Florida Travel

Disney’s planned Star Wars, Toy Story lands build on movie franchises

A Star Wars-themed land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will transport guests to a never-before-seen planet, a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space where Star Wars characters and their stories come to life.
A Star Wars-themed land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will transport guests to a never-before-seen planet, a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space where Star Wars characters and their stories come to life. Disney Parks

Have you noticed lately that when theme parks add new attractions they add entire lands, not just one ride or show? 

That was the case again last week when Disney Parks announced megawatt additions to Hollywood Studios in Orlando — whole new lands with multiple attractions designed around the Star Wars and Toy Story movie franchises. 

That’s not always the case, even with the newest rides. Universal Orlando — which had such a huge hit with the the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure that it built a whole new Wizarding World at Universal Studios, both with multiple attractions — unveiled plans this spring for a standalone King Kong ride. Disney is building a standalone ride based on the movie Frozen at Epcot. 

But it does seem to be happening more frequently. 

Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Co., unveiled limited details about the new Star Wars and Toy Story lands last weekend during the fan convention D23 Expo in Southern California. He described the new Star Wars land — which will be at both Hollywood Studios in Orlando and Disneyland in California — as being on “a whole new planet … a remote port, one of the last stops before wild space.”

At Disney Studios, which already has the Star Tours ride, the new 14-acre Star Wars land will have two major new attractions — an interactive attraction that will put guests in the middle of a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance, and a ride on the Millennium Falcon, where guests will be at the controls. Disney did not say when the new rides would open.

In addition, it will have these features: 

▪ The existing Star Tours motion-simulator ride will be updated this year to include locations and characters from the upcoming Episode VII, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

▪ Star Wars Launch Bay, an interactive experience, will have special exhibits and peeks behind-the-scenes at Episode VII, character meet-and-greets, special merchandise and food offerings. It will open this year.

▪ The existing Jedi Training Academy will be reimagined with a new experience that includes new characters and a new villain to battle from the Disney XD series Star Wars Rebels.

▪ Season of the Force, a new fireworks spectacular set to the score of the Star Wars movies, will begin early next year.   

The new Toy Story Land, in Florida only, will be 11 acres of Andy’s backyard with two new attractions, plus the existing Toy Story Mania! ride is being expanded to include a third track. “Guests will think they’ve been shrunk to the size of Woody and Buzz as they are surrounded by oversized toys that Andy has assembled using his vivid imagination,” Disney said in a press release.

The new additions will be a family-friendly roller coaster on the back of Slinky Dog, and a ride on flying saucers with the little green aliens from the Toy Story movies.

“I think Disney is so much about story that it can’t help itself; a standalone ride just doesn’t tell enough of a story,” said Julie Neal, co-author of The Complete Walt Disney World Fun Finds and Hidden Mickeys and other theme park books. “You have to add in a whole backstory with a history, which lends itself to theming in surrounding areas, gift shops with signature merchandise, restaurants and snack stands, etc. … I think the other parks are taking Disney’s lead on this, and it’s paying off.” 

In the past, a theme park land generally served as an umbrella for multiple stories, such as Fantasyland, which had rides based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan, Dumbo and other characters. These new themed lands, in contrast, consist of multiple attractions, shops, eateries, even specialty merchandise and drinks, all based on a single franchise or story.

All of Florida’s theme park operators have built at least one such land in recent years. The two Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter made the biggest splash, but Universal also expanded its standalone ride based on The Simpsons TV show into its own land with a second ride, midway area, brewery and specialty foods. At Legoland, the World of Chima has a water ride, an arena for racing Lego Speedorz, a water play area, a 4D movie experience and character meet-and-greet sessions; the new Heartlake City also has several attractions based on the Lego Friends line of toys. At Animal Kingdom, Disney is building Pandora — The World of Avatar, with a flying banshee ride, a boat ride, floating mountains and a bioluminescent forest. 

At Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, instead of entertainment franchises, themed areas are based on animals — usually a ride paired with animal habitat plus specialty food and merchandise. SeaWorld has Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin; its Mako roller coaster, scheduled to open next summer, will be part of a shark-themed land. Busch Gardens’ Cheetah Hunt coaster is complemented by Cheetah Run, a habitat with live cheetahs.

“Themed lands are another attraction that parks can throw into the mix as they try to draw more visitors,” said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. “Obviously, it helps if you have a beloved franchise such as Harry Potter or Star Wars, but people love any opportunity to visit an engaging new place where they can enjoy good food and entertainment.”

But, Niles adds, “Just because some parks are now building entire lands themed to a single franchise doesn’t mean that they won’t also continue to build standalone rides.”