Disney Doubles Down
Bob Chapek is a trained scientist.
The Chairman of Parks, Experiences, and Products at The Walt Disney Company holds a degree in microbiology from Indiana University Bloomington. Yet, Chapek is also a futurologist—a visionary who can predict what theme park guests want. Quite the skill when empowering the team tasked with bringing to life one of the greatest science fiction franchises of all time.
“I love science because it is fact-based and very methodical,” Chapek says. “While I certainly don’t do science, I think that has shaped my way of thinking: to be very logical, and being able to see through the clutter and data to find the truth.”
The truth is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at both Disneyland Resort (opened in May) and Walt Disney World Resort (opening at the end of this month as of press time) constitute the largest single investment ever made at a theme park by the entertainment giant.
“We doubled down on the biggest investment in our history because we knew that is what our guests wanted,” Chapek says. “A billion-dollar box office is a pretty good indicator.”
The pair of immersive new attractions is rooted in the mythology of Star Wars, brought to life through the 11 films to date that debuted between 1977 and 2018, TV series, and other media. Total box office receipts of $9.5 billion earned “Star Wars” the title of the second highest-grossing movie franchise of all time. (No. 1 is the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe, encompassing 22 films with a combined worldwide gross of $21.3 billion.)
Giving the Green Light
Chapek recalls the decision to move forward with a pair of massive Star Wars-themed environments came during a discussion in a conference room deep inside Walt Disney Imagineering’s headquarters in Glendale, California, four years ago.
“When you give the green light to major investments like this, you have to be surrounded by all the data. But at the same time, you have to believe in the creative concept and the ambition level,” he says.
The concept is huge: Create a groundbreaking new land—named Batuu, set in the current trilogy of films—that immerses guests by using all five of their senses.
The ambition is even more massive: Build the land twice—with installations on both coasts in the United States.
“We know the incidence of visitation rate between the two coasts is relatively low. If you think you want to double down on a winner, like the ‘Star Wars’ franchise—where people aspire to live in that world, to live their own ‘Star Wars’ adventure—and they would like to do it in Anaheim … we’re pretty darn sure they would also like to do it in Orlando as well.”
Once the decision was made to transform two theme parks simultaneously, scores of Disney Imagineers, including Chad Stachnik, went to work on creating Batuu, a rogue outpost on the edge of the galaxy, never before seen in the films.
“We want you to be on that planet and not feel you’re at the theme park,” says Stachnik, a project manager for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World. “Everyone is going to enjoy this experience, no matter what your Star Wars experience is.”
Ultimately, I want to innovate and continue delighting our guests with the perfect balance of classic and new magic, while honoring Walt’s vision for his parks—that they would evolve, and never be complete as long as there is imagination left in the world.” — Bob Chapek
Stepping away from the firm story of a movie allowed designers like Stachnik to utilize a blank sheet of paper to build upon, while formulating the original story Chapek blessed.
“When you gain comfort with the creative context—the blue-sky concepts that the Imagineers present to us—then you’re pretty darn sure it’s time to commit from a financial investment and return on investment standpoint. You know incrementally what it can do to the place you’re putting it in,” Chapek says.
Like a scientist looking at the available data, Chapek says the decision did not come lightly on where to place Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. After deliberating and looking at research, the resolution was made in California to build the new themed land inside Disneyland Park’s northwest corner, replacing part of Tom Sawyer Island and shortening the Rivers of America. In Florida, the addition of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will continue the transformation of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Toy Story Land opened last summer, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is slated to open on Aug. 29.
“Remember, these are not individual investments—like we’re going to build a Star Wars land that’s going to be standalone—it is part of a portfolio of utilities and experiences and magical happenings in a park,” Chapek says.
The final enhancement to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which opened in 1989, will be the debut of “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” in 2020 inside the park’s centrally located Chinese Theater. The new dark ride will be the first Disney attraction to be solely based on Mickey Mouse. Chapek says deciding to retire the previous attraction in the same location, “The Great Movie Ride,” came after analyzing guest satisfaction ratings.
“This is all objective; you have to replace something that gets an overall low rating, despite the fact you may have a very dedicated, small group of people that find that attraction amazing,” Chapek shares. “But, if we can take something that is completely underutilized, redeploy that as a physical asset, put that into a park, and bring forth new storytelling, then I think that is a win.”
Chapek’s skill for knowing what consumers will yearn for next comes from years working at Disney (four years in leadership roles at theme parks), along with time spent in brand management at the H.J. Heinz Company and in advertising at J. Walter Thompson. Chapek also holds an MBA from Michigan State University.
