• Joel Ryan

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge Brings a Galaxy Far Far Way a Little Closer to Home

This week, childhood dreams came true for Star Wars fans across the galaxy as Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, Disneyland's newest expansion, opened to the public, bringing a galaxy once far, far away a little closer to home.

I am one of those fans who has eagerly awaited the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge since it was first announced.

All the times I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s GMC Safari pretending I was Han Solo smuggling shipments of Pop Tarts across the galaxy, I dreamed of stepping into the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon to pilot the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Thanks to the Imagineers of Disney, kids (and adults like me) don’t just have to dream about it. They can now do it, and yes, I can now say I’ve done it too!

For years, as a Cast Member of the Walt Disney Company, I watched the spires and mountains of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge slowly rise. And even before, I remember eating at the Big Thunder Mountain Ranch and working at the Jamboree used for Gospel Festival with Disney Performing Arts. I remember running Pyro Control Lockdown on Ranch Road near what used to be the corrals for Disneyland’s former petting zoo and driving Youth Education Facilitators in a golf cart behind the emerging bright suns and mountains of Batuu.

Not anymore.

The sands of Circle D are now the black spires and loading docks of Batuu’s Black Spire Outpost, and a part of Disneyland’s past has made way for its future.

Walt Disney Imagineering, in partnership with the storytellers of Lucasfilm, went back a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away to create a wholly immersive experience for guests and fans of all ages today, and in many ways, Galaxy’s Edge is exactly what we should expect from the creative marriage of Disney and Lucasfilm.

Disney has always been at the center of immersive storytelling, and Star Wars introduced us to worlds we always wanted to visit. Now we can.

Not only have the Imagineers created something on par with their previous creations, they’ve raised the bar for themselves and their competitors in a lot of ways.

This isn't to say that Galaxy's Edge is a flawless masterpiece. There are still a lot of questions I have about the land moving forward as well as criticism of certain creative choices.

For example, was setting Galaxy's Edge in the timeline of the new trilogy, which hasn't quite landed with fans as much the original trilogy or even prequels, the right move?

Are two attractions enough to inspire guests to come back?

Are more atmospheric characters and entertainment needed?

The cantina is great. What about a table service restaurant?

Should Disneyland even have an entire land devoted to Star Wars? Does this conflict with the original vision of Walt Disney and lands like Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland, etc.?

Should Star Wars have been given its own park?

All valid questions and concerns, and yes, I'm sure countless fan blogs and YouTube channels will offer opinions and perspectives on all them.

That being said, as a lifelong Star Wars and Disneyland fan, I always thought Star Tours was the closest thing I would get to living in the Star Wars universe. I can’t imagine being a Star Wars kid today. It’s not fair, I tell you.

Most of what you will see when you visit Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge has already been written about in countless blogs and Twitter feeds this past month. I'll try not to just do more of the same. Instead, I wanted to take a look at the story behind Black Spire Outpost and how Disney has changed the game of immersive storytelling with its newest expansion.

To start, the attention to detail in Galaxy's Edge, from the moment you pass the red rocks of Big Thunder Mountain and make your way into the land, does immerse you in a world where you are more than just a guest. Here are treated like actual citizen in the Star Wars galaxy.

With Galaxy’s Edge, travelers will enter the Black Spire Outpost on the planet of Batuu. For those of you wondering, no, we have not seen Batuu in any of the Star Wars films or TV shows. It did get a nod in Solo and was a recently added as a destination in Tomorrowland's Star Tours, but as a whole, Batuu is a new planet for all of us, located somewhere in the Outer Rim on the edge of Wild Space.

According to Disney Imagineers, Batuu’s Black Spire Outpost was once a thriving fueling station and stopping off port for travelers throughout the galaxy. When the trading routes and hyperspace charts changed, however, the outpost lost most of its traffic and thus business, falling into disarray. Hmmm. So… basically it's the galaxy's version of Radiator Springs. Got it.

Unlike Radiator Springs, though, Black Spire Outpost has become a haven for those not wanting to be found: smugglers, space pirates, bounty hunters, spies, Resistance fighters, and the occasional First Order stormtrooper on patrol.

When you arrive, the outpost feels like it’s been around for a LONG time. For a new land, Galaxy’s Edge is designed to feel old, and, to take a design cue from Thor: Ragnarok's Sakaar, it looks and feels a bit trashy.

