By now, most Star Wars fans and Disney Parks fans alike are well aware of Disney’s recent unexpected, yet not entirely surprising, news of the planned closure of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. Having been open for barely more than a year, the swiftness with which Disney pulled the plug on the experience is quite shocking.
Many will look at the closure of the Starcruiser as a massive Disney failure. And to some extent, those opinions are correct. But as is so often the case in life, whether professionally or personally, failure is a necessary step on the stairway to success. The history of the Walt Disney Company, and in particular Walt Disney himself, is sprinkled with failures. One of the attributes that made Walt Disney so successful was his attitude toward failure, and how he used the experience gained from so many failures to fuel his successes.
Let’s take a look at how the Galactic Starcruiser failed, lessons to be learned from its failure, and pontificate on where Disney can go from here. Along the way, we’ll also check out some of Walt Disney’s failures, the Walt Disney Company’s failures, and how the company turned those failures into success stories.
Editor’s note: I will be joining my friend Angie Robinson on an episode of her podcast The Practically Perfect Leader to discuss the fate of the Galactic Starcruiser, and the magic of turning failure into success.
The Grounding of the Galactic Starcruiser
On March 1, 2022, roughly two years after COVID shut down the world, Disney’s Galactic Starcruiser took its first sail through the stars. Offering almost everything a modern Star Wars fan could wish for, this premium experience gives guests the chance to live their Star Wars story via a 3-day/2-night “cruise” aboard the fictional Halcyon starcruiser. The experience includes food, drinks, and entertainment like a standard cruise experience, but “plusses” it (Walt Disney’s term for improving upon a successful concept to make it even better) by providing guests with a fully immersive story experience. Every guest onboard the Starcruiser has the opportunity to participate in the experience with a role in the unfolding onboard story. Paid actors and entertainers propel the story forward, while inviting guests to join the fold in a variety of roles.
The Galactic Starcruiser promised to offer a one-of-a-kind immersive experience, and take the concept of live storytelling (or should I say story “living”) to new heights. It was a concept never before fully realized, and may have proven to be ahead of its time.
For the most part, the Galactic Starcruiser experience delivered on its promise, but ultimately suffered from several flaws which proved to be fatal to the experience.
- It’s super expensive: The cost for this experience is beyond premium. With entry-level prices coming in at close to $5,000 for a party of two (or a slightly more reasonable $6,000 for a family of four), the sticker shock is real. And the cost goes up from there. For many Disney/Star Wars fans, this price is outside the family budget. Even when performing a cost breakdown, which proves the experience to be a much better value than is widely perceived, many prospective guests are still unable to get by the initial shock of the price tag.
- Tight timeline: The Star Wars franchise consists primarily of nine core films, plus several other supporting films, television shows, animated programs, video games, comic books, novels, and endless merchandise. In planning the Galactic Starcruiser, Disney chose to focus on just three of the core films, which fans know and recognize as the “sequel trilogy.” The events and characters involved in the experience only represent this fraction of the Star Wars galaxy, and therefore only fully embraces a subset of Star Wars fans who are interested in that portion of the overall story. The Starcruiser experience completely left out the characters and storylines of the “original trilogy”, as well as the “prequel trilogy”, and in doing so effectively marginalized two-thirds of the core group of fans.
- LARPing – it’s not for everyone: The concept and culture of LARPing (Live Action Role Playing – also commonly known as cosplaying) plays heavily in the Starcruiser experience. Guests are highly encouraged (though not required) to dress the part as galactic citizens in the Star Wars galaxy. This includes full Star Wars-type attire, maybe some facial makeup, and perhaps even an inspired headpiece of some kind. Don’t have the imagination to pull this off? It’s ok – Disney offers a full line of Star Wars clothing to get you into character (though it will cost you a few more galactic credits). However, the concept of LARPing doesn’t appeal to everyone. Many folks who highly enjoy Star Wars may love to witness this experience, but may not be interested in – or comfortable with – the perceived expectation of needing to dress and fully engage in a character, with jobs and responsibilities given to them while on-board. In short – the concept – while fun for many – was intimidating for some, and a turn off for others.
Add all three of these issues together, and Disney was left with a prohibitively costly experience, which appealed primarily to a niche group (those willing to “LARP”-along) within a niche timeline (only the “sequel trilogy” of the full Star Wars catalog) of a somewhat broader niche (the entire Star Wars galaxy). The target audience of the experience was hyper-focused, and the experience appealed to a very small subset of theme park guests. The initial flood of participants upon opening quickly waned in the following months, and the experience proved to be non-sustainable for the long run.
