Forward Looking Immersion
A look at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at the Disneyland Resort
Canonically, Black Spire Outpost is on the planet of Batuu, which is located on the Outer Rim. If that has gone over you (I wouldn’t be surprised), it’s essentially the Radiator Springs of Star Wars. Black Spire Outpost was a bustling rest stop for travellers heading beyond the galaxy (much like in Cars but travelling between states, not galaxies). But with lightspeed becoming popular (much like in Cars, but with interstate highways, not lightspeed) people have stopped visiting. Now it’s a place for the misfits, the smugglers and the Resistance and First Order for recruitment. It would be very well to call this Black Spire Outpost but because it doesn’t have Star Wars explicitly in the title, Disney marketing makes people call it Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is not only the least catchy land-name ever conceived, but it’s 14-acres of Star Wars theme park. It’s largely cornered off from the rest of Disneyland, and that’s unsurprising because of how totally different it is. The earliest concern from many, myself included, was how out of place this is. Disneyland itself is a quaint, homely feeling theme park. It’s vastly smaller than its international counterparts such as Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and most definitely Shanghai Disneyland. Now that concern has become my only thematic criticism. It’s so dramatically different, that while it achieved the ambition of any ‘land’ – to make you forget you’re in a theme park – it also made me go back into Disneyland feeling claustrophobic. The truth is, Galaxy’s Edge doesn’t belong in Disneyland, hell, it doesn’t belong in Disney’s California Adventure, it deserves its own theme park. A bold claim to make, but I believe it’s totally justified. The land is so immersive, that you forget you’re in Disneyland. You forget you’re in Anaheim. You forget you’re in Southern California. Yes, you believe you’re on another planet.
DJ-R3X (former Star Tours pilot) in Oga's Cantina. Robert Hanashiro - USA TODAY/Sipa USA. via Press Association
The way I judge new lands and new theme parks on immersion is by senses. The sound, the smells, the sights and the feel. The moment you enter the land, the background music of Frontierland begins to blend into an atmospheric rendition of the theme that John Williams composed for the land, before that disappears to nothing. A first for a Disney land. There’s no background music for the land. Rather, it’s a soundscape of sounds you’d expect to hear if you really were on a planet in another galaxy including animals you’ve never heard, droids, people talking in a language you’ve never heard before and the rumble of spaceships coming in. It was different. It didn’t feel like Disney, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. In other lands, the smaller sounds are under-appreciated, the horseshoes and Ragtime piano on Main Street, the It’s a Small World clock in Fantasyland and the whistle on the Mark Twain in Frontierland. The sounds are underappreciated because they are crucial building blocks in immersing guests into the place and time in which those lands are set. But these lands have background music, which is arguably the foundation of the soundscape for those lands. What’s different here is how Disney are relying on the building blocks, without a musical foundation. Yet it works. Really well. There are only three attractions that rely on music, Savi’s Workshop, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run and Oga’s Cantina. Well, the toilets are playing the same music that DJ-R3X is playing in the cantina in the form of a Batuu radio station but that's different. If anything, this shows a shift in Disney making ‘cinematic’ experiences to realistic ones.
Onto the sights. With a property as iconic as Star Wars, attention needs to be paid to the details. Star Wars is most notable for the aged look of buildings, weapons and creatures. It’s a mix of East Asian mythology and sci-fi. I always thought that if Walt Disney Imagineering wanted to this right, they’d need to revisit the inspirations from the real-world, the same ones that George Lucas did in the 1970s. Looking at somewhere like the marketplace, it seems they did exactly that. The area is organised as if it were a bazaar in the Middle East, but it’s scattered with futuristic contraptions, even a creature living in the drinking water fountain. It has the familiarity but also the unknown elements that Star Wars is famous for. The other aspect to account for is the aging. Despite completing mere weeks before I visited, the land looks like it’s existed for hundreds of years. Even just looking at the exterior of the buildings, you can see the story of that building and some of the events in the Star Wars canon it’s experience. If you’re visiting, I challenge you to find buildings with blaster wounds to it’s walls. According to Imagineers I’ve discussed this with, the land was home to many battles between not just the First Order and Resistance but the Empire and Rebellion, meaning the story of this land pre-dates the original trilogy.
While indeed there are no roaming creatures or droids, you at least get roaming Chewbacca, Stormtroopers, Rey and Kylo Ren (call him ‘Ben’ and see if he likes it). While these sound like standard character meet and greets, they are informal. In themed entertainment lingo, an informal meet and greet means that there may be no staff with the character (not in the case of Chewie, for obvious reasons). This has led to some quite wonderful interactions with guests. The suspension of disbelief is something very real at a Disney park (a full article will come in the future on this alone), even I get giddy meeting Mickey Mouse. But in a land this immersive, with characters this iconic being let out to roam and interact with guests without formal lines creates a beautiful dynamic. It’s important to remember that many guests visiting this land will be visiting once, perhaps as a once in a lifetime visit to Disneyland. You can’t take moments like that for granted. It’s true ‘Disney magic’.