On a side note, I'm not really sure why "trash planets" have become attractive in major franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I digress.

Everything, from the loading docks, market place, cantina, and den of antiquities, feels rundown, grimy, and over-used, as you would expect from a spaceport that’s never had the resources to better itself. There's a TON of ship cargo and space litter all over the place. Broken droid parts turned into lanterns or just thrown to the side, makeshift speeders parked in hangars, and plenty of hidden passageways for shady deals and Galactic secrets to be shared. Oh, and did I mention there's a full scale X-Wing and A-Wing docked nearby.

Unlike Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Galaxy’s Edge takes us to place we’ve never seen before. The Imagineers used familiar features from Star Wars lore (droids, weapons, textiles, lettering and languages, sounds, blast doors, vehicle technology, creature design, etc.) and integrated them into a land that feels new yet oddly familiar. This is what Star Wars has always been about. It’s not science fiction. It’s science fantasy, and everything from the character archetypes to story themes and John Williams’s iconic music have given us a world that feels ancient but also familiar and still ingrained in our mythos as human beings.

Star Wars is a shared mythology of the modern age.

In line with the themes of the recent films, in Galaxy's Edge, the youngest Jedi can explore and even create the next chapter of the Star Wars story for themselves, rather than just compare it to what they've seen before in the films.

Some may criticize that decision, and I completely understand the disappointment of those who hoped to see their favorite Star Wars scenes from their favorite movies recreated in their favorite Star Wars locations.

However, part of the attraction of Batuu is it is a bit of a blank slate, inviting guests to tell their own stories and "create their own adventures," a growing trend made possible through new technology, augmented reality, and open-world gaming.

One of the things I've loved about the story behind the original Star Tours is that you felt like you were traveling through an intergalactic terminal. Every detail of the queue created the ambiance of a Star Wars equivalent of an airport. Strange travelers coming and going, planetary weather updates every minute, security droids performing routine bag checks throughout the terminal. This was the kind of theming that made Star Tours such a favorite and the wonder of my childhood.

It's also what guests love about attractions like Star Tours and the old Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror (rest in peace). Here, there is more than just a story being told. In rides like these, they, the guest, feel like they are part of a story that is still unfolding. Disneyland attractions have always been exceptionally well-themed and story-driven, but not every attraction is as immersive or interactive as others.

There's a major difference between observing a story as it unfolds versus actually participating in it.

Galaxy's Edge takes the second approach and does even more with it than anything we've seen before.

This is a planet populated by the citizens of Batuu and those space travelers are either on their way in or quickly trying to find their way out. To create this feeling for its cast, the creative team had to let the Disney Cast Members approach their job like actual citizens of this world, embracing its culture and creating their own shared mythos.

The costumes worn by the indigenous traders, merchants, and contracted dock workers are patched together using multiple garments chosen by the individual. This is a first for Disneyland Costuming, which has given its Cast Members a costuming pallet to choose from to create their own signature look.

The inhabitants of Batuu may not all be characters with a fully scripted backstory, but they each have a story and a reason for being there, and the story immersion team of Galaxy’s Edge has prepared them well. A special shout out to Greg Garcia and his team for their work with the citizens of Batuu. Well done, my friend.

However, when you're walking through the markets of Batuu, just be ready to hear the words, “Bright Suns” about as much as you’d hear “My Pleasure” at a Chik Fil A drive thru.

As far as characters go, one of my favorite parts of the day was getting to watch our favorite Wookie try to repair a full-scale X-Wing docked in the Resistance inhabited zone of the planet. As he went about his work, Chewbacca began showing his frustration with his assistant for not getting him the right tools when he needed it. I half expected him to throw her across the landing pad, which would have been great to see! Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have wanted this poor girl to get hurt, but you have to know by now: let the Wookie win!

Atmospheric character moments such as these just reinforce the immersion of a world going about its business. At one point, my friend was interrogated by First Order troopers but was soon released after promising to inform on Resistance forces in the area. Traitor!

Rey could be seen wandering the market place, and I caught a glimpse of the mysterious Vi Moradi actively avoiding First Order encounters. We’ll get to learn more about General Leia’s most trusted spy in the novel, Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire, landing later this summer. Keep your eyes out.