Disney made several adjustments to try to jumpstart the experience, but those adjustments proved to be too little, too late, which led us to where we are now, counting down the days until the Starcruiser makes its final voyage at the end of September 2023.
Where does the closing of the Galactic Starcruiser fall within the history of other major failed Disney initiatives, and what can we learn from Disney’s experience? Come along on a brief tour of some of Disney’s biggest failures, and see how those failures proved inspirational – even necessary – to the most successful entertainment company in history.
“Everyone falls down. Getting back up is how you learn how to walk.” – Walt Disney
The notion of failure is anything but new to Disney. What elevates leaders above the rest is a commitment to success in the face of failure. Disney’s history of embracing failure goes all the way back to the beginning. Walt Disney was, from his earliest years, the ultimate entrepreneur. He was drumming up business ventures and creative endeavors since his days as a kid – whether that be delivering newspapers, vending on a train, or drawing cartoons for neighborhood friends.
Walt Disney himself was rejected countless times in his life before Mickey Mouse became a success. He was laid off from his first professional job as a commercial illustrator. So what did Walt do? He started his own business with his friend and colleague Ub Iwerks. When their fledgling company quickly fell on hard times, the pair were forced to abandon ship to make financial ends meet.
Once back on his feet, Walt once again got the creative itch. He tried again, partnering with another contemporary – Fred Harman – to create a series of animated shorts for a local Kansas City theater. The shorts were successful, and led to Walt’s founding of the Laugh-O-Gram Studio. While more successful than Walt’s previous venture, Laugh-O-Gram was still not profitable enough to stay afloat long term, and closed about two years after it was founded.
Did Walt give up yet? Well, if he did, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Walt knew his ideas were too big for Kansas City, so at age 22 he headed west to Hollywood, with little more than a cardboard suitcase, $40 cash, the clothes on his back, and a fresh idea – an animated/live action hybrid called Alice’s Wonderland. In Hollywood, Walt found someone willing to take a chance on his Alice comedies, and together with his brother Roy, Walt founded the Disney Brothers Studio. Walt’s confidence in his ideas and his resilience in the face of multiple failures carried him forward.
The rest is Hollywood gold, right? Not so fast. The success of Walt’s Alice comedies led to his distributor Charles Mintz’s request for an additional series. Walt came up with a new animated personality – Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald quickly became a success, and Walt thought he had finally caught his big break.
But Walt’s contract with Mintz gave the distributor full rights to the Oswald series. In signing the distribution contract, Walt had inadvertently signed away the rights to his own creation. Combine that with Mintz’s underhanded coup to hire most of Walt’s animators out from under him, and Walt was left with nothing but his brother Roy, his only loyal employee Ub Iwerks, and a broken dream.
“You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” – Walt Disney
If you’re keeping count, that’s three major failures for Walt in the span of just a few short years. That’s enough to beat many – if not most – dreamers into submission. But Walt was much more than a dreamer. He was a doer, and he never gave up.
Walt hadn’t even gotten home to Hollywood from New York following his failed last ditch effort to appeal to Mintz, when he was already hard at work creating his next character. By the time he got home, Walt had a new idea, a redoubled sense of effort, and a vow to himself that he would never again make the mistake of giving up the ownership of one of his creations.
In other words, Walt picked himself up, started over, learned from his mistakes, and did it better. None of this would have been possible if Walt didn’t have his signature persistence. As the expression goes, “Persistence pays off.”
Who was that character Walt dreamed up on a train after losing his entire business? It was none other than Mickey Mouse.
“The difference between winning and losing is most often not quitting.” – Walt Disney
Believe it or not, Mickey Mouse was not an immediate success. Walt shopped his mouse around to many distributors before finding a home for Mickey. Even then, it took Walt making another leap of faith – adding synchronized sound to his cartoon – to finally hit it big. Walt’s third Mickey Mouse short – Steamboat Willie – finally struck gold. With the success of Mickey, The Walt Disney Studio found steady footing.
But that doesn’t mean Walt wouldn’t have other failures. As much as Walt Disney was a creator, he was also an innovator. The very nature of innovation involves a process of trial-and-error, in order to break new ground. Failure is very much a part of that process.
As the Walt Disney Studio began incorporating new animation processes, it tested those processes in the form of its Silly Symphonies series. Was every Silly Symphony short a winner? No. Was every attempt at innovation successful? Absolutely not. But innovations like color animation and the multiplane camera were born out of this experimental proving ground. Small failures brought about larger successes, and over time the Disney Studio distanced itself from other cartoon studios to become the gold standard for animation.
