A Galaxy Not So Far Away

Share

We travelled to Orlando, Florida to explore a world that once existed only on screens and in our heads.

I’m not ready for my first glimpse of the Millennium Falcon. But when I turn a corner at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the dedicated theme park at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida, there she is: Han Solo’s starship, the most famous piece of junk in the galaxy.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan for more than 40 years. As a kid, I spent hours piloting my toy Falcon through imagined perils, with action figures of Han and Chewbacca rattling around inside. As an adult, I’ve written several Star Wars books, contributing to the vast lore and mythology that surrounds the ship. I arrive for my first visit to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge knowing the Falcon is its centrepiece. Having watched YouTube walkthroughs, I even know she’s waiting around that particular corner.

May 27, 2022
Star Wars Galaxy's Edge

It doesn’t matter. I come to a halt, my knees gone wobbly.

For one thing, the ship is huge – more than 30 metres from bow to stern. And the wealth of detail is staggering. Lights blink on her battered hull and gouts of steam hiss from the undercarriage. For a minute, all I can do is stare at a childhood friend I know isn’t real but looks – and feels – like she is.

When I recount this moment to Jon Georges, the executive producer of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, he gets it.

“We’ve seen tears,” he says. “Star Wars has been part of our lives for so many decades now that when you see the real thing full‑size, it’s overwhelming.”

Galaxy's Edge
Galaxy's Edge

World‑building – constructing an imaginary world to support storytelling – has long been an ingredient of fiction, from Tolkien’s Middle‑earth to George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. Now, new technologies combined with classic theme park design are making that world‑building physical. Properties once confined to pages or screens are becoming places where people want to vacation – down the street from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge you’ll find Harry Potter attractions at Universal’s parks. Whatever the fictional world, a theme‑park designer’s ambition is to satisfy fans’ nostalgia and passion by crafting a real‑world destination.

“The goal is for fans to feel like, ‘This is Star Wars,’” says Margaret Kerrison, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’s managing story editor. “There is nothing more important to me personally than telling a story that is emotional.”

Star Wars Galaxy's Edge

Emotional moments have been a goal of Disney’s Imagineers for decades, and both Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge parks – there’s another at Disneyland in Anaheim, California – are full of them. Two marquee attractions anchor the 14‑acre parks: Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, where you can pilot the Falcon, and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which takes you aboard a First Order Star Destroyer. But the world‑building isn’t just for rides. It’s shaped everything from stores and eateries to the streetscape.

The term “Imagineer” was coined by Walt Disney himself to suggest a combination of imagination and engineering know‑how. But in that order: For Imagineers, technology belongs behind the scenes, instead of pushed front and centre. When that formula works, it can feel like a magic trick, one you enjoy too much to want to figure out.

8D8 droid at Galaxy's Edge
   8D-J8 at Galaxy's Edge

“On our best days, the technology is invisible,” says Georges. “It’s a conveyance to deliver a story and an emotion to our guests.”

At the heart of Imagineering is an obsessive devotion to detail as a way of unlocking emotional moments, and it’s those details that make Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge simultaneously an irresistible scavenger hunt for Star Wars lifers and an intriguing destination for more casual fans.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge recreates the planet Batuu, a trading post on the galactic frontier, and is very much in the spirit of the movies’ “lived‑in universe,” where every object looks like it has a story. Buildings are scarred by blaster fire, a podracer engine has been repurposed for cooking and droid heads have been turned into lamps. Look down and you’ll see tracks left by astromechs like R2‑D2. The tentacled monster from the Death Star’s trash compactor lurks in a tank above a water fountain. Signs are in Aurebesh, the alphabet of the Star Wars galaxy. Starship engines growl overhead, and at night you hear the calls of alien beasts and insects. And yes, you can down a cup of blue milk, like Luke Skywalker drinks in A New Hope.

“George Lucas created an epic universe, which looked and sounded great,” Kerrison says. “Now, we can experience what it tastes like and what it feels like. We have a chance to explore all of the senses that were never explored in the films or TV series. What does it feel like walking down the hallways on the Falcon? How much pressure should be on the lever when you jump to lightspeed?”

Chewbacca at Galaxy's Edge
Star Wars Galaxy's Edge

To deliver that authenticity, the Imagineers worked closely with Lucasfilm and discovered in the process that Star Wars isn’t as otherworldly as you might think. “A lot of the locations we’ve been to in Star Wars storytelling are places that are familiar to us, and look very much like Earth,” Kerrison says. “You introduce slight tweaks – making the structures into domes, having moisture vaporators and so on.”

To get that esthetic correct, the Imagineers pored over artwork from original concept artist Ralph McQuarrie and visited open‑air markets in Morocco and Turkey. You can see those real‑world influences in Batuu’s market, from its clusters of ornate lamps to the snarls of wires overhead.

The rides are filled with detail, too. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run brings you into the hold of the Falcon, where everyone wants a selfie at the space‑chess table. But look around and you’ll spot other familiar sights: the remote Luke used for lightsaber practice, Han’s tools, and nests made by porgs.

