After a year in which Universal Orlando rode the popularity of Harry Potter to record heights, Walt Disney World is pinning its fortunes this summer on the one intellectual property with which the boy wizard is most often compared: Star Wars.
Disney next month will reopen Star Tours, the Reagan-era simulator ride that is undergoing its first major upgrade since it debuted in Disney's Hollywood Studios in 1989 — six years after the third film in the original Star Wars trilogy had arrived in movie theaters.
The revamped attraction — which Disney is also rebuilding at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. — will feature state-of-the-art 3D technology, new film scenes shot by Star Wars creator George Lucas' movie studio, and more than 50 different ride variations. It is the sole big-ticket addition at Disney World in 2011.
But Disney is banking on Star Tours to do more than deliver crowds this summer. It also hopes the ride will stoke renewed interest in a long line of Star Wars merchandise — from Goofy-as-Darth-Vader figurines to build-it-yourself light sabers — much the way that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has fueled record souvenir sales at Universal. Disney says it will have more than 400 Star Wars-themed items for sale in its parks following the reopening of Star Tours — nearly twice as many as it had three years ago.
The strength of the Star Wars brand could go a long way toward helping Disney improve guest spending in its theme parks; sales are only beginning to recover after cratering during the global recession. Per-capita spending rose 8 percent in Disney's U.S. theme parks during the company's first fiscal quarter, though the gains were primarily driven by higher ticket prices and increased spending on food, rather than souvenir sales.
Combined merchandise, food and beverage sales across Walt Disney Parks and Resorts totaled $3.5 billion last year, up a fraction of a percent from a year earlier but still 5 percent below a pre-recession peak of nearly $3.7 billion.
"Our guests have an affinity for Disney characters. But Star Wars folks are particularly fond of their characters," said Rilous Carter, the Disney vice president in charge of Disney's Hollywood Studios.