“It is good to have a failure while you’re young because it teaches you so much. For one thing it makes you aware that such a thing can happen to anybody, and once you’ve lived through the worst, you’re never quite as vulnerable afterward.” – Walt Disney
Having experienced failure several times, but always coming out the other side even stronger, Walt Disney grew to embrace failure as a necessary ingredient in the recipe for success. He used his fearlessness of failure to inspire some of his greatest ambitions.
When word spread that Walt Disney was attempting to make a full feature-length cartoon, many critics in the industry thought he was crazy. They expected him to fail, and some were prepared to gloat when that happened.
Except this time, Walt didn’t fail.
All of the little failures and subsequent adjustments inherent in the animation innovation process led to the moment when Walt Disney introduced the world to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The release of this film was the culmination of over two years of blood, sweat, and tears…and failures too. Walt and his staff gutted out a marathon process which ballooned in cost to a level that jeopardized the well-being of the studio. On many occasions, Walt himself was afraid he had taken too big a risk. But on December 21, 1937, audiences at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles wept and raved with a rousing standing ovation.
Walt had done it. It took many tiny failures – on paper, in the “sweatbox” screening room, and on the cutting room floor. But in the end, the result was a major film success. Walt proved the critics wrong.
Walt Disney has famously said that he wanted to create a place where parents and children could have fun together. When he took his young daughters out to Griffith Park many weekends on “Daddy’s Day”, Walt would often watch while his daughters enjoyed attractions meant just for children. Walt wanted to visit a place where he could participate together with his girls, not just a place where they could enjoy themselves white he watched on the sideline. And so the idea of Disneyland was born.
In planning Disneyland, Walt visited a great many regional amusement parks. He took copious notes on the theming, the operation, the service, and the cleanliness of these parks. And then Walt planned the exact opposite for his park. He was determined to buck the trend of dirty amusement parks, and create a more cohesive family friendly destination. The story of Disneyland’s birth is worthy of its own separate publication, but suffice to say, Walt once again leveraged his company and himself on an innovative, visionary idea.
In order to pay for his park, Walt did the unthinkable for a film studio – he embraced the fledgling world of television. He created content for television shows, and even created his own television show, appropriately called Walt Disney’s Disneyland. Walt bet on himself to succeed.
The idea of Disneyland was not universally endorsed. Many anticipated Walt’s park to be a huge bust, and forecast the park to close and be forgotten within a year. The stories of all the opening day failures sure did paint a grim picture. Forged tickets were bringing thousands of people into the park without paying. Womens’ heeled shoes were sinking into the newly poured asphalt. A plumbers’ strike prevented drinking fountains from being installed in time. Many opening day attractions were breaking down or failing to adequately serve the crowds. Critics blasted Disneyland’s opening day as “Black Sunday.”
But instead of bailing on his dream, Walt doubled down, corrected the mistakes, fixed the things that were broken, and pushed his dream forward. Very few meaningful ideas ever work flawlessly the first time around, but the bones of success stood strongly behind a few opening day hiccups. In creating Disneyland, Walt Disney revolutionized the amusement park industry. In fact, he outright created the theme park industry.
Even after Disneyland found its footing, the history of Disneyland, and future Disney parks, has seen its share of failures. While some attractions saw success right out of the gate, others necessitated a visit back to the drawing board. Let’s look at a few notable stumbles here.
Big Top Flop in Fantasyland
Walt Disney had a love for all things Americana, and that included the good old fashioned circus. In the earliest days of Disneyland, Walt was committed to putting a circus in his park. Only, his plan was to “plus” it with a Disney flair. So it was that the Mickey Mouse Club Circus came to Anaheim, California. Members of the popular Mickey Mouse Club television show performed in the circus, which was staged in a big top tent in the back of Fantasyland. Walt even arranged for a circus parade – inclusive of elephants – to strut down Main Street, U.S.A.
Now Walt was a master of reading the public. He had a keen sense of understanding of what the American people liked and disliked. But in this rare circumstance, Walt misstepped and read the public wrong. Sure, the circus was fine. In fact, like everything Walt created, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was better than others. But when guests were visiting Disneyland, they wanted to experience things they couldn’t see anywhere else, and a circus just didn’t measure up to the novelty that was Disneyland. The Mickey Mouse Club Circus lasted only a few short months before it closed for good, making it one of the earliest flops in Disneyland.
In acknowledging his first true failure within the hallowed berm of Disneyland, Walt learned a valuable lesson. With Disneyland, he was able to give the public something truly unique, which they couldn’t find anywhere else. His park would be best served by continuing to offer one-of-a-kind experiences to all who entered. From that point on, that’s exactly what Walt did.
