I'm always excited to kick off another Star Wars Weekend when May rolls around and I know there are lots of others who look forward to the event every year. But what I was unprepared for was the onslaught of guests that descended upon Disney's Hollywood Studios for the first weekend, which lead to the parking lot being completely full and enormous crowds throughout the park. So why is this year's Star Wars Weekends so much more popular than ever before?
I think the principle reason we saw the Studios' parking lot fill up and longer lines all around is the locals effect. Most Walt Disney World guests stay at a Walt Disney World resort and usually take the bus. Having been to the Studios for July 4th, Christmas and New Years Eve, I know that the parking lot has never filled up. Moreover, I spoke to a few Cast Members who indicated that the park was never in danger of closing to capacity on any of the Star Wars Weekend days.
The parking lot filling up is simply an interesting event that I had not witnessed in the 10 years I had been running this site. Every theme park in Walt Disney World has a plan for if it were to happen but when it happened at the Studios, I was surprised to say the least. The parking lot closure lasted about 2 hours starting around noon and guests were directed to park at Epcot and be bused over.
When we see so many more cars than usual in the parking lot, I see that as an increase in people that live in the local area coming to the event. It's even more intriguing because this year's event really doesn't have anything all that brand new or exciting compared to previous years. Heck, last year we had the brand new Star Tours: The Adventures Continue open up with George Lucas even stopping by and the parking lot didn't fill up.
On top of all that, the lines for characters and events were the longest I had ever seen. Shows held in the Premier Theater filled up routinely and the character meet lines were insane. Darth Vader and the Disney Star Wars characters always had big lines for Chewbacca, Boba Fett and even the clone troopers all had lines that looked to be 50 people long.
I think what we can deduce from the increase in locals is a sign that perhaps the economy is recovering and that 2012 has been a better year and so perhaps people that couldn't justify trips in the past few years wanted to be there this year. In addition, Walt Disney World's marketing has never been stronger. Their online presence in social media has resulted in a large digital footprint and Star Wars fans are well known for spending lots of time online. Lastly, the weather was perfect in terms of low rain chances. With all of those factors combined, you get a very busy Star Wars Weekends.
The real question will be how crowded the event will be over the next few weekends. This coming weekend is Memorial Day weekend, which brings a larger crowd on its own, and the following two weeks are in June, when many kids will be done with school and the start of summer vacation.
Fans of Star Wars Weekends may remember up to 2005, Star Wars Weekends was four weekends officially but Disney always tacked on an additonal two weekends (making six total weekends) to the event because of increased demand. Perhaps 2012 is the year they resume that strategy if they're seeing larger crowds than normal.