Disney's Imagineers share their lessons from Galaxy's Edge

November 20, 2019, 9:22 PM · One of the highlights of each year's IAAPA Expo is Bob Rogers' annual Legends panel. What was once a gathering of Disney Legends reminiscing about the old times working with Walt has grown into an annual master class dissecting a major project in the past year of themed entertainment. And in 2019, there was no bigger, more ambitious project in this industry than Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge lands.

So Bob this afternoon welcomed Scott Trowbridge, Margaret Kerrison, Anisha Deshmane, and Chris Beatty from Walt Disney Imagineering to share their report from the Galaxy's Edge. Like a true showman, Bob saved the juiciest prompt for near the end of the panel:

"I know you must have had this meeting, this must have happened. Imagine a meeting room full of very high level executives, in suits. These are people who think in spreadsheets. They have recently paid $4 billion - that's billion with a 'b' - on Star Wars and its characters. And the art team here is cheerfully explaining your vision for Galaxy's Edge is that there will be no 'Star Wars,' no Star Wars logos, no Luke Skywalker, and no Darth Vader."

You can skip to the 63-minute mark to see the panel's reactions. Or just take it from the beginning and enjoy an in-depth look into the creation of this award-winning and precedent-setting theme park land.

If you're just skimming for highlights, though, allow me to share some of my favorite extended quotes from the panel. Here is Chris Beatty on the origins of the Galaxy's Edge story:

"There's a lot of similarities I think in our industry for us as art directors and theme park designers, we take along the same path and a lot of the same development cycles that filmmakers take. We start with story. We talk about locations - where do we want to take our guests? What type of experience that we want to take our guests on? In fact, that's where we started this process. It wasn't where we want to take our guests, what planet? What storyline? We actually started with what do we want our guests to feel like when they walk into the land? Where do we want to take them? What do we want to we want their experience to be?

"That's what led us down the path. Then the location came out of that. When we tried to start creating like a conversation around, should we build a Tatooine or should we build a Dagobah? The book report... we just got lost. Oh, I have to see this, and I have to see that. I have to tell this story. The team just got derailed with all these details. So when we free ourselves to talk about what we want the guest experience to be, that all went away and it turned into this very free open conversation about what I want to feel when I walk into the land - do I want to feel tension, suspense? Do I want to feel anxiety like you're getting ready to go on this journey, you're excited, but I don't know what awaits me? Are you the hero or the villain? Those are the cards we were pinning on the wall. It wasn't, oh, I want to see this or do this, or I expect to see this character.

"We worked on all these different ways to bring the land to life [and that] came out of those conversations. That process was happening at the same time as the look and the feel of the land were developing. We went through the same process as the filmmaker - we start talking about the textures, the smells, and what's the ground like, and what the stones are. What's the story behind the stones on the ground - how long have they been there? Have they been patched - did a big beast creature come through there and loosen the stones and the little Java proprietor had to come out of the shop and patch in one day and he's angry and just had to use whatever he had to fill in the mud?

"Those are the conversations you want to have because they lead to the textures, they lead to the color palette, and then you start to pair those with a partner those with locations and research trips that you go on, and before you know it, you have this really rich, diverse palette that lets you bring that in the light, to let you paint that landscape."

And Margaret Kerrison on the authenticity of experience in Galaxy' Edge (Update: This followed a comment by Bob noting that, in Pirates of the Caribbean, the pirates do not know that you are there):

"I remember one of the earlier meetings and we were talking about Savi's Workshop and the lightsabers. One of the creative directors who had just joined the team to help us with that experience. I remember he asked, 'what is it - what do you ultimately want people to be?' My answer to him was, as a guest, I want to be seen.

"I want to be seen. You know I want to know that I'm coming in here, and that you see me, and not only that you see you see me as someone unique and special. That I, with all of my all my dreams of one day building a lightsaber, all of my dreams of one day feeling the force and hearing from a force ghost - all of these things - it has to make sense to me as a person who for the first time is coming into the Star Wars universe, [that] you can see me, and I feel special because of that.

"So in building this, that's something that we took in everything that we did, because it's not just about how as cast members we react to guests, but it's how cast members react to each other. I see you, and this is what I think. And also cast members [reacting] with the characters in our land, too, and characters with each other. So it's not like, oh I'm going to go visit this one attraction and they live in isolation there from the rest of the land. You go from one place to the next. There's the truth of what is there - the location, the purpose, everything - and then there's what there's a second layer of the theme. How do I as a cast member, as a local Batuuan, feel about the recent arrival of the First Order to my town? [Scott Trowbridge: Not great.]

"I've been working hard hours and like I was just working in Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo and then these people come in and they say that there's people hiding in here it's, like, 'Look, I just want to get back to my day job. Oga is not going to be happy, the crime boss is not going to be happy about me getting in late for work because there's marching Stormtroopers.' So, we want our local Batuuans to have opinions about that. That really elevates the authenticity and their believability. As a local Batuuan, I'm seen. I am seen in this world and in this land, and I have a part in the story as well. And when you see our cast members play, you want to play, too. Play encourages play. And that's something that we feel very, very strongly about.

Finally, here's Margaret Kerrison on the future of the Galaxy's Edge story:

"The Lucasfilm story team and publishing team were incredible in working with us and with our producers within Imagineering to help us shape the slate of programming that we would like to have, and believe me it's not over. We're looking into the future of storytelling for Galaxy's Edge, and any other activation related to Galaxy's Edge - above and beyond what you currently see today. So this is something that is ongoing, something that's evolving, and something we're very excited about.

"It really truly takes many minds to come together and work ourselves into determining what is the best kind for this particular story, and there are many moments where we decide, you know what, I don't think we're ready to tell this particular story right here, right now. Let's let's hold on to that one. Let's keep it in our pocket, and let's wait for something bigger in order to tell the story. Or, let's wait for something that is either in the land or in the book or through a game, but ways that we can actually have all of those formats speak to one another, because truly we are building one universe - all of these stories speak to one another and because of the carrying carrying the torch that we have Star Wars storytelling, we, we take that responsibility very, very seriously.

"And because of that we work very closely with our Lucasfilm partners, to make sure that this is truly part of the Star Wars story."

Planning a Disney visit Planning a visit to Batuu? For discount tickets to Disney theme parks, visit our officially authorized Disneyland tickets and Orlando-area attraction tickets pages.

Replies (24)

November 21, 2019 at 12:44 AM

Well, I'm sure this thread will soon be a calm, rational, reasoned discussion.....

November 21, 2019 at 4:33 AM

I would hope that the main lesson learned for Disney from Galaxy's Edge is that the General Public can be smarter than we (and they) give them credit for. Iger once said that he could just tweet "it's open" and the crowds would show. This, despite the fact that the headlining attraction wouldn't be ready for months. Clearly, that ended up not being the case as it seems most decided indeed to wait for Rise of the Resistance to be ready.

Now I'm not saying Disney shouldn't have opened Galaxy's Edge when they did. Clearly, Rise has had its fair share of problems that weren't going to be ironed out quickly and it doesn't make sense to keep the rest of the land that's ready waiting. All I'm saying is that Disney should have adjusted their expectations accordingly after it looked like the anticipated swarm of guests did not come to pass. And it doesn't feel reassuring that for many of the new additions around the world, Disney will continue this "phased" approach to expansions.

November 21, 2019 at 7:13 AM

As to the phased opening strategy and the crowds, I am not so sure they did not plan this. They are getting the die-hard Star Wars fans now that cannot stay away, and the crowds with be heavy as hades when RoR opens, but lessened somewhat. It is also an easy way to test the absence of FP+ on a major new attraction quietly. Now they have a lot of data to work with when both parks are going. I hope they do not ruin DHS version with the hotel by allowing super early morning access to make the lines unreasonable immediately to the 1% of the 1% and that they see that FP+ at DHS is broken. I do think there is a way they can make this work, where prior to it opening I had serious doubts, especially in light of my experiences with Avatar.

