on the table.
“Let’s fast forward to about a year or two ago. And guess what? Everywhere in Galaxy’s Edge — Baby Yoda dolls,” Harmon said.
Lanzisero mirrored Harmon’s thoughts, discussing a Winnie the Pooh attraction he helped work on in Tokyo.
“When we first sat down to do that attraction, we kind of made a list of what were all the things that people remember from the Winnie the Pooh films. And this is not about telling a story of the film,” Lanzisero said. “It was those moments and those places that we knew people expect to see. ‘I want to go to the 100 Acre Wood. I want to bounce with Tigger. I want to hear that Heffalumps and Woozles song.’”
Between the steep prices, the lack of typical hotel amenities, and the reliance on modern characters in the franchise, the hotel was a tough sell for many guests.
Despite the shortcomings, however, Harmon said he had to give credit where credit is due.
He explained that while the hotel wasn’t necessarily the success that Disney wanted, it did give fans something to be excited about.
“I would definitely applaud Disney and the management and the team for taking the risk to create an overnight immersive experience because until then, it really didn’t exist,” Harmon said. “And it’s definitely what people want and where things are going. If you look at the success of Comic Con, for example, people want to roleplay, they like to dress up, they want to be immersed in the story, and they want to have agency.”
For more on Harmon, Lanzisero and Zeitgeist, you can visit the production company’s website here.
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