ORLANDO, Fla. — I walk through the gray tunnel. Foreign creatures chitter and chatter around bushes that flank the right side of a gravel pathway. The road below me is scarred with rolling wheels and imprints of metallic feet.
I journey deeper inside, the score from John Williams zooming through my brain. I see the Millennium Falcon. A First Order starship. An X-Wing. An A-Wing. A central base of the Resistance.
I duck into a droid-building workshop. Kylo Ren stalks the area, so I try to find him. Rey evades Kylo, so I rarely see her. Stormtroopers seek Resistance spies. One nudges me in the shoulder. Chewbacca growls.
This is all happening at the Black Spire Outpost, a starport for smugglers and traders — which happens to be located in Orlando, Florida. And also Anaheim, starting today.
The fictional planet Batuu is at the heart of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars-themed land at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It’s all cast members and actors. The character movements are planned based on data of people’s movement patterns. Everything is choreographed — planned out for a month.
This is more than a theme park. It’s an “immersive” park — a trend in entertainment venues since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010. These parks drop visitors right into the world of their favorite franchise. And there are more coming. The Avengers Campus and NintendoLand are on the way. A Star Wars-themed hotel is arriving next year, too. For fans like me, they are everything. But the experience is expensive, and may not be worth the price if you don’t know anything about blue milk or butterbeer.
I visited Galaxy’s Edge in Orlando recently to see what sets it apart.
The rise of immersive parks
Rides and attractions were the name of the game. You visit a theme park to ride the rides and maybe grab some cotton candy.
In 2007, Universal Parks & Resorts announced it had acquired the rights to build a “Harry Potter” theme park based on the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling. The company announced plans two years later for an entire land devoted to the character, and The “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” opened in 2010 in Orlando.
“It was, to put it mildly, a game changer,” according to Vulture. “Wizarding World was unlike anything theme park guests had ever experienced at the time. The level of immersion was staggering, the detail overwhelming, and the technology truly next level.”
You could buy and use a wand. Take a picture at Hogwarts. Pretend to be a wizard.
In 2011, Disney announced the creation of an “Avatar”-inspired land in Animal Kingdom, according to The Verge. Plans were set in motion to create a park — even bigger than the Harry Potter world — based on the growing film franchise.
But problems arose. Avatar lost its momentum and its sequels were delayed (and they still are to this day). The end result was Pandora: The World of Avatar, which opened in 2017.
And then in 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, changing the game and setting plans in motion to create a Star Wars land.
The added touch
I recently got to visit Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge for the first time. I searched for Baby Yoda and Ahsoka Tano. I ate plenty of food and drank plenty of specialty drinks. I discovered Easter eggs (like how there’s a $25,000 R2-D2). I rode the Millennium Falcon ride.
Michael Cummins had never been to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge before. So when I met him, he was ecstatic to see everything.
And his timing was good. The “Rise of the Resistance” ride had just opened. It became the second ride at Galaxy’s Edge, next to the “Smuggler’s Run” ride where visitors can pretend to fly the Millennium Falcon.
“I think this ride opening is what’s going to kind of complete it for people,” said Cummins, who visited the park from Rochester, New York.
Cummins’ enjoyed Galaxy’s Edge. He loved the small details. The dash marks in the rocks. The imprints from droids on the gravel ground below. The menu with items inspired by Star Wars.
It’s the one thing that “really sets Disney apart,” he said. “That added touch. That attention to detail.”
“Once you step back from that to amusement parks ... these are really theme parks and it’s just being in the moment that makes it so special,” Cummins said. “Seeing the characters walk around. The attention to detail in the rock work. Shielding everything else out. You really feel like you’re in here.”
Kyra Petermann and Claire Rowe, who rode the Rise of the Resistance ride on launch day, commented on the realistic feel of the ride. It has a story. Visitors feel like they’re in an actual First Order ship. It all feels real.
Father-son duo Luke and Calvin Presley, who are from the Orlando area, similarly praised the cast members, who were walking around together and talking the same language. They ask for credits, not dollars.
“It just seems they’ve obviously trained everybody well here,” Luke said. “The details, right? They could have put up that toy stand and made it look all right. But they made it look distressed and the texture and the smell. They’ve done a good job getting to that fourth level of detail.”
An immersive park like Galaxy’s Edge looks like another world. But so much of it is rooted in modern America, especially when it comes to prices.
At Galaxy’s Edge, a glass of blue milk will set you back $8. Want a meal from Ronto’s Roasters? That’ll be anywhere between $10 and $20. Want to build a lightsaber? You’ll need to sign up for a wait list and pay more than $200 in advance. Maybe you want to build your own BB-8 droid. That costs $99.99.
Prices added up. Waiting lists extend. Getting into Oga’s Cantina at Galaxy’s Edge could soak up 45 minutes of your time. It almost did for me. I caught the line at a good time. Waiting for the Millennium Falcon ride could cost another 70 minutes, more than an hour. Seriously. In the sweltering heat, you hate to see it. It’s another 90 minutes at Rise of the Resistance. The park can eat up your whole day.
Time and money are what you sacrifice to truly appreciate these parks.
One quick walk around Galaxy’s Edge lasts just seven minutes. But is there anything special if you’re not a fan of the franchise and you don’t want to immerse yourself? What if you aren’t interested in Captain America or Iron Man’s closet at the Avengers hotel?
And as we learned about the film franchise, there is a point when Star Wars fans have too much. Recently, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy confessed that Disney took a break with Star Wars after the movie “Solo” performed poorly at the box office. Apparently, there is a limit to how much Star Wars people can consume.
So will Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge suffer a similar fate?
I got to test out the ride before it opened. It was an amazing experience, unlike anything else. I’m not a fan of amusement parks and hate roller coasters. But “Rise of the Resistance” brought me right into a Star Wars movie. I was attacked by AT-ATs and Kylo Ren. I saw large blasters spew out lasers and bright lights. For those brief 15 to 20 minutes, I was a Star Wars character, evading the First Order.
Once I was done, I wanted nothing more than to ride it again. It inspired me to go through the park again, too. I wanted to stay on Batuu. Forget reality. Give me immersion!
If there are more fans like me, it’s safe to say Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has a bright future.
Disney is unlikely to break from the pattern of immersive parks. The company announced multiple forthcoming projects that suggest there are going to be more experiences like Galaxy’s Edge on the way.
Then there’s the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, an immersive hotel experience where visitors stay on a starship themed around a galaxy far, far away. And they live out a story. According to Disney, what visitors experience in the hotel or at Galaxy’s Edge can impact what experiences they face. You could find something in the hotel that unlocks a new storyline for you.
These worlds will only keep growing.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Lance Heart, who used to work at SeaWorld, wrote in his own blog post. “We are also seeing a rise in more highly themed haunt and escape room concepts too. In the end, their success will depend on which experiences guests are willing to spend their money on. And on which don’t seem to find an audience. However, it seems clear that the entertainment landscape is changing once again.”