The very nature of Tomorrowland is a look into the future. As such, the earlier days of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland were a proving ground for various innovations. One of the most unique attractions to hit this land came in the form of the Flying Saucers. The attraction – overseen by Disney Legend Bob Gurr – floated guests around a rink like riding on an air hockey table. Gurr designed the flying saucer vehicles, which could accommodate two guests and would float on air, moving in whatever direction the guest leaned. The idea was novel, but the execution stumbled. Mixed guest satisfaction, long loading times, and high operating and maintenance costs grounded the Flying Saucers after just a few short years.
Fast forward four decades. The Flying Saucer ride design was tinkered with in the 2000s and reimagined as a Cars-themed attraction – Luigi’s Flying Tires – which opened in 2012. But Imagineers didn’t tinker enough, and the attraction experienced many of the same issues. The ride was slow and unappealing, load times lagged, and riders sometimes sustained minor injuries getting on and off the bulky ride vehicles.
Disney Imagineers learned such a basic but critical lesson here – to learn from past mistakes. Imagineers unveiled much the same design in 2012 as that which had failed in the 1960s. To tread on another tired-and-true maxim, “History repeats itself.”
Luigi’s Flying tires closed in 2015, and Disney went back to the drawing board again, this time completely changing the concept. The third time was a charm, and the attraction successfully reopened in 2016 as an outdoor trackless choreographed “dancing” attraction – Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters.
The spirit of innovation was one of Walt’s key values, and The Walt Disney Company has continued to embrace Walt’s philosophy well beyond his passing in 1966. Much like during Walt’s time, the modern iteration of Disney has played with many concepts, and made a few mistakes along the way. And as with Walt, those mistakes usually lead to eventual success just the same.
The Retreat Nobody Wanted
Smack-dab in the middle of the “Disney Decade” of the 1990s, CEO Michael Eisner had some wild ideas. One of the oddest actually sounded good in theory, but in practice fell quite hard. Eisner was a fan of learning and self-improvement retreats, and he wanted to host one in Walt Disney World. But not only did Eisner want to host one – he wanted to permanently house one. So it was that Eisner opened the Disney Institute – a brick-and-mortar campus envisioned as a place where guests could stay in a retreat-style setting while pursuing their wildest ambitions.
But the idea of a self-improvement retreat center was starkly unappealing compared to the excitement of the theme parks next door. The Disney Institute campus closed in 2003, after seven years of unmet expectations.
But no good idea ever truly dies at Disney, and the educational concepts of the Disney Institute live on in a corporate training program that teaches business leaders how to be more Disney-like in their guest service.
As for that closed down brick-and-mortar campus? You’ll find it reimagined as Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort.
Perhaps the most costly and universally panned Disney Parks failure was the infamous low budget presentation of Disney California Adventure. What Michael Eisner envisioned as an homage to The Golden State was finished in 2001 as a slapped together, done-on-the-cheap, unimaginative amusement park. Many of the attractions were off-the-shelf, with minimal theming. There was only one noteworthy standout attraction – Soarin’ Over California.
Initial guest reviews of DCA were negative. The park only offered ⅓ to ½ the entertainment of Disneyland, and yet the park tickets cost the same. DCA lacked imagination and inspiration, and Disney paid dearly for it.
Since 2001, Disney has been slowly, but consistently, rehabilitating the park. Cars Land was added in 2012, Paradise Pier was rethemed to Pixar Pier in 2018, and Avengers Campus was opened in 2021. Today, DCA has finally earned the right to be considered a world-class theme park.
Disney CEO Bob Iger said in 2007 “Any time you do something mediocre with your brand, that’s withdrawal. California Adventure was a brand withdrawal.” Note to self: listen to Walt. Always build what you build to be the absolute best it can be, and the people will come.
Adults Welcome (Kids Not Allowed)
Welcome to Pleasure Island: A tiny little section of Walt Disney World catering solely to adults. Another Michael Eisner inspiration, this adult haven opened in May 1989 as an expansion to the Disney Marketplace. It was marketed toward the 21-plus crowd, complete with ID check and ticket charge to enter the island. On the surface, Pleasure Island was a solid idea, as Walt Disney World was saturated with family friendly fare, yet thin on more mature experiences.
The execution, however, was a bit awkward. Pleasure Island stood in stark contrast to the family-focused marketplace which it bordered, and unfortunately it failed to attract much of its target audience out of the gate. In 1997, the “West Side” expansion was added to the Disney Marketplace complex, which was then renamed Downtown Disney. Now, a different problem emerged. Pleasure Island – with its age-restricted access – was located between two family entertainment zones. Guests under 21 (in other words, families) had to literally walk around the perimeter of Pleasure Island, on the edge of a large parking lot, to get from one family zone to the other. It was not a cohesive layout, and as such it provided a poor experience for families.