November 21, 2019 at 7:35 AM

I'll say this too, everyone focused on the reports of low crowds when the land(s) opened, but at least in Florida the crowds have arrived. Since early October and especially in the last couple of weeks, Hollywood Studios has been the most crowded WDW park, with wait times for Millennium Falcon opening around two hours and steadying at 75-90 minutes for most of the day. Remember that this attraction does not have FP+ either and is a ridiculously efficient people eater, meaning it's probably putting more guests through than any other attraction at Walt Disney World at the moment. The buzz for RotR is very high within the Florida AP community, though I suppose the real test for that will be in January when the Christmas crowds are gone, but I think the land has rebounded significantly after the slow start.

November 21, 2019 at 8:40 AM

Best Star Wars themed shopping mall I’ve ever been to...Food court was meh though...

November 21, 2019 at 10:25 AM

The funny thing is that they make it sound like everything's hunky dory. I went to Disneyland last week and the crowds were still light. But I've made my case before, so not going to belabor the point here. The health of the franchise will be measured when the Rise of Skywalker movie comes out next month.

November 21, 2019 at 11:56 AM

"I want to be seen...." barf. Sorry, I mean, what? What the hell is going on? Did I miss something? Star Wars land isn't a hostile work environment, it's a space fantasy. Honestly, what the heck is she talking about? Someone help me understand.

November 21, 2019 at 12:29 PM

I think she is trying to convey that as you walk through the land there is an ongoing story taking place. The thing is, I have yet to hear anyone describe this, yet that is what they have claimed would happen. You would see events take place throughout your visit. All I have heard about so far is people looking at their phones and waiting to buy things. I really hope it is not like Avatar when it is finished and is like she is trying to describe. They need robots and aliens walking around with scripted events and not just Stormtrooperrs walking from point A to B. To me, Avatar is a place with really neat building and cheap plastic toys with nothing else. The Wizarding World make you feel you are there. They need that for Star Wars.

November 21, 2019 at 12:59 PM

Funny. My feeling about Hogsmeade is that it's a well-themed shopping mall with a truly disgusting 'signature drink'.....

Just saying.....

November 21, 2019 at 1:25 PM

These Imagineers are conceptually too far removed from what continues to make Disneyland such a huge success. It isn't about wanting to be seen. It's about going to places you've always wanted to go. For attractions based on properties (like all the Fantasyland Dark Rides) that involves plopping you into the hero's shoes and flying to Neverland or visiting the Dwarfs or gong to Wonderland or briefly being in places you've seen on film. It's wish fulfillment. t's about stepping into another hero's shoes for a minute and having a cool adventure full of "Ah! I remember that!" experiences. That's why they have the rolling boulder in "Forbidden Eye" and the "Snakes, I hate snakes" joke. They want you to have that specific connection to the IP. That's why Star Tours generally goes to places we already know and has encounters with creatures we already know. We are instantly attuned to these places. We've all thought about going there before.

Galaxy's edge doesn't have that awesome "Wow! I'm HERE!" familiarity. You're supposed to be on your own adventure? Do we really want that? Or do we really just want to tag along with familiar faces and relive some amazing moments? Riding or piloting the Millennium Falcon would be so MUCH more fun if --instead of Hondo yelling at you-- you had Han, Chewie and 3P0 bickering back and forth and being hilarious..

It's not that we want to be seen. It's that we want to experience things we HAVE seen and have always yearned to visit.

November 21, 2019 at 2:11 PM

The one takeaway I got from this is that these Imagineers are full of hubris (like Iger) and seem defiant that any mistakes were made in delivering this land. They seem to spend much of this panel validating their decisions, not contemplating and discussing among each other whether taking the concept of a Star Wars themed land into different directions would have resulted in a more successful outcome.

