How Disney Helped Fans Live Their Star Wars Stories

November 6, 2020, 2:44 PM · This week I learned that the safest way to get through an earthquake in Florida or a hurricane in California is to visit Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land.

Four of the creators behind the award-winning land at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios in the Walt Disney World Resort shared their stories during yesterday's final 2020 Thea Awards Digital Case Studies, presented by the Themed Entertainment Association. The two lands — which are nearly identical — opened last year.

"As ambitious as that is to have two full-on construction sites going at the same time, there was also at the same time some tremendous efficiencies," Walt Disney Imagineering Portfolio Executive Producer Robin Reardon said. "Building codes sometimes are different in Florida than they are in California. We've got earthquakes in California and hurricanes in Florida. We're going to decide which one is the most stringent, and we're going to build to that, because we knew that it was going to be more inefficient to design to different things."

"Those places are built like a star destroyer," WDI Portfolio Creative Director Studio Leader Scott Trowbridge said.

Trowbridge and three other creative leaders from WDI talked about the development of the land during Bob Rogers' Legends panel at last year's IAAPA Expo in Orlando: Disney's Imagineers share their lessons from Galaxy's Edge. This week's TEA session reiterated some of those points, but also went deeper into the development of the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride, which won a Thea Award in addition to the one for the entire Galaxy's Edge land.

"Star Wars isn't really a story; it is a way of storytelling," Trowbridge said. "It's really a framework of storytelling that allows us to experience and explore all the different story archetypes and storytelling genres and forms of storytelling — which has been something that Star Wars has always done."

"The placemaking was really key to the story," Reardon said. "Knowing that not everyone would perhaps get a chance to ride the two major attractions, we wanted everybody to get their Star Wars experience, and so creating an environment that promotes roleplay that draws you into the story and having the characters walk through the land and engage you and having the cast members who are residents of that land engage you, I think, embraced people and drew them in, even if they might have been reluctant Star Wars fans."

"We knew that there's one flavor of Star Wars that we have to represent — which is the epic galactic struggle between the light and the dark between the Resistance and the First Order," WDI Executive Creative Director Asa Kalama said. "And we also knew that we wanted to be able to tell the sort of lighter side of Star Wars — which is the smugglers and the bounty hunters. That became the driving force that caused us to develop Rise of the Resistance. It's all about the high stakes, struggle and conflict, where the stakes are so high literally the fate of the galaxy is in the balance, and then to design the Millennium Falcon as the counterpoint to that — which was by design meant to be much more light-hearted, where the stakes are much smaller and, hopefully, people feel like they have permission to smash the ship, maybe bring it home on fire, and not feel like they've let down the fate of the entire galaxy."

When Imagineers decided that they wanted to create an experience that allowed guests to fly the Millennium Falcon, they quickly determined that would mean developing a motion base cockpit in front of a video-screen dome. But how do you scale that to accommodate thousands of guests per hour?

"We had to figure out, while maintaining the illusion of only one Millennium Falcon, how to get you and your five closest friends into a cockpit without seeing a guest or somebody else entering another cockpit next door," WDI Producer Jacqueline King said. "We had ideas of conveyor belts to move guests around, or the idea of actually having these different segments move around the building. Turns out that requires a very large building.

"Ultimately came down to somewhat of a circle configuration. We were going to have the cabins with their domes in a circle, but then we still had the question of how to get guests into those cabins. We looked at conveyor belts that would take you around to the outer rim [of the circle]. Ultimately, we landed on what we have today — having those cabins spin around on a turntable. Guests would load in at one door and ride the turntable all the way around for their experience, and then exit the cabin, never the wiser to the fact that there were guests getting on right next door to them," she said.

Initially, WDI considered designs where guests would walk up the ramp of the Falcon into the attraction, but it ultimately dismissed those due to operational and technical challenges of where to house those cabin theater turntables and get people to them.

"We were going to have lots of elevators bringing you up and down through the building, and it really wasn't something that we thought would hold up to the reliability that we would need," King said. "We had also looked at actually having you walk onto the Falcon still through the ramp and get to go through the chiclet hallways, but then you would have to exit the Millennium Falcon before getting to get into the cabin. From a creative perspective, the story just wasn't quite as cohesive as we wanted it."

"So we ended up here — this is the attraction as we know and love it today, with the Millennium Falcon up front, you get to see her as you walk up, but then you go through the attraction before actually entering one of two chess rooms within the building, and then taking those same hallways that you know and love from the interior of the ship, before going into the cockpit to take control."

