When Disneyland's "Star Wars"-inspired land, Galaxy's Edge, opens today, it will do so with one ride, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Here's betting it gets overshadowed by a dive bar.
Even casual fans of George Lucas' 1977 cinema-changing film, now known as "Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope," can recall the cantina, a lively watering hole in a run-down town populated by outcasts, weirdos and one funky alien band. At Galaxy's Edge, Oga's Cantina is intimate (read: you will wait in line), serves alcohol (a first outside of the private Club 33) and is full of eccentricities.
Look above the bar and spy a frog-like creature, said to lay eggs that will appear in one of the dive's pre-mixed concoctions. Or simply saddle up to the bar, as I did, and get roped into a 20-minute conversation with a barkeep taking notes on every answer to the questions he asked me. "I heard there were resistance who landed here," he said, before asking my thoughts on current "Star Wars" villain Kylo Ren.
To think of Galaxy's Edge in term of sheer numbers — number of attractions (two, eventually), number of shops (nine) or number of food and drink locales (five) — is to misinterpret its vision for the future of immersive entertainment. A walk through Black Spire Outpost, the fictional "Star Wars" city at the heart of Galaxy's Edge, is a stroll along war-torn streets — blaster fire has stained the buildings — and Middle Eastern-inspired bazaars where the shops are cluttered stalls under tattered canopies.
Consider Galaxy's Edge a tweak to the Disneyland formula, one designed to make the park more palatable to generations weaned on video games and the sort of branded multi-faceted cinematic universes made famous by "Star Wars" creator Lucas and Marvel. In fact, under construction next door to Disneyland at Disney California Adventure is a Marvel land that will boast an interactive Spider-Man ride.
At Galaxy's Edge, there are no Main Street-style parades, but Kylo Ren may appear from a TIE fighter and look for a spy or seek recruits to hunt down Rey, the star of the new films. I was drafted to be a member of the resistance, led to a forest and quizzed on what sort of ship I'd want to fly. If I answered correctly, I was given a card that suggested I seek out other allies throughout Black Spire Outpost.
Those who are game will play — and be entertained.
Each nook is filled with something to uncover. A shop selling plushies — creatures here — is home to a purring "Star Wars" feline, complete with its own chew-toys modeled after the films' porgs — and a toy nook has not your standard action figures (go to Tomorrowland for those common items) but wooden stormtroopers and a wood-carved vehicle used by the robot-selling Jawas in "A New Hope."
Galaxy's Edge, the largest expansion in Disneyland themed to a single franchise, was built for a reported $1 billion, but its Black Spire Outpost is modeled to feel ancient, handmade and a bit quirky. Think of it less as a romanticized theme park world and more as a tiny seaside town one visits for the weekend simply to wander and shop among the locals. At one point, I started feeling I wasn't in Disneyland but an alien-infested Solvang and wanted to bring home something small and artisan. So yes, I bought the wooden Jawas ($25). And, OK, a loth cat, which purrs when you pet it ($44.99).
Continuing a trend cemented by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Florida and Southern California parks, the rides at Galaxy's Edge are but one small part of grander outline for how theme park designers think we want to play, spend money and interact in amusement attractions, which are rapidly moving toward audience participation and exploratory experiences.
Like Wizarding World's interactive wand experience, Galaxy's Edge has a not-so-hidden lightsaber-building workshop. It's pricey — $200 — but for those who want to live out an experience from their favorite film, it will succeed in allowing you to pretend you are not going in debt but are part of something larger and more important than a theme park store masked as theater.
"This is about feeling — you left the place that you were and entered this new place and lost yourself," said Josh D'Amaro, the Disneyland Resort president, the morning after the land's opening night party with Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, director Lucas and a host of stars including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Billy Dee Williams.
"I did hear several people say, 'It doesn't feel like I'm in Disneyland.' What that really means to me is you've escaped," says D'Amaro. "You're in a place. But it is still quintessential Disneyland in my mind … We haven't disrupted it. We've just added innovation."
Ultimately, Galaxy's Edge puts the emphasis on expanding pop-culture lore rather than familiarity. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are whispered-about legends rather than characters one can meet. Although we do spy Luke's Jedi-training materials, as seen in 1977's first "Star Wars" film, before entering the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.
If Disneyland in its beginning celebrated fairy tales — walk under Sleeping Beauty Castle, soar in a continuous circle in a mechanical Dumbo — Galaxy's Edge treats our modern myths as not just Instagrammable moments but museum pieces and excuses to role-play.
Imagine Pirates of the Caribbean, only if you actually steered the boat. But don't crash it! You may get lectured later — that is, if you have a bluetooth-enabled smartphone and have logged into the Play Disney Parks mobile app. The interactive app-led experiences weren't fully available for a media preview, although I did hack into some radio towers to trigger some audible effects and learn more about the tug-o-war between good and evil on Black Spire Outpost.
But anyone who goes on the land's sole opening day ride, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, should expect not only to interact but be in a social mood. The pitch is simple: You and five others work cooperatively to pilot the ship made famous by Ford in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. There's only one ending, but there are variables, and though not required, it helps if you've had some video game experience.
It's a ride built for teamwork rather than viewing. Of my three experiences, the one with people I knew was the most fun. As the pilot, I was shouting at my gunners to blast the path in front of me — the ship is fast — while the engineers hollered at me for occasionally flying into an asteroid (the ship is fast).
With strangers, however, it was less fun; as a gunner, I hesitated to correct a pilot who couldn't grasp the concept that pushing the lever forward would send the ship straight to the ground, resulting in a rocky, turbulent experience in which control was eventually stripped from us.
A second attraction is set to open later this year and it too will include a sense of play — guests will move from multiple vehicles and various set pieces to escape and evade evil First Order forces. The way it's described makes it a middle-point between immersive theater and an old-fashioned Disneyland dark ride such as Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion.
But since a lifelike re-creation of the Falcon is the main focal point of the land, I did intend to ride it one last time before the end of the night, hoping to get a better grasp of its various scenes and differing paths.
But after exploring Black Spire Outpost for a few hours, I forgot the ride even existed. I had gotten lost in wandering the land's bazaar-like marketplace, the Droid Depot, where guests can build a robot for $99, and Dok-Ondar's Den of Antiquities, a random store filled with artifacts, aliens and luxury items.
I wasn't interested in buying anything more at that point, but Black Spire Outpost is laden with random curiosities — a droid roasting alien meat in one of the eateries, for instance — that made me feel like a slack-jawed tourist. Even for a fan of theme parks, this was new. When I stroll through, say, Cars Land, I'm always aware that I'm at a theme park (talking cars!).
But for a moment, Black Spire Outpost did indeed convince me that I was somewhere else, so much so that a ride inspired by and looking very much like a straight-up video game didn't seem worth the escape from reality, even if the reality I was living in was completely false.