I haven't taken the time to go through the entire panel yet, but I wonder if anyone there was astute enough to ask the project team about the slightly different color palate between the California and Florida installations. While I haven't seen DHS's Galaxy's Edge in person, those that have been to both coasts have noted that the Florida version is more colorful and vibrant to the more dull, earthy toned Disneyland version. There's an excerpt here about the specific color choices that were made were based on the overall story and concept, so is there a different story and aura being presented in the two different installations, or did the team just not like the original color choices in California, and decided to "bump them up" in Florida?

I get a lot of smugness from this particular group of Imagineers, which I've not seen very often from interviews with some of the previous masters of the art form. This crew seems to operate in the clouds and on some higher plane that the average guest could only dream to visit. They talk about the infinitesimal details that they author into the land, right down to the markings in rocks and pathways, yet they can't have enough foresight to make the signature food and beverage location (Oga's) big enough to meet the intense demand. They talk a big game and are rightfully proud of their achievement along with all of the work that went into creating the backstory of Batuu, but fail to recognize that it's not resonating with guests. They talk about CMs and characters interacting with each other, but don't talk about the guests' role in everything. Their discussion devolves into what THEY wanted to feel when they walked into Batuu, and never seem to consider what guests on various ends of the fanatical spectrum would feel. They scarcely reference what a guest is supposed to do on Batuu aside from ride and spend money (I'm sure their bosses are more than happy about the latter).

Don't get me wrong, I think Galaxy's Edge is an amazing place, and it's getting unfairly criticized because it has not yet created the same level of instant appeal as WWoHP. However, I'm concerned by some of the statements here by the panel and their apparent obliviousness as to why it's not being universally praised. After all, this panel was supposed to be an examination of the land BECAUSE it does not appear to have been as successful as anticipated, not a back-patting exhibition. It was supposed to be a dissection of the project and to highlight some lessons learned, yet it sounds like they don't think there's anything wrong with what they built.
They talk about potential changes to the "programming", but some guests would ask "What Programming?"

I'm with you JC, Disney has dropped the ball in the "show" area. The foundation is in Galaxy's Edge for Disney to knock this land out of the park, but they are leaving too much to the guest. The land is significantly deficient in "programming" and atmosphere. Whether that's a function of cost-cutting or a lack of creativity is unknown, but the failure of Imagineers on this panel to see that the land is missing that extra something is disappointing. I agree that we were promised similar things with Avatar that went undelivered, but I'm beginning to wonder if those reasons are not the budgetary ones that everyone assumed and instead are critical missing pieces that Imagineers left out because they either didn't recognize they were needed or expected someone else (guests or CMs) to fill them in.

November 21, 2019 at 2:41 PM

"These Imagineers are conceptually too far removed from what continues to make Disneyland such a huge success. It isn't about wanting to be seen."

I don't know about that. Society is changing, and this is becoming a common consideration in design more than ever before. The Instagram culture is driving a lot of this, but I do agree that designers are allowing this line of thinking to dictate critical decisions. People were paying $35 to take photos with cardboard cutouts of Mickey in Downtown Disney when the real deal was steps away in Disneyland (though admission to the park is WAY more than $35), so I think there's some validity about wanting to "be seen". However, I don't think that should have been a primary factor in framing the construct of the land or the stories that are told throughout Galaxy's Edge. Some people want a more introspective space and connect with Star Wars on a personal level, such that they're more than happy to sit back and watch or simply blend into the background. If there aren't enough people in the land that want to be seen, those that want to people watch have nothing to see on Batuu, which is why they need to increase the number of characters and level of CM interaction - or set up guides to encourage guests to be more active participants in Galaxy's Edge.

November 21, 2019 at 3:18 PM

I admit the hubris is a bit much. Let's face it, Imagineers do tend to take their projects personally and go a bit too far championing them. Marc Davis would always moan and groan on Western River Expedition canceled but ignoring some of the issues of that ride (just imagine how the orignal concepts of the Native Americans would go over in the '90s) and it happens to others.

