How a Darth Vader Meet and Greet Led to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance

October 7, 2021, 6:08 PM · Disney's initial plans for its Star Wars land included a meet and greet with Darth Vader inside a prison cell, from which guests would be rescued by Princess Leia. That was one of the many nuggets shared this morning during the final episode of the Themed Entertainment Association's Thea Award Digital Case Studies.

Today's episode featured Thea Award winners Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios, with creators from Walt Disney Imagineering sharing details about the development of the attraction. Executive Producer Jon Georges started at the beginning, when Imagineers had some very different ideas about what their Star Wars land would be.

"All of the attraction ideas, and the land itself, had one thing in common," he said. "They were all based on events from episodes one through six. At the end of our blue sky phase, we presented our ideas to Bob Iger. It was at that meeting we were told not to look back at old Star Wars movies, but to the next episode of the Skywalker saga, being directed by JJ Abrams. Since the script wasn't complete yet, our teams took a break while the new one was ready. Six months later, we reformed our team under Scott Trowbridge to develop a single design for both coasts."

"We knew that we wanted to not just create a place that was about remembering the past of Star Wars, but a place where you could live your Star Wars story - you can live your present and even the future of Star Wars as the new stories, characters and worlds who we're going to explore became shared with the public," Trowbridge said.

Creative Director John Larena detailed some of those older plans and how they influenced what Disney's guests see today in Rise of the Resistance and elsewhere in the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land.

"Many of the seeds for Rise of the Resistance were planted in the initial effort," he said. "For example, we developed an exciting idea for a Darth Vader meet and greet. To keep our guests' encounter with Vader in story, we'd have you detained by stormtroopers and then taken on to the Death Star. There you would be taken into a prison cell just like Princess Leia was, and your photos of Vader would actually be part of his interrogation of whether or not you were rebel spy. When you left the cell, Princess Leia would then break you out, giving our guests a surprise second meet and greet before exiting the attraction.

"While the idea was discarded for complexity and throughput challenges, it was the kernel of an idea that is the basis for the second act of Rise of Resistance [the interrogation room with Kylo Ren]. Other ideas included an escape pod ride or possibly a Death Star hallway chase ride. And while none of these ideas progress past conversations or a rough animatic, they all gestated in our minds until one conversation over coffee in 2014. The idea was simple - as rebels, your ship gets tractor-beamed on to a Star Destroyer, and you'll have to break out of your detention cell can commandeer a trackless vehicle piloted by an onboard droid and then eject off that Star Destroyer on an escape pod."

[You can hear more from Larena in my interview with him at the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance opening at Walt Disney World in 2019.]

With the concept in place, then Imagineers faced the challenge of bringing that concept to life.

"The number one goal with Rise of the Resistance was to take storytelling to a level with zero suspension of disbelief - to make an experience that was indistinguishable from reality," Principal Production Designer Ric Turner said. "Like the scene where guests are stepping off the captured transport ship and need to feel like they're now in space. We created this space window with hyper-rich blacks and super-smooth motion, using Disney's patented moving mirror system. [Follow the link to read the patent.]

Star Destroyer
Photo courtesy Disney

"In a traditional projection, motion is simulated with a series of still images with objects in slightly different positions in each frame. The moving mirror system looks like it's really moving. The images are razor sharp, and it looks like it's really moving because it really is moving. And that sense of reality helps our guests feel like they really are rebels that have now been captured by the First Order on a Star Destroyer in space."

Imagineers also helped sell the illusion of Rise's other "space windows" by distorting the media on those screens as guests moved past in their ride vehicles, resulting in a perfect view of a raging space battle.

"Show programming is the stage manager of the show," Benjamin 'Frodo' Froman said. "We take all of the different pieces, audio, video, lighting, special effects, Audio Animatronics, big pieces of show action equipment, and we make sure they all run together, because we need to make sure that the show is seamless, no matter what happens with all of the different permutations of what can happen on this attraction. This attraction has 162 different paths, and every single one of them needs to be built and put together so that it is a seamless show every single time."

It's cliche that something goes wrong on a theme park attraction, but Imagineers also had to plan for what the ride would do when something actually went wrong on it, as inevitably happens.

"Anytime we have a backup at unload or load, we wanted to be able to keep them immersed as we had a backup through the rest of the attraction," Show Programmer April Warren said. "We've got many branching paths to accomplish that. We've got over an hour's worth of droid animation. We've got over two hours' worth of ride animation just on our free-range vehicles, so that when we cascade and stop in locations that we don't usually stop in the attraction, the story continues. Our droid continues to talk to us, and the story is still unfolding around us at all times."

Enjoy the award-winning results with our video of Disneyland's full Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

Other Thea Award winners honored today were the Chailey Heritage Foundation Dream Centre and the entrance experience at St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station. While the Thea Awards Digital Case Studies have concluded they remain available to watch on demand through the end of the month. Here is the link to register, via the TEA's website.

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Replies (17)

October 7, 2021 at 9:56 PM

This article needs a SPOILER warning at the top for those of us who haven't experienced RotR yet.

October 7, 2021 at 11:02 PM

“Sharing details about the development of the attraction” isn’t enough?

October 8, 2021 at 7:06 AM

I understand why Disney wanted to "look to the future" of the franchise when developing Galaxy's Edge. And, when The Force Awakens was such a success in theatres, and a general hit with audiences, I can see why they would go all-in, thinking they were at the beginning of another culture defining trilogy of Star Wars movies.

Then they kinda blew it with the next two movies. I'm not a super-nerd hater, but they really were poorly executed in regards to story and character development.

Now, they have an extensively themed land set in the least popular time period of the franchise, with the least satisfying characters, that lets people walk around wishing they