How’s Jenny Nicholson Four-Hour Star Wars Hotel Video Went Viral

Lifestyle

There are very few things that one would willingly submit themselves to doing for four hours. Binge-watching Seinfeld? You’d get sick of Kramer after 90 minutes. Sex? Sounds painful. Eating an elaborate multi-course meal? A recipe for gastrointestinal discomfort at best.

With her video essay “The Spectacular Failure of the Star Wars Hotel,” however, YouTuber Jenny Nicholson has managed to achieve the impossible. The scathing video, which spans a whopping 245 minutes, documents in extreme detail the story behind the failure of Disney‘s Galactic Starcruiser hotel, a Star Warsthemed roleplay experience in the Walt Disney World resort that opened in March 2022. The ambitious project was marketed as a two-night immersive experience aboard an outer-space cruise, allowing fans to interact in real-time with various Star Wars characters and participate in interactive gameplay. But fans balked at the hefty price tag — as Nicholson notes, it cost about $6,600 for two people to stay for just two nights — and the hotel closed just 18 months after opening.

Nicholson’s video, which she posted a little more than a week ago, isn’t just a review of her seemingly dismal March 2022 Galactic Starcruiser hotel stay, though it is that. It’s also a deeply reported video essay on the history of the project, its marketing, and its myriad failures. “They didn’t quite know who it was marketed toward,” Nicholson says of the project. “They recognized that the Star Wars brand was valuable, and they had a large part of the demographic who was willing to spend a lot of money. But I think they didn’t ask themselves if hardcore Star Wars fans were the same ones trying to spend a lot of money at the parks. There were a lot of problems, but not knowing their audience was a big part of it.”

The video culminates in a scathing indictment of Disney as a brand — as well as, arguably, capitalism at large. It’s both a fascinating insight into the creative process and, in some ways, a Dear John letter of sorts to the Disney corporation: though Nicholson has been a Disney fan her entire life, even working for the company for three years, she ends her video by condemning the Galactic Starcruiser project as the ultimate example of the brand trying to nickel-and-dime its loyal fans. “I’ve always been a fan of the brand, so I want them to be doing well and making their best stuff,” she says. “But there is also a lot of frustration around it.”

The video has since racked up more than six million views, spawning numerous memes (a pole that obstructed Nicholson’s view during the nightly dinner theater shows was particularly subject to mockery), as well as media think pieces. It also sparked controversy among many diehard Disney and Star Wars fans, who argued that Nicholson’s criticism was unfair and that she was taking pot shots at the $185 billion company. And though Nicholson has built a loyal following over the years for her videos covering fandoms and niche cultural phenomena, the video has introduced her to a wider swath of fans, many of whom don’t care about either Star Wars or Disney at all. (I can personally attest to this, as my husband, who falls into this category, sat down and raptly watched the whole thing.)

Rolling Stone caught up with Nicholson to discuss the enormous success of her video, what it means for the future of Disney as a brand, and what she’s been hearing from former Disney employees about her critiques (spoiler alert: reviews are mixed!)

Tell me about the genesis of this video. Why did you decide to make it?
As soon as I heard about [the Galactic Starcruiser], it seemed right up my alley, because I love Star Wars. I love theme parks and immersive stuff. I was always a big theater kid. So just the attraction already seemed like something that was like right up my alley. And then of course, as a YouTuber, I like to make content out of stuff, especially something like this, which it seemed like a lot of people would never get to see [for themselves]. So it seemed like a good opportunity to like document it, and let people see what it was like. As with a lot of things I do, I thought it was going to be more of a neutral travelogue kind of thing. And then it turned into something totally different.

You booked the trip yourself, correct? This wasn’t like a comped trip [a term for a trip that is paid for by a brand, in exchange for coverage]?
No, not at all comped. I did get early access to book because I have a Chase Card, which was the only reason I got to go so early [in March 2022], because it was booking up really fast. But yeah, I completely paid for the whole thing.

Was Disney aware of the fact that you were an influencer?
They didn’t know at all. When I was a newer YouTuber, I would try to contact places in part because I was really broke, and I would have appreciated getting stuff comped. So I used to try to work with brands. But when you do video essay stuff, they generally don’t want to anyway. It’s just totally different from the kind of channels they work with. So in this case, I didn’t even try to reach out — I just went ahead and booked it. I prefer it because it is kind of awkward to get everything comped and then say something is bad. I would if I had to, but since I have the option of buying stuff myself, I prefer to do that because it lets me be completely objective and not feel guilty or ungrateful.

