Hard to believe it’s been four years.
When the announcement was made that Disney would acquire Lucasfilm, the question of a Star Wars themed land was not if, but when. At the D23 Expo in 2015, the land was officially announced, and now that when is here. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is officially open.
Like the current version of the land itself, this article will not be fully comprehensive. Even if I wanted to, it would be irresponsible for me to pretend to have a definitive take on something this ambitious after one day of operation. Instead, this will be a way for me to exorcise some of my immediate, gut level reactions and hopefully provide some context for people curious about the experience as it currently exists. Also, for those of you who don’t want that and would rather just experience it all for yourself, this is your cue to bail.
With the preambles out of the way, let’s dig in and start in, perhaps, the unlikeliest of places: the Play Disney Parks app.
The idea of a fully immersive, fully interactive experience in a theme park is a dream Disney has been chasing since at least the early 2010s, with experiments like The Optimist and Legends of Frontierland serving as steps along that path. And here, for the first time, Disney has the chance to make good on that promise, to build something from the ground up with this level of interactivity foundational to its very core. What was there on day one was not quite that, but for the first time, that dream feels within grasp.
The way it works is that when you’re physically in Galaxy’s Edge, the Play Disney Parks app will allow you to activate your Star Wars datapad. This UI becomes the tool through which you can interact with the land, scanning cargo manifests, hacking computer terminals, intercepting encoded messages, and communicating with characters both major and minor from the Star Wars galaxy. Your map guides you to things that can be interacted with, you select the appropriate tool, play a brief minigame, and then collect your reward. That’s about the extent of the interactivity available on day one, and even that was held together with paper clips and string (the app crashed, wiping out the totality of my progress not once, but twice), but the purpose behind these limited interactions are compelling enough to feel meaningful.
That’s what sets this apart from the interactive wands at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both rely on the same thrill of being able to trigger special effects throughout the land by manipulating some mundane object (be it a resin wand or your own, personal smart phone), but with Potter, those experiences are ultimately empty. You wave your wand, trigger the gag, and move on. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the experience. With the datapad, though, each interaction sends you away with some other actionable element. That might be as simple as some in-game currency or one of the varied digital collectibles unlockable through the app, or it might be progress towards securing victory for either the Resistance or the First Order in the fight over Black Spire Outpost. It’s not a ton, but it’s something that encourages you to be an active participant in the experience, to explore deeper into the nooks and crannies of the spaceport and helps to provide context for the characters and creatures that inhabit this world. And all that’s before future, potentially more elaborate missions go live in the app.
That’s what ultimately had me walking away from this incomplete experience glowing, unlike other similarly ambitious but incomplete experiences I’ve attended in the past year. That’s an admittedly low blow directed at a park operating with a minute fraction of Disney’s resources, but where Evermore’s lofty ambitions seemed absent a clear roadmap of how to get there, Disney has spent the better part of a decade doing the work to figure out how to make this happen.
Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure (later re-themed around Phineas and Ferb’s Agent P) in Epcot as well as Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and A Pirate’s Adventure: Treasure of the Seven Seas in Magic Kingdom played with grafting simple interactive gags onto existing spaces as part of quick games with fixed beginnings and endings. Later, The Optimist used some of the promotional budget for Brad Bird’s then-upcoming film Tomorrowland as a backdoor into using Disneyland (and other Disney-adjacent locations around Los Angeles) to craft a larger narrative by combining digital communication, live performers, and environmental storytelling. Finally, the summer of 2014 saw both Adventure Trading Company – testing out a pay-to-play model with tangible rewards – along with the wildly ambitious Legends of Frontierland – an experience that began as a simple game with factions vying for control of a daily-resetting land map, but quickly ballooned out into a sprawling, months-long narrative that was largely crafted on the fly by a team of dedicated actors and Imagineers committed to letting guests explore their own interests and feel as though they had a perceivable impact on the world of the game. In the five years since, there have been a few more tests, primarily Ghost Post and the early iterations of the Play Disney Parks app, but it’s all been building to this: an experience built from the ground up that allows guests to play and explore and feel as though they are active participants rather than just passive observers. The interactive elements of Galaxy’s Edge were not fully implemented on this first day of operation, but there’s every reason to believe there’s much more yet to see.