It's better when they can face up to their mistakes like the Imagination redo in 1999 and admitting "yep, we screwed up, sorry." I love how when Eisner suggested renaming Zippy-a-Dee-Dah Falls into Splash Mountain, the Imaingeers first hated it...but now every one admitting "yep, he was right, our name would have been so much worse."

These guys with their attitude just helps fuel the backlash against GE and how it's a "disaster" and such as it would have been better to say "yes, we made some miscalculations" rather than give the impression "it's the guests' fault not understanding what we're going for."

But I do think it was a losing proposition as the ever-fickle Star Wars fandom would always find something to argue about no matter how great the final product is (See the reaction to the Disney movies). I guarantee that if they had done Hoth or Death Star setting, the backlash would be "Disney played it too safe with the OT rather than something original, it was a lost opportunity."

As many a blog has noted "forget Trekkers or Potterheads. No one can hate Star Wars more than Star Wars fans."

November 21, 2019 at 4:09 PM

@Russell Meyer I appreciate your really good analysis and commentary. I think you were spot on. As for the color differences between the DL and DHS lands - I've always heard that these choices are based on the local climate/environmental conditions and how the light reflects. Bold colors often tend to look tacky in the California light. Mission Breakout is a case in point. But colors also tend to fade faster in the California sun. Idk if this was the reason for the differences but it is one possible explanation.

November 22, 2019 at 1:51 AM

Disney employees (professional ones, not hourly union) aren't allowed to publicly say anything negative about the company even in a setting that's supposed to be only industry professionals (because as noted by the fact this article exists, its public knowledge). I can assure you all of their talking points were vetted and approved by the companies PR department before they went up there and spoke them. Really the only person thats allowed to say anything that could be construed as "bad news" is Bob Iger and he only does that sparingly. Disney is a business and businesses exist to make money, if they did something that isn't working trust me they know about it and are working to fix it regardless of whether they admit it or not. Disney didn't send those people there to talk about the mistakes they made they are there to sell you on their product.

There's a reason Disney's execs always come across as inauthentic in interviews and presentations, its because they have to be. That's just how Disney is, they know if someone decides to open their mouth then its going to be in the news 5 minutes later "Disney management says company is struggling" blah blah and it could swing the stock price.

November 22, 2019 at 7:26 AM

@the_man - There certainly appears to be some of that going on, which should not be surprising in that Galaxy's Edge has yet to be fully complete (not only is RotR not open yet, but the Halcyon is another year or more from completion) - you don't want to bash your own creation that has not even been on full display yet. However, this is an insider's trade show, and I would expect that even a company that controls its messaging and PR as much as Disney would allow their Imagineers, considered the top professionals in their industry, to be honest and open to criticism among their peers. Yes, the panel itself was going to end up in the public domain, so the participants would need to be coached to a certain degree to prevent from revealing any trade secrets or damning dialogue that could hurt the company's overall image. Past panelists have been forthcoming in responding to criticism and admitting mistakes and missteps, but these guys talk as if every single element of the land was perfect and would be proved right over time. The panel itself was billed as:

"Four amazing super-star Legends share insights, strategies and lessons learned by leaving the known path and inventing new worlds," Bob wrote of the panel. "They share lessons that you can soon be applying to your own work."

That's not what was delivered here, at least the portions I've had a chance to watch. I definitely would expect some white washing not only by Disney, but by prideful Imagineers that would not want to look like fools in front of their peers, but there should at least been some contemplation about alternatives or the thinking behind certain decision making that represent the "lessons learned" advertised for this panel. Instead, the Imagineers sat on a dais tooting their own horns and validating that every decision they made was the right one with very little capitulation or consideration that alternative designs might have garnered more success. Galaxy's Edge is definitely not a failure, but I think there's little doubt, even within the industry itself, that Imagineers made critical decisions that had they been made differently or under slightly different circumstances would have completely changed the appeal and overall guest satisfaction of the new land. They didn't have to come out and say that they made "mistakes" or were under pressure to change designs because of management and/or bean counters, but at least they could have examined what could have been or the ramifications of taking Galaxy's Edge in different directions and some of the details and design elements that give the land the potential to adapt to a changing market.

