When you enter Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the 14-acre expansion coming to Disneyland early this summer, you are faced with a choice.
Walk around a bend — and under an archway crafted to look centuries old — to discover the starship the Millennium Falcon, nestled comfortably under hand-sculpted mountains designed to evoke the petrified forests of New Mexico.
Or wander into a marketplace, one inspired by Moroccan and Turkish bazaars. Intergalactic creatures are said to live in the ramshackle, factory-like apartments above the shops, here presented as stalls, creating a cacophony of life and noise.
Consider this the “Star Wars” equivalent of Main Street, U.S.A, but instead of quaint stores there are mysterious cat-like creatures in cages and toys that feel patched together from found parts.
If you bypass the town you’ll enter a forest where the Resistance, the “good guys” in the “Star Wars” universe, have set up a camp, hiding ships among shrubbery and building a base inside alien ruins — a twisting cave where digital schematics clash with remnants of a long-lost civilization.
But you might not make it that far, not if you accept a mission. A smuggler needs some info — and you, if you have a smartphone, have the scanner to get it. Disney’s theme park interpretation of “Star Wars” is one that puts an emphasis on personal decision-making, active participation and game-like scenarios.
You fly the Millennium Falcon. You choose to help the resistance. You opt to align with the evil First Order. You get thrown in a detention room of one of the latter’s imposing Star Destroyers.
Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opens in an identical setup at Florida’s Walt Disney World a few months after its Anaheim debut, is designed as a place to engage, recognizing both our culture’s shift to experience-based entertainment and the generational shift in today’s guests — and certainly those of tomorrow — increasingly weaned on games.
If you want to bring home a droid, you build it in a cavernous warehouse with tool-shed-like fixtures. Guests, for instance, will fish for robot bits from an assembly line. Want a lightsaber? Hunt down a not-so-secret shop where you and just 13 others will learn how to construct and use one under the guidance of a Jedi Knight sympathizer.
And if you want to join the fight, you can do that too by using your phone to hack data ports. Then try to stay one step ahead of other guests in a constant tug-o-war for control of the fictional town of Black Spire Outpost.
If the land can manage to meet the high-level ambitions of the Walt Disney Imagineers who designed it, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge just may be the boldest statement yet that play has become the defining narrative of our generation.
Visitors to Disney’s theme parks, says Scott Trowbridge, the Imagineering executive who has overseen the development of Galaxy’s Edge, are “interested in becoming more of a participant and less of a spectator, and playing more of an active role in the experiences they have.”
Such a desire extends well beyond the Disneyland berm. “It’s not just the guests who come to our parks,” Trowbridge adds, “it’s society in general.”
Today, the arcades of yore have been replaced by group games such as escape rooms, movie marketing increasingly involves large-scale pop-ups that serve as mini “Westworld”-like themed environments, so-called Instagram museums serve as grown-up playtime and downtown L.A.’s Two Bit Circus melds tech-savvy carnival games with story. Then there are destinations such as Meow Wolf in New Mexico, Evermore in Utah or even the Old West area of Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, where connecting with others matters as much as connecting with a space.
And while Galaxy’s Edge certainly won’t emphasize role playing as much as other experiences — for that, you’ll likely have to wait for a “Star Wars”-themed hotel being built in Walt Disney World — it still represents a shift for a modern Disney park, utilizing the land not just as a home for shows and rides — and there are two massive attractions here — but as a locale for deep, interactive exploration. For guests who seek it, there is essentially a persistent, living game baked into the land.
For those who’ve long envisioned a video game coming to life — and then having the ability to walk inside it without the need for virtual-reality goggles — Galaxy’s Edge could be a dream come true. For Imagineering, it represents the culmination of about a decade of smaller, stealthier play tests throughout the Disney parks, perhaps most notably in Anaheim with the short-lived, live-action role-playing game that was 2014’s Legends of Frontierland.
“In the beginning it was a little experimental. People are used to coming to a Disney theme park to be entertained. So how are they going to feel about this shift in their role? We were blown away,” says Asa Kalama, who has overseen the interactive experiences of Galaxy’s Edge and was instrumental in the development of the game-like flight simulator ride Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
“This is a thing we all grow up doing, playing in our backyard with a cardboard box and imagining that it’s a spaceship,” he continues. “As we get older, we tend to think we no longer have that capability, but it’s in there.”
People are used to coming to a Disney theme park to be entertained. So how are they going to feel about this shift in their role?
In Anaheim, Galaxy’s Edge, though set on a distant planet called Batuu, essentially resides in what in fact had long been Disneyland’s backyard — a mass of land behind Frontierland that wraps around the Rivers of America.
Disney had toyed on and off over the decades with expanding into the area, seemingly coming close in the 1980s with a project that would have taken inspiration from the Barbary Coast called Discovery Bay. Most recently it had been the lively barbecue spot Big Thunder Ranch, amid a host of backstage areas and animal holding pens.
Today it’s still an active construction zone.
Disney has not yet unveiled an opening day for Galaxy’s Edge — Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger targeted June in a recent interview — and in a media tour of the land last week, crews still had some concrete to lay and at least one of the petrified-looking spires was in need of some final carving.
What’s present, however, is the detail. Look down and you see a bevy of droid tracks in the stone, with some of the impressions coming directly from rubbings of the original creations built for 1977’s “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.” The many domed buildings, some constructed as if they’re extensions of the land’s towering fossils, are dotted with Neanderthal-like carvings while tattered textiles stretch across many of the concourses.
Turkey, Morocco and Jerusalem were among the locales Imagineers visited or studied for the look of Black Spire Outpost — places, says Imagineering exec Chris Beatty, “that had a lot of conflict, a lot of history, there’s romance, there’s a sense of a lot of nationalities living together.”
Sets, however, still need to be dressed. Food spot Ronto Roasters, for instance, will eventually be outfitted with a giant barbecue pit, with flames fueled by an engine from a podracer, and Beatty’s goal for the food-truck-like Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo is to match the celebratory chaos — and a bit of the aged rawness — of Tokyo’s famed and recently closed Tsukiji Fish Market.
The desire is for constant, bustling energy, so expect a fair amount of animatronics. In an antiques store — with early art showing a cluttered, pawn-shop-like place full of Galaxy’s Edge-exclusive collectibles — the owner, the hammerheaded Dok-Ondar, a lizard-like creature with leathered skin called an Ithorian, grunts, growls or bows at guests depending on the respect they show his business (while known as a barter, don’t expect a deal).
Elsewhere along the winding and twisting streets of Black Spire Outpost, a larger, less ornate version of the park’s New Orleans Square, partaking in a drinking fountain could trigger city sewers, sending the creepy, hairy eyestalk of a Dianoga — seen in the trash compactor of “Episode IV” — face to face with the thirsty guest. And the droids assembled here are said to interact with the land itself, their primary challenges foot traffic, or hastily pushed strollers, from the sure-to-be throngs of people.
All this is intended to give Black Spire Outpost the feel of a city, full of unexpected and playful interactions throughout. In a break from most other Disney lands, the staff — cast members, in park parlance — will be in full character. Ask them, for instance, how their day was, what they think of the First Order or if they believe in the Resistance, and those working in Galaxy’s Edge are expected to have answers and back stories.
“We’re training our cast member trainers right now,” says Margaret Kerrison, a story editor with Imagineering. “We give them an overview — a setup of the story of the land, but we’re encouraging them to create their own identities and personas.”
Well, within reason, of course.
While Kerrison says “we want to empower them to be able to play like never before,” she’s quick to add that “a lot of them are ‘Star Wars’ fans, and they are so incredibly excited that they’re making up things where we’re like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Hold on! You can’t be Han’s second cousin.’ We do have to set guard rails and perimeters for what that can be, but this is the most we’ve been asking of our cast members.”
We want to empower [cast members] to be able to play like never before.
That sort of theater will help imbue the land with a sense of history, and with different cast members offering rumors and gossip, turn it into a puzzle. Kerrison likens it to childhood playsets sprung to life. “Your action figures are now actually responding and interacting with you,” she says.
But play brings with it a set of challenges.
The land, for instance, will sell full Jedi-like robes and heavily detailed First Order costumes, but Disney is still in the process of clarifying whether such outfits could be worn in Galaxy’s Edge and change the way the cast interacts with customers.
And you won’t meet alien crime boss Oga Garra at Oga’s Cantina, the largely beverage-only bar which is the first to serve alcohol in Walt Disney’s original park outside of the private Club 33.
Understandable, since plenty of guests will be willing to listen to Oga’s tales for hours, while others will simply want to visit the cantina for a neon-colored drink or an exclusive beer or cider such as the White Wampa Ale and be on their way.
Trowbridge acknowledges there will need to be a careful balance the park walks.
“When we’re all playing a video game or something, we may make very extreme choices,” he says. “We’re playing with different versions of ourselves. Some people want to do that when they come to the parks too. They might want to explore a side and play the role of a character. It’s amazing how many people want to play as a Dark Side character. It’s great to exercise that side of our personality. But not everybody wants to do that when you’re with your family or with grandma.”
Giving people the chance to play in a group setting without isolating them from the friends and family they came to the park with, Trowbridge says, “was a big part of us trying to figure out how to craft this invitation. How do we understand mechanisms to allow our guests to self-regulate to the point where if they just want to go take a nap or do something else, it doesn’t break anything for them or anyone else?”
It’s amazing how many people want to play as a Dark Side character. ... But not everybody wants to do that when you’re with your family or with grandma.
When it comes to participation and game-like activities, the land’s two centerpiece attractions — Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance — will be opportunities for those who wish to inhabit a role.
While past attractions have taken cues from video games, rides such as Toy Story Midway Mania! do so in a relatively personal manner, inviting guests to point essentially a toy gun and zap at digital creations. Smugglers Run, developed with game developer toolkit the Unreal Engine, goes one step further, putting six guests in the flight cabin of the Falcon, each inhabiting a different role — pilot, gunners and engineers.
The attraction, home to a life-like pre-show animatronic of the smuggler Hondo Ohnaka, will be an Instagrammer’s paradise. The Falcon’s lounge — where one will find the famed holographic game table — is faithfully re-created, complete with metal floorboards that clank and echo as if they’re hiding something beneath them.
Monitors here look a bit pre-1980, tapping into the vintage look of the original “Star Wars,” and these quarters are where guests will be allowed to roam free for photo ops before they board, walking through a runway ramp that’s pumping cold air to re-create the sensation of a spaceport.
Once seated, it’s time to game — or fly. Ohnaka has given users a transport mission, and though there’s no fail point, Imagineers promise that how well guests fare on the quest will affect their reputation throughout the land (it’s assumed this will be handled via the Disney app, but no details were provided). No Disney attraction will feel as much like a video game, but with levers to pull, buttons to push and weapons to fire, the ride emphasizes tactile touch as much as screens.
Disney promises little to no learning curve. A reference point, though a different medium, could be mobile game “Spaceteam,” which emphasizes communication and silliness rather than hardcore rules. The key challenge for Imagineering: While guests like interactivity, they also don’t want to feel as if they’re missing the best scenes or a key part of the story.
“There was no small amount of effort that went into that balance,” Trowbridge says.
He adds the ride has to work for those who don’t speak English, as well as those who may be deaf, and while everyone wants to pull a lever to go to hyperspace, the engineering roles also must provide excitement. “We’re finding the balance between making it feel like, ‘I’m doing this,’ and making it have a cohesive narrative experience.”
“Did we get it right?” Trowbridge says. “I don’t know. We worked really hard on it, but it’ll be up to our audiences.”
Rise of the Resistance isn’t nearly as game-like, but guests will move among multiple locations and ride vehicles, and also encounter characters from the current trilogy (Daisy Ridley’s Rey, for instance, will appear as a hologram). It represents a Resistance mission gone bad, with guests journeying from a transporter ship onto a Star Destroyer. Expect to actually move, as some clever machinery will have guests entering a transporter via one door and exiting onto a First Order ship via that same door.
Rise of the Resistance is pegged as the showcase attraction of the land, one featuring multiple full-scale ships and vehicles, as well as a host of animatronics, including fan favorite Nien Nunb. The ride has guests traversing cramped caves as well as grand vistas, namely the docking bay of a Star Destroyer, where war is seen in the distance.
Throughout the experience, guests will get thrown into a detention cell, encounter villain Kylo Ren, and then board a trackless ride system to make a hectic escape. Expect plenty of “how did they do that” special effects, such as laser fire that results in some authentic-looking explosions.
If the recent trend in theme parks has been to sit back and watch a screen, Rise of the Resistance is certainly not that. “That’s what guests want,” says John Larena, a creative director with Imagineering. “They want real tactile things in front of them. That was one of the key things when we first started developing this project. No glasses — period.”
Of course, there is one screen that will play a heavy role in Galaxy’s Edge: your phone. By using the Play Disney Parks App, guest will create a profile, pick a faction and start going on missions. There will be a land-wide game, for instance, where players can hack door panels throughout the land to prevent — or help — the First Order spy across Black Spire Outpost.
Or they can use the app to converse with Black Spire residents to learn more of the back story. Items aplenty will be able to be scanned. Droids and communication towers can be hacked, and the puzzle games will look similar to graphical limitations shown in “Episode IV.” A profile will stay with a player, allowing Black Spire Outpost to feel like a living place.
Those not wedded to their phones will still encounter a sense of play.
The build-your-own lightsaber experience, for instance, which Beatty says will last about 20 minutes or so and include plenty of special effects, is part of Imagineering’s goal to turn shopping into an attraction. Prices were not revealed, but this is a higher-end lightsaber that guests will construct, and those currently run between $100 and $200; luckily, Black Spire Outpost accepts credit cards.
“We’ve tried recently to blur the lines more and more between what we consider an attraction or merchandise experience,” Beatty says. “I think that’s an exciting thing you’re starting to see within Disney parks. It promotes play. It promotes a sense of agency.”
Ultimately, that’s what connects Galaxy’s Edge to Disneyland’s original mission. It’s perhaps no coincidence that it sits beyond Frontierland. Before Disney constructed the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland and its replacement, Big Thunder Mountain, the land was largely populated with costumed Wild West characters — “traders, trappers, cow hands, ‘two-gun men,’ dudes and dance hall girls,” reads some of the park’s promotional descriptions of Frontierland from 1955.
And Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island long promised guest freedom. Though low-tech, many have considered it one of Disneyland’s most immersive spaces. The reason: instead of riding rides, guests play.
“When we started working on these, we believed we were getting back to the fundamentals of the way that we believed Walt intended the parks to be,” says Cory Rouse, a creative director at Imagineering. “If you think about it. Tom Sawyer Island was based on a book that people had just imagined at that point. Walt built it and said, ‘Go. Go do that!”
Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens