Disney's decision this month to shutter its Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel/attraction after less than two years came as a surprise to many. But for some industry insiders, the news didn't come entirely from out of left field.
"Those of us within the industry knew it was struggling and that it wasn't selling at the level they anticipated," said Edward Marks, founder and co-CEO of The Producers Group, an attractions producer and theme park consultancy.
Len Testa, president of TouringPlans.com and the TouringPlans host agency, similarly observed red flags over the past several months: an offer of 30% off for annual passholders late last year and 30% off for Disney Vacation Club members earlier this year.
"Disney rarely discounts its premium products," said Testa. "So for them to discount a premium experience like the Starcruiser, you knew that there were issues."
Dennis Speigel, president of theme park consulting company International Theme Park Services, called Disney's plans to shut down the Galactic Starcruiser at the end of September "a smart decision."
"Quite frankly, once you take a closer look at the bigger Disney picture, it makes sense," said Speigel. "They're dealing with political issues, issues with their streaming [products], and they've got employee cutbacks. They've made it clear they're cutting a lot of money out of the company, and this is a small, niche product with 100 rooms that's very expensive to operate."
An epic immersive experience
The Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience made its highly anticipated debut at Walt Disney World in Orlando in early 2022, promising what Disney described as "the most immersive Star Wars story ever created."
Throughout a two-night "voyage," guests take a starring role in the story, interacting with characters from the "Star Wars" universe and engaging in a wide array of activities, such as training with light sabers and building model ships.
It didn't take long, however, for the Galactic Starcruiser to face backlash over its astronomical price point. Sample vacation packages for a family of four are advertised at around $6,000 for a two-night stay, albeit inclusive of experiences and entertainment, food and beverages (excluding alcoholic and specialty beverages), admission to Disney's Hollywood Studios, valet parking and a themed MagicBand.
Guests are fully immersed in the action on Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, including dressing as characters. Photo Credit: Caitlyn McCabe/Disney
"The price point is so prohibitive," said Greg Antonelle, co-owner of the MickeyTravels agency. "If you're not a real die-hard Star Wars fan, you're not spending that type of money for two nights."
Marks expressed similar sentiments.
"You've got to be a pretty intense fan to spend two days there, and the ultra-exclusivity backfired," said Marks. "I think they're going to have to reconfigure the whole thing into a more price-accessible version."
Cruise ship concept foundered
Notably, a central conceit of the Galactic Starcruiser experience is that guests are traveling aboard a galactic cruise ship and, save for an excursion to the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge themed land at Disney's Hollywood Studios, don't disembark during the voyage. In other words, guests must remain on the property to be fully immersed in the action.
According to Marks, the decision to keep as closely as possible to this concept was one of the Galactic Starcruiser's key mistakes.
"They got the idea that this was going to be a cruise, and I think that was probably the death rattle for it," he said. "It's creating a timeline where guests have to be loaded and unloaded, and then they're telling you when you have to have dinner, when you have to go to the theme park and when you have to be back for the show. And if [you don't follow the timeline], you miss all the stuff you spent your money on."
Adam Duckworth, founder and president of Travelmation, said that while he personally loved the Galactic Starcruiser voyages, he understood how the action-packed itinerary could be a harder sell for others.
"It really was almost two full days of nonstop activities, dinner theater, excursions and the immersive environment -- it was a lot all in a row," said Duckworth. "And a key part of the Disney business model is a lot of repeat guests who love Walt Disney World. But with the Starcruiser, the issue is not only the price, but that potential for repeat guests, because the storyline is the same."
Marks said he expects any revamped iteration of the Galactic Starcruiser to abandon the cruise storyline entirely and function much more like a traditional Disney resort.
"If you don't make it a journey and you can just beam up and beam down to it, you could have a constant flow of guests checking in and out at any time, like at any other hotel," Marks said. "And you could also have the ability for park guests to visit for a dinner reservation or a show reservation, and it becomes more accessible."
Although the Galactic Starcruiser isn't the first time Disney has missed the mark, it certainly represents one of the company's biggest and costliest theme park-related missteps to date, according to Testa.
He said that the Starcruiser situation is most reminiscent of Disneyland's launch of the California Adventure Park, which was poorly received by the public when it opened in 2001. Disney responded by investing more money to bring the park up to par.
"But that unfolded over the course of a decade," Testa said. "This, on the other hand, is unprecedented. It's like a big-budget Broadway production closing after one show."