Star Wars is an essential part of pop culture for pretty much every generation living right now, permeating contemporary consciousness in ways that go beyond sci-fi nerdom, childhood nostalgia or even cinephilic obsession. Boomers created it, Gen-X made it a phenomenon and every generation that's followed has been equally beguiled by most everything in, related and connected to this universe. Based on mythology and the “hero's journey” construct that drives history's most compelling classics, George Lucas' original trilogy, as well as its prequels and sequels, continue to fascinate new audiences thanks to the timeless good-versus-evil narratives, ground-breaking special effects and simply cool aesthetics.
If there is any one entity with a more profound influence on culture in terms of entertainment, it is of course Disney. So when the most magical place on Earth joined forces with the most stirring saga in the galaxy, it was almost too big to comprehend. But things started off fairly measured. 1987's Star Tours, the first attraction based on licensed intellectual property from outside of Disney, opened to throngs of lightsaber toting Jedi and Leia-bunned young ladies looking for a different, more empowered kind of princess (cosplay, by the way, is not allowed for adults at Disneyland — only “bounding,” aka referencing characters with regular clothing). The ride was updated in 2011, a year prior to Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm for more than $4 billion. The monumental meeting of imagination and genius marketing finally came to full fruition in 2017, when Disney bought 20th Century Fox, which owned the original trilogy; they only had rights to digitally remastered versions before that.
And then there's the announcement that has had fans in exultant anticipation for the past four years: Disney was constructing a brand new Star Wars-ian world, a hidden 14-acre attraction behind Frontierland that would be its largest singular-theme addition in history. The immersive environment called Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge promised to transport guests to Batuu, the stark and dusty planet where smugglers and bounty hunters — and the ominous First Order — await, as well as members of the Resistance (which can be you, if you play along, enhanced by Disney's smartphone app).
“So many of us remember seeing Star Wars for the first time,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger at the induction ceremony and media preview for Galaxy's Edge's last week, two days before it opened to the public on May 31. Addressing the crowd and backdropped by the front end of the Millennium Falcon, an awesome sight all lit up in front of the night's sky, he added, “I'm sure some of you fantasized about traveling in hyperspace and being among the most diverse set of characters imaginable. The dark side and the light side, bounty hunters, space pirates, rebel spies, and all sorts of alien misfits in all shapes and sizes. Personally I always wanted to sidle up to the bar at the cantina — although nothing would've excited me more than to climb in the cockpit and pilot the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, the Millennium Falcon. And now with the opening of Galaxy's Edge, we can do all of that and so much more.”
Iger then introduced George Lucas himself, who gave the honcho props for doing “a good job,” and said of the new attraction, “It's Star Tours on steroids at a level you can't possibly believe.”
“I worked with imagineers in the old days… [and] it was hard to do anything,” the famously subdued Lucus continued, before being joined by the likes of Billy Dee Williams, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. “Now the technology is here. This thing is amazing. Something we couldn't even dream about 20 years ago. So I hope you enjoy it. It was a great experience for me and I think it will, uh, it'll change your life.”
Offering fans an opportunity to engage in the wondrous worlds Lucas created, and we mean really engage — as in learn to read a new planetary language, build a droid, eat alien food (while washing it down with blue milk, natch) and yes, pilot the Falcon — Galaxy's Edge may in fact, be life-changing for some. But for others, maybe not so much. It will be a major success no matter what, but as the largest expansion to Disneyland dedicated to a single franchise, the reported $1 billion project is surprisingly specific, limited even, in its focus.
It's to be expected that hardcore Star Wars followers (those who know everything concerning its expansive lore, the characters, the storylines, past and present, and even beyond all the films via TV shows, cartoons, comics and novels) will most appreciate and “get” it, but many guests with a more casual connection to the franchise might be suprised by the lack of Disney's signature whimsy. Unlike the rest of the park, Galaxy Edge isn't about audacious or mindless escapism. You won't be posing for pictures with characters or standing in lines for a bunch of thematic kiddie or thrill rides. There are only two rides total here — Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and the yet-to-open Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, described in the press notes as “a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance… aboard a full-size transport shuttle and then into a nearby Star Destroyer on a harrowing and thrilling adventure that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.” Both are motion simulator-driven with interactive elements that conjure realism in more ways than one.
We were obviously excited to be one of the first people to ride Smugglers Run last week, and boarding it virtually line-free was a real gift from the galaxy. But having only limited knowledge about the current films and how the craft plays into the contemporary Star Wars story, we weren't quite clear what we were supposed to be doing. Wrangled by a weird space pirate named Hondo Ohnaka (seen in The Clone Wars and Rebels animated shows), for a smuggling mission, boarders meander through the usual maze-like line, which provides great views of the Falcon from several angles that truly do feel “real.”