But for feeling, there are two examples I’d like to discuss, Savi’s Workshop and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run. Savi’s is a hidden workshop selling ‘scrap metal’. What they’re actually selling is the promised $215 (that’s including tax) custom lightsaber. Before you arrive, you are asked what kind of lightsaber you want. More details on that and the process here. The experience of building your lightsaber is somewhat of a religious experience for fans of the films. It’s essentially a show that has characters (the Cast Members helping you build your saber) even featuring the iconic Yoda. As the ‘smugglers’ are explaining the process to you, iconic themes from the films play in the background. It makes for one of those cinematic Disney experiences I was discussing earlier. By the end, you’ve created one of the most iconic weapons in film history, and it doesn’t feel cheap. The pieces you pick for your lightsaber are cast from real metal, with textured elements, the kyber crystals are interchangeable, so you can purchase multiple colours (different crystals also change the sounds), not to mention, you also receive a pouch. In my opinion, it’s well worth the cost. It’s something I’ve coined as E-Ticket Merchandise. More on that soon.
Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is not the land’s main attraction. Rise of the Resistance, a trackless dark ride, is due to open later this year. From my understanding, the ride is complete, but it has not passed a quality assurance test for its maintenance longevity. However, many were more excited to fly the Falcon. The ride is an interactive motion simulator attraction that operates with a crew of 6. Two pilots, two gunners and two engineers. This would lead you to believe that there would be issues with capacity. Though it is worth noting that this ride uses two identical queues and has multiple simulators operating on a rotating platform. Nonetheless, there are multiple other groundbreaking elements to this attraction. Most notable it the first-ever 1:1 recreation of the Millennium Falcon, which is miraculously detailed – one can spend hours staring at it and finding new details. Surrounding the Falcon is the queue building for the attraction, which is initially a maintenance bay for one of the engines of the ship. You wrap around to the back of the ship, and up another storey, so you can see all of the details. Shortly after, you’re huddled into a maintenance space where an incredible Hondo Ohnaka (from the Clone Wars animated film and TV show) animatronic greets you and tells you about your mission. After a back and forth between Hondo and Chewie, you go on a bridge and are then let loose to roam the interior of the iconic Millennium Falcon. The level of detailing is remarkable. So remarkable, I didn’t think to take any photos.
Whilst I was physically unable to ride the attraction, I did get to sit in the cockpit and take it in. All of the buttons serve a function, the dome screen works surprisingly well in simulating your surroundings and after talking to guests who have frequently been on it, there is no better way to try an interactive attraction like this.
Finally, the cast members. Whilst we’ve seen elements of cast member-led story before, it’s never been quite at this level. The first thing a cast member will say to you is ‘Bright Suns!’ or ‘Rising Moons!’ depending on the time of day. When you inevitably purchase the customised Coca-Cola in a thermal detonator, you’ll be paying in ‘credits’. If you need to relieve yourself, you’ll need to ask for the nearest ‘refresher’. There’s many more, and time will tell us whether stressed guests will be able to tolerate this for long, but it does immerse you in the world, even if you find it startling at first. Hell, I even started to go along with it, Bright Sun-ning every cast member I saw.
No matter what land opens, it’s the cast members who make the magic real. It’s clear that every single CM picked for the land is passionate about Star Wars and the affinity guests have for these characters and stories. Without them, the magic wouldn’t exist, and they deserve all of the gratitude in the world for making it happen. Additionally, Scott Trowbridge and his team at Walt Disney Imagineering have managed to create a land that fits nicely as the first official foray into a Star Wars-themed land. Once again pushing the envelope of how stories can be, not just be told, but created, by both guests and Cast Members.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has been a long-time coming. Universal Creative has been challenging Walt Disney Imagineering to get better and better. After Pandora: World of Avatar, it wasn’t certain what Disney could do next. Now, a month after Galaxy’s Edge is open to the public, we know. It’s a new kind of guest experience, where not just the passive guest is accounted for, but the active guest is too.
The story doesn’t end here. With Walt Disney World yet to open their Galaxy’s Edge, we are yet to see how far the immersion is set to go. MagicBands offer Disney the opportunity to tie their score in Smuggler’s Run to their MyDisneyExperience account, leading to trackable storytelling opportunities. Not to mention the Star Wars-themed hotel which will open in the years to come. Disney is taking a big bet with Star Wars in their theme parks, watching it play out is half the fun.