This summer, the two biggest players in the theme park game each revealed a major addition to their offerings. For Disneyland and Walt Disney World, it was the long-awaited Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land, and for Universal Orlando Resort, it was a new attraction in the park's insanely popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure roller coaster.
Both theme parks, and both movie franchises, not only have incredibly devoted fans, but they're also popular with those of a more casual interest. People love the Harry Potter movies even if they've never actually read the books. Walt Disney World is one of the most popular tourist locations in the world, even if you'd never consider buying an annual pass.
With this sort of interest in both new additions, everything was shaping up to be a wild summer for both Disney and Universal, and it certainly was, though maybe not in the way that people have anticipated. Depending on who you talk to, both Galaxy's Edge and the Hagrid roller coaster are "failures," though for very different reasons.
Comparing an entire theme park land to a single attraction is far from scientific; one is just a small part of the larger whole. However, both an attraction and a land need guests to show up, and this is where they both either survive or don't.
Hagrid's Magical Crowds
If there's one thing you can pretty reliably count on when a new theme park attraction arrives, it's crowds. People want to check out what's new and exciting first. Needless to say, crowds is exactly what Universal Orlando Resort got when Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened in June. Wait times for the new ride were topping 10 hours when it first opened. Lines at theme parks are to be expected, but spending half or more of your day in a line for a single attraction is insane.
The massive lines meant that the roller coaster was running late into the night, which in turn meant that maintenance workers didn't have all the time they needed to keep the coaster in proper working order. This lead to the ride breaking down, in some cases multiple times over the course of a single day.
This did nothing to help alleviate the wait times. Things just got worse. Eventually, it was announced that the ride would need to shut down while the park was open so that maintenance could be done.
There's no arguing that Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is a popular attraction, but the lines, combined with the ride breaking down. didn't add up to a pretty picture for what was, according to nearly everybody who got to ride the roller coaster uninterrupted, a pretty impressive experience otherwise.
Galaxy's Edge Undercrowded
Meanwhile at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the issue was not that the new land was too crowded, but rather that it was maybe not crowded enough. While both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World version of the lands saw pretty intense crowds on day one, things changed a great deal after that. Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World set up a virtual queue system to manage crowds but it has gone mostly unused as it simply hasn't been necessary.
Wait times for Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run, the land's one attraction, are rarely more than a couple hours at the most. It's on par with the Disney Parks' other popular attractions, but no more.
It's easy to simply look at the lack of crowds and assume that people just didn't want to come to Galaxy's Edge. Of course, things are hardly that simple. While Disney has admitted that their theme park attendance was down slightly last quarter, the Chairman of the Parks division has argued that the lack of crowds in the land is proof of successful crowd management, not so much the lack of crowds.
There are also other reasons that Galaxy's Edge might not be as crowded as it could be. Chief among them, the land's marque attraction, Rise of the Resistance, isn't open yet. People might be holding off on major vacations until they can see everything the new land has to offer in a single trip.
But Are They Really Failures?
First and foremost, lets make it clear that it's far too early to call either of these failures yet.
The Hagrid roller coaster certainly has issues, but the wait times for the attraction are now down to a reasonable (for a popular theme park attraction) wait.
It's hard to argue that the opening of Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure was a bit of a mess and probably could have been handled better. However, it would hardly be the first time that a grand opening at a theme park went sideways. Disneyland's entire opening day was something of a nightmare, and the park recovered.
As far as Galaxy's Edge goes, the same basic premise is true. The land isn't going anywhere. It's missing an attraction, but that will be remedied shortly; in December at Walt Disney World and in January at Disneyland.
At the same time, it can't be overstated that sometimes less actually is more. People visiting Galaxy's Edge are, without question, having a better time doing so than they would if the land were more crowded. They would surely call Galaxy's Edge a success. Happy guests spend more money, as was revealed by the fact that per capita spending at Disneyland was up 10% last quarter when attendance was down.
It would be one thing if Disneyland and Walt Disney World were seeing record crowds that were just skipping Galaxy's Edge, but that's not what's happening. Reports have been that all of Disneyland has been unseasonably empty. Space Mountain isn't any less exciting simply because Galaxy's Edge exists. Disneyland and Walt Disney World may very well have challenges to overcome, but Galaxy's Edge isn't one of them.
The fact is there's just no way to judge how successful these places really are. If Galaxy's Edge was super crowded and Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure had no line, then these attractions would be viewed as failures again, just for opposite reasons, and if there's a point of equilibrium, where a crowd is some how just right, I doubt any two people would agree on where that point is.
If you go to a theme park, be it Disney or Universal, and you enjoy yourself, then the park is a success for you. If you spent money to do it, the park was a success for the company that built it.