The Star Wars attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland is preparing for an exciting future. Kelly Willis, Disneyland’s creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, on why he is confident the new attraction is poised to gain recognition

Huge spotlights shining down on his face, journalists pressing forward with questions … Kelly Willis, creative development director of Walt Disney Imagineering at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, was lifting the curtain on his brainchild “Star Wars: Tomorrowland Takeover”, with his face all shiny and sweaty.

For Willis, a creative veteran at Disneyland for nearly 13 years, this is just another publicity stunt he has to hold and he is no stranger to this kind of exhausting spectacle.

Yet, in the face of an intensive schedule and a hungry press, a shred of nervousness sweeps through his speech and stiff upper lip, and for good reason.

The unveiling had to be loud and resounding and the attraction buzzworthy so as to eclipse the year-end deficits that had the public talking for a while, and bringing back the attention that has been stolen by the newly opened Shanghai Disneyland.

“Star Wars: Tomorrowland Takeover” has become a critical task amid a grim financial situation facing Hong Kong Disneyland, where some HK$148 million evaporated last year.

Hong Kong Disneyland’s total revenue last year was HK $5,114 million, representing a 6% drop year-on-year. Visitors to the amusement park also slumped by 9% in 2015 compared with the previous year, totalling 6.8 million visitors.

Of the competitive rivalry, Willis graciously says: “I believe having Disneyland open in Shanghai will increase awareness to the Disney brand, which is a good thing that we should also celebrate.”

The Star Wars series has proven its might worldwide. Now the 11-year-old Hong Kong Disneyland is banking on the blockbuster to make a turnaround to its declining business.

First launched in the US, the Star Wars-themed attraction arrived in Hong Kong last month where “guests are provided an opportunity to become a Rebel fighter pilot, hero of the Resistance or Jedi Knight”, says Willis, the creative brain behind the development.

With a rich international expertise handling a range of hotels, entertainment projects and theme parks from Southeast Asia, India and Spain to the US, he now helms the creative development of all attractions and guest areas at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort.

“The first time I lived overseas was with Hong Kong Disneyland,” he says, as he flashes a smile as he describes his dream job.

“I enjoy being able to use my imagination and to work with fantastic franchises and amazing designers around the world. It’s fun to come to work every day and to create.”

The Star Wars project comprises the Hyperspace Mountain, where guests can journey through a reconnaissance mission in outer space on life-size X-wing starfighters equipped with flight suits and pilot helmets; the Star Wars: Command Post, which is a hidden Resistance base where visitors can meet the iconic Wookiee warrior Chewbacca and astromech droid R2-D2; Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple, a training session exclusively crafted for Hong Kong Disneyland with Jedi masters coaching participants how to use the Force; as well as a merchandise and food and beverage extravaganza across the park.

As a story-driven company, most of the storytelling at Hong Kong Disneyland is local adaptations based on prototypes from the US to pander to local tastes.

“We’ve built upon what has been done in the US and doing something we think is even better – we take the storytelling a little bit further. The Hyperspace Mountain, for instance, allows guests to step into actual X-wing starfighters, setting up a story about this epic battle that is about to go on between the light side and dark side.”
While Mainland visitors accounted for the biggest portion (41%) of total attendance last year, with local visitors achieving a record high in attendance (39%), localisation is mission-critical in keeping the business afloat, and it’s all about paying attention to the details, Willis believes.

“We make sure there are chatters on the onboard audio between other pilots, which are recorded in English and Cantonese and Putonghua to appeal to the local market.”

One of his proudest elements of the project is the Jedi Training programme, represented also in three languages, where guests are encouraged to interact with the characters.

“It’s important to get everything at Tomorrowland to be within the Star Wars storyline.

“With all the characters, we are bringing a very rich and immersive Star Wars universe experience at the Tomorrowland Takeover.”

Much effort has been put into making sure the thrill of the Star Wars adventures can be felt anywhere in the park, as Disneyland has taken a holistic approach to the Star Wars experience and has expanded it throughout the park, including its resorts.

The two hotels – Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Hollywood Hotel – now offer Star Wars-themed rooms decorated in either the light side or the dark side. Packages include Star Wars-themed door stickers, slippers, bed-runners and cookie sets.

2016 is a milestone year for Hong Kong Disneyland in terms of new key attractions after three years of silence since the opening of Mystic Point in 2013. That year, the park recorded a 15% growth in revenue, the last honeymoon period before the numbers started to slide.

Several new additions were deployed over the past two years to keep the noise up, but they weren’t more than resort experience enhancements (Frozen Village) or a glowing parade (Disney Paint the Night), which were not lasting solutions, not even close.

So the success of Tomorrowland Takeover and the upcoming Iron Man 3-D motion simulator are essential for Disneyland to bounce back from its financial struggles. The two will be given enough ammunition by the park to fend off its perennial rival Ocean Park and newcomer Shanghai Disneyland.

To survive the competition, Hong Kong Disneyland has to go the extra mile to drum up not only local and Mainland visitors, but also international visitors by pumping out more exciting rides and innovative and unique attractions such as this one.