When Disney CEO Bob Iger announced Star Wars Land at the D23 Expo in Anaheim last summer, both he and Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek made a point of telling people that the cast members in the new land would not just be playing the role of Disney cast members, but of inhabitants of the newly introduced world upon which Star Wars Land would be set.
Why is that a big deal? Let's back up by taking a look at the template used by Universal in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter — build a credible depiction of a physical space where the story is set, populate it with attractions in which visitors can spend time with beloved characters from the franchise, and reinforce the theme with employees who play the part of inhabitants of the franchise's universe, offering food and merchandise that reflect the universe of the franchise.
If any of these elements brings you outside the world of the franchise, it undercuts the land's credibility and makes it a less desirable place for fans to visit. For example, if you could order a Coke with your fish n' chips in The Three Broomsticks, that would remind you that you are actually visiting a theme park, and not the village of Hogsmeade, given that Coca-Cola does not exist in the Wizarding World. Similarly, if Universal team members working the stores in the Wizarding World wore generic park uniforms instead of themed costumes, that would destroy the illusion that you really were shopping in Diagon Alley.
Just as we wrote yesterday in talking about cosplay, the goal is to bring fans to a point where they stop seeing themselves as outsiders visiting a fictional land and begin to see themselves as participants inhabiting a world that feels real, instead. Every element of the land must support this illusion for it to work. If employees break character, or a store or restaurant display items incompatible with the franchise's world, the illusion shatters, and fans don't feel the same deep connection that they feel when the illusion works.
Disney's not building Star Wars Land to remind fans what a good job Universal did with Harry Potter. Disney is building Star Wars Land to encourage its fans to skip the trip up the road to see the Wizarding World. If Disney's design and operation of Star Wars Land includes more "breaks" than Universal's Wizarding World does, then it risks failing this most basic test of success.
That is why Disney's promise about Star Wars Land cast members is so important. We got a first glimpse at the level of detail Disney is bringing to the Star Wars Land project in the Season of the Force event at Disneyland. Take a moment to look at the name tags that cast members in Tomorrowland are wearing during the event. You won't find cast members' home towns listed under the names. Instead, you will find the name of a "home planet" from the Star Wars universe: Mustafar, Alderaan, Tatooine, etc. It would have been easy for Disney to overlook this detail in costuming its cast members, but the fact that Disney is addresses now, years before Star Wars Land opens, should give fans hope that Disney won't break the details in its new land.
That's the people, now what about the food? Let's face it, Star Wars provides far less opportunity in food than Harry Potter does. This is a war, after all, where eating is about sustenance — not sitting down to a sumptuous communal feast, as the students of Hogwarts do on a daily basis. The original trilogy offered scarce examples of characters eating: some Bantha blue milk with breakfast in the first film, Luke's space food sticks and Yoda's gruel in "Empire," and that's about it.
The Star Wars franchise does offer one amazing opportunity for drinks, however. The cantina scene from the first film remains one of the most iconic locations in the entire franchise, and a place where fans have longed to visit. (Warning: Now we start with the mild spoilers. Stop if you haven't seen The Force Awakens yet and want to go in totally cold. But nothing we say today will reveal plot points — just a few scenic moments.)
Maz Kanata's cantina on Takodana calls back to that original Mos Eisley cantina, providing a gathering place for the denizens of the Star Wars universe. We see more food in Maz Kanata's cantina, too, as we get to watch Rey chow down on what looked to me like a loaded potato skin with tiny Christmas trees stuffed in it. Rey gets to eat more in The Force Awakens than just about any other character in the Star Wars canon, and she provides what may be the most iconic food-related moment in the series to date — the instant bread she whips up and eats on Jakku. That was the first moment in any Star Wars movie that made me stop and say, "hey, I want to eat that!"
So Disney now has some examples of food from within the Star Wars universe that it can offer to visitors in Star Wars Land. (Though I have no idea how they're going to pull off instant bread.) What Disney ought to avoid, however, is the sort of food selection that it has been offering during Season of the Force and the Star Wars Experiences at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida.
Food service in a themed land breaks the illusion when it references characters and settings within the franchise rather than recreating its food. No one in the Star Wars universe eats chocolates shaped like Darth Vader's helmet. That's something that fans on Earth do. While Disney's shown a smart attention to detail with things such as cast members' name tags, it has yet to show the same reverence for in-franchise authenticity with its Star Wars-related food items. Again, Disney starts at a disadvantage here given the relative lack of material to work with in the first six Star Wars films. But with more examples of food and drink available from The Force Awakens, Disney needs to do better than offering Chewbacca-head steins by the time it opens Star Wars Land, if it wants to create the fully-immersive environment that fans have seen up the road in Universal's Wizarding World.
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