With 28 acres of attractions spread across two states, the new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is not just a big moment for fans of the space saga, it's also a game changer for Disney's parks division.
"It's the most immersive land that we've ever built," Bob Chapek, Disney's chairman of parks, experience and products, told CNN Business in a sit-down interview this week.
With Disneyland's Galaxy's Edge looming in the background, Chapek enumerated all the ways in which guests can truly feel like they've been swept off to a far, far away trading port on the planet Batuu.
"You've got the food and beverage all in-story," Chapek said, using a term to describe how the new land wraps guests in the Star Wars storyline. "The 'cast members' are in-story. Of course, all the merchandise in the shops. It doesn't feel like a gift shop. It feels like you're actually in Batuu. That's unique."
That "unique" experience, however, doesn't come cheap. Disney reportedly spent $1 billion on the sprawling 14-acre land in Disneyland in Anaheim, California. A second Galaxy's Edge is opening later this summer in Florida's Disney World.
Disney is investing this money in its parks and resorts at a time when profits in its media division are falling. Profits hit a high in 2015, but have since dipped 15%. In that same period, profits for Disney parks and resorts have gone up 47%.
With synergy as the ongoing strategy for growing its bottom line, Disney is drawing inspiration from its biggest box office hits to upgrade its parks: A "Guardians of the Galaxy" roller coaster is coming to Florida's Epcot. Marvel-theme attractions are coming to Disney's California Adventure, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland. And a "Zootopia"-themed land is coming to Shanghai's Disneyland Park.
"We're asked to build the physical manifestations of what our guests love to watch on screens," Chapek said about how the parks play into Disney's corporate strategy. "We're really part of a big machine, a big story-telling machine, but we do it in a physical world. I think that's what makes us a bit different."
What to expect on opening day
When Galaxy's Edge opens on Friday, it will have only one attraction: Millenium Falcon: Smuggler's Run, an interactive ride piloted by the guests in the cockpit. But Chapek says Galaxy's Edge is more than just a backdrop for a single ride.
"It's not just about an attraction," Chapek said. "I think the greatest attraction here is really the land itself. We think this is going to set a new high watermark for Disney theme parks, let alone all other theme parks."
In addition to flying the Millennium Falcon using state-of-the-art video rendering technology, guests who visit Galaxy's Edge can build their own lightsabers and droids, eat galactic fare like fried Endorian tip-yip, and drink Blue Milk, one of Luke Skywalker's favorite beverages.
Galaxy's Edge exemplifies Disney's commitment to immersive entertainment. Each individual "cast member," another name for theme park employees, came up with their own creative back story for their Galaxy's Edge character.
"You look at the detail in the Millennium Falcon and all of a sudden, you suspend your disbelief that you're in a theme park and you actually start believing you're in the land of Batuu," Chapek said. "If you interact with a 'cast member,' you get the depth of their own story and they've woven it into the larger story, the larger mythology, of Star Wars."
And there's still more to come with Galaxy's Edge
Rise of the Resistance, another attraction, will open later this year. Disney hasn't revealed much about the ride, but we do know it will have multiple ride systems, full-sized AT-AT Walkers and even a John Williams score.
Disney is also planning a full-service Star Wars-themed hotel, which will eventually open near Disney World's Hollywood Studios.
The resort will feature a starship design, employees in character, and an option for guests to dress in Star Wars attire as well. Chapek says it's "much more akin to a cruise ship journey" than staying in a hotel.
"You stay immersed in the story for several days in a row. Then, of course, when you finally do land, you land in Batuu," he said. "The most important thing is it's not a hotel, it's a journey."
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