As designers worked on the physical configuration of the attraction, they also had to create the media that would drive the experience inside the cockpit.

"Now, this was a unique challenge for us because this being an attraction where the guests are truly in control of their experience that meant that all of the media couldn't be pre-rendered," WDI Executive Creative Director Asa Kalama said. "All that actually had to be rendered in real time, which is a little bit challenging when juxtaposed against the expectation of near-cinematic quality and an incredibly high level of detail and resolution, both temporal resolution and spatial resolution."

"We built a projection system built around five projectors, all running at 50 frames per second with 3K resolution, Kalama said. "We had to work very closely with our graphics-card manufacturers to invent brand new drivers that would allow the eight graphics cards working in parallel to be able to transfer data back and forth fast enough. We worked very closely with Epic Games, maker of the Unreal Engine, to make a custom version of that piece of software that would allow us to do all of the amazing high-end things that would be required of our show. And then lastly, we also work very closely with Epic and ILM to create a special pipeline that would allow us to take some of the assets they used to create the films and bring those directly into our Unreal environment and play back in real time. This was an absolutely phenomenal feat of engineering, and we can't possibly thank the amazing team that worked on this nearly enough."

But designers initially did their jobs too well.

"One that really surprised us was the actual fidelity of the media that we presented to our guests greatly impacted their ability to be successful flying the Millennium Falcon," Kalama said. "The very first iteration of the content that we created actually had so much detail and so much richness, it was distracting, and it actually made it really difficult to participate, rather than enhancing the experience. And so that was something that was totally unexpected, but something that we were able, through that play-testing process, to discover early and then modify before opening day."

Kalama also revealed that the key plot point from the Smugglers Run ride resulted from a happy coincidence with the development of the Star Wars film, Solo.

"We actually started to create the sort of bones and structure of what we thought would be a really great adventure — sort of harkening back to the old Western tropes and themes that are iconic to Star Wars. We settled in on this notion of a train robbery very early in, and then coincidentally, when we went to the cinema and saw Solo, we came to discover that there's a train heist in that film, too. That sort of the MacGuffin thing that they're trying to get in that film is coaxium, and so there was this perfect sort of union of storytelling that was happening in the film with what we were trying to accomplish, and so that's how we arrived at what we what we have here today."

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Replies (7)

November 8, 2020 at 12:05 PM

I'm not really a huge Star Wars fan, but I know some. They would say that this statement, "Star Wars isn't really a story; it is a way of storytelling,", is a big PROBLEM. It's why some are so disappointed in the land, not the rides, the Galaxy's Edge. Because, see, Star Wars is undoubtedly a story, a story so long and detailed it requires multiple films to be told. That story has specific places that fans want to visit, and Disney did not build that. These folks don't want to visit a cantina, they want to visit THE cantina. Potter fans want the 3 Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, not The Wonky Wand in some location that wasn't in the story. Again, I'm fine with, and the detail, immersion and isolation is magnificent. But I'm not the target audience.

November 9, 2020 at 10:34 AM

Well said, Marc. I totally agree that that Star Wars land doesn't contain any actual Star Wars other than the spaceships. Well, it contains some fleeting references to the Disney Star Wars trilogy, but wow, they really drove that series and its characters into the dirt, so I could care less about seeing Kylo Ren and that screamy redheaded guy. (And let's not forget that both of them change sides in the last movie, so it's nonsensical to have them as the big heavies here.)

Don't forget, too, that Star Wars land was originally intended to be filled with cast members in character as Star Wars denizens. With that plan scrapped, the land feels weirdly empty, like a movie set where everyone is on break.

And, let's not pretend that Smuggler's Run isn't but another version of Star Tours, a guzzied up retread that I don't necessarily need to ride again.

Beautiful to look at, but not much to DO. And certainly nothing to do for the little kids--not a single kid ride??

November 9, 2020 at 10:47 AM

"Knowing that not everyone would perhaps get a chance to ride the two major attractions, we wanted everybody to get their Star Wars experience, and so creating an environment that promotes roleplay that draws you into the story and having the characters walk through the land and engage you and having the cast members who are residents of that land engage you, I think, embraced people and drew them in, even if they might have been reluctant Star Wars fans."

For me, this is the most problematic part about Galaxy's Edge. Disney wants to have its cake and eat it too, by promoting the land that supposedly engages role playing, but does give guests (or CMs) to actually do that. You cannot truly role play in Galaxy's Edge, and while the stories within the land can be explored in 1st person, you can't go that final step to fully immerse yourself in the Star Wars Universe. All of the tools are there, but Disney is unwilling to allow guests to take that final step. Paramount understood that it needed fans to fill in the story and character gaps they could not feasibly fill at Star Trek: The Experience, and what you ended up was a cursory cast of "regulars" that will pop into the attraction and fill a role and play out their own story for all to see. Disney refuses to let guests do that, and the result a land with oodles of potential that lacks the heart, soul, and realness of a truly immersive place/land. Perhaps the Halcyon will allow guests to fill those gaps (though it will only be in Florida's version, not California, even though there are probably more cosplayers with APs on the West Coast), but I worry that even that will have limits on what guests can do in terms of cosplaying and will still limit CMs.

November 9, 2020 at 11:28 AM

@thecolonel: Spot on regarding Smuggler's Run. Everyone out here acting like it's some great new attraction. I rode it for the first time right after Star Tours and all I could think was "I already did this..."

November 9, 2020 at 1:14 PM

I get the comparisons of MFSR to Star Tours, but come on, MFSR is like Star Tours on steroids (minus the limitations of 3-D that people seem to increasingly dislike). MFSR is what Star Tours should have always been. Instead of sitting in a giant gimble box as a passive observer, you actually get to press all the buttons R-3X (and now C-3PO) fiddled with and control your voyage through the Galaxy Far Far Away.

You can certainly call MFSR duplicative with Star Tours steps away in BOTH parks where it exists, but you have to agree that MFSR is a massive upgrade over the original Star Tours experience. Maybe it's the Star Wars geek in me, but I would ride MFSR a million times over a single spin on Star Tours if given the choice. I actually think, and have stated before, that MFSR is a far better attraction than RotR.

November 10, 2020 at 12:06 AM

@Russell: I agree that MFSR is better visually and technically. I also agree the overall ride experience on MSFR is better. Riding Star Tours before MSFR probably attributed to my confusion. That being said...I have never rode Star Tours and thought "Oh man if only I could push the buttons!"

Smuggler's Run solves a problem I was never asking. Therefore it is basically on the same level and NO WHERE NEAR ROTR!

November 10, 2020 at 1:58 PM

I really want to love Galaxy's Edge but. . .it just falls short for me. Mostly it's because we were promised so much more than was delivered.

The final result feels like I'm in a vast area in which something is about to happen. But nothing ever does. The Bounty Hunter doesn't contact you in the Cantina. The droids aren't walking all over the place. The Cast Members are already ditching a lot of the role play and special terminology as it was confusing people. Non-Arubesh Dasani water was recently sold at Docking Bay 9. The datapad game doesn't have any real consequences or effect on anything.

Yet the Imagineers are still using the sales pitch that you are in your own story. No, you really aren't. Because you can't make an effect on anything. Stories are about heroes making changes to themselves or the world (or the Universe). If, in the datapad, you gained points for your faction (Rebel/Smuggler/Empire) by completing quests and then one of the factions emerged triumphant at the end of the day then YES! Maybe the lights could change! Maybe a flag could go up. A war would've happened! And you would have participated!! But no. That doesn't happen. The promise seems as though it's there, in the datapad, but nothing really comes of it.

They continue to deceptively imply that MFSM is an open world game in which every frame must be redrawn based on users' decisions. But no, that just isn't true either. Every run on Smuggler's Run is on rails. It hits exactly the same beats. No matter what, you'll always encounter the same rocks, skid to a halt on that same platform, teeter, and then fall. You may hit a few things or fire a few guns, but you'll always end up back on Baatu. You don't really have any agency. Chewie will even take over flying for you if you are trying too hard to actually make a choice. Sure the ship can get damaged but it's still very much the same experience each time. I know that there is the ability to update the attraction with new missions in the future. Nevertheless, it doesn't live up to the implied descriptions given by Marketing.

Leading up to Galaxy's Edge there were so many articles about alien puppets, autonomous and piloted droids, actors, aliens, and every article always mentioned that bounty hunter in the cantina. Each of those things would've given us something to do and interact with in the land. Rise of the Resistance is truly amazing and really gives you that "you are there" feel. ROR is AMAZING. It would be wonderful if the rest of the land could feel as immersive and involving as that.

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