Last weekend brought the astonishing news – at Disney’s 23rd Annual Convention, or “D23 Expo,” as everyone is now hip to calling it – that Disney will build a so-called “Star Wars Land” in both Orlando and Anaheim. Fans can rejoice: Disney chief Bob Iger claims that “nothing will be out of character or stray from mythology… We’re going to transport guests to a whole new planet. It will be real, it will be authentic.” Yes, that sounds terrific. And placing the Florida version at Disney’s Hollywood Studios Park makes sense: Star Tours and associated Lucas characters are already there, and that particular park, more than its three lead sisters (The Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot) needs the most help. It’s the California plans that are a bit more of a…disturbance in the Force.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the announcement is that the new 14-acre “Land” will represent the largest expansion ever undertaken in the original 1955-built park; we might have expected them to put the droids and aliens in their newer, companion park, California Adventure, where the Anaheim people have concentrated most of their expansion energies this century. Instead, the new Star Wars Land will be built just behind Frontierland and Fantasyland, as on this map.
Disney’s public statements don’t admit it, but the decision to anchor Luke Skywalker’s galaxy in Disney’s “home” park has everything to do with the spectacular success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s parks. Now Disney wants to simultaneously play the same game and raise the game.
According to slashfilm, Disney did consider simply replacing Tomorrowland in California with Star Wars Land, but ultimately rejected the idea. Ever since Disney first bought Star Wars three years ago, online fans have been agitating for a Star Wars Land much like other groups have been clamoring for a woman on a $20 bill. In that case, the government reacted by promising a woman on a $10 bill, which is both gratifying and puzzling, as though they wanted to be both responsive and independent – kind of like Disney. But it’s not too late for the government to change its mind about $20s, and it’s not too late for Disney to change its mind about Anaheim’s Tomorrowland simply becoming Star Wars Land. Here are the three main reasons Disney should do that:
It’s Closer to Walt Disney’s Vision of the Park. For six decades now, Disneyland visitors have entered, walked down Main Street, arrived at the circle, taken pictures with the iconic castle, and then decided: door number 1, 2, 3, or 4? Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, or Tomorrowland? In the West, where we read left to right, the placement of Tomorrowland on the right doesn’t feel like coincidence: it’s organically the hopeful end of the story, the future waiting to happen. But there’s also something inherently pleasing about the entire park flowing in and out of that circular junction – very unlike most other theme parks, where the center is walled off from the guests who must traipse around it to get to all the good stuff. It’s true that Walt Disney did authorize a New Orleans Square shingle between Adventureland and Frontierland, but that was more because he had no obvious place to put the Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Caribbean – and besides, that was all of two rides. (“Critter Country” was once Frontierland, and shares its wooden-porch aesthetic.) Star Wars Land, as projected, will be the size of the current Fantasyland, and that deserves its own pride of place directly facing the statue of Walt and Mickey. We don’t need a lot of Star Wars-obsessed tween boys traipsing noisily past Peter Pan and Snow White on their way to the Millennium Falcon. And frankly, we don’t need everyone having to walk past the Matterhorn and Autopia and Finding Nemo as they go back and forth between two science-fiction-lands. (Don’t bother to comment that Star Wars takes place “a long time ago” – it’s sci-fi.)
Tomorrowland Isn’t Worth Saving. Ever heard of someone blowing an audition but getting the part anyway? That feels apropos in the wake of the Tomorrowland film bombing with audiences, and Disney doubling down on the Land anyway. I love “raygun gothic” as much as anyone, but the Jetsons-like future is looking a little Zeerusted, with the absolutely crucial exception of the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (which could be seamlessly moved to the Hollywood part of California Adventure). No one wants to get rid of Space Mountain, of course. But Disney is already re-christening that “Hyperspace Mountain” as part of its so-called Season of the Force – so why not just keep the remodel, with X-wing fighters and such flying overhead? In fact, Disney’s plans for the Season of the Force sound like they would make good permanent changes to Tomorrowland – new Star Tours adventures, new Star Wars short at the Captain E-O Theater (and rename that thing, for Force’s sake), new Lucasy exhibitions in the Innoventions Auditorium. After Star Tours and the Jedi School (dancing Stormtroopers!) move to Star Wars Land (and if they don’t, that will be confusing), what’s left besides Space Mountain? Are we fighting to keep the Starcade? I don’t know anyone who wants to keep Astro Orbiters – it’s the wrong color, it’s a very, very slow-moving queue (like Dumbo or any carousel, because guests must wait for a group of people to be finished with it before the next group can start), and it was better/scarier as Rocket Jets above the old PeopleMover.
This Can Work Really Well. First, designate the Autopia swath and the Finding Nemo submarine ride as part of Fantasyland, where they’re a better fit in any event (cars and submarines aren’t futuristic, if they ever were). Close off Tomorrowland’s Autopia entrance and re-open the entrance next to the Matterhorn queue. The Monorail is already pleasantly Star Warsy, and could be part of some lingering raygun gothic, Coruscant-like design. (For the less obsessed, Coruscant is the “city planet” from Episodes I-III.) Or maybe the Monorail arrives in a mini-Cloud City, and we take new ramps down into the (currently) Tomorrowland Terrace and Jedi School area, avoiding Nemo. Either way Disney should keep all this Season of the Force stuff, move Buzz Lightyear to California Adventure, remake the Astro Orbiters into Pod Racing, and bring back the 360-degree movie theater with something new (sounds perfect for the smart people at Lucas). Starcade: meh, but it could be cleverly combined with their Cantina Band ideas. And then, yes, raze the Innoventions Center – I don’t know a kid who’s been in there since it changed from “America Sings” – and build the projected design into the southeastern corner of the park, just “after” Hyperspace Mountain if you’re coming from Walt’s statue. (Give the Disneyland Railroad riders a new thrill that goes beyond fake dinosaurs.) It’s true that the Land as storyboarded is a little more – dare we say it? – Pandora-like than Space Mountain as currently presented, but if Disney ties it all together with marching Stormtroopers, nutty aliens, and pop-up video screens of “wanted” guests (supposed fugitives), people will forget any dissonances and love the whole thing. (“Star Tours” could stay where it is and be contextualized as a futuristic travel agency-type place on this new planet.) As a bonus, if you look at a map of Disneyland, you’ll see that expanding this area eastward could actually make the park more symmetrical, not less. And there’s no reason not to go deep into the parking lot if necessary; in these days where you have to take a shuttle from your car, they can always build more parking.
If Disney goes with its current plan, it will watch as its Jedi-free Tomorrowland becomes a shell of its old self, its own Critter Country with one big attraction (the one with Mountain in its name) and a few odd supplements. Let’s not be too sentimental about the Zeerusted 1960s’ vision of tomorrow that moviegoers soundly rejected three months ago. Disney was right to swallow its pride when it put Pixar’s John Lasseter in charge of the animation department – and one Frozen later, that decision has paid off brilliantly. Disney was right to partially swallow its pride by putting something partly called “Wars Land” in Walt’s original park. But now they need to go full swallow and, instead of isolating Skywalker Village to the far reaches of the Empire, put Star Wars Land in its proper place. Give the future over to Lucasfilm and ILM, already. May the Force Be With Them.