With Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser less than three months away from opening, Walt Disney World has embarked upon its final marketing push for the Halcyon hotel. This has resulted in some “interesting” moves by the company, fan backlash, theories, and more. In this post, we’ll try to answer the question: what the heck is going on with Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser?!
This Star Wars story starts with the “The Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration” that aired post-Thanksgiving and featured Imagineer Ann Morrow Johnson and actor Sean Giambrone of the Goldbergs. The two take a brief tour of the starship Halcyon, which only really showcases the bridge, bar, and some hallways.
This video was criticized for a lot of different reasons. Personally, I was mostly confused that Disney would advertise a boutique experience that’s very expensive and (was) sold out for months during a holiday special airing on ABC and aimed at mainstream audiences. Beyond that, my biggest frustration is a rehash of my perpetual complaint that Walt Disney World talks down to consumers, as if we’re 8 years old rather than adults. I’ve come to assume this is a “me problem” as few other fans seem to share this sentiment.
To my surprise, some widely-read tech and pop culture sites did take issue with the condescending and cringey tone of the video. (Perhaps Disney needs to do better with knowing its audience and “turn off” the juvenile tone in marketing that’s aimed at normal people who aren’t super fans?) Those critiques also took issue with the substance of what was being shown, which honestly, I mostly missed in frustration about the presentation.
Walt Disney World is no stranger to poorly-received marketing in 2021, so this in and of itself was not particularly notable. However, Disney’s response is:
Disney deleted the video from YouTube, and totally scrubbed clips of the walk-through from social media. This is noteworthy for a couple reasons. First, because there were a lot of articles–including puff pieces–that embedded the clip while criticizing or promoting Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, and now those have almost no marketing value. Articles hyping up an ‘inside look’ at Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser fall flat when that video is replaced with the above.
Second, only a few months ago, Disney released a handful of Genie+ and Lightning Lane related videos, one of which went on to be Disney Parks’ most “disliked” video of all time. (The others performed similarly.) Despite that, they’re all still up. This led many fans to speculate that there was more to the story and a deeper explanation for Disney taking the extra step of scrubbing Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser’s sneak peek from YouTube and social media.
The theory is that the video caused cancellations of existing bookings. As you might recall, one month ago during the quarterly earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek boasted that Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser was seeing strong guest demand and was “virtually” fully booked for its first four months of operation.
However, availability has been popping up for March in the last couple of weeks. This has led many to speculate that–unlike the Genie videos where dislikes simply translate to fan frustration over an inevitable product–the Galactic Starcruiser video is actually counterproductive, driving cancellations instead of new bookings.
That’s one scenario. Another is that final payment is due 90 days before “sailing” aboard the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. That mark is now being reached for those early reservations, and they’re the ones that are disproportionately cancelling. It’s entirely possible that some of those guests are not liking what they see from the latest marketing, and proactively cancelling their reservations as a result.
It’s also possible that some of those bookings were “aspirational,” or bookings made by guests who hoped to be able to afford Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, were on the fence, or uncertain about their plans. Basically, people who just wanted to lock-in the option to do an early ‘cruise’ before availability sold out. We know this is a possibility because it always happens with Walt Disney World reservations.
One of our first pieces of advice when it comes to booking Free Dining is to lock-in a reservation early even if you’re unsure of plans because availability goes fast. Another piece of advice is to check back ~48 hours later if you couldn’t get what you wanted because that’s when courtesy holds expire.
When it comes to promotions or literally anything Disney reserves that is refundable or not pre-paid in full, more availability always opens up later because people hoard reservations or make aspirational bookings. It’s such a wholly unremarkable and expected phenomenon that it’s a common component of advice for scoring reservations.
The key distinction is that Walt Disney World doesn’t delete marketing materials about Free Dining or other promotions when placeholders start falling off. In other words, there’s definitely a deeper reason for Disney deleting the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser video, and it’s probably the straightforward one–fears that it was doing more harm than good.
However, there’s also the reality that availability had been fluctuating for a while–we mentioned it back in the November update to our Guide to Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser. It’s entirely possible this video exacerbated cancellations by a significant amount. It’s also possible the company is extra-sensitive here because it’s a new and unprecedented product, and there’s a lot on the line.
In judging fan response, I’m guessing there’s absolutely truth to the former explanation–that a lot of people aren’t liking what they’re seeing. In seeing that new availability is disproportionately for the earliest dates in March, I’m guessing there’s also truth to the latter explanation. If it were exclusively a matter of the experience looking bad, cancellations should be evenly distributed across all months–but they’re not.
It’s also worth noting that rebookings happen pretty quickly. What’s on the calendar differs from hour to hour–within the last few days, I’ve seen availability open up for the first few sailings open up, book up, and become available again. I’ve even seen nothing at all for March through June on one occasion. The point is that the current calendar isn’t set in stone, and could represent as little as a single available room.
On a related note, we’ve noticed that there are a lot of Walt Disney World fans who are actively cheering for the failure of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. I suspect there are a range of reasons for this, from schadenfreude to spillover from unrelated guest-unfriendly decisions to generalized frustrations about Disney’s handling of Star Wars to perceptions of pricing. Some of aspects of this I “get” even if I don’t agree.
Personally, I think there’s a big difference between hoping this will fail and wanting After Hours, Genie+ or some other upcharge to be rejected by fans. In the latter scenarios, the company might be forced to backtrack on price increases, nickel and diming, or other cutbacks. Consumer pushback is perfectly healthy, and can result in improvements on those fronts or other offerings that can be easily changed.
