Now that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance has opened to rave reviews at the Walt Disney World Resort, I suspect that many Disneyland fans are wondering if the new ride might open in advance of its scheduled Jan. 17 debut in Anaheim.

It used to be standard practice for theme park attractions to get a “soft opening” before their official debuts. But many high-profile new rides have been going straight to “hard opens” in recent years, including Rise of the Resistance in Florida, which opened for its press event before anyone else in the public had the chance to ride.

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Like the Harry Potter-themed Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure roller coaster that hard-opened at rival Universal Orlando earlier this year, Rise’s much-hyped debut came plagued with down times, as operators and maintenance crews tried to fine-tune the ride under the pressure of public operation. Soft opens can help get that test-and-adjust period out of the way before a ride officially debuts … and people plan their vacations to experience it.

There’s a trade-off here. A soft open tells fans that they might not be able to get on a ride that remains in testing. But once a soft open is finished and a ride opens officially, fans should be able to plan a visit with the confidence that downtime will be relatively rare. So why didn’t Disney and Universal schedule soft opens for these rides?

A park that wants to launch a new ride with an international media event needs to commit to an opening date far in advance, so reporters and influencers can make travel arrangements and parks can schedule advertising campaigns. But a park won’t get as much return on its investment for those events if the ride’s been all over social media for weeks during a soft opening. And a park misses out on advance bookings the longer it delays an official opening. That all creates an incentive for parks to keep soft opening periods as short as possible.

Design teams can make their best guess at when a ride will be ready to go, but once they commit to a date, there’s no good way to back out of that should they discover operational problems before launch. That can leave eager fans waiting out down times, as they have been for Rise and Hagrid’s.

I prefer the alternate approach that Six Flags Magic Mountain is taking with its new West Coast Racers roller coaster. Six Flags doesn’t do international media events like Disney and Universal, but it still needs to sell tickets. For West Coast Racers, Magic Mountain is rewarding its most loyal fans by scheduling a preview period exclusively for Six Flags membership and season pass holders, starting this weekend.

Since almost all of those fans are locals, this approach gives them the chance to be the first to ride, while allowing Six Flags a testing period before it opens the coaster to out-of-town fans. The preview also could  help Six Flags upsell visitors without memberships into buying one, so that they can get on the ride that day, too.

As a reporter, I love being the first to experience a new attraction. But parks’ customers shouldn’t be left waiting for an inoperable ride that was supposed to be open. If it takes a soft opening period to prevent that, parks should make the hard choice to plan them.

LA Daily News