How do you describe something that has never existed before and how do you assess the value of what it’s worth?
These are the two interlocking problems one runs up against while trying to talk about Disney’s new Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser immersive experience. Even that, “immersive experience”, what does that even mean? For people like myself who are deeply interested in theme parks, immersive theatre, weird art installations, and the like, it can conjure up images that get you in a similar zip code to what Starcruiser is doing. But for your average person, even your average Walt Disney World vacationer, I’m not sure it would sound like anything to them. And then you hit them with the punch that this thing – whatever it is – costs a little over $5,000. For two people. For two nights. That’s more than what 90% of American families spend on travel in any given year, and we’re still not totally clear on what on earth it even is.
So, let’s start there. What is Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser? Well, it’s kind of like a cruise, but not really. It’s also kind of like a LARP (live action role play), but not really. It has elements of immersive theatre and role playing game quest hunting, and part of the experience takes place in a theme park, but it’s also more than any one of those elements or even their sum total. The best frame of reference for understanding what Starcruiser is is Disney’s own research and development experiments conducted over the past decade that paved the road to get here. Many of the same people who wrote, developed, and oversaw Starcruiser worked on a series of projects with Walt Disney Imagineering that – while each connected to theme parks in their own way – were all very different from WDI’s traditional output.
This work began in earnest with 2013’s The Optimist, an alternate reality game tied into Brad Bird’s then-upcoming film Tomorrowland. It played out through a combination of at-home puzzle solving and real world events at locations in and around Los Angeles, grafting a layer of fiction on top of existing spaces through clever uses of technology, set dressing, and live interactions with actors portraying characters involved in the narrative. Similarly, there was Ghost Post in 2016, a subscription puzzle box in the vein of the Mysterious Package Company or Curious Correspondence Club that once again combined at-home puzzles with in-park technology.
Arguably the biggest step on this journey – certainly it was for me – was Legends of Frontierland, an ongoing interactive story that played out in Disneyland’s Frontierland during the summer of 2014. Or, at least that’s what it became. Originally, Legends was anchored by the pretense of a land game, with players joining one of two rival factions to do quests to earn bits to purchase pieces on map, with the winning team heralded at the end of each day. In the margins of this land game, though, was a system – internally known as “Story Engine” – where dynamic tracking of player details in concert with live game masters could orchestrate character interactions and remember your individual actions within this play space. Almost immediately the pretense of the land game fell by the wayside as players became enamored with this story system, testing its boundaries and pushing the limits of what it could do. By the end of that summer there were dozens of different ongoing story threads – from love stories to detective mysteries to heists – that grew out of the interests of the individual people playing the game. In some ways it was a failed experiment. The original conception of what it was supposed to be plain and simple did not resonate with guests, but rather than cut their losses and wash their hands of it, WDI pushed through that failure to find the thing that did work, as weird and unwieldy and unsustainable as it may be. It was lightning in a bottle. This wonderful happy accident that could never, ever be replicated.
Or so I thought.