Eric Henderson was standing inside the theme park Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, near the exit of the new ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, when the 38-year-old Atlanta native spotted someone he thought looked familiar.
“Are you an Imagineer?” Henderson asked John Larena, nodding to his official-looking Disney name tag and business-casual attire.
Larena is indeed an Imagineer, one who just happens to be a principal architect of Rise of the Resistance, which opened here Thursday at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and comes to Disneyland on Jan. 17. It’s a crucial new attraction for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the land that opened to much hoopla in May at Disneyland in Anaheim and here in August but offered just one ride.
Before Larena could finish answering the guest’s question, Henderson stopped him. He wanted a photo and to offer an impromptu hug. In Orlando on business, Henderson arrived at the park at 3:30 a.m. to see if he could get on the ride. And though it was more than four hours before he was able to get into Rise of the Resistance, the wait, he said, was more than worth it.
Henderson then started gushing about one of the ride’s early tricks. Guests board a transport ship that places them on on a giant starship belonging to the evil First Order. The slow-moving flight simulator — the first of two ride vehicles on Rise of the Resistance — gradually rocks and rotates on what is essentially a giant turntable. This allows guests to exit the same door in which they entered. It offers the illusion of walking off the planet and entering Outer Space.
“The magic of that is unbeatable,” Henderson said. “That’s amazing. Amazing.”
Henderson’s reaction added a smile to Larena’s already watery eyes. If guests can match even half of Henderson’s enthusiasm Disney will not just have a hit on its hands but an attraction that should quiet, at least for a while, any discussion that Galaxy’s Edge is not meeting expectations. In August, Disney reported a 3% dip in attendance for its domestic theme parks, despite Disneyland opening its most buzzed-about resort addition since the launch of Cars Land in 2012. Soon, the company shuffled a number of key executives.
It was safe to wonder if Galaxy’s Edge over-promised and under-delivered.
But Disney clearly has a very good feeling about Rise of the Resistance. This is evident from walking along the ride’s line. On opening day the company employed a reservation system — through an app, you found out if your ride time would be in the morning or evening — keeping queue times under an hour for those who were lucky enough to be at the park before the ride was booked for the day at 8:30 a.m. Normally, however, when a proper standby line eventually is utilized, guests will know when they reach what is approximately the halfway point of the line by the presence of benches, carved to appear as a natural formation of an imagined cave that houses the base for the rebellious heroes of the resistance.
The benches not only show that Disney understands how to provide guest comfort — people are generally pro-rest amid long days standing in theme parks — it is also an indication of optimism, a belief that Rise of the Resistance will bring the throngs of people that the company has publicly speculated stayed away from Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland due to either a fear of overcrowding or the desire to wait until the land was more complete.
On Thursday, Disney staffers, or cast members as the park calls them, stood at the exit asking nearly everyone what they thought. One woman simply offered a fist-pump. A family clapped. Katrina Dandridge of Tampa Bay, Fla., put her hands to her face and started crying.
“They had a ride within a ride,” Dandridge, 33, explained, alluding to the multiple ride systems that make up Rise of the Resistance. “The story was top-of-the line. And it was a long ride, like 18 minutes.”
Rise of the Resistance essentially gives Galaxy’s Edge what it has lacked — fully movable droids and multiple recognizable characters, from Daisy Ridley’s Rey in holographic form to John Boyega’s Finn and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren as audio-animatronics. Oscar Isaac’s Poe appears on screen and we see a lifelike creation of his X-wing. Additionally, the more Disney employees get into character, either as welcoming and excitable resistance fighters or as fiercely strict followers of the First Order — the more the ride comes to life.
Disney has long stressed that Rise of the Resistance is its most complicated and technically ambitious attraction. It’s a public relations-approved boast that has some merit. “We threw out the playbook” was the talking point echoed at a multi-day media preview by many employees of Walt Disney Imagineering, as well as Bob Chapek, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. The statement alludes to how the attraction unfolds in an unconventional, theatrical way.
The construction of Rise of the Resistance slots together like a sophisticated puzzle. A pre-show with a droid and a hologram gives way to a slow-moving space simulator, the one Henderson raved about, with a pair of highly detailed audio-animatronic figurines. Guests are free to move about the rotating simulator — that is, if there’s room (it can hold up to about 50 people) — to take in the story from multiple vantage points.
Once complete, Rise of the Resistance transitions to a second act, which begins with moments of theater as guests are ordered around by stern members of the evil First Order to a prison cell with a trick mechanical door. With the latter open, guests will then be led to droid-enhanced trackless ride vehicles. These will ultimately connect with an elevator that will drop guests and turn into a more intense flight simulator.
“It has a full arc,” said Larena, executive creative director of the ride. “It’s a long experience. You get your first act of joining the resistance and the excitement of embarking on a mission. Then you get Act 2, the dread of a tractor beam into a Star Destroyer and being interrogated by Kylo. Then the third act is pure thrill and exhilaration as you work your way off that Star Destroyer.”
It’s an impressively meaty work of theme park theatrics, one full of details large and small. Most will marvel at the multi-story AT-ATs, those four-legged vehicles used by the Imperials in the Battle of Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back.” That’s what struck Orlando’s Tim Gartin, who stopped as he exited the ride to hug his wife and son and say, “That was awesome.”
“Their sheer size was amazing,” Gartin said of the AT-ATs. But it’s the little details that Disney hopes will keep fans coming back, and Gartin had some thoughts on those. “The animatronics are just so lifelike,” he said.
“Some of our characters have a nose-flare function,” said Karin Hanson, the Imagineer who oversaw the creation of “upwards of 65" audio-animatronics for the attraction. Those nose wiggles will “literally breathe that breath of life into the characters,” Hanson said. “That’s something unique for this attraction that we’ve never done before.”
