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Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, Disney’s live-in theme park, could change how we vacation

A passenger views the starship control room and bridge as ships pass by.
A passenger views the starship control room and bridge as ships pass by.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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An immersive “Star Wars” experience comes with expectations: Wielding a lightsaber. Firing the weapons of a starship.

You can also meditate with a rock.

The new Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser at Walt Disney World provides guests with staples of the operatic space fantasy throughout its two-night experience. But there are surprising interactions too.

“Tell me, Todd,” says a woman who introduces herself as Saja Mi’Lam, “what do you do to stay centered?”

For nearly 45 years “Star Wars” has been an invitation to play, its toys and plastic lightsabers tools to help us imagine we are heroes or villains of another galaxy. This moment, however, is dedicated to the epic’s sometimes hokey philosophy.

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I acknowledge to Mi’Lam, who is a Galactic Starcruiser actor, the challenges I face in staying mindful and empathetic in stressful situations. Then she tells me to pick a rock — or, rather, to let a rock choose me. There is no spa or relaxation center aboard the Galactic Starcruiser, yet I stand, arms outstretched, matching Mi’Lam in a series of extended breathing exercises. I find a bit of calm.

The Galactic Starcruiser has been commonly referred to as a “Star Wars hotel.” It’s true there are beds, bunks, upscale toiletries, a restaurant and a bar among and surrounding its 100 rooms, tucked on the outskirts of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But the similarities to anything resembling a hotel stop pretty much at those nouns. The Walt Disney World getaway is a live-in theme park. And it could change the way we vacation.

Designed to mimic a cruise to space, the Galactic Starcruiser is Star Wars at its most technologically advanced. Yet its primary influences are participatory theater, especially New York’s “Sleep No More,” and the stalwart tabletop game of imagination and fantasy that is “Dungeons & Dragons.”

If the Starcruiser works, it could mainstream the concept of a LARP — a live-action role-playing game. If it fails, it would serve as an expensive cautionary tale to those attempting to innovate in immersive storytelling spaces.

Indeed, with standard cabin rates for two starting at approximately $5,200 (a family of four is looking at about $6,000) and plenty of pricy enhancements, the two-night voyage can be obscenely expensive. Is it worth the cost? To find out, The Times purchased a cabin on the Starcruiser’s first voyage for paying visitors.

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The experience itself is a statement piece, arguably the most ambitious tourism project undertaken by the Walt Disney Co. since the creation of the original Disneyland. It is aimed at those who play — those generations weaned on games — and if you come willing to interact and engage with strangers, you may not want to leave.

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I don’t. And not because I get to train with a lightsaber and shoot down a TIE fighter. The most striking moment is when I stand with that rock in my hand. Mi’Lam instructs me to place my rock onto a larger one, to shut my eyes and hold out my hand.

Although I see some sleight-of-hand movement from Mi’Lam, I imagine that what’s about to happen is real, and not magnetic magic tricks. I stand tall, arm firmly pointed at my stone, and then I watch.

The rock slowly, magically, makes its way toward me. Then it jerks and shoots vigorously in my direction, knocking all other rocks in its vicinity to the ground.

The Force was with me.

Maggie Duckworth, of St. Louis, poses as the character Asajj Ventress as the first passengers arrive.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Andrew Stapleton, 12, left, and his mom Malisa Stapleton, of Chicago, ride a transport ship from the Halcyon ship.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

::

Play is often derided as frivolous. But deep play — play that raises philosophical questions and asks us to rethink our choices, who we are and how we interact with the world — is full of complex equations. It requires not just back-end systems but theater, engagement and a lowering of inhibitions.

When done right, play that is facilitated by guardrails, rules and boundaries — a so-called “magic circle” — puts us in a perpetual state of curiousness. What is that? Why is it this way? And most important: What if I try this?

The Galactic Starcruiser could be the subject of an academic thesis on this sort of play. And it has the eyes of multiple industries on it.

“Before ‘Pokémon Go,’ if you asked me what an [augmented reality game] was, it would take me 10 minutes to explain it to you,” says Celia Pearce, a game designer and professor of games at Northeastern University.