“I’ve always said, ‘If somebody makes a decision that doesn’t make sense to you, that clearly shows you don’t have the information they have,’” Chapek says.
Deciding What’s Next
Chapek is not shy to share the new additions coming to the 12 Disney Parks around the world, along with enhancements to the fleet of Disney Cruise Line vessels, will be based on intellectual properties (IP).
“We have a wealth of franchise and intellectual property, and that’s why guests come to Disney, and that’s why we are investing so heavily behind them. And frankly, because it works very, very well,” Chapek says.
Currently, construction is underway at Disney California Adventure park in Anaheim, where a new Marvel area is growing from the ground up. Additional Marvel attractions are also planned for the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris (opening 2020), Epcot at Walt Disney World in Orlando (opening 2021), and Hong Kong Disneyland (opening 2023). The park in Hong Kong opened “Ant-Man and The Wasp: Nano Battle!” this summer.
“Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure,” a new dark ride based on Disney●Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” is bound for the France pavilion at Epcot (opening 2020). Meanwhile, construction is underway in Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom Park in Orlando, where a new roller coaster themed to the movie “Tron” will take up residency (opening 2021). An immersive Star Wars-themed hotel is also planned for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In Japan, Tokyo Disneyland will see a “Beauty and the Beast”-inspired area and a “Big Hero 6” attraction (opening in 2020). Tokyo DisneySea will welcome additional ports themed to films like “Frozen,” “Tangled,” and “Peter Pan” (opening in 2022).
“When you make a decision to put something in a park, it’s not for six months, it’s not for a theatrical run, it’s not for a short cycle or a year. It has to be something you’re convinced is a good decision for decades,” Chapek says.
The decision to expand with known IP characters and stories into the next decade also helps extend a consumer’s affinity for Disney products, according to Chapek. That’s why he approved a third Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land to be part of a nearly $2.5 billion expansion of the Walt Disney Studios park in Paris. The addition, announced in February 2018, will also include a land dedicated to the Disney blockbuster movie, “Frozen.”
“We take very seriously that we are going to be making an investment into a park, or a cruise ship, because we realize it’s going to outlast our own careers.”
Chapek realizes the efforts of his cast members have empowered the demand to visit a Disney parks to be “at an all-time high,” he says. Taking the needs of cast members into consideration played a role when planning Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. For the first time in the 60-year history of Disney Parks, cast members working as residents of Batuu inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be able to select the pieces of their costume (how Disney Parks refer to a frontline employee’s uniform). Jacket or short sleeves? Scarf or hat? The added flexibility will allow cast members the opportunity to pick and choose various pieces and look different, playing into the theme of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as a working space outpost.
“If they are comfortable, they are going to be just as immersed in that storyline as our guests are,” says Josh Howard, strategy and integration manager at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. “We want them to bring that story to life, and we want to make sure they are set up for success.”
Howard says breathable textiles were selected by the costuming team and tailored with attention given to comfort while working outside during a warm afternoon in Florida.
“Our cast can decide if they wear what looks like a scarf, or pass on a hot day,” Howard says.
Disneyland first showcased the attire last winter at a cast-only party held in Tomorrowland. “The Attire Awakens” event was staged like a fashion show on the runways of New York or Paris. The reveal celebration allowed cast members to take part in pre-opening excitement for the new area. Meanwhile, cast members at Walt Disney World also took part in a celebration of their own when given the opportunity to sign their names on a steel support column for the new “Tron” roller coaster. Increasing satisfaction for guests—and his cast—is a personal goal for Chapek.
“I want to be remembered as somebody who while they had the chair, improved the parks from an overall guest and cast satisfaction standpoint—that we pleased more people in a way that created magical memories that last a lifetime,” he says in a reflective moment.
Chapek continues to follow the advice given to him by his first supervisor after graduate school:
“He told me, ‘Doing your job earns you a seat. You would distinguish yourself in your career by going above and beyond what is expected at your level, and adding value beyond what the job requirement calls for.’ And that always stuck with me.”
Chapek keeps a busy schedule, timed to a nanosecond. His dedicated cast of associates guides him through what can be compared to a hyperspace pace at all hours—reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon on lightspeed. Yet, with all the change and progress Chapek has implemented, he wouldn’t change a thing. When asked if he would rather be spending time crafting lands of fantasy … or in a laboratory as a microbiologist, Chapek shares his honest opinion.
“Oh heck yeah. I think Bunsen burners and Petri dishes can’t rival Star Wars, ‘Frozen,’ Marvel, and Mickey Mouse,” Chapek concludes. “And that is the science way to approach things!”