It’s important to note that Black Spire Outpost is also one hundred percent Star Wars. This wasn't something I was really prepared for going in. What I mean is that you really are separated from the mood and magic of Disneyland when in Galaxy's Edge. You get lost in another world entirely, which makes it easy to forget that, oh yeah, you're technically still in Disneyland. You won’t find Mickey Mouse dressed like a Jedi or Stormtrooper Stitch toys anywhere on Batuu. When you walk through the marketplace, every shop feels authentic to that culture, led by those who inhabit it.

Resistance Supply sells garb and gear appropriate for a guerilla-style band of rebels. We're talking mission patches, flight jackets, and other pins and flags encouraging citizens of the Galaxy to support the Resistance!

The toys at Toydarian Toymaker’s look like they’ve been hand-stitched or carved by local artisans.

The creatures at the Creature Stall are authentically ugly. I almost bought my own Rathtar to terrify our cat. He'd either scare away our furry housemate or eat him. I'd be fine with either one.

Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities has more Star Wars Easter Eggs than I could count. It’s also the perfect place to buy yourself a Jedi or Sith holocron or any other artifact of the Force your heart might desire. I’m sure that in some shared universe, this would be the museum Indiana Jones would have sold his best acquisitions to.

The Droid Depot is the Build-a-Bear I wish I had when I was a kid. Just get ready to drop a hundred bucks if you want to assemble your own custom BB or R2 unit. Yikes! Maybe not.

And don’t even get me started on Savi’s Workshop, where you can build your own custom lightsaber. This is more than just a shop with people clamoring over each other for parts. It is an experience, with show elements and a final presentation that will make any real Star Wars fan lose their mind.

The food of Batuu is themed, as we’ve come to expect from Disney. Yes, you can order the famous Blue Milk, first seen in A New Hope, and there's Green Milk as well, which I stayed away from. Sorry. Any green dairy product just doesn't feel right to be consuming. Believe it or not, though, the Blue Milk was actually pretty good and not too sweet either, which was nice. I’m also pretty sure it’s not dairy at all. It’s more of a plant-based blend of coconut and rice milk, so my lactose intolerant friends should be happy.

For lunch, I ordered a Ronto Roaster, and judging from the alien meat roasting on a spit over an old engine turbine, I’m not entirely sure what I was actually eating, nor do I care. It was a perfect lunch and easy to eat on-the-go. Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo was your typical Disneyland Quick Service Restaurant, with more vegetarian options, but it boasts a really cool indoor and outdoor seating arrangement.

Ogda’s Cantina, however, was the star attraction of the day and probably the most popular part of the entire land.The lines to get in were already around the corner when we arrived, which I’m sure will only get worse once the land opens to regular guests.

In the cantina, you can order themed libations, such as a Bespin Fizz, Jedi Mind Trick, or Fuzzy Tauntaun, as well as a few beers on tap, including Gamorrean Ale and Bad Motivator IPA. If I had the time, and they allowed me to stay, this is the sort of place I'd love to just find a quiet booth in the corner, kick back. and write all day. Just keep the Fuzzy Tauntaun's coming.

Unfortunately, it's really more of a quick stop with signature drinks that people will buy because they're Star Wars. An actual table service restaurant would have been nice, but... the Cantina is still a nice feature.

Considering that the Indiana Jones themed Hangar Bar in Disney World is one of my favorite themed dining locations, I can’t wait to actually get to enjoy the cantina someday when crowds die down. Maybe in thirty years.

Now if you’re lucky enough to make it inside the cantina, you’ll also be treated to the Galactic playlist of the bar's in house DJ that fans of the original Star Tours might recognize. It seems that when Star Tours recently upgraded their star speeders and piloting droids, their original models were retired. At some point, lovable loser RX-24 (Captain Rex) from the original Star Tours crashed on Batuu and was later reprogrammed at the Droid Depot as R-3X to serve as the DJ in Oga’s Cantina. I can’t lie. R-3X’s presence in the cantina makes me smile ear to ear. Add to it the fact that his new lines are recorded by original voice actor Paul Reubens… I’m sorry, but this is the kind of nostalgia that makes me smile.

When it comes to the cantina, there are rumors swirling that the bartenders are also less than amicable and more like the short-tempered owner of the cantina on Mos Eisely, who notoriously brushed off a bright-eyed Luke Skywalker. I guess that's what happens when you're used to serving alcohol to shifty and disgruntled pilots and traders. Why do I get the feeling like most cantinas in the Outer Rim make Earth-based truck stops look like the gardens of Naboo.