There will be more missions coming to the app, we’ll see more of the ongoing conflict play out in the physical space, we know all of that, we have the receipts, but what I’m really hopeful for is an outlet for guests who really want to go all in on role playing. I hope we see more characters like Resistance fighter Vi Moradi who wanders the land, interacting with guests, encouraging them to buy into the fiction – even if only for a moment – and really engage with this fantasy world around them. I hope we see loyalty scores for individual factions bleed over into interactions with characters and cast throughout the land. Legends of Frontierland very quickly proved to be unsustainable, but one of its most compelling features was the structure through which you could establish a genuine reputation in this fictional western town; where you were no longer just any guest, but a specific character with history and allegiances and purpose. Now they literally have a reputation score baked into the app, meaning any cast member could potentially access that information and react to you based on how you’ve chosen to interact with the world. It didn’t work like that today, but all of the infrastructure needed to make that happen is already there, and that’s unbelievably exciting.
To that point, I also think it would be extremely rad to even have some pieces of merchandise only available to people who’ve established a certain reputation. Perhaps Dok-Ondar has some back room items he’s only willing to show to those he feels he can trust, or maybe if you do a job for Oga, your next drink in the cantina is on the house. At this point I’m not far off from just writing Galaxy’s Edge fanfic, but what’s incredible is that none of that seems less possible now that I’ve actually been inside. It’d take ambition and no small amount of aggressive negotiating between WDI and other facets of park operations, but they’ve built a mechanism that could, in theory, allow any of that to become a reality.
But that’s not all there is to Galaxy’s Edge. It is, of course, also a pretty traditional theme park land with rides and shops and eateries, albeit on a much grander scale than is typical. As much as the interactive elements are exciting for me personally, I recognize there are those of you who have less than zero interest in any of that. That’s fine too, and even if you choose not to opt in to the immersive game, there’s still plenty to enjoy in the land. Let’s start with the big one: the rides. Or, I guess, the ride.
It’s no secret that Galaxy’s Edge is currently operating without Rise of the Resistance, the supposedly sprawling, multi-stage dark ride meant to represent the new high water mark in E-ticket attractions and serve as the signature offering for the new land. In its stead, guests will have to make due with Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run as the only traditional ride offering. The good news is that Smuggler’s Run is incredibly fun! The ride sees you board the Millennium Falcon – temporarily pressed into service as part of Hondo Ohnaka’s (of The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels fame) smuggling operations. After being briefed by the pirate himself, you’re given your assignments on the ship (either pilot, gunner, or engineer) and allowed to board the vessel where you wait around the dejarik board for your turn in the cockpit. Once your group is called, you assume your positions for whatever mission Hondo has assigned you. The pilots control the ship with the left seat steering along the x-axis while the right co-pilot manages elevation. Behind that are the left and right gunners who control, naturally, the left and right guns; then finally there’s the engineers who are tasked with maintaining the Falcon’s deflectors and hyperdrive. The game, it seems, is mostly on rails, meaning you can steer to avoid obstacles, but not to change your overall course; that said, I wasn’t the pilot, so who knows, maybe there’s more freedom than I was perceiving. Instead, I was one of the gunners, which revolves around hitting a stack of three buttons to fire the ship’s laser canons. Each gunner is given the choice up front whether they want manual or automatic aiming, with manual selected, the three buttons correspond to firing up, down, or center, while automatic aiming locks onto enemy ships and any of the three buttons will fire in the appropriate direction. There’s a dedicated targeting screen to assist in aiming, but I largely disregarded that, choosing instead to look out the main viewport. I’m less clear on exactly how the role of engineer works, but it sounds like it’s perhaps the most involved of the roles, where you’re constantly working to respond to damage incurred by laser fire and poor piloting skills. Presumably the better your fellow passengers are at their roles, the less work you’ll have to do to compensate, but if your priority is wanting a more traditional ride experience, you might want to try to trade for a different position with one of your traveling companions (I have heard that there is some sort of auto-pilot option for people who just don’t want to mess with any of that, but I haven’t seen it for myself).
In terms of the overall ride experience, the best way to describe it is as an evolution of Star Tours. You start on Batuu, jump to another world, chaos ensues, and you eventually return to where you started. The biggest difference is that you have some measure of control over that chaos, unlike, say, Mission: Space which has you press buttons that ultimately don’t do a goddamn thing. Having only ridden the ride once, it’s hard to say exactly how much variance there is, but beyond merely how much you do or do not bang up the ship, talking with other guests it seems there are a few different levels of success and failure. It also seems that, currently, there is only one mission active – traveling to Corellia to retrieve containers of coaxium (the hyperspace fuel featured in Solo) – but I expect more will go live after the reservation period ends.
