Full slate of STAR WARS through 2019: a powerful force in theme park futures

Recently I blogged some initial comments and ideas for Disney park attractions based on recent rumors about MONSTERS, INC. and TRON concepts that might appear in Anaheim, and in that article I said I’d save the topic of the STAR WARS franchise for later discussion. With today’s announcements from the CinemaCon regarding a full five-year slate of new STAR WARS films ahead, now is the time to investigate the Force field that Disney-Lucasfilm could summon to reconfigure theme parks in exciting new ways.

Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn fired a volley of proton torpedoes into the news cycle from the Vegas industry event, laying out a five-film, five-year slate of new STAR WARS films beginning with the J.J. Abrams-directed Episode VII launching a new (final?) trilogy in the ongoing saga in Summer 2015. Following Yoda’s advice — do or do not, there is no try — Horn then throttled up news to light speed, announcing that Disney (via mouse-owned Lucasfilm) will release a new STAR WARS film every year through 2019!

Episode VII will be followed by one of the undisclosed STAR WARS spinoff feature films, focusing on ‘alternate’ characters in the Lucasverse, to hit theaters in Summer 2016. Unconfirmed rumors have Boba Fett and a young Han Solo as stars of two such spinoff films, both stories likely set earlier in the STAR WARS timeline before events of Episode IV: A NEW HOPE, but no guarantees were offered today that Boba and Han are Disney/Lucasfilm’s plan.  Screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) and Simon Kinberg (SHERLOCK HOLMES) are confirmed as scribes for the two spinoff stories, but we don’t yet know who is writing for which characters.

Summer 2017 will bring us Episode VIII as the middle entry in the new STAR WARS saga trilogy, which is followed up by the second spinoff film a year later in 2018. The third STAR WARS trilogy is set to conclude with Episode IX as a Summer 2019 release . . . but who knows if Disney/LFL will stop there?!  We can speculate that the new trilogy of episodes will do well at box offices since it owns the official saga brand, it’s a direct plot continuation of Episodes I-VI and at least Episode VII has a decent shot at co-starring some of the original trilogy cast including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and perhaps even Harrison Ford.

Peter Mayhew poses with his hairy alter-ego in the STAR WARS universe.By the way, we’re also fairly confident that C3PO and R2D2 will likely return if there’s any credence to George Lucas’ early plot device that the pair of droids help to tell the entire saga’s sprawling story. On the other hand, it’s less than guaranteed that Solo’s hairy copilot, Chewbacca, will return again though this new trilogy wouldn’t feel 100% STAR WARS without the big Wookiee.  If you fans want to join the campaign to urge Chewie’s return to the trilogy, show your support at the Bring Back Chewbacca Star Wars Episode VII Facebook page. Chewie’s human counterpart, actor Peter Mayhew (@TheWookieeRoars), says he’s due for hip replacement surgery soon (once someone can build the 7′ 2″ man a size 11 hip facsimile!) and we sincerely hope this gets him back on his feet and able to reprise his role for the new films soon!

One can expect that the two spinoff films may be smaller budget projects in comparison to the trilogy films, and they might well need to be if Lucasfilm wants to meet their film-a-year schedule and maintain expected franchise quality at the same time. There is certainly much less risk attached to the spinoff films as unprecedented creations, but Disney/LFL can’t afford to alternate hits with flops in their new STAR WARS release plan either. It’s also likely that the two spinoffs might provide less inspiration to Disney Imagineers as theme park attraction fodder, especially if they’re two film stories independent of each other. These spinoffs may actually provide less distraction for park designers and give a little breathing room to focus on the trilogy films wrapping by 2019, though that fade out is still just six years away. It’s worth noting that if Disney followed George Lucas’ previous three-year release plan for STAR WARS films, this new trilogy wouldn’t conclude until 2024, giving Imagineers much more time to adapt the new films into theme park attractions.

Instead we now know that Disney/LFL plan to deliver no less than five new STAR WARS films before 2020, any or all of which could open up the franchise universe with stories, characters and locations in an unprecedented scale. Disney simply can’t afford to sit on all these new episodes and spinoffs without at least starting a Bantha stampede of movie-inspired attractions, shows and designs into its theme parks, both old and new. Does that mean there needs to be an immediate rush to design a blitz of new STAR WARS attractions and/or an original STAR WARS-based Disney park itself?  No.  And yes.

The year 2019 seems like its far, far away now, but that more rounded STAR WARS galaxy looms much closer than we think given how long it can take Disney Imagineers to develop new attractions, shows and the latest technology to operate them up to tomorrow’s park standards of E-Ticket excellence. This franchise is far too big to distribute across Disney parks with an eye dropper here and there without a unified park-spanning plan. The STAR WARS brand simply demands its own devoted theme park at some point given its global popularity with generations of built-in fans waiting to walk through Lucas-inspired worlds like Tatooine, Coruscant, Dagobah and Hoth.

Tim Delaney concept art for a proposed STAR WARS land in Disney theme parks.At the very least, entire STAR WARS lands must be on the design launching pads of Imagineers if they aren’t already — indeed, we know proposed designs were at least painted in concept form for Disneyland Paris by Tim Delaney years ago, and explorations were made to install a STAR WARS animatronic character show or a proposed “warrior coaster” pitting riders in X-wing ships against TIE fighters, dodging and dueling against each other on twin coaster tracks. None of those concepts saw much development let alone Disney park daylight, but we are now certain that mere destination updates to Star Tours will not be enough to satisfy fans’ thirst for STAR WARS theme park adventures they can see, feel and live in solid dimensional sensory thrills.

The true Jedi mind trick that Imagineers now face is jumping to light speed in their development of these STAR WARS attractions before the Lucas-made parade passes the parks by again. We can’t know how much the Disney-Lucasfilm deal inspired (forced?) the production of a third STAR WARS film trilogy or if indeed George Lucas’ old comments about plotting out nine (or even twelve?!) saga episodes was more than fan-wished fantasy. Either way, Disney theme parks can and will benefit from the saga not being over in theaters as of 2005, but from the moment the new trilogy was announced Imagineers’ deadline clock began ticking once again. Five to six years equals a few blinks of the eye in theme park development, given how prior park expansion plans were previously measured on the scale of a Disney Decade back in 1990. Can Disney’s developers and dreamers afford to use all five of these STAR WARS-making years simply conjuring up attraction and show ideas on drawing boards without installing them in parks before this new era of the Force fades out of theaters once again?  Indeed, can they act and build quickly enough to avoid not having new STAR WARS rides in parks before 2016 or 2017 at the earliest, roughly two-thirds of the way through this new slate of films?

Making this all an even greater challenge, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim is quickly running out of expansion room with now-crowded Disney California Adventure likely being the only park able to add on an actual, sizable Star Wars Land to its city-confined acreage. Disneyland is quite hemmed in today with little room beyond its historic berm to spread out and gain new-land breathing room without some serious large scale construction — either by rebranding an area like Tomorrowland into an all-STAR WARS area (while sacrificing all the non-SW ride themes now built into it), or possibly busting out of its berm to take over the Pinocchio parking lot to DL’s west (an even less likely option). Neither seems a truly viable plan for Walt’s original theme park given its more intimate scale and span which always forces park designers to be highly creative in swapping out old attractions for new or squeezing in a new ride without losing something else. There is definitely a disturbance in the Force when it comes to landing STAR WARS into Disneyland on any significant scale. DCA might fare better but as Cars Land’s recent crowd-drawing success proves, the more high-concept lands Imagineers add to the second Anaheim park, the more congested it gets which then requires an upgrade to Disneyland’s attractions to pull some of those crowds back across the plaza again.

Larger park resorts like Walt Disney World, perhaps Disneyland Paris, certainly Disneyland Tokyo or Hong Kong Disneyland might make better candidates to add on large Star Wars lands. The Shanghai Disney Resort scheduled to open in 2015 is too new to contemplate pairing it with a ‘competing’ STAR WARS park next door, so we’ll count it out for the near future. WDW could actually expand with an entirely new STAR WARS park itself since it’s the only other resort in the U.S. where fan demand for STAR WARS is likely the strongest. Anaheim’s resort is simply too land-locked by the city surrounding it to expand with a third full theme park unless Disney starts spending future STAR WARS and Marvel film profits to buy up huge sections of town, assuming such a land grab is even possible, feasible and legal. Any other scenario would require a very separate theme park in SoCal which absolutely defeats Disney’s park resort destination mindset which has proven too profitable to ignore or abandon by setting up competing parks in Southern California.  The horizon of large scale STAR WARS content, for now, awaits in the east and Florida if not overseas as well.

Complicating matters even further, Disney has now bought itself into a creatively schizophrenic conundrum: how does the Mouse develop both STAR WARS and Marvel superhero properties for its attractions simultaneously and get them both into theme parks while the hit franchises are still hot and relevant with fans? It’s one thing to have a 2019 clock counting down on five new STAR WARS films, but the Marvel films are already beginning their master planned Phase Two of releases beginning with IRON MAN 3 debuting in early May.  Six new films are slated in Marvel’s movie queue through 2015 with THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA sequels plus a second AVENGERS assembly and the debut of ANT-MAN rounding out the roster. It will be no picnic for Imagineers to keep up with in developing Marvel-based rides and shows alone!

Robert Downey Jr. is already talking about retirement from suiting up in Iron Man armor: back in 2007 the actor projected a 5-to-7-year window in which he could play Tony Stark and guess what, we’re already in that window of closing opportunity. Many of the other AVENGERS actors might well need re-signing after AVENGERS 2 in 2015 to continue their tours of Marvel duty, and there’s no guarantee that Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans will re-up after their contracts expire. Recasting all those rolls are a possibility to be sure if Disney/Marvel continue mining the mega-franchise for stories and profits, but there’s also risk in losing that assembled magic at the box offices when the studios begin swapping in new actor faces into popular characters. In theme park attraction terms, Disney doesn’t necessarily enjoy the open-ended future of Marvel adventures that the film studio might rely on comfortably.

Between STAR WARS and Marvel, Disney park runners and designers have an embarrassment of wealth now but this could also prove to be a burden in terms of timing — which is the key to capitalizing on Marvel heroes’ current box office success — and funding development of both mega-franchises simultaneously to meet fan demand.

Are Imagineers and park CEOs already summoning the Force to deal with these logistical and economic challenges in order to fully exploit their acquired film franchises and become the ultimate theme park power in the universe? Perhaps, though of course they’re keeping very tight lips about their progress.  If not, they’re going to need a lot of help to get all this movie-based magic into Disney parks and fill ride/show seats within the next five or ten years! Most of all, they absolutely require a truly masterful, big picture plan to coordinate it all and do justice to both properties. The Force-embracing ghosts of Yoda and Obi-Wan are inspiring, but WDI really needs to summon up the creative spirit of Walt Disney himself to truly  innovate theme park creation for the next decade and beyond. Bringing both STAR WARS and Marvel to life in themed entertainment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Disney: they bought their way into this chance and now they must to do everything necessary to turn hit movies into hit attractions that will power theme park profits for years to come.

There’s a smart, forward-looking way to accomplish all this and more… a subject to be explored in the near future on SWSC.

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