There are a lot of questions surrounding Disney’s recent announcement of a 14-acre Star Wars themed land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland. However, the biggest one that fans want to know is when they will be able to step foot inside the galaxy far far away to sip blue milk, fly the Millennium Falcon, and meet BB-8 and become best friends forever. Disney has given no specific timetable for the opening of Star Wars land for a good reason. At this early stage in a massive project, announcing a date is a no-win scenario. At best, you meet the date and match expectations. At worst, you have to delay the expected opening and disappoint fans, which has recently happened with Pandora and Shanghai Disneyland. Without ground even breaking yet, I think we’re a long way from finding out the opening date. The only solid information that we have is that construction in Disneyland will start before the end of 2017. Let’s look at some of Disney’s latest expansions at the parks to see if we can come up with a reasonable estimate.
New Fantasyland: Announced at D23 in September 2009. Groundbreaking: March 2010. Opened December 2012.
New Fantasyland: Time between announcement and opening: 3 years 2 months. Time between groundbreaking and opening: 2 years 9 months.
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train: Time between announcement and opening: 3 years 5 months.
New Fantasyland opened in phases, with Storybook Circus coming online in early 2012, most of the expansion opening in December 2012, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opening in May 2014. The Mine Train is a bit of an outlier, because it wasn’t announced until January 2011 when the New Fantasyland plans were updated. Also, construction for that ride was slowed by the fact that it was located in the middle of a working theme park, so most of the work couldn’t be done during the operating day once the rest of New Fantasyland was open to the public and not behind construction walls. So, let’s break it down for those two phases.
Cars Land: Announced October 2007. Groundbreaking: July 2009. Opening: June 2012.
Time between announcement and opening: 4 years, 8 months.
Time between groundbreaking and opening: 2 years, 11 months.
Cars Land is a bit closer in scale to Star Wars Land at 12 acres and featuring a groundbreaking E-Ticket attraction and an epic landscape. The plans for Star Wars land look to be even more ambitious than Cars Land, which I hold as Disney’s high bar for an immersive land in their US theme parks. Will that ambition lead to a longer construction time? It’s possible, but I think Cars Land is a great example to look at when creating expectations for Star Wars Land.
Pandora: The World of Avatar: Announced September 2011. Groundbreaking: January 2014. Expected opening: Early 2017.
Time between announcement and opening: Est. around 5.5 years.
Time between groundbreaking and opening: Est. at least 3 years.
Pandora is a bit of an odd case because of how James Cameron is involved. Nothing against the director, but the fact that a 3rd party is deeply involved seems to have slowed the whole process. Bob Iger announced the Avatar-based land immediately after a deal had been struck, and we didn’t even see any concept art until October 2013. So, comparing the announcement of Avatar at Animal Kingdom and Star Wars at Disneyland and DHS isn’t exactly apples to apples. Also, the fact that James Cameron, a man who has a lot on his plate with 3 Avatar sequels in the works, has been involved in the creative process would most like cause the project to take more time than if it was solely being worked on with Disney internally.
However, there are some pretty big similarities. Pandora seems to be massive. I’ve heard that it’s just under 14 acres, which is just smaller than Star Wars Land. Also, Pandora will feature two rides at opening, much like Star Wars Land. WDI has said it is collaborating closely with Lucasfilm on this project. While I would imagine that since Disney owns Lucasfilm that line of communication and collaboration would be easier than working with a non-Disney owned company, it’s still a team outside of WDI that has to be involved.
Overall, I expect Star Wars Land to open much closer to announcement than Pandora will.
Other factors to take into consideration
Star Wars Land is being constructed on both coasts, which could complicate when the opening date is. Since both lands were announced at the same time, it’s conceivable that Disney would want them to both open at the same time. That means a complication at one site could delay both timetables. Disneyland’s Twitter account has stated that Star Wars land will occupy the very back of the park, including some backstage areas and offices. Disney just recently purchased land that is expected to be used as a replacement for those backstage areas. Construction most likely wouldn’t be able to be started there until the new offices come online and the old offices can be demolished. As for Hollywood Studios, Toy Story Land was also announced. With a much smaller scope than Star Wars Land, it’s a good bet that Toy Story Land will open well before Star Wars Land, but that is another big construction project that will be going on in the same park.
There is someone who is another factor. He’s short in stature, has great magical powers, and isn’t named Yoda. Yes, I’m referring to Harry Potter. Universal has already opened two Potter themed lands to a huge attendance boost in Orlando, and Harry is about to make his debut at Universal Hollywood in 2016. If Potter’s opening in LA has any effect on Disneyland’s attendance, it might put some pressure on Disney to ramp up their construction efforts. Universal has been operating at a breakneck pace, and it’s conceivable that they could have a huge new attraction announced and built before we even get an opening date for Star Wars land. Begun, the theme park wars have.
Enough with the analysis, when can I pilot the Millennium Falcon?
Based on recent history and taking into consideration that Pandora was announced oddly early in the process, it takes Disney anywhere from 3 to almost 5 years to go from announcement to opening. However, once groundbreaking and construction starts, these expansions have consistently taken around 3 years to finish. Which brings us back to the comment about construction at Disneyland beginning “no later than the end of 2017.”
Many people are taking that comment to mean late 2017, but it’s still vague and that deadline might have to do with the recent approvals from the city of Anaheim for the expansion. No later than the end of 2017 could mean December 31, 2017 or it could be tomorrow (hint: it’s not tomorrow).
If we take the comment about construction starting before the end of 2017 to mean that it will start in 2017, that would be around a 2020 opening given the approximate 3 year construction timetable that Disney has used previously. That could be pushed as late as 2021 if construction takes longer. I could not imagine Star Wars Land opening past 2021. Why? That is the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World opening, and I would definitely think that Disney will make having all big construction projects done before the anniversary be a priority. If Star Wars Land isn’t open before the 50th celebration begins, that will be a big piece of Bantha fodder on Disney World’s birthday cake.
However, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that construction could start sometime in 2016, or that construction at Hollywood Studios would begin before Disneyland due to the office issues and the parks will have a staggered opening. Maybe I’m grasping at straws, but I have a good feeling about the year 2019. Why? Star Wars Episode IX is expected to open in May 2019, and what better way to celebrate the closing of the new trilogy than opening an immersive themed land that takes place during the events of those films. Disney could be aiming to make 2019 the biggest year ever for Star Wars. As for the theme parks, it makes sense in how the new attractions are spacing out. Frozen Ever After will open in Epcot in 2016, Pandora in 2017, and there will be a big 50th anniversary celebration in 2021-2022. This is speculation, but it would make sense that Toy Story Land would open in 2018 and Star Wars Land would open in 2019 or 2020 to fill in that gap.
Realistically, 2020 is the safe bet. The optimist in me is really hoping for 2019, but I admit that might be an aggressive schedule for a land of this scope.
So, what are the odds that it will open anytime before that? They don’t look good, but then again, never tell me the odds.