Inside Disney’s Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance — in a hallway exquisitely designed to look and feel like the commanding and intentionally antiseptic corridors of an imposing starship — Disney creative executive John Larena was leading a pack of themed-entertainment designers to a room designed to be a prison cell. This is the attraction Larena has been a principal in crafting, and the ride Walt Disney Imagineering hypes as the most ambitious it has ever built.
Rise of the Resistance, when it opens Thursday here at Walt Disney World and Jan. 17 at Disneyland in Anaheim, will be the showcase attraction of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The two 14-acre lands, one on each coast, present bold and arguably challenging ideas about the future of two of America’s most popular tourist destinations, largely a shift from passive to more active entertainment. As Larena waved a group of industry peers to follow him, a young Disney staffer — cast member, in the parlance of the park — walked toward Larena at a brisk pace and in an outfit that signified that he was a representative of the evil First Order.
“Move aside,” the young man growled, never making eye contact with the very man who had a pivotal role in building the attraction in which he now works. It was clear the cast member had zero qualms about potentially bumping up against Larena. The Imagineer accordingly hopped to his right. Then Larena turned and faced some of the group. He laughed — letting out a low but audible “whoa” — and noted how much that kid just impressed him.
Disney parks have long utilized the tenets of theater — anything in view of a paying customer is said to be “on stage” — but no other vehicle-driven attraction uses human theatrics to directly interact with its guests in such a way as Rise of the Resistance, a hearty ride that marries plenty of drama, some from its cast and some from audio-animatronic figurines, with flashy modern tech and many old-fashioned sleights of hand.
It’s also an attraction that will deliver on many of the early promises of Galaxy’s Edge, boasting full-scale, highly active droids, alien creatures, lightsabers and an impressive use of vehicle movement that succeeds in conveying the power of the magic-like Force at the heart of the “Star Wars” universe. When Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disneyland on May 31 and didn’t immediately result in punishing crowds at the Anaheim resort, questions were raised. Rise of the Resistance will begin to answer them.
The initial concern: Did Disney over-promise and under-deliver? What was teased was a platform for play, but what early visitors received was a land with few characters, no shows and a single attraction in Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. The latter features impressive set design and intrepid interactivity, but is also a plot-heavy ride that focuses on stealing cargo rather than the daring rebelliousness at the core of the best “Star Wars” works.
No such issues plague “Rise of the Resistance.”
While there are opportunities for “Star Wars” loyalists to go deep in decoding how these events fit into the fantasy saga’s universe — the ride is set sometime after 2017’s “The Last Jedi” and before this month’s “The Rise of Skywalker” — Rise of the Resistance goes big on spectacle and adventure, creating a 20-some -minute experience with simple narrative beats that always result in action that squarely impacts the guests.
Rey (actress Daisy Ridley in crisp holographic form) needs new recruits to reach Gen. Leia Organa. Things, of course, go awry, but before this happens guests are ushered urgently to a transport ship. From this point forward, Rise of the Resistance is filled with cinema-worthy scenes that come close to immersive theater, as action is almost always in front of us as well as behind us, not to mention to the left and right of us.
On the transport ship, for instance, two animatronic figures guide us, smuggler and fan favorite Nien Nunb and the newly introduced Lt. Bek, a squid-like Mon Calamari creature that just so happens to be a dazzling figure that never stops moving. This is the first of two proper ride vehicles on Rise of the Resistance, and one that can accommodate about 50 people. But Rise of the Resistance begins long before guests eventually put on a seatbelt; a labyrinth cave of a line queue introduces us to the scrappy, individualistic handiwork of the resistance, ending with circular droid BB-8 introducing us to Rey. Emotionally, the Star Destroyer will contradict this journey, its slickness indicating faceless authoritarianism.
The transport ship is designed so no two guests see it the same way. Look behind you and away from the mechanical pilots and watch the journey into space, as well as the dangers that soon occur, all while the ship is slowly rotating to ensure we exit the same door we came in. Only now we’re prisoners on the docking bay of a Star Destroyer standing before 50 ominous Stormtroopers. We’re led sternly to a holding cell, where the action comes from above until the resistance saws us free and a once-hidden door is lasered away (no need to move aside; they’re just lighting and projection effects).
The overall narrative has long been detailed and spoiled — guests will eventually board trackless vehicles led by droids reprogrammed by the resistance that will twist and turn throughout the hallways of the Star Destroyer, even under or around towering AT-ATs, only to eventually escape and drop back to the Galaxy’s Edge planet of Batuu. What’s been kept under wraps are the details and the variances that exist. Rise of the Resistance can feel distinct based on where you’re sitting or how you move, as the droid that powers our vehicle reacts differently depending on where it is positioned: sometimes with fear, and sometimes with a quick look back that essentially says “oops.”
There’s even a midway split in paths, which will result in relatively divergent show scenes for different guests. I prefer the one that has us positioned alongside the AT-AT rather than in front of it; while the former includes a nifty use of track lighting, the latter has us surprising First Order soldiers before backing away to encounter chaotic, wayward blaster fire.
While there are dozens of animatronics, including one of John Boyega’s Finn that can be relatively hidden depending on the route taken by your vehicle, this is the rare modern theme park attraction where screens and projections are used with artistic restraint. Yes, there are lots of projected and filmed effects, but they always interact with the set — when a Stormtrooper shoots a blaster, it triggers a mini explosion effect. Elsewhere, projections give way to blaster-scarred walls, and near the end giant laser cannons firing into a hectic space battle retract and advance, impeding our stop-and-start journey. When Kylo Ren’s lightsaber crashes through the ceiling it’s a surprise, but we’re kept at just enough of a distance to not spoil the razzle-dazzle of it all.
And yet the most powerful tricks hit on a smaller, more personal level, such as a scene in which guests come face to face with an animatronic of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Throughout Rise of the Resistance our escape vehicles twist, turn and generally move in unpredictable fashion. But when Kylo Ren uses the Force, we suddenly lock into place and sternly inch forward in a direct line. It’s an effect that works simply because it contrasts our earlier movement, and yet it cuts to the core of why Rise of the Resistance succeeds as much as it does.
Rise of the Resistance is an attraction that is designed to entertain us, but it does so because it never stops feeling like it is expressly responding to us.
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