Star Wars Land Crowds: What Happened & What to Expect

It’s been a week since Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened, and we’re back with crowd observations and predictions for both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. We’ll talk about the phenomenon of low attendance and wait times in California, whether that trend is likely to continue, and how likely it is to repeat itself in Florida.

We’ll start with Disneyland, since that version of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the one that is now greeting visitors. As noted in our Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Opening Weekend Recap, we were shocked by just how quiet Disneyland was on the land’s opening day. In fact, Disneyland was busier the days leading up to the debut than it was after.

To their credit, some people did see this coming. We had a handful of readers who were skeptical that crowds would materialize as predicted. One likened it to Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics, which was quiet because many locals left town after months of apocalyptic traffic predictions. Our response to that small minority of you would be: lucky guess. Clearly, Disneyland being a veritable ghost town is not what Disney management was predicting…

Enough Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening day park maps were printed that they are still available, as is merchandise for the debut. Every single bag-check station was fully staffed, ditto Mickey & Friends parking structure toll booths. Speaking of parking, Mickey & Friends opened (unnecessarily) at midnight, and lines were allowed to form overnight to enter the park and purchase merchandise.

The fears were not unfounded. This was the start of the summer tourism season for Southern California, most Annual Passes were not blocked out, Grad Nite was scheduled, and a huge travel conference was being held at the Anaheim Convention Center. Plus, Disneyland locals usually turn out in full force for the debut of anything, especially big-budget additions with limited edition merchandise. All of the these variables form the objective basis for what would typically be a crowded day at Disneyland.

Regardless of the great PR and very strong word-of-mouth buzz generated by the excellent guest experience during the last week, it’s tough to say that Disneyland experiencing low crowds was the plan all along. First, there’s all of the above as Exhibit A. Disney management was obviously concerned that locals would turn out in full force for the unveiling of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, overwhelming park and resort infrastructure.

Second, there’s the motivation for moving forward the opening dates of Star Wars Land in the first place, which was to buoy attendance projections and hotel occupancy. As a reminder, the opening date was not changed because everything was ahead of schedule (see Rise of the Resistance). It was moved because numbers were looking soft for the summer and fall at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, respectively.

Accordingly, it would make little sense for Disney to move forward the opening dates to help with numbers…only to create a system that discouraged attendance to the point that it hurt numbers. That’s impossible to reconcile. The only plausible scenario is that Disneyland wanted to discourage overcrowding and making negative headlines on the local news, but never expected turnout to be this low. (There’s also the subplot of Burbank leadership’s goals versus Anaheim leadership’s goals, but that’s another story for another day.)

In the week since Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge debuted, things have started to turn around in terms of crowds at Disneyland. A lot of readers have remarked that they are contemplating a quick weekend trip to Disneyland to experience these low crowds and our advice would be: don’t. 

Remember, Disneyland has a huge base of Annual Passholders and other locals living in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. These groups are highly dynamic and ‘plugged-in’ when it comes to Disneyland. Just as easily as they avoided opening day for fear of crowds, they will adjust their plans and start visiting as social media reports show Disneyland as a ghost town.

Moreover, Disneyland can lift blockouts or incentivize visits. This has already happened with Cast Members, who quickly had their early summer blockouts lifted in an effort to boost attendance. Likewise, the Disney Flex pass (although still a new offering) could be leveraged to help with numbers.

The one thing that is unlikely to change at this point is attendance among tourists. Few people are going to book quick weekend flights to go to Disneyland. This is the upside if you have the flexibility to visit last-minute. Among the Good Neighbor hotels, occupancy is actually down for this time of year (and July) and you can find some great deals between now and early August–some of the best we’ve seen since Cars Land opened.

The result of this has been the first couple hours of the day at Disneyland being pure bliss for the past week. Save for Peter Pan’s Flight, every Fantasyland dark ride has been a walk-on for at least the first hour of the day. Fantasyland wait times are driven by families, so this is one trend we anticipate being fairly sustained (at least on weekdays).

Even as afternoon and evening crowds have started to grow a bit, the rope drop crowd has not. The difference is likely that the latter is comprised disproportionately of tourists whereas the former is locals. Grad Nite guests and locals are typically ‘late risers’ or are showing up after work; vacationers are the ones getting up early to beat the crowds. It’s hard to imagine a statistically significant number of tourists booking last-minute trips to take advantage of these quiet mornings.

Also, it should go without saying, but if you are thinking about booking a last-minute trip to enjoy those low crowd mornings at Disneyland, don’t do it after June 23. That’s when the reservation period ends and boarding pass virtual queue system begins. While summer AP blockouts also take effect around that same time, it’s doubtful that will be enough of a mitigating factor to maintain these low crowds.

As for what Galaxy’s Edge crowds at Disneyland thus far mean for Walt Disney World, it’s still difficult to draw any strong conclusions. There are just so many differences between Disneyland and Walt Disney World, especially between Disneyland (park) and DHS. With that said, one big parallel that does exist is in terms of the potential attitude of tourists towards the large crowds that are/were projected.

You might recall from our 2019 Walt Disney World Crowd Predictions Post-Star Wars Land that we think September will be the best month to visit Walt Disney World from the time Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens through the end of the year. This remains our position; if anything, the experience at Disneyland has further solidified our perspective on this.

As noted, hotel occupancy among the Good Neighbor/Harbor Boulevard hotels near Disneyland is down year over year. Last we heard (and this info is now a couple months old), hotel occupancy for Walt Disney World through September was also down. This is why a ‘second wave’ of Free Dining and other discounts were released that ran through late August.

