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Grokking Star Wars Land: How will Disney bring more 'Star Wars' to its theme parks?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: August 22, 2014 at 12:08 PM

What will Disney's Star Wars Land look like?

The latest blue-sky concept for Disneyland's version of the new land have hit the Internet, but Disney's nowhere near hiring contractors and putting shovels in the ground. The idea, as last we've heard, is for Disney to announce Star Wars Land at the D23 Expo in August 2015, though the actual plans for the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions of the land might not be completed until after that, based on how quickly Imagineers can incorporate elements from the upcoming Star Wars trilogy. (Episode VII hits theaters in December 2015.)

Project Orange Harvest
Teasing "Project Orange Harvest" at the 2013 D23 Expo.

Let's recap where we are before looking ahead. Disney green-lit Star Wars Land after acquiring Lucasfilm, and the company even teased the land at the last D23 Expo, in 2013. But concept development stalled as Disney management (wisely) decided to include elements from the upcoming films, rather than creating a Star Wars Land based solely upon the original six movies. When director JJ Abrams took over the script for Episode VII and tightened the veil of secrecy around the production (in an effort to avoid what happened on Star Trek: Into Darkness, when the Khan twist leaked during filming), Imagineering was left waiting even longer. Not that Imagineering doesn't have plenty else to do, with Shanghai Disneyland, Avatar, and Disney Springs taking time and money from the budget.

In the meantime, Universal has been raising visitors' expectations for what a theme park land should be, with the wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter, both the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley versions. Both lands go beyond appropriately-decorated plazas that house a variety of attractions from the same IP. They faithfully recreate specific immersive locations from the Harry Potter universe, allowing visitors to imagine that they've actually entered that universe.

Of course, Disney can play this game, too, and did — with Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. Instead of simply creating a desert-looking plaza for its Cars-themed attractions, Disney created a physical version of the animated town of Radiator Springs to provide a home for that land. As with most things in the themed attraction business, the Wizarding Worlds and Cars Land built upon projects from the past. Disney brought together multiple attractions from the same IP in a specific themed environment at Tokyo DisneySea with the Jules Verne-themed Mysterious Island and The Little Mermaid-themed Triton's Kingdom. Going further back, the first example of stringing multiple attractions from the same IP in a specific immersive environment might be the original Tom Sawyer Island and Rivers of America at Anaheim's Disneyland.

So if we want to grok the future of Star Wars Land, let's start there — with the idea that SWL must recreate specific immersive locations from the Star Wars universe, rather than simply providing a decorated environment for a variety of individual Star Wars-themed rides, shows, restaurants, and shops. You're not just visiting the world of Star Wars in Star Wars Land, you're visiting a specific place within the Star Wars canon.

Outside Star Tours at Disneyland Paris

But where? This is where we hit the first major development challenge facing Imagineers. Star Wars takes place upon multiple planets, strewn throughout a "galaxy far, far away." The ideal of creating a specific immersive environment falls apart if Imagineers place a Tatooine-set pod-racing ride next to a Coruscant-set Jedi Training Academy show. (Or, heaven forbid, an X-wing spinner ride rotating around a miniature Death Star. Please, no "Chester and Hester"-grade stuff here, okay?) If Star Wars Land is to meet (or exceed) the standard set by the Wizarding World, Cars Land, and Tokyo DisneySea, it must separate attractions and locations from each planet into separate lands, or mini-lands.

So perhaps we should stop thinking about Star Wars Land as a single, homogenous thing, and instead envision it as a collection of planet-themed environments: Tatooine Land, Coruscant Land, Naboo Land, etc. And let's not forget that quite a bit of Star Wars takes place off-planet, too — whether it be on one of the two Death Stars, various Imperial Star Destroyers, the Millennium Falcon, and so forth.

Now let's consider another challenge: What about Star Tours? Disney's already got a Star Wars-themed ride in its parks, and it would seem logical that it should be included in any new Star Wars Land. But how would that happen, thematically?

Star Tours takes us to many of the planets in the Star Wars universe. But where is the Star Tours starport set? If anything, in the original version of the ride, the suggestion was that the starport was set here on Earth, either in Tomorrowland at Disneyland or a Star Wars-themed movie set in Walt Disney World. The new version, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, fudges things a bit by delivering us to a different destination from where we first blasted away from Darth Vader or the Stormtroopers.

If the goal is to build a specific immersive environment from an individual location in the Star Wars universe, Star Tours presents a huge problem. It simply doesn't fit in that kind of setting. What happens if you set Star Tours within Coruscant Land, but your adventure within the ride delivers you to Naboo? When you exit the ride, you're still going to be in Coruscant Land. That breaks the environment. Universal's Harry Potter lands don't do this sort of thing. Nor does Cars Land. Star Wars Land can't either, if it is to live up to those standards.

