Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge gamifies the theme park as it emphasizes play

An artist's concept of Black Spire Outpost as part of the village inside of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, opening in summer 2019 at Disneyland Resort in California and fall 2019 at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.


By TODD MARTENS | Los Angeles Times | Published: March 4, 2019

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, factorylike apartments above the shops, presented as stalls, creating a cacophony of life and noise.
Consider this the “Star Wars” equivalent of Main Street, U.S.A. Instead of quaint stores there are catlike 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 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” puts an emphasis on personal decision-making, active participation and gamelike 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 an imposing Star Destroyer.
Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opens in an identical setup at Florida’s Walt Disney World a few months after its debut in Anaheim, Calif., is designed as a place to engage, recognizing 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-of-war for control of the fictional town of Black Spire Outpost.
If the land meets the ambitions of the Walt Disney Imagineers who designed it, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge 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 play-time and downtown L.A.’s Two Bit Circus melds tech-savvy carnival games with story.
And while Galaxy’s Edge 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 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 are 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 gamelike flight simulator ride Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s 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.”

Detail oriented

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.
Sets, however, still need to be dressed. Food spot Ronto Roosters, for instance, will eventually be outfitted with a giant barbecue pit, with flames fueled by an engine from a pod racer, and Walt Disney Imagineering executive creative director Chris 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.
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 lizardlike 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).
In a break from most other Disney lands, the staff 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 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.

Challenges ahead

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.”
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 is the first to serve alcohol in Walt Disney’s original park outside of the private Club 33. Understandable, since plenty of guests might 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. 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.”
When it comes to participation and gamelike activities, the land’s two centerpiece attractions — Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s 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. Smuggler’s 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 lifelike pre-show animatronic of the smuggler Honda 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.
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 the land was once 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 consider 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 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. Walt built it and said, ‘Go. Go do that!’ ”

Disney guests will traverse the corridors of a Star Destroyer on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and join an epic battle between the First Order and the Resistance -- including a face-off with Kylo Ren -- when Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opens in summer 2019 at Disneyland Resort in California and fall 2019 at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

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