How did you go into this experience? How would you describe your mindset at the time?
I was excited to have an excuse of being a YouTuber to spring for something so expensive. Because I knew it was going to be a video, in a sense, it felt lower pressure to know I would be getting the money back that I spent on it, one way or the other. So I was hoping it would be good. I’d seen all the marketing material at that point, and I’d done lots and lots of escape rooms. So I thought maybe it would be something like that. I kind of expected it might be something nerdy that wouldn’t connect with everyone, but that it would it would be something that I would like.

And that was not the case.
No. Sadly, no.

So how long did it actually take you to make this video?
I worked on it on and off for about two years. One thing that threw a wrench into it is, I was kind of approaching doneness, and had announced on my Patreon that I’d have it done soon. And then they announced that it was closing. And I was like, “I have to rewrite the whole thing to be about why it closed and why it was made and everything, so it’s more than just what it was like to go.” So that added a lot of time to it.

So when they announced it was closing, was there ever a point where you were debating whether or not to release it, or worried that it would be less relevant?
I don’t worry about that so much with my videos because they’re so long. It’s not just a dry vlog or a review, it’s not purely about like, “Do I recommend this and do you want to go.” So I try not to worry about that too much. And that was kind of my attitude when I went: A million people are gonna have videos before me that are just their vlogs of themselves going. So I’m just going to try to go deeper with it. And that’s what will make it watchable. And I was thinking how frustrating it would be if I posted a video and then two months after they closed it, because then something I put so much time in would no longer be comprehensive. So in the long run, I knew the video would be stronger because now it’s a complete story.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/T0CpOYZZZW4?si=eOA6UKJW3pp3m7eN

Let’s talk about the length a little bit because obviously a lot has been made of the four-hour runtime. How long was it originally? Is there anything that you cut that you wish you had kept in?
Oh, not that I wish I kept in. I guess I cut a lot when they announced the closure — the video would have been more specific about stuff like the food. That probably would have been fluff for the vast majority who wouldn’t have gone, even if it was still open.

Was there ever a point where you were like, “Damn, like I should cut something, four hours is a long time?”
I used to worry about that, and about the goodwill necessary for people to watch through it. But I feel like my videos have ballooned so gradually that I am kind of like, “OK, people probably tolerate this length, as long as stuff doesn’t drag in the middle.” So I worry more about pacing. But in this case, I wasn’t that worried about the length. I definitely didn’t expect it to get as many views as it did. But I didn’t think the length would be like an obstacle.

Did you reach out to Disney or try to get comment from them at all prior to releasing this video?
I did not. I just sort of went through the normal customer service channels. After my trip, I did contact them about a couple of the things I wanted to get refunds for that I talked about in the video, like the photo package and stuff. But they only called me after I tweeted at them publicly. And on that phone call, I did kind of say, “The gameplay really didn’t work for us.” So I guess that could have been their opportunity, knowing I was a YouTuber and knowing it didn’t go well, to try to be like, “That’s not representative,” and try to resolve things. But they didn’t. They were just like, “Oh, I’m I’m sorry that you had a bad experience.”

Were you surprised by the reaction at all?
Definitely. With all my videos, I’m always like, “I hope the algorithm still shows it to people, I hope people still click on it.” I have a loyal viewership base, and my channel has like 1 million subscribers, so I was like, “OK, it’s probably gonna get 1 million views. So at least there’s that.” But you’re always kind of at the mercy of YouTube and word of mouth. And especially with the video this long — long videos are doing OK on YouTube algorithmically, but it’s harder to link your friends to a four-hour video and have them take the recommendation, because it’s a big leap of faith. So yeah, I didn’t know how far outside my circle it would get, but it definitely was a pleasant surprise that it seems like this one has kind of gone outside my normal viewership.

That’s probably the main question I have for you. Why do you think this resonated with people who do not give a shit about either Star Wars or Disney?
It’s a good question. I wish I knew. I’m happy about it. I guess I don’t have a definitive answer. I think it might just be that Disney as a whole is so big right now that I feel like everyone has at least a cultural awareness of the brand. And there’s a lot of discourse around Disney’s rapid growth, and how they own more and more things, and their perceived greed and the deep decline in quality of both the movies and the parks. A lot of people share common frustrations with the brand, which I feel bad about, because I’ve always been a fan of the brand, so I want them to be doing well and making their best stuff.

