I predicted this summer would be the theme park industry's most dramatic season in half a decade, but I've proved prescient for reasons I never anticipated. In Orlando, multi-hour waits persist at Islands of Adventure's new Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure a month after its heavily attended opening, due as much to the coaster's severely limited carrying capacity as its popularity. The Wizarding World's latest thrill has struggled to stay running in the face of recent rainstorms, and the promised "virtual queue" hasn't yet materialized, so your only hope of waiting less than three hours is to enter the queue between 5 and 6 p.m. and pray for clear skies. Simultaneously, Walt Disney World's publicity machine engaged in an uncharacteristically public spat with the fan site WDWNT.com, publishing snarky official statements on the Disney Parks Blog rebutting the website's rumors that the Magic Kingdom's vintage Enchanted Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree shows are being retired, referencing "unscrupulous sources" without mentioning them by name.
However, none of this summer's Floridian attraction angst compares to the aftershocks accompanying the debut of Star Wars Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland, which ended its reservation-only period on June 24 and opened for the general public to shockingly soft attendance. Instead of the Jedi hordes expected, the entire Anaheim resort was eerily empty throughout the typically busy Fourth of July week. Wait times for the headline Millennium Falcon simulator averaged below an hour (often a walk-on for single riders), and other E-tickets had unusually short lines. Meanwhile, Universal Studios Hollywood up the street started technical rehearsals of its reimagined Jurassic World raft ride, and approached maximum capacity on multiple days.
Disneyland's bizarrely low attendance caught most insiders (and Mouse management) off guard, and while it's a blessing for tourists, many are questioning what it means for the nearly identical Star Wars expansion opening at Disney's Hollywood Studios Aug. 29. Here are my two Spirian Credits on why I think Disneyland feels deserted lately, and why it doesn't mean that Batuu will be barren when Orlando's version debuts in about six weeks.
· Die-hards drained early: The most hard-core fans booked expensive on-site hotel rooms so they could visit Galaxy's Edge a month ago, and already bought Black Spire Outpost out of much coveted merchandise. By definition, guests who waited until reservations ended were less eager. WDW has announced no similar previews to manage demand.
· Force fatigue: Disneyland remained open for 60 hours to handle demand when Star Tours first opened in 1987, but that came during Star Wars' darkest era between trilogies. Since purchasing Lucasfilm, Disney has pumped out new product non-stop, but box-office receipts from the Asian audiences that travel to California attractions imply that this franchise can't be endlessly milked like Marvel. However, Orlando's foreign visitors hail from Europe and South America, where the series is more popular.
· Attack of the passholders: Currently, most annual passholders are blocked out of the Disneyland Resort entirely, or banished to Disney's California Adventure. Disneyland's correlating drop in wait times demonstrates what a large percentage of those parks' population locals represent. Floridian passholders make up a far smaller proportion of WDW's visitor base, and most will be allowed in when Galaxy's Edge opens.
· Hotel Hell: Disneyland only has 2,490 hotel rooms across its three on-site resorts, and their guests aren't getting special perks inside Galaxy's Edge. WDW has 36,077 rooms across dozens of properties, and every one of those guests will be cramming into "Extra Extra Magic Hours" at 6 a.m. in a doomed attempt to beat the rush.
· Waiting for the chosen one: The Millennium Falcon is getting mixed reviews, and reactions to blue milk are meh, so some are delaying their visit until the Rise of the Resistance (rumored to merge several rides into one epic package) is ready sometime later this year. Orlando's version may emerge hot on Anaheim's heels, minimizing any attendance lag.
· FOMO > FOMO: Despite price increases, Disneyland attendance has been steadily climbing, and Mickey's marketeers – aided and abetted by experts like myself – emphasized what a mob scene Galaxy's Edge's opening months would likely be. Far from fueling most tourists' Fear of Missing Out, such apocalyptic predictions inspired Fear of Massive Overcrowding, creating a self-defeating prophecy: Like Yogi Berra said, nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded. News of California's low crowds could incite the opposite issue in Orlando.
· Nothing to do at DHS: Disneyland is Disney's densest theme park, with more rides than Epcot and Animal Kingdom combined, so Galaxy's Edge's 14 acres just gives it more breathing room. Once Star Wars opens, Hollywood Studios will still have barely a half-dozen E-ticket attractions, and adjustments to its FastPass distribution ensure guests will have few options outside Black Spire Outpost.