November 22, 2019 at 9:30 PM

I think Will has stumbled onto a huge truth there about why some rides and experiences are so popular and others are dud's. Executed with high quality of course. The good news is that once the Disney creative people and accountants finally get that through their thick skulls, they can fix it and add characters from the movies to the rides and experiences for a modest additional outlay of money. The is the one good thing and the Falcon being a screen ride. And, they need to use that stage and have a good, fun and funny full time star wars show like star wars hoopla. They could also have the alien space band like from the first movie, since they screwed up and made the cantina too small. Like they made trader sams too small

November 23, 2019 at 7:23 PM

Maybe the Disneyland version is suffering from the large number of Star Wars purists who visit (or decide not to) in California, but I can tell you that GE in Orlando is a hit. It certainly was for my group of seven visiting for the first time last month.

I do think the typical WDW tourist will love it, and why not? A family visiting GE as part of a larger WDW vacation just wants a fun wish fulfillment experience, and that`s what the land provides. It looks great, especially at night, and just screams "Star Wars" everywhere you go. MFSR is a lot of fun, particularly in the pilot seats, and sure doesn`t look like a screen-based ride at all (everything past the windows looks like it`s right there, not on a screen). Exploring the land is fun and adventurous, and the land is HUGE. And the key ride isn`t even open yet.

The expectations were sky high, and I posted several times on the message boards on that subject, opining that yes it would be popular, but it wouldn`t be overwhelmed with crowds day and night -- that never happened in Pandora, despite the extreme popularity of FOP, why would it happen in GE? But when it didn`t meet the sky high expectations, people started calling it a "disappointment." Fine, go ahead and be disappointed from behind your keyboards, while the rest of us actually experience the new land...

P.S.: Yes, I saw, and videotaped, some character interactions when I was there, including a show in front of the Tie Fighter.

November 24, 2019 at 3:31 AM

"That I, with all of my all my dreams of one day building a lightsaber..." What? Who has ever had dreams of building a lightsaber? I don't want to build one, I want to use one.

November 24, 2019 at 7:25 PM

If you use one, watch out for those accidental light saber castrations. Just sayin`.

November 26, 2019 at 10:29 AM

@NCPete exactly! No one in any Star Wars movie has ever built their own lightsaber on screen. Disney made stuff up for the sake of selling people useless crap. I want to buy a wand at Diagon Alley, because I read about and watched Harry Potter getting his wand. There's an emotional connection there. There is no actual tie between the fake quasi religious Disney experience creating a lightsaber and the actual Star Wars films. If they had an experience where I meet an old Jedi who pulls a lightsaber out of a trunk and explains to me that it belonged to one of my relatives who fought in the clone wars... then maybe.

November 26, 2019 at 8:05 PM

Angryduck, only a SW purist cares about all that crap.

November 27, 2019 at 12:00 PM

@Still a fan, I'm trying to understand the point of your comment. Why would anyone who doesn't love star wars want to pay an exorbitant amount of money to build a lightsaber? And contrarily, why would anyone who loves star wars (which you refer I guess derogatorily as a purist) want to build a lightsaber when that's not something anyone has ever done in the films? It doesn't matter whether someone loves Star Wars or not, there is a lack of emotional connection there. My point was that the Harry Potter wand buying experience makes sense in that land because it's something we've all seen Harry and his friends do. It's natural wish fulfillment to get to do that too. No one I know has ever said, "I wish I could build my own toy lightsaber".

November 27, 2019 at 4:42 PM

And yet, lots of people are paying $200 for the experience.

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