Theme park fans still like to categorize attractions based off of the old Disney ticket books, but there’s never been any real metric to properly quantify what makes a ride an A, B, C, D, or E-ticket. From where I sit, I tend to consider E-tickets the anchor attractions – the big showstoppers that draw the most attention – while D-tickets are the “mini-majors”, attractions that are still packed with technology and crowd-pleasing entertainment, but play more of a supporting role in the broader lineup of the parks attractions. By that metric, Smuggler’s Run is solidly in D-ticket territory. It’s a ton of fun and the presentation is impeccable, but it’s not quite the knockout punch Disney needs to dethrone Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’s nine-year reign as the current pinnacle of attraction design. Perhaps Rise of the Resistance will live up to those lofty ambitions, but we still don’t even know for sure when that one’s meant to open. So for now, after you’ve returned with your contraband coaxium and collected your payment from Hondo (if you’ve opted into the Play Disney Parks app, finishing the ride awards you virtual currency), all that’s left to do is explore Black Spire Outpost itself. The good news is, there’s plenty to see.
As aerial shots of construction came out, there was a bit of handwringing over whether the size of Galaxy’s Edge was as impressive as Disney was touting. After all, a huge portion of the 14-acre expansion was taken up by two massive show buildings for the land’s pair of attractions. But once you’re in there, the place is enormous. Buildings tower over you, and the petrified spires that give the outpost its name rise even higher than that. There are virtually no forced perspective tricks employed in creating this effect; everything is built at 1:1 scale and the verisimilitude is unbelievable. It’s incredibly easy to forget you’re in a theme park at all, let alone in Disneyland. The layout strikes the right balance of feeling sprawling without being unnavigable. With a bit of wandering, you quickly create a mental map of the area’s major features – the Cantina, the Falcon, the marketplace, the Resistance outpost – but it always feels like there’s more to explore and discover. This is helped by the fact that there’s not one vantage point where you can see the whole land all at once. That trick immediately sets it apart from the design philosophy of the rest of Disneyland and makes it feel closer to Epcot’s Morocco pavilion or some of the winding pathways of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
The other thing that makes exploring the land interesting is that, though most of the crucial signage like restroom entrances and menu boards are in english, many of the shops, particularly in the marketplace, are only labelled by signs printed in the fictional characters of Aurebesh. If that sounds intimidating, it’s really not that bad. None of the shops are difficult to find, and once you’ve peeked inside, it’s immediately obvious what category of merchandise is offered at each one. What this does, however, is encourage exploration. Rather than just being able to breeze down the marketplace and know what’s available from the signs, you have to step into each stall, and each shop has its own unique decor and environmental details to make the exploration worthwhile even if you’re not intending to buy anything. That might be an animated Loth-cat and worrt in the creature stall, or it could be the fully articulated audio animatronic Ithorian namesake of Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities. There’s plenty of neat stuff to buy, including some impressive deep cuts, but purchases are not the only reward for exploring the streets and shops of Batuu. We spent most of our allotted four hours inside the land, and while we felt plenty satisfied upon exiting, there’s plenty more we didn’t have the opportunity to see. We never ventured into the Cantina or Savi’s Workshop, we didn’t get to sample any of the land’s food and beverage options, and we only got to have brief interactions with characters like Rey, Vi, and the First Order stormtroopers patrolling the outpost. I’m excited to return and see what else the land has to offer.