Here are the options, then, for Star Tours:

  1. Go back to the original version, which did drop you off where you started. (Bad idea. That ride had its time.)
  2. Keep using the new version, but show only the final option that matches the "land" where the ride is to be themed. (Worse idea — if the point is to deliver a rebel spy, why would we need to go on Star Tours if we're already at the spy's destination?)
  3. Put the exit of Star Tours outside Star Wars Land. (Might work, but still requires the Star Tours terminal entrance to be placed on a planet-land that isn't in the ride, to preserve continuity. That requires cutting options from the attraction.)
  4. Finally, and perhaps the easiest solution: Leave Star Tours outside Star Wars Land entirely. (Seems crazy at first glance, but it really might be the best option for the land, given the lack of better options.)

Keeping Star Tours out of Star Wars Land actually opens fresh development options for Disney, as the company's no longer limited to building Star Wars Land in the area immediately adjacent to those rides. (This gives some credibility to the Toontown option for Disneyland.) If Disney takes the Harry Potter-like approach of developing multiple Star Wars lands, each themed to different locations within the Star Wars universe, having a Star Tours ride off by itself won't stick out so much over time, as more Star Wars "planet lands" are opened at each resort.

Image from Wookieepedia

With which planet should Disney start, though? The answer seems obvious — go with the planet that appears the most often the Star Wars films: Tatooine. Anakin's home planet features in five of the six existing Star Wars films, and, given that Episode VII is filming in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, one might presume that Tatooine will appear in the newest film, too. Fans would be thrilled to see "Star Wars Land — Phase One" be Mos Eisley, with a cantina restaurant and a souvenir marketplace. A walk-through Millennium Falcon could be parked in Docking Bay 94. And another Tatooine-set attraction could be built on the edge of Mos Eisley. A pod racing-themed ride seems obvious, but it that's not distinct enough from the experience now available on Star Tours, perhaps Disney's Imagineers could find some inspiration in Jabba's palace? That's a fantastic environment that could house an amazing dark ride experience.

And you'd better believe that visitors' MagicBands will allow them to "use the Force" and trigger special effects inside Star Wars Land, to one-up Universal's interactive wands in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Could elements from Episode VII be included? Sure, and eventually, the presence of the new trilogy must be accommodated within the various Star Wars lands. However, that raises the question of when Star Wars Land will be set, in addition to where?

Even the best immersive theme park environments fudge the issue of timing. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade clearly is set during the events of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, with the Tri-Wizard tournament going on in the land. Yet Diagon Alley is set on the day that Harry, Ron and Hermoine break into Gringotts Bank in the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There's a Hogwarts Express ride that connects the two lands, but we never do see the timeturner that must be at work when we travel across that time, as well as space. ;^)

Cars Land has its own timing issues, with the drive-around Lightning McQueen character sporting a Cars 2 livery, while Doc Hudson, who's deceased by the time of the events of Cars 2, plays a major role in the Radiator Springs Racers ride.

Here's the huge timing challenge for Star Wars Land: Darth Vader. Star Wars' most iconic character exists in his famous, helmeted form only from the end of the third movie to the end of the sixth. Place Star Wars Land outside that time frame, and you can't include Vader without breaking canon — unless JJ Abrams has something wild in store for us in Episode VII. (This provides yet one more reason for keeping Star Tours outside of any planet-themed Star Wars Land.) Perhaps Disney could use Universal's approach with Harry Potter, and have its different planet lands set at different times, allowing Vader to exist in another version of Star Wars Land than the Tatooine one. (Remember that Vader never visits Tatooine again after Anakin wipes out the Sand People following his mother's death, anyway.) Put the Vader meet-and-greet next to "Star Wars Land — Star Tours," and leave him out of "Star Wars Land — Tatooine."

With this approach, Disney could announce a Tatooine-themed Star Wars Land for its parks at D23 next summer, then simultaneously consolidate additional, non-Tatooine-set Star Wars-themed stuff around the Star Tours rides to satisfy fans who want to see stuff that doesn't thematically fit on Tatooine. "Star Wars Land — Star Tours" would complement "Star Wars Land — Tatooine" as Disney develops additional, elaborately-themed Star Wars planet-lands over the years to come, eventually giving all the major Star Wars elements their appropriate theme parks homes, including elements from the new trilogy.

In this way, Star Wars Land isn't a single location — it's a franchise within a franchise that Disney can continue to develop in multiple locations within and across its various resorts indefinitely.

Will Disney take this approach, or will it go cheap and just throw a bunch of Star Wars-themed stuff together and use its PR machine to try to convince the world that fans have fallen in love with it? We should be getting our first clues, if not the answer, to that question in the next 12 months.

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