Commentary: The Chapek-era wasn’t the best of times for the Disneyland Resort

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, based here at Disneyland Park in Anaheim and across the country at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, remains the most ambitious piece of theme park property ever contemplated. Galaxy’s Edge was conceived as a place to play in which, walking under its arches, we can take on a new role, meet countless characters, enjoy several shows and, above all, build a reputation. Be it a villain, a member of the rebellion, or the supporter of a fascist regime, Galaxy’s Edge offered the promise of an RPG.

And months before it opened, that was the narration of Walt Disney Co. and Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s secret division responsible for theme park experiences, where Disney designers would often talk about how a bounty hunter can tap you on the shoulder in the cantina of the country. There are bounty hunters in Galaxy’s Edge today, but they’re mostly photo opportunities, the chance to glimpse Mando and the so-called Baby Yoda or Boba Fett. These performances are popular, as is seeing Mickey Mouse on Main Street, USA. They add a sense of character and life to Galaxy’s Edge, but fall short of the promised hands-on adventure.

When the land here in SoCal opened in the summer of 2019, there was a hint to Disney theme park fans that it may never realize its full potential. That came straight from Bob Chapek, the longtime but embattled Disney executive who was replaced by his predecessor Bob Iger on Sunday night. The much-vaunted actors aren’t needed, Chapek said in a 2019 interview, because each park employee — cast member, in Disney-speak — would have a story to tell. This was a miscalculation as no staff member who interacts extensively with guests has the time or ability to constantly improvise. Galaxy’s Edge remains a triumph of experimental design, but it risks being seen as an example of a theme park arena that’s just too advanced for the corporate overlords who manage it.

Whether that will change under Iger’s second tenure as Walt Disney Co. remains to be seen and is likely unlikely – Iger is only signed for two years, and Galaxy’s Edge, with its flagship attraction Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance now up and running, certainly isn’t Priority. But more than its streaming services, movies, or TV series, the Walt Disney Co. is significant for its theme parks, and in institutions like Disneyland and Walt Disney World we can experience life in a narrative-driven fantasy world detached from the cacophony of everyday life. We can finally enter a place that calms us. If it works.

Disneyland is a Southern California palace, a place as sacred as Griffith Park or Dodger Stadium. Sometimes derided as fake places, theme parks are no less real than the buildings that shape our city, in large part because they tell stories. They are places we go to see our popular myths reflected back to us so that we can live in them and define a role for ourselves. Over the decades, a place like Disneyland has offered ideas on everything from city planning to corporate synergies to how we play. The latter is key, as it enables theme parks to become places that help us understand the stories that define our culture, rather than just providing a way out of it.
Disneyland exists in large part because of these ideals, no matter who is at the helm of The Walt Disney Co. But it also shifts over time. And in recent years, particularly in the months since it reopened after an extended, pandemic-related closure, the tone of a visit to Disneyland Resort had changed. It is hoped that Iger and his reorganized regime will take a close look at the current state of the parks and begin a reassessment process. While a reservation system is certainly here to stay, regulations prohibiting park hopping until 1 p.m. should be dropped, and a host of other operational decisions may cause headaches.

Prices have continued to rise, from tickets to queue-skipping smartphone app features like Genie+, but the overall experience of visiting the resort hasn’t gone up with them. When Galaxy’s Edge launched without some of the intended features, it heralded this current era of Disney parks, where live entertainment offerings would be gradually cut back and guests would soon be faced with a plethora of new scheduling tools, many of which come for a fee to enjoy a day at Disneyland.

While Disneyland guests have probably grown accustomed to a little sticker shock when it comes to theme park admission — a day ticket for two parks can cost as much as $244 during the holiday season — problems arise when a ticket even does this not is enough to have a relatively seamless Disney theme park experience. On Wednesday, November 23, Genie+, which aims to give guests faster access to a range of attractions, costs an additional $30 per person. And to secure a spot in the stunning Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, you’ll need to shell out an additional $25 for a single Lightning Lane. That’s an additional $55 per person, a cost guests incur after going through the turnstile.