In 2010, Universal announced their intent to steal the theme park crown from Disney with their recreation of Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade, and then in 2014 with the expansion into Diagon Alley, they lived up to that ambition, leaving Disney scrambling to come up with a response. It’s taken longer than it should have, but Disney finally has their answer to Universal’s Wizarding World, but with a key difference in the core intent. Thus far, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has focussed on building faithful recreations of the world described in the Harry Potter books and brought to life in the Harry Potter films, and they’ve done so with enormous success, but at a certain point there’s something slightly limiting to that approach. You’re following in the footsteps of characters you know and love, but it’s still their story, not yours. You’re just along for the ride. When Galaxy’s Edge was announced, the decision to set it on a new world heretofore unexplored in Star Wars storytelling was met with skepticism. People know Tatooine and Hoth and Endor, why would they want to go somewhere they don’t already know? There’s a few answers to that: first, when recreating something that already exists, it inevitably comes with compromises. Sure, Hogsmeade at Universal Studios is impressive, but it’s not really exactly like the one in the movies; the layout is different, it’s way too close to Hogwarts Castle, the castle grounds aren’t the same and the Black Lake and Forbidden Forest are absent. Yes, those are stupid nitpicks, and they don’t substantially diminish the wonder and the thrill of these places, but I point it out to illustrate what makes Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge different. Batuu doesn’t exist except in the Disney theme parks, which means it comes without compromise. It can’t be seen as an imperfect facsimile because there’s nothing but itself to compare it to. You’re not visiting a recreation of Black Spire Outpost, you’re visiting the real thing. You’re not following in the footsteps of someone else’s adventure, but charting your own. That’s astounding, and it’s something that’s never really been done before. The land isn’t finished yet, but the promise of what it can be represents the next evolution of theme park design. If you’ll allow for a hackey exaggeration, it’s lightyears beyond what anyone else has ever attempted.
The only problem is that it’s in the wrong place.
By now it should be clear that I’m absolutely smitten with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. It’s already hugely impressive and as it develops has the potential to literally be everything I’ve ever wanted in a theme park space. I’m so grateful to live in a place where I can drive 20 minutes and visit it whenever I want (y’know, after the reservation period has ended). But its placement in Disneyland is a very square peg in a very round hole. I talked before about the scale of the place, and it’s a scale that’s so wildly different from the rest of Disneyland that it requires an almost literal decompression chamber to account for the difference. Though there are three access points into the land, the centermost path off of Frontierland seems to be the de facto “main” entrance. Through it, you enter a long, somewhat narrow tunnel that takes you underneath the berm, narrowing your focus and resetting your expectations of scale before you emerge into this massive, sprawling spaceport. The trick works exactly as intended; it’s a clear disconnect from the place you’ve been, establishing Galaxy’s Edge as something adjacent to, but not entirely part of the rest of Disneyland. But then, reentering Disneyland through the pathway into Critter Country was almost physically jarring. The intimate scale that’s so essential to the park’s charm felt wrong contrasted with the colossal scope of where we had just spent the last four hours. “Wrong” is not a particularly descriptive adjective, but it’s difficult to put into words exactly how this felt. This place I love, this place I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, suddenly felt alien when contrasted with where I’d just been. Maybe that transition will ease over time, especially after you can more casually enter and exit Galaxy’s Edge, but it won’t change the fact that the design language of this land is fundamentally at odds with the rest of the park it is now attached to.
I’m aware that this otherwise glowing review took a weirdly sour turn at the end, but that’s broadly reflective of the experience I had with it. Galaxy’s Edge is incredible almost beyond words, but how it affects the larger identity of Disneyland is unfortunate to say the least. In terms of what is tangible, I remain impressed by how little was lost in exchange for so much. Yeah, it’s a shame that the river was shortened, but it wasn’t shortened so much that both the Columbia and the Mark Twain can’t still run on it at the same time, and the new scenery is gorgeous, even if it’s absent the former illusion of an endless wilderness. It’s the intangible, though, that I worry about. I can compartmentalize the two: there’s Disneyland, and then there’s Galaxy’s Edge as sort of this weird walled garden accessed through the back door of the main park, but I worry that your average guest will react to that fundamental difference in design philosophy by feeling like the rest of Disneyland is hollow and antiquated by comparison. It’s the same phenomenon that leads many people who’ve only ever visited Walt Disney World to be underwhelmed by the relative smallness of Sleeping Beauty Castle when compared to its towering cousin in Florida, only now that difference isn’t separated by 2,000 miles, but a mere handful of feet.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge changes everything in ways that are both exciting and worrisome. It represents the pinnacle of what is currently possible, but also threatens to overwhelm the very park that’s hosting it. It’s too early to say just yet how its legacy will manifest, but suffice it to say I will watch its development with great interest. Either way, the land is here and it’s here to stay, and as it continues to develop, I can only hope the good outweighs the bad and that its potential for immersive storytelling and interactive play cast a shadow larger than the literal shadow cast by its imposing spires.