One vantage faces out into Black Spire Outpost, the crossroads town where Edge is set, and it's pretty epic. Embedded in the mountainside, the Falcon is most awesome to look at from the outside, and standing in front of it is sure to provide the ultimate selfie op. Still, what happens inside the iconic vessel is one of the most unforgettable parts of the Galaxy's Edge experience. An immersive adventure awaits in which groups of six are given “IDs” that appoint them different jobs on the flight including: pilot, gunner and engineer. The most responsibility lies with the pilot of course, and the chance to actually helm a simulated flight of the Falcon looks pretty surreal. Obviously it will be the most popular position, but during the preview, roles and seat assignments were handed out randomly. We got the engineer, which has the least work involved (pressing buttons as they flash) and seats you in the third row of the “cockpit,” providing its own uniquely cinematic view.
The fast-paced jaunt through the galaxy is as heart-stopping and exciting as you might expect, and apparently it varies depending on the crew and the skills of all involved. In this way, it offers an individualized gamer component not unlike other Disney rides, such as Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. The more enemies you destroy on the way to your destination, the better your score, but the mission tally also subtracts damage incurred by the craft at its completion. If you engage the app with the ride, there are special Easter eggs too; both in terms of the setting and how cast members will treat you throughout the land based on your ride performance.
Like Universal Studios' The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and its centerpiece ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, every detail is significant in Galaxy's Edge and Smugglers Run, from backdrops and sets (many in Batuu's native language, which the app translates when you scan with your phone) to the in-character conversations everyone engages in (think Renaissance Faire gab but more dramatic). The marketplace items available for purchase also have an old world Faire-style feel, from authentic looking cloaks and clothing and hand-stitched dolls to vintage-looking figurines and space creature pet puppets. No Mickey Ears or mylar balloons here, folks.
In addition to the marketplace, there's an impressive museum-style gift shop called Den of Antiquities that lets you try and buy an array of lightsabers. But after the Falcon, Oga's Cantina will probably garner the longest lines, and not just because it's the first time Disneyland is serving booze. (The adjacent California Adventure park has always done so, and the exclusive Club 33 restaurant does, but it's invite-only.)
We tasted a couple of concoctions during a private walk-through and later at the media preview party, which also provided samples of all the cosmic culinary options. Served specimen-style in plastic cups for the opening bash, bites included “Fried Endorian Tip-Yip” (chicken tenders with mashed potatoes) and “Ronto Wraps” (roasted pork, sausage, peppercorn sauce and slaw, wrapped in a pita taco). Everything was tasty, but not amazing — at least when it came to the savory stuff.
The desserts, such as the “Oi-oi Puff” (raspberry cream puff, passion fruit mousse) and the “Batuu-bon” (chocolate cake, white chocolate mousse, coffee custard), were out of this world delicious, though. The drinks in the cantina are inventive enough to make you believe they're from another planet, offering a twist on tiki-style mixology, infused by juices, rums and textural touches (gelatinous boba-type balls floating inside). We sampled the “Yub Nub” (named after the celebration song sung by Ewoks in Return of the Jedi) and it was yum yum.
As for the cantina vibe, it's a sight to behold for sure, but the robot DJ Rex is a little too Short Circuit-esque for our tastes and his mid-tempo techno mix was meh. We'd have much preferred to see a live band of costumed creatures playing music from the original film. But as with most amusements here, one must remember this world is supposed to be real and in the present, not retro. At least the land itself realizes the importance of atmospheric music; orchestral sounds from Star Wars' soundtracks are played throughout the park, creating a dramatic ambiance that, like everything here, sucks you in.
Disney really went for something different here. From Edge's rusty industrial look to the mindful inclusion they provide every single person who enters, this is a realistic and authentic replication of a planet from the Star Wars universe right now. This means — perhaps disappointingly for some — it is missing many beloved characters from the past. Chewbacca and Storm Troopers are around, but there's no Vader, no Luke or Leia, no Yoda or Jabba, and definitely no Jar Jar Binks! Apparently you can still see and interact with some of these characters over in Tomorrowland, where Star Tours will continue to run indefinitely, an odd old school ode to Lucas' early films that serves as a contrast to the innovative new surroundings of this latest creation.
“In designing the Star Wars universe, we don't consider it science fiction or fantasy — we think of it more as a period piece, and we look at it almost from a documentary point of view,” said Doug Chiang, Lucasfilm's vice president and executive creative director, in a media statement. “Star Wars design is grounded in reality, and we're creating a place that is believable, authentic and real. Then we exaggerate that reality and add in a distinct visual vocabulary to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. For this land, we wanted to create something fresh and also timeless — just like our films.”
Galaxy's Edge definitely marks a big shift for the land that Walt built, moving away from cartoony enchantment into more sophisticated, filmic experiences. It wasn't made with small children in mind (take them to Fantasyland or Toontown) and yet, it's also not really targeted at older folks, either. Those of us who grew up on Lucas' original trilogy will probably always think that its characters and storylines were the best, and a significant “resistance” has emerged when it comes to comparing them to more recent offerings. If you are one of these people, you can still enjoy Galaxy's Edge, but not to the full extent. To get the most out of this majestic menagerie, one must let the past go, make an effort to learn a little about where the Star Wars universe has gone and how it's evolved, and appreciate the bold new wonders that Disney imagineers and Lucasfilm's innovators came together to create — wonders that can only be found in this particular galaxy, far, far away.