Former Imagineers who worked under the Chapek regime spoke favorably of his retail acumen. Before running the parks, Chapek ran Disney Consumer Products, and many speculated that Chapek was brought into the parks department with orders to find ways to cut costs and increase revenue, implying imagineering regime changes, acquisitions, and retirement a number of veterans pointed to creatives and a reinterpretation of what the Avengers campus was to become.

But if so, the course correction has probably gone too far in one direction. As soon as you step through the gates of Disneyland, you immediately feel the pull of retail up-sells. This might work well for a Target, but for a cultural institution like Disneyland, it adds sudden extra planning and expense to the day. And mismanagement, such as the 2019 decision to turn Main Street Cinema into a gift shop.

Outsiders often compare newer lands like Avengers Campus to riskier bets like Galaxy’s Edge, and find that the Marvel-themed space lacks the large-scale subject matter and promise of a dreamlike-sized attraction like Rise of the Resistance. But it’s unfair to do so without access to Disney paperbacks (those who worked on the project note that the Avengers Campus Iger was once advertised as New York-themed land to be held off-site in properties should that were earmarked for parking, but it’s budget has been progressively reduced over the years).

Disney park officials naturally made bad, greed-fueled decisions before Chapek took over the department in 2015. See the misperception that led to the ornate and peaceful Court of Angels on New Orleans Square being noticed by ordinary guests and turned into a photo op for the wealthy in 2013 when it became the entrance to the private Club 33. But projects launched under the Chapek-era telegraph took a comprehensive approach to Disney parks, which they see as little more than Disney+-branded insoles.
The Paradise Pier remake in Pixar Pier is mostly a wash, as Paradise Pier and its amusement facilities were already an anomaly for a Disney theme park, but it was still disconcerting to see every inch of the area filled with garish, static Pixar designs. “We’re bringing more Disney, more Pixar, more Marvel and more ‘Star Wars’ to our parks,” said Chapek at D23 Expo 2019. “Each live show and spectacle should bring your favorite stories to life in an exciting way.”

Maybe. There’s a difference between a Galaxy’s Edge and simply covering a country with familiar art, recognizable characters, and repackaged scenes from movies. Galaxy’s Edge is designed to surprise; The latter build on a familiarity loop in which we don’t have the opportunity to create our own narrative and just nod when we recall a scene from something else.

This is why so many fans were disappointed with the theme park announcements from this year’s D23 Expo. An Avengers ride will indeed make its way to the Avengers campus, although details and timelines remain sparse and the attraction’s concept art has varied over the years, disconcertingly featuring a vehicle that now looks much more common than previous images. But take Disney California Adventure’s dining area transformation into a nod to San Fransokyo from the Big Hero 6 movies and series: it’s an unnecessary expense to convert a relatively quiet part of the park into another character meeting spot – Greetings and goods kiosks.

It also reflects a top-down approach that views theme park design as a transactional rather than a transformational experience, with Disney Parks looking like a physical embodiment of the Disney+ home screen. And a place where fans don’t just pay for access, but for different levels of access – Genie+ or no Genie+, ad-free or ad-supported.

A trip to Disneyland today reminds me a bit of starting a free-to-play mobile game. I’ll get by with just a little play before I’m constantly pushed to spend more, whether it’s for a Genie+, a custom Lightning Lane, or even a Magic Band+, a bracelet that starts at around $35 and up Play is needed new walkthrough video game in Galaxy’s Edge.

And it is questionable whether such equipment is worthwhile at all. I’ve paid for Genie+ regularly and still stood in lines that could last up to 30 or 40 minutes. This creates less value than frustration.

It’s exhausting, and we haven’t even addressed age-old ailments like strollers. Commentary: The Chapek-era wasn’t the best of times for the Disneyland Resort

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