Disney brought the same attention to detail to things we’ve never seen onscreen. Cast members speak in character as Batuuans, prices are quoted in credits and Coca‑Colas come in round bottles labelled in Aurebesh. Even the trash cans look like they’re from a galaxy far, far away – complete with an Easter egg for hardcore fans that’s too good to spoil.

“If there’s anything that’s off‑planet, it’s you – the travellers,” Kerrison says. “Everything else, we hope, is as authentically Star Wars as possible.”

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is so convincing that you may feel reluctant to peek behind the technological curtain. The Disney documentary The Imagineering Story reveals that there are 28 Falcon cockpits inside Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, mounted on four turntables. The cockpits are motion simulators, technology also used on the Star Tours ride that marked the first collaboration between Disney and Lucasfilm, years before the 2012 sale that united them. (Star Tours has been updated to include worlds from The Rise of Skywalker.) The imagery you see from the Falcon’s cockpit was created using game‑engine software that had to be invented for the ride.

What struck me, though, was that I rode Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run several times before realizing the cockpit I saw outside couldn’t possibly be the one I’d sat in inside. I was enjoying myself so much that I didn’t try to figure out the trick.

The Imagineers hope for the same suspension of disbelief with Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, one of the biggest and most technologically complex attractions in Disney history.

Rise combines multiple ride systems – motion simulators, trackless vehicles and a drop tower – to deliver an immersive, 15‑minute journey that takes you from a Resistance base on Batuu to the innards of a First Order Star Destroyer and back. After the first portion of the queue – in which a holographic Rey (Daisy Ridley) explains the mission – you interact with cast members dressed as First Order thugs, animatronic figures (including an entire Stormtrooper army) and holographic characters portrayed by actors from the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

The result blurs the lines between ride and attraction. The moment where riders are led from a Resistance transport ship into the Star Destroyer’s hangar is awe‑inspiring.

“It’s big, and we felt like it had to be,” says Georges. “Star Wars storytelling on a screen is epic in scale, and we wanted to deliver that in the attraction we created.”

Star Wars Galaxy's Edge
Star Wars Galaxy's Edge

But his favourite aspect of Rise is the emotions it evokes: “I watch the guests’ faces as they come out of the transport ship in awe, and that moment brings me to tears. Because that was what we set out to do.”

There are other blurred lines at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Take Dok‑Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, which is crammed with Star Wars miscellanea, from trooper helmets to taxidermied beast heads. A fan can happily spend an hour geeking out beneath Dok’s animatronic gaze and then buy a screen‑accurate comlink or Jedi holocron from a Batuuan at the register. At Savi’s Workshop, guests construct their own lightsaber in a half‑hour ceremony that’s become a park highlight.

Wherever you are, the emotional payoff is sharp.

“We waited with bated breath when we opened the land because we knew we loved it, but we didn’t know if the rest of the world would feel the same way,” says Kerrison. “For me, walking around this land is emotional every single time.”

When I finally got to pull the lever that Kerrison mentioned, the one that sends the Falcon into hyperspace, I wasn’t thinking about the software transforming the stars into faster‑than‑light streaks or that a motion simulator was making the cockpit shimmy around me. The lever felt right in my hand, and for a moment I was eight years old again – and I was Han Solo.

Related: Pixar’s Domee Shi Puts a Magical Spin on Toronto in Turning Red

Star Wars Galaxy's Edge
   Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance

When you go

Galaxy’s Edge – Orlando, Florida

STAY

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser

A Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge visit will become even more immersive next year when the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser resort opens. Two‑night stays will simulate a trip on the starliner Halcyon, with the same attention to design authenticity found in the park. Windows will have simulated space views, guests will meet aliens and droids, and kids and adults can train with lightsabers and explore the ship’s secrets. Disney also promises a planet excursion to Batuu – in other words, a direct connection to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge from the hotel.

Until then, try Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, with its pool resembling an old Spanish fort. Book a pirate‑themed room as preparation for meeting space pirate Hondo Ohnaka at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, just one stop away via a Disney Skyliner gondola.

The Hollywood Brown Derby
   The Hollywood Brown Derby – Photo: Osseous Flickr

EAT

The Hollywood Brown Derby

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has quick dining options, but the Brown Derby is just minutes away within Hollywood Studios. It’s an homage to a bygone Tinseltown eatery that saw many a film deal struck and gave the world the Cobb salad. (Well, perhaps.) Save room for the sublime grapefruit cake.

Epcot
   Epcot – Photo: inazakira-Flickr

DO

Epcot

A 4‑Park Magic Ticket lets you visit other Disney parks besides Hollywood Studios. Animal Kingdom offers an open‑air safari and the jaw‑dropping ride Avatar Flight of Passage. Meanwhile, Epcot is getting a new nighttime fireworks show, Harmonious, as part of a transformation that features the France pavilion’s additions of new ride Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and a Beauty and the Beast Sing‑Along.

Related: The June Motel’s Sarah Sklash and April Brown on Their Netflix Series and Schitt’s Creek