“So now when someone asks me what a LARP is, I’m going to say, ‘Like Galactic Starcruiser.’ Everyone will know what I’m talking about. It’s a game changer. It establishes this in a mainstream licensed property. I don’t care what you say about LARP-ing, people will go to this because it’s ‘Star Wars.’”

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The broad narrative of the Galactic Starcruiser voyage is a battle for control of the ship, known as the Halcyon, between the evil First Order and the good guys of the Resistance. Of course, there are subplots. Among them: an alien romance, a would-be scoundrel who has items to steal, a droid with sensitive info, an attempt to rescue Chewbacca, and a daylong quest to swipe a TIE fighter, which includes scenes featuring famed droids R2-D2 and C-3P0.

Generally, I’m a shy person. But my reticence wasn’t present on the Halycon.

Andrew Stapleton receives light saber training from the Saja.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A young passenger, Joe, 5, shows his toy droid to SK-62O, an astromech droid.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Throughout the ship are multiple entry points for engagement. Bartenders make small talk that includes tales from their home planet, all while pretending a spicy drink with “lava” may actually explode. Your room, with no view to the “real world” outside, is outfitted with high-tech monitors that simulate space windows. D3-09, a droid inside the control panel video screen, remembers your exploits and may try to engage you in a role-playing game, asking how you will respond to different scenarios. In the evening, she’ll sing you a lullaby (“May the stars light your way throughout all your journeys,” speak-sings the droid).

Missions appear on the Play Disney Parks app, and by the end of the first night I have a half-dozen conversations running, all of them involving tasks and mini-games. Some might find these mobile phone conversations a distraction, but I find they deepen the backstories of the characters I meet on board.

“A game gives people who are not actors the tools to pretend,” says Sara Thacher, one of the Galactic Starcruiser architects with Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s secretive arm devoted to theme park experiences.

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“I’ve never piloted a spaceship. I don’t know how to work an engineering room. But creating a game-like structure means, ‘Oh, I know my lines.’ I know how to operate this because it teaches me. The playful structures give you your lines and your blocking,” she adds. “You’re not an actor. You’re a participant. But if we built it right, it means you never feel like you don’t belong.”

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There’s so much to do on the Galactic Starcruiser that I sleep just three to four hours each night, and visit my room only briefly to see what D3-09 has to say. By midafternoon on the second day, in which guests board a transporter truck — outfitted to look like a spaceship — and spend part of their time in the theme park land Galaxy’s Edge, I’ve received more messages from fake “Star Wars” characters than from real-life friends.

While the maiden voyage is filled with “Star Wars” die-hards who seem to be having a swell time, some of them caution that only those ready to engage with the cast and the game of it all should commit to this vacation. “If you love ‘Star Wars,’ and you’re capable of a suspension of disbelief — if you can remove yourself from that — then it is absolutely worth it,” says Erik Jones of Orlando, who is here with his family.

Singer, songwriter and galactic superstar, Gaya performs in the Crown of Corellia Dining Room.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Sammie, the ship's mechanic, center, leads Chewbacca, a legendary Wookiee warrior.
Sammie, the ship’s mechanic, center, leads legendary Wookiee warrior Chewbacca as they sneak through the hallways to escape capture from the First Order.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The ship is designed to live on the edge of real, with a bridge full of ’70s-era trinkets that mimic the “Star Wars” films and a cast that never breaks character. But some of the best stories on the Halcyon are the ones the guests themselves create. I’m tangentially part of a team that writes a love song. Another time, I stand in the engineering room trying to keep Chewbacca hidden, and I participate in a mock birthday party while attempting to secure the Halcyon for the Resistance. Whenever a Stormtrooper enters the engineering room where we’re pulling levers or realigning pipes, we stop and erupt in cheers and birthday salutes as a distraction. We don’t want to arouse Stormtrooper suspicion, of course.

“Play allows you to try on and model different versions of yourself,” says Scott Trowbridge, the creative executive with Imagineering who led the teams that created Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as well as the Galactic Starcruiser. “We make it OK to try on different versions. It’s not, you know, Todd being evil or authoritarian. It’s ‘Star Wars’ Todd, right? It’s First Order Todd. In the same way that we play cops and robbers — or First Order and Resistance.