That will not be the case with Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, which includes physical infrastructure that had over one hundred million dollars invested in it. Whatever “lesson” you think Disney will learn if this fails, I can assure you that won’t be the company’s actual conclusions.
The takeaway won’t be that they’ve raised prices too much or lost touch with the middle class. It won’t be that people don’t want Disney’s version of Star Wars. It won’t be that they should build more rides instead of expensive accommodations. The company already has broader market research about all of that, and those decisions will continue forward without regard for a niche product’s reception.
For better or worse, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is an undeniably envelope-pushing concept that gave Imagineering tremendous creative freedom. This is one of the biggest risks that the company has let Imagineering take in a long time. It’s easy to miss that because we all often wear blinders or have biases based on our personal preferences. Setting those aside, it should be easy to see that Galactic Starcruiser is big, bold and relatively unprecedented.
Specifically, Imagineering created something outside the box that offered full immersion, interactivity, entertainment, and personalization in a highly-themed environment. If Galactic Starcruiser fails, the conclusion is going to be that guests don’t want immersion, interactivity, entertainment, personalization, or highly-themed environments. Presumably, those are things most people reading this do want, just not in this way or at this price point.
If Galactic Starcruiser succeeds, there will be lessons learned about immersion, interactivity, entertainment, personalization, and highly-themed environments. To the extent they can scale, some of those will be ported over to new additions to Walt Disney World’s theme parks.
There’s a tremendous amount of potential with all of this stuff–it’s just a question of whether guests want it and how it can be implemented in the parks. Galactic Starcruiser provides something of a play test or incubator for ideas that ultimately could make their way to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or other lands in some form. But only if the concept is deemed a success in the first place.
I’d also caution those of you who will derive some satisfaction out of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser’s potential failure…we probably won’t know for years. Sure, there will be YouTube videos and think pieces about it being a disappointment. I can assure you that those will exist regardless and were a foregone conclusion as soon as this was first announced. That’s the nature of the internet and fandom–there’s a huge market for negativity. People want to feel “vindicated” when something doesn’t comport with their preconceived notions about what it should be. I’m still waiting for that conversion of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to Agrabah.
Here in reality, the company isn’t just going to issue a press release stating “Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser was a failure. We screwed up big time by building it, and not listening to the every whim of all-knowing fans.” To the contrary, Disney will claim it has exceeded expectations on earnings calls regardless. If bookings are soft, they’ll release discounts to Cast Members or travel agents for select dates and quietly try to improve its viability behind the scenes for at least a few years. This is not the NBA Experience–it’s not just going to be shuttered by 2024.
This isn’t to say Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser won’t fail in the long-term. One topic we’ve discussed at length in other posts is how the hotel will evolve over time as it (presumably) exhausts the supply of hardcore Star Wars fans who will save and splurge on the concept and pivots to more affluent clientele. It should go without saying, but those two types of guests have dramatically different expectations, and it’s hard to see this having the range to accommodate both.
Part of me wonders whether such a pivot is even possible. I love that Disney bet big on this, going all-in on the immersion. However, in so doing, they left no safety net. There are no windows. There is no pool. There are no gardens or “grounds” to speak of. There’s no space outside to add any of that, either. It’s hard to imagine this becoming a luxury boutique hotel given the circumstances.
Despite the high price points, my assumption is that Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser needs to operate at a pretty high occupancy rate to be financially viable. This might surprise some of you, but again, it’s an issue of scale. The Halcyon only has around 100 rooms, which is tiny by hotel standards.
On top of that, it’s undoubtedly expensive to operate. There’s a lot of technology and accompanying maintenance needs, plus performers and the guest to Cast Member ratio is much, much lower than a traditional hotel. Even the supporting soft infrastructure is more costly–dedicated phone lines and agents trained specifically on Galactic Starcruiser, costly marketing for this one resort, etc. Pop Century is undoubtedly far more lucrative for Walt Disney World than even a “successful” Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.
Ultimately, this saga is not over. The “Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade” is right around the corner, and it’ll be interesting to see whether that includes a segment on Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, and if so, whether it’s tonally different or substantively more impressive.
For our part, we probably won’t be covering Galactic Starcruiser much more until experiencing it ourselves (we’ve already made final payment, so we’re locked in at this point!) for a couple of reasons. First, this is an expensive experience that a very small percentage of guests will be able to afford. From a planning perspective, it does not ‘deserve’ disproportionate coverage–it’d be like if the only hotel rooms we reviewed were suites and grand villas.
Second, I’m honestly a little worried about this and don’t want to do what amounts to PR for a product that gives me pause. My perspective is that anyone reading a Disney blog is already aware of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, and most have strong opinions have made up their mind one way or the other–to book or avoid. Those who are still on the fence deserve an objective review, rather than half-baked hype or hate predicated upon superficial marketing fluff. While I really want to love Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, whether I actually do is entirely dependent upon its quality as a finished experience. We’ll keep you posted on any material updates between now and then, but otherwise, stay tuned for a full review and whatever else in March.
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What do you think about the ongoing ‘saga’ of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser? Any theories as to why Disney pulled the video? What has been your perception of marketing for Galactic Starcruiser thus far? Are you hoping that this fails to teach Disney a lesson? Or, do you want this to succeed in the hopes that it’ll be a incubator for similar in-park experiences? Predictions about Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser’s short or long-term future? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!