There also has been a chorus of Walt Disney World fans angered by the early opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. While we’ve had literally hundreds of comments to this effect on various blog posts, we largely wrote it off as selection bias (readers of this blog are more likely to be planners who are averse to crowds), and the reality that people who are displeased about something are more likely to be vocal than those who are pleased.

September is historically the least-busy month of the year at Walt Disney World. This is because it’s storm season and right after school goes back into session–two things that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge won’t change. On top of that, a lot of people are clearly worried about crowds at Walt Disney World in the immediate aftermath of the land’s opening. A historically slow month coupled with some people intentionally avoiding what they anticipate being a busy time could create a favorable window.

Now, this is not to say that we’re suddenly expecting opening weekend of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World to be a ghost town on par with Disneyland. The hammering home of ‘reservations required‘ is probably the biggest thing that discouraged guests from visiting on opening day at Disneyland, and (as of right now) Walt Disney World will not have that disincentive.

With that said, there’s still the real possibility that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will do enough to mitigate fears of opening day chaos. There’s also the possibility that enough guests who booked ‘calm before the storm’ vacations will have canceled. Or locals will stay home, fearful of crowds in a new land that “isn’t going anywhere.” Finally, tourists postponing trips to “wait out the crowds” is a very real phenomenon, and will undoubtedly happen to some extent here.

All of this is why we’re fairly confident in saying that, relative to other months in late 2019 and early 2020, September won’t be that bad. Note that this is not the same as saying “it’ll be uncrowded or dead!” This is a comparison to other months of the year–September could still be a 9/10 in terms of crowds (I really doubt it’ll be that bad–my guess is around 4/10 from the second week of the month on), but if October through December are 10/10, our prediction is vindicated.

We already know that hotel occupancy is high for December 2019 (and has been for a while). November, January, and February are shaping up similarly, which suggests that people think those months will be a sufficient amount of time to “wait out” the Star Wars crowds. (They’re wrong.)

Mid-September through early October are likely to be busier than normal, but we still think they are unlikely to be chaotic. (At least after opening weekend of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge–we make no predictions as far as that is concerned.) Before relying on any of our predictions, just remember: we got it really wrong for Disneyland. 😉

Finally, there’s been a lot of discussion about what Walt Disney World can do to ensure its debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge goes as well as Disneyland’s. Many commenters have pointed to the reservation system, specifically the guaranteed entry for hotel guests. One thing worth noting here is that Disneyland Resort has under 3,000 hotel rooms, whereas Walt Disney World has over 30,000.

During the reservations period, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is operating well below capacity. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run often has a 20 minute or less wait, and there’s a ton of breathing room in the land. The only things that are consistently difficult to enter are Oga’s Cantina and Savi’s Lightsaber Workshop. However, the land is probably at about half of actual capacity, not one-tenth of it.

In other words, Walt Disney World has too many hotel rooms to guarantee Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge entry to every single resort guest. To compound matters, Disney’s Hollywood Studios arguably doesn’t have enough capacity outside of Star Wars Land to use a virtual queue; where will all those guests go while waiting to enter Galaxy’s Edge? (With exponentially more attractions to soak up crowds, Disneyland won’t have this problem.)

With that in mind, we feel the most reasonable solution is utilizing the existing FastPass+ infrastructure to open advance reservations for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The system could be handled exactly like FastPass+ for attractions, except with entrance to the land itself. Have a 60 day window for resort guests, and 30 day window for off-site guests.

Obviously, land entry FastPass+ would ‘sell out’ quickly–probably in a matter of hours, and certainly far before off-site guests would have their window open. However, this would generally be an equitable solution for on-site guests (and in reality, Walt Disney World primarily cares about its hotel guests most, anyway). It would fulfill the goal of encouraging on-site hotel bookings, which would be another win for WDW.

It would also discourage people from visiting and over-crowding Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As we covered in our Huge Hollywood Studios FastPass+ Changes post, there are serious concerns about the park’s ability to absorb crowds and distribute attendance. These problems are unique to DHS, which has the fewest attractions of any Disney theme park (as compared to Disneyland, which has the most).

Moreover, Walt Disney World management could monitor attendance in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and add same-day land FastPasses to the real time inventory if crowds didn’t materialize as expected. This is something Disneyland could not do with its system; instead they’ve been emailing people with existing reservations that are not full and allowing them to add more guests to their reservation (something that they previously warned would not be allowed).

We’ll end this by reiterating that our predictions and analysis should be taken with a grain of salt. We totally misjudged the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, so it’s not like our recent track record on this matter should inspire a lot of confidence. We’ll also say that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is unlike anything you’ve ever seen–a true Space Morocco that can be appreciated by all Disney fans irrespective of interest in Star Wars. If you have the chance to experience it this fall, you should absolutely take advantage, even if that means getting up at the crack of dawn for Extra, Extra Magic Hours. If ever something at Walt Disney World were worth getting up super early on vacation, this is that thing.

If you’re planning on visiting the new land, you’ll also want to read our Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Guide. This covers a range of topics from basics about the land and its location, to strategically choosing a hotel for your stay, recommended strategy for the land, and how early to arrive to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to beat the crowds. It’s a good primer for this huge addition.

If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with our predictions regarding future Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge crowds at Disneyland and Walt Disney World? Think it’ll be better or worse than we’re expecting? Any questions? 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!

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