Reading the tea leaves, Disney pivoted away from the Pleasure Island concept. Instead of limiting access to the area to adults, Disney removed the age restriction to enter the area, and left the management of individual venue access to its tenants. Now rebranded as “The Landing” in a portion of Disney Springs, the area offers a successful mix of family atmosphere and adult-focused evening entertainment in the form of live music and a colorful bar and club scene. The current iteration of Disney Springs is a great example of how Disney took a failing concept, made some changes while keeping the spirit of the intention, and ultimately settled on a successful formula.
Theme Park on the High Seas
One of Disney’s wildest ideas never came to be, so it’s not exactly a failure, but it’s a perfect example of a pie-in-the-sky Disney idea that directly led to other successful ventures – even if the original concept didn’t prove out.
In the mid-1990s, before Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland ever existed, Disney was looking to spread theme park cheer around the world. But how to do this without fully committing to one geographical location? Introducing (almost) the S.S. Disney – a floating, traveling theme park.
This novel idea would have created a floating theme park out of an oil supertanker, filling the giant vessel with several floors of attractions, entertainment, dining options, and merchandise. The vessel would travel to ports throughout the world, docking for several months at each location while spreading magic to another corner of the world. The idea was very much on the table, to the point that a model and concept sketches were made for it.
The logistics for this traveling theme park proved challenging however, and Disney decided to pursue more permanent destinations in Hong Kong and Shanghai. But once again, no good idea ever truly dies at Disney. Still wanting a presence on the oceans, Disney entered the cruise industry with Disney Cruise Line. Disney has brought entertainment at sea to a new standard, and the fleet is sailing strong with seven total ships, and two more on the way.
Back In Space
Now that we’ve toured some other Disney misfires, let’s look back at the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. Between the cost and the hyper-focused target audience, the Starcruiser in its current form looks to have proven itself unsustainable. What can we learn from this? And what can Disney do differently next time around?
We can debate about what to do with the current Starcruiser building. The prevailing thought is to keep it largely intact and use it as a Star Wars-themed hotel. The price point would be much lower and the content within the hotel could be expanded to include the entire Star Wars galaxy – not just the specific subset which was tapped for the Starcruiser. There are a few logistical issues which would need to be ironed out, but overall the basis for a very successful boutique hotel experience is strongly in place.
But the larger question is – what can Disney learn from this experience? In an attempt to fully transport Star Wars fans to a different time and place, Disney alienated most of them from the very experience they had created. In doing so, Disney unintentionally created ill will with some of its most loyal fans. If there’s one thing Walt Disney always wanted, it was for Disneyland (or for the modern day, any Disney park) to appeal to everyone. In his opening day speech for Disneyland, Walt said “To all who come to this happy place: welcome. Disneyland is your land.” Walt’s intention was the inclusion of all who wanted to visit, not just the wealthier subset of guests, or the most hardcore niche fans.
Disney’s ideas for the Galactic Starcruiser were grand. They were imaginative. They were next-level. Like so many other great ideas within the Walt Disney Company, these ideas will find their places and enjoy success. And when they do, let’s remember they were born out of failure, just like many of the greatest ideas in the history of the company.
Thanks so much for reading. I’d love to know your thoughts on the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. If you’d like to reach out with a comment, please do so here, or on social at:
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If you’d like to learn more about the magic of turning failure into success, start following The Practically Perfect Leader podcast. I’ll be joining Angie Robinson, a certified life coach for leaders, to to discuss this topic on an upcoming episode!
Want more Walt Disney inspiration? Check out a few of my favorite Walt Disney quotes, or one of my favorite books The Wisdom of Walt by my friend Jeff Barnes.
Star Wars fans, here are a few space tales I’ve spun.
The Wisdom of Walt: Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth – Jeffrey Barnes, 2015
Walt Disney: An American Original (Disney Editions Deluxe) – Bob Thomas, 5/1/1994
Of Failure and Success: The Journey of Walt Disney – Jeff Kober, MousePlanet, 8/26/2010
The Time Disneyland Had Its Own Circus, and It Didn’t Go Well – Dirk Libbey, CinemaBlend, 11/26/2020
The Disney Theme Park at Sea That Never Sailed: The S.S. Disney! – Shelly Valladolid, MiceChat, 10/5/2022
Big, Fat Flops: 6 Disney Experiments OUTSIDE The Parks That Crashed & Burned – Brian Krosnick, Theme Park Tourist, 12/28/2021