Depending on crowd movement, expect Rise of the Resistance to last anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes. And if it works as envisioned, it will help fully realize the initial Galaxy’s Edge pitch as a place that will reshape the theme park experience from one of passive to more active entertainment. It’s an evolution of a shift seen earlier in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Florida and Southern California parks and expected to continue with the in-development Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure, where guests will visit a working superhero recruitment center with an interactive Spider-Man-themed ride.
Though adhering more strictly to a direct narrative than some of Disney’s early attractions, in many ways Rise of the Resistance is a nod back to the dark rides of the park’s roots, where emotional world-building takes priority over thrills. The ride emphasizes human-like theatrics, with characters directly responding to the guests. We watch the ghosts and the pirates of the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, but here Kylo Ren takes control of our ride vehicle in one of the ride’s most personal moments.
While designed to emphasize the story-driven land of Galaxy’s Edge, which places guests in the middle of a battle between the First Order and the resistance, Larena in fact cites Pirates of the Caribbean as his primary inspiration, which to this day is still the paramount of near 360-degree theme park storytelling. Expect to want to linger in the cold, oppressively pristine hallways of the Star Destroyer, and ultimately the trackless vehicles will move unpredictability but not neck-throttlingly fast, ensuring that the ride should be relatively accessible for family audiences.
That is, of course, if they can get on it. While opening-day crowds won’t be the norm forever, expect to arrive early at Disney’s Hollywood Studios — and Disneyland next month — if you want to get on.
And while everything was running smoothly midway through the ride’s first full day of operation following an early-morning hiccup in which the ride was down for a brief moment, with so many moving parts there is the fear that the ride may be subject to more than the occasional downtime. It’s a concern brought on by the fact that the ride’s opening was subject to delays on both coasts (schedules at the media event were often rearranged as the ride regularly went offline for unspecified reasons, though many believed it was because of filming occurring on the attraction).
But theme park fans fear the worst. Earlier this year, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Orlando’s Universal Studios was plagued by long waits and operated in fits and starts, turning an impressive ride into a frustrating experience for many guests.
Disney does, however, have a plan for when things go wrong. In fact, “Star Wars” die-hards may hope for it: If and when Rise of the Resistance comes to a halt during a ride-through, most scenes are equipped with bonus dialogue and storytelling. The goal is to avoid an endless loop. For instance, if the ride stops in the AT-AT scene, don’t be surprised to hear Finn wondering why you haven’t left the battle yet. Elsewhere, the droid that accompanies us on the journey may start to turn to us and express fear that we are no longer moving.
“I think that the access to the technology we’ve had has enabled storytelling to happen continuously,” said Imagineering executive Jon Georges. “Even if there’s a momentary pause in the experience, that doesn’t mean the story ends. That just means that you’re going to get a little bit of an extended story in those moments. We’re doing everything we can to not take you out of the story.”
Now that Galaxy’s Edge has its centerpiece attraction in Rise of the Resistance, Imagineering said it will continue to evaluate, adjust and tweak the land as needed. “It’s one thing to produce great themed attractions,” said Scott Mallwitz, who oversaw Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World. “It’s another to populate it with people who are living with it every day. When guests come and interact with that story, the richness and depth is even broader.”
Getting casual theme park guests to participate in the ongoing story of Galaxy’s Edge, which is set before the events of the upcoming film “The Rise of Skywalker,” remains the land’s most ambitious and arguably challenging endeavor. While “Star Wars” fans may immerse themselves in supplemental material to learn more about the meticulous design details of the planet of Batuu and its supposedly bustling city Black Spire Outpost, most need to be extended a hand in order to play.
It must be said, however, this appears to happen much more often at Walt Disney World than it does at Disneyland. One example: The vibe of Orlando’s cantina is significantly different. Here, it’s loud, even bringing out a little of the faux danger Imagineers were going for. Bartenders don’t just lead sing-alongs, they downright demand it. Outside the bar near the Millennium Falcon ride, it’s a regular occurrence to see a cast member single someone out and ask them to pledge their allegiance: “Are you for the Reys or the Kylos?” shouted one staffer at a woman in a “Star Wars” sweater.
These moments drive home that Galaxy’s Edge is built for play, a platform of discovery where cast members are asked to stay in character. In Florida’s theme parks, which are regularly populated by tourists rather than locals who treat Disneyland as a post-work hangout, it’s maybe easier to get people to let loose and see Galaxy’s Edge as a chance to be someone else from somewhere else.
“When you’re on Galaxy’s Edge, it is in its core — in its totality — long-form storytelling,” said Mallwitz. “The level you are engaging is up to you.”
That being said, a number of promised interactions for Galaxy’s Edge have never arrived. Character interactions that had long been touted, such as bounty hunters tapping you on the shoulder in the cantina, are still nowhere to be found on either coast, and special-effects shows that had been previewed for media — a lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren, drones designed to look like X-wings hovering over the hand-crafted mountains and recruitment pitches from smuggler Hondo Ohnaka — have thus far existed only for special events.
But one step at a time, said those with Imagineering, as the focus the last few months was ensuring its must-see new attraction was up and running.
“We continue to flesh it out,” said Mallwitz of the land. “This is a platform for an amazing amount of detail and storytelling. This is a planet, a place for you to come and explore and a place for us to bring new ideas and new engagement. We’re exploring options and understanding what we’re doing, and we’re taking a look at what’s happening.”
Back at the Rise of the Resistance exit, Larena was looking satisfied as he watched people’s reactions. “I was just joking to a friend that I’ll never have a bad day again,” he said. “If I ever have a bad day, I’ll just come and stand and watch people leave the ride.”