“We built a structure that allows you to try on these different personas and different versions of yourself — to model different kinds of choices and to see what fits,” Trowbridge says. “That for me is one of the powers of play. We want to give our guests an opportunity to model behavior that demonstrates to them that change is possible, if we learn how to have the boldness to make those choices.”

If you come ready to play, you’ll soon find yourself following multiple storylines. But you’ll never follow all of them. There are characters I never interacted with, and a supposedly show-stopping intimate Force ghost scene involving Yoda is one I didn’t see. Yet I had so much on my agenda that I never truly felt like I missed something.

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Arriving passengers are welcomed to the two-day Walt Disney World Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
D3-O9, a talkative droid on vidscreens inside rooms at the Halcyon ship, greets guests.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I think it’s great that you miss stuff,” says Galactic Starcruiser guest Destiny Blue, her artist name. “This ship feels inhabited in the same way the ‘Star Wars’ universe feels inhabited. You’re following one story but you know that there are so many other possible stories going on. So it’s real.”

During a breakfast interview with Trowbridge, Michelle Bork, a VP of the authorized Disney travel agency Travelmation, interrupts to thank the executive who has become the face of “Star Wars” for the Disney parks — and to confess that when she joined the voyage she was confused about “who do we market this to.” Her answer: “Couples getaway. Gamers, for sure. A friends weekend away. This is much more than for ‘Star Wars’ fans.”

“It’s a little hard to describe in a single word or a single sentence,” Trowbridge says. Yet Bork takes a crack at it: “This is a luxury cruise line with ongoing dinner theater-style entertainment in an escape room-style setting with amazing theming.”

“That’s one heck of a sentence,” Trowbridge says.

::

This is my first Disney trip in which a member of the resort’s staff implies, for many to hear, that I may be a spoon-fed brat.

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As a member of the Galactic Starcruiser, I’m given a pin to wear away from the complex while I visit Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s a signal for the park’s cast members to treat me differently. “My two spoiled guests,” says a staffer on the ride Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Looking me up and down with disgust, she then says, “How is your day today?” “I’m fine,” I tell her, until someone refers to me as “spoiled,” which then results in her listing off her galactic debts and pointing out that I’m a member of “that fancy cruise.”

I love it. This kind of roleplay is exactly what I have been wanting from not just my trip aboard the Starcruiser but from all of my trips to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge since it opened in Anaheim and Florida in 2019. I also understand that not every visitor to Disney’s theme parks may welcome such game-like trappings or desire to take on the role of a character.

“I think the challenge of it is living up to the expectation of it and also finding that really tricky balance of when is immersion enough and when do I want to close the door and go to sleep,” says Phil Hettema of the Hettema Group, a luminary of the industry who over his decades in themed entertainment has worked with Disney, Universal and others.

Kylo Ren, the Supreme Leader of the First Order, has a light saber battle with Rey, force-wielding hero of the Resistance.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Sammie, the ship's mechanic, left, leads the First Order commander to the brig.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“That’s going to be different for lots of different people, from hard-core fans to vacation families. They all have different levels of immersion they want to experience. They want it when they want it, but when they don’t want it, we have to get that balance just right.”

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It isn’t, after all, until I become a member of the Halcyon that Galaxy’s Edge fully springs to life in ways that had been initially promised prior to the attraction’s opening. When I stand aside to complete a game on the app, a Stormtrooper gets in my face, noting that “the supreme leader needed to see me” as a member of the space cruise. When I arrive at Oga’s Cantina and ask for a special coaster that unlocks another game on the app, the waitress slips me the items under the table. “I don’t want to be caught getting mixed up in what you’re doing,” she says.

As a lifelong fan of games and role-playing games, I’m eager to talk about why this type of play is important. As Thacher says, when we play together, we immediately have something in common, with our peers and with those running the game. “We’re not strangers anymore,” she says. “The ability of play to break down those barriers is really special.”