But if alcohol isn’t your thing (which I'm not sure why it would be at Disneyland), don't worry. The cantina serves non-alcoholic drinks and food offerings. Or you can be sure to enjoy other themed drinks around the market. Just be careful about drinking water at the local fountains. I discovered there are dianogas lurking in the tanks in a few places.

My only hope is that one day, Oga's decided to invest in live entertainment. I've heard Cantina bands around the Outer Rim are all the rage, and I'm sure Batuu could recruit the services of several of Disney's talented musicians and singers, human or otherwise.

And then there’s The Millenium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run.

The best way I can describe this attraction, and right now the E-ticket experience of the land, is a merging of Star Tours and EPCOT’s Mission: Space that gives you, the actual pilot, way more motion control. Disney’s Test and Adjust team have done a phenomenal job preparing for guest flow, and the queue, which I foresee getting pretty long, is second-to-none.

Once inside, fans of Rebels and The Clone Wars will enjoy the animatronic presence of the galaxy’s most notorious Weequay pirate, Hondo Ohnaka, who has a special smuggling assignment that requires your unique skills.

Contracted by Ohnaka Industries, you and your crew will need to fly the Millenium Falcon, on loan from Chewbacca, as transport for a shipment of valuable coaxium. Of course, before you can transport the coaxium, you have to, cough cough, steal it. Thankfully you have the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy for that.

It’s a mission deserving of the best smugglers and ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

Now when they said I would get to pilot the Falcon, I thought this just was clever creative marketing. NO! You actually get to control the motion of the Falcon.

The iconic cockpit seats six, and each person on board has a role to play in the smuggler’s run. Two pilots control the motion of the ship as well as the boosters, pitch, and hyperdrive. Behind them, gunner’s ward off any threats using the ship’s cannons and lasers. And lastly, the ship’s engineers work to repair damage to the ship caused by idiot pilots who can’t fly.

Depending on well you work together, your crew will complete or fail the mission and determine how much credit you earn when all is said and done.

Having ridden twice, I can tell you that your actions do impact the ride path, which means every experience is going to be different.

Interior queue of the Millenium Falcon

Our first pilots were TERRIBLE and mean terrible! As one of the ship’s gunners, I almost broke out of my seat to take over piloting duties. I think I screamed at one point, “PULL THE LEVER!” when our pilot refused to active the hyperdrive and send us into hyperspace. I’ve never seen the Falcon hit that many asteroids or stationary objects. I’m shocked it even got off the ground. Han would be spinning in his grave right now. The second time around, though, I got to fly, and thanks to my childhood training, I did pretty well. I hope I made you proud, Han!

The Millenium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run doesn’t have as much motion sensation as Star Tours or Flight of Passage, but it’s a LOT of fun and an experience kids especially are going to love!

Of course, there is more coming to Galaxy’s Edge later this year. Most of the land has opened to the public, but the big attraction, Rise of the Resistance, is scheduled to open at an unscheduled date hopefully in the Fall. And from what I’ve been hearing from those working on it, Rise of the Resistance is the Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye of this generation. We'll see.

And so, after four hours exploring Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, I can definitely say that Disney’s Imagineers and the Lucasfilm team have outdone themselves. Where once this sort of experience was only accessible in our wildest imaginations, guests will get now get to do more than imagine. They will finally get to participate.

Immersive, interactive storytelling has reached new heights thanks to advances in technology, but in keeping with Disney tradition, magic is created when technology exists to serve story. Without the Star Wars mythology, vivid worlds, and beloved characters, Galaxy’s Edge wouldn’t be the experience that’s going to captivate young audiences and reward loyal fans.

I know people are already asking: is Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge really for kids, or is it just for those of us who grew up with Star Wars and now have money to spend?

The answer to this question is simple: the creative team behind Galaxy’s Edge have created an experience for the kid and the Star Wars kid in all of us.

Yes, it's a little pricier than I think it should be for families already forking out major money to bring their kids to the park, but there's still enough to enjoy even if you didn't recently cash in at the casinos of Canto Bight.

Growing up, I had Star Tours to fuel my imagination. Today’s kids will have Smuggler’s Run. And we will all have Rise of the Resistance in time. Who knows what the future holds for Disney theme parks and immersive storytelling with this level of inspiration now in play.

I’m excited to find out. You should be too.

So get ready, humans, because a galaxy once far, far away just got a whole lot closer.

To the Spires and Until Today

*all photo credits belong to Heather Dingess.