This sentiment, that Disney has become more focused on profit at the expense of quality — would you say that had crossed your mind before, or was this trip the first time you had thought that?
I used to go to the theme parks all the time. And ever since they reopened after [a three month shutdown due to] Covid, I kind of don’t anymore. I feel like the experience has gotten a lot worse. The problems behind that are kind of nuanced. A lot of it comes from how their CEOs have much shorter tenures now. So I think there’s a lot more push toward short term profits, so the CEO can collect and then leave as opposed to focus on the longevity of the company and its reputation. So I think it comes down to more than just pure greed, or at least greed of the overall company. But yeah, it is something that has been on my mind.

Have you heard from any Disney employees at all after making this video?
I got a couple emails from former Imagineers [the term for the creative engineers who work on the parks’ attractions], but no one who worked on the Cruiser. They’re former employees, so a lot of it is like, “this is why I left the company” and sort of disillusionment with the brand and what it stands for, and obviously, there’s a little bit of bias there. But I have kind of gotten the impression that there’s a much faster turnover of Imagineers than there used to be. People think of the classic ones that were there when Walt Disney was working at the company like Rolly Crump [who helped design the It’s a Small World ride] and Tony Baxter [who oversaw attractions like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Star Tors], and all the ones that are like kind of legendary to theme park fans now. That kind of career Imagineer doesn’t really exist anymore. I heard a lot of them work for like three years on average and then they either get laid off, or they leave for better paying projects. And I think that probably makes a difference in quality, too.

Why do you think that is?
Well, there’s layoffs and budget cuts, so a lot of it is probably outside their control. But I think for a lot of them, it must be frustrating to go in being like, “I’m perfect for this job. I have so many good ideas,” and then to get there and realize how many of your ideas are getting kneecapped by budget cuts and by people not really willing to go all in on the projects they’re green-lighting.

What about any other former or current Disney employees? Were there any points you made in the video where they were like, “you were spot on”?
Mostly frontline cast members, I’m not sure which department they’re in. [Some agreed with the point I made about] the overwork of the employees, the fact that the actors at Starcruiser weren’t paid enough to compensate for the amount of labor. My impression has been that the Starcruiser actors were kind of cross-trained to also do other acting roles in the park, and that the Starcruiser had trouble filling shifts, because it was so labor intensive and didn’t pay extra compared to the other easier shifts. And then I’ve heard from other employees who have said, “This was my favorite job I’ve ever done. This is mean. Why are you besmirching this thing I loved working on so much?” So it’s a very mixed bag, which I kind of expected.

You touched on the potential labor issues of the project in your video — the fact that these performers were working eight-hour shifts and constantly performing and interacting with guests. You said you heard similar things from people who reached out to you?
Yeah, I’m very worried. I don’t know if you noticed that the Disney character performers are trying to unionize right now. They’re trying to be under Actors Equity. There are videos circulating of people who are currently working there as character performers talking about their frustrations with the job. And I’m really curious to see how that unfolds. Because the puppeteers tried to do something like that in 2017 or so, and Disney eliminated many of the puppeteering roles from the parks almost all like they got rid of the Disney Jr. puppet show. So I worry for those people’s jobs, and I hope that things go well for them.
[I] have some theories about what Disney would do [in lieu of hiring human character performers]. I know they’ve been testing AI character meet-and-greets. They’ve had demos of those, like a little Tinker Bell in a lantern that was more of an AI thing. Another possibility would just be massively cutting how many of them they have and limiting them to queues where they can sell Lightning Lanes [Disney’s pay-to-play service that allows guests to skip lines]. I think that would be pretty bleak. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Have you heard from any Disney executives directly?
I haven’t, and I don’t expect to just from what I know about the company and how they do PR. I think they prefer to focus on the positive stuff: vloggers who go and just kind of eat the food and say the food is yummy and film themselves laughing on rides and stuff. I don’t think they’re really interested in actual reviews. So yeah, I don’t expect to hear from them. Actually, I kind of hope I don’t. Because if I do, it’ll probably be negative or like they’re trying to sue me or something….overall, the corporate side of the company, I think they’re probably really mad about the video. So they definitely wouldn’t want to reach out.

How did you feel about seeing the pole you got sat in front of become a meme?
Vindicated, I guess? I thought the pole part was really funny in a sad way. So I’m glad other people did too.

What did you think of the mainstream media’s reaction to your video? NPR wrote something about how it proves people still want long-form content. I’m wondering how you feel about that, as a YouTuber who has spent years making these very lengthy videos.
I guess I’m not that surprised that outlets are continually surprised by it. Video essays are typically smaller channels in the grand scheme of things, so I get why someone kind of stumbling across it would be like, ‘Why is it so long?’ especially people that are familiar with TikTok and stuff. But I also understand why that’s kind of become a niche, because I think people like to have stuff to listen to more passively, like a second screen sort of thing. So if someone’s like shopping online, or cleaning their room or doing their dishes, or even going to sleep, they can like put on a really long video, and know that they’re not going to have to click to the next page really quickly. So I think there’s definitely a place for it. [I] think a lot of people tend to be like, “Gen Z doesn’t have any attention span.” And I think the long video essays are something you can point to as: well, they definitely can watch long stuff when they want to.

You talked in the video about influencers covering this hotel and being worried about being taken off of Disney’s press list if they said anything negative. Are you worried about that happening to you at all — being blacklisted by the parks as a result of this video?
Not really. I would hate to be blacklisted from the parks, that would be really sad. I mean, it’s a private property, they can do whatever they want. But that would be so crazy. I feel like the only people they [ban from the parks] are the ones who fight or go out of bounds or are urban explorers. But I understand why other influencers have to live in fear, especially in the theme park YouTubing community. Being first to a scoop is such a huge determining factor on the number of views they get, and a lot of those channels are also living paycheck to paycheck, so they really want to get views on every video. They really need to be there for the press previews and show all the new cupcakes and stuff. And that’s the bread and butter of their channel. People just give very surface-level reviews when they go, and they’re like, “Look, it’s so cute. The food is so good. It’s so fun.” It’s more about making aspirational content that’s an advertisement for Disney, whether they’re paying you or not. And I feel like unless people are honest about what’s bad about them, they’re not going to get better.

It seems like the response to your video has been pretty positive. Do you think that’s going to impact how other YouTubers cover the Disney parks?
I’m not sure. It would be interesting if it did, but I don’t think it will. I just feel like Disney has them in such a chokehold that nothing could really change unless they totally changed the nature of their content.

Does that frustrate you personally as as a fan?
It does. I get why it’s instrumental to them paying their bills. But as I said in the video, I feel like they’re reaching a moral quandary when you’re promoting stuff that’s so expensive to people so uncritically, knowing that it’s not what you’re telling them they’re going to get. [I] feel like when you love something, it is important to be critical of the stuff that’s below the standard it can hold itself to. That’s part of why I’ve been so disappointed, having worked at the parks and felt like they were a really good product and having gone for so many years. It is disappointing to feel like they’re taking things away, and they think people don’t notice and they think people won’t complain. I feel like they’re treating their customers unfairly. And I think that’s kind of a lousy way to pay them back for the amount of loyalty this brand has.

In the last few minutes of your video, you make the point that the failure of the hotel is going to have a huge impact on Disney’s brands, and that people are going to get sick of being upcharged and nickel-and-dimed, and eventually just stop going to the parks. Do you think that will actually happen?
Yeah, I think given enough time. It’s hard to predict. For some people, maybe it means so much to them that they’ll keep going even if it’s a worse experience. But I feel like I have heard from people in the fan community who are kind of like, enough is enough. And I think that effect must be a lot worse for people who aren’t hardcore Theme Park fans, like families who are going for the first time with their little kids. I can imagine that being kind of a last straw, and they’ll leave being like, “It’s just like I thought it would be: everything costs extra, it’s difficult to plan, the lines are really long.” It’s definitely not going to secure any new brand loyalty, and I think they are burning a good deal of old brand loyalty. But the brand is also really big. So I don’t know if that’s going to matter to their bottom line that much, or if they’ve crunched the numbers behind the scenes and determined they can afford to lose a certain percentage of our customers as long as the ones left are paying more.

What do you think the general takeaway of the failure of the hotel is beyond the future of either Disney or the Star Wars brand?
[I] hope the video will put more of a microscope on what the brand is up to. Disney is one of those huge brands that is kind of getting a monopoly on a lot of other entertainment brands. Maybe it is kind of morbidly interesting to people, to see evidence of what they may have suspected about Disney becoming greedier. Maybe that’s why they are so interested.

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Unfortunately, I think the lesson Disney is going to take is not to do weird stuff, not to try anything that’s outside the box, or do any of this kind of LARP gameplay stuff again. I think the problem was more with the execution of it. I think what they should take away from it is not experimenting with charging as much as they possibly can, not paywalling stuff that they consider extras like interactive characters, gameplay, anything beyond the bare minimum for the park guests. I hope the lesson taken away is, “Oh, we really asked too much of our fans there. We’ve really tried to take advantage of them in a way that wasn’t wise and didn’t pan out and we ended up losing a lot of money in the long run.” But I think the takeaway will just be, “We’re not going to build an immersive LARP hotel again.”

Read original source here.

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