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But as a theme park regular, I have to wonder if the Disney audience is, well, ready. While I welcomed being called a spoiled member of a fancy cruise, I am curious if others who had spent around $5,200 for a cabin for two would be so open, even if there is some truth in the comment.

And yet Hettema argues we’re at an “inflection point” in culture, as he references everything from escape rooms to the walk-around narrative art of Meow Wolf to the popularity of larger-than-life projected art exhibits such as “Immersive Van Gogh.” So while Disney has experimented with smaller LARPs or immersive nightclubs before, the time, he opines, is right for one to be on the level of the Galactic Starcruiser.

While the price of the Starcruiser is aimed at the highest end of Disney’s consumer base — it’s important to note that most of the events on the Halcyon are geared for small groups and would be difficult to scale to a place like Galaxy’s Edge — Hettema says the theme park space has been trying to solve the challenge of mixing immersive theater and role-playing for a couple of decades. Many attempts have been short-lived, and he notes his firm has worked on an immersive hotel that failed to launch, but he says the push for Galactic Starcruiser-like experiences is accelerating.

“Every client we talk to now — and it’s not just in the entertainment world — experience is everything and immersion is everything,” Hettema says. “Even in commercial branding. I think the only thing that has stopped bigger things like this from happening is the capital to do it and knowing there’s an audience that will pay what it costs to make it make sense financially. I’m excited to hear they may have done it, and this is a big threshold. If they can make this work, then as always happens in our industry there will be every level of experience to try to imitate this. I would expect to see a lot of this going forward.”

A drink at the Sunlight Lounge aboard the Halcyon.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Stormtroopers stand at attention as part of Disney World's Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction.
Stormtroopers stand at attention as part of Disney World’s Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction where guests arrived at Batuu, a destination for a planet excursion from the Halcyon ship.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Trowbridge concedes there will be lessons to learn.

“A lot of the folks who come onto the Starcruiser experience will not have LARP-ed,” Trowbridge says. “The majority will not have LARP-ed. Many will not have had experience in immersive theater. They are going to be a much more mainstream audience. This will be the first time many of them will have experienced a lot of the aspects of this kind of experience before. We’re starting a relationship with them. This is Day Two of learning.”

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He adds that the Galaxy’s Edge land itself is in a continued relationship with its audience, and things will change and be added to the parks on both coasts. Galaxy’s Edge has taken some criticism for being permanently stuck in a place between the eighth and ninth films of the key “Star Wars” saga and for lacking the characters and aliens on board the Starcruiser. Then he jokes: “Maybe I need relationship advice.”

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The characters of the Adventurers Club, I like to say, were my Mickey Mouse. When I was a 10-year-old and the staff initiated me by taking my hand and introducing me to a bevy of wild actors and puppets, I was awestruck. It forever cemented my love of theme parks but also ignited my curiosity for the world at large. I had met Disney characters before, but it was at the Adventurers Club that I felt truly seen by them.

This is already happening to a new generation onboard the Galactic Starcruiser. Andrew Stapleton, 12, from Chicago, spent the midweek voyage running around as a would-be member of the First Order. I watched as he gave his lightsaber trainers a hard time for idolizing Rey, the Jedi portrayed by Daisy Ridley in the latest trilogy, and a character who is a surprise guest on board the Halcyon. The trainers singled him out and gave him extra time to try his hand to match his saber to the speed of the flashing lights.

Stapleton’s highlight, however, was much more simple and relied on old-fashioned theater tricks. When the family went to Galaxy’s Edge to visit the fictional planet of Batuu, Stapleton ran into some of the Stormtroopers who had been on the cruise. “When I went to Batuu,” he says, “they remembered my hat from the first day, and then they said my name.”

And thus the Galactic Starcruiser succeeds where no ride ever has: Whether it’s doing breathing exercises with a rock or making friends with a Stormtrooper, it makes the experience feel created just for you.

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Los Angeles Times critic Todd Martens checks out the scene at the Sunlight Lounge.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Martens sits in one of the bunk beds inside a standard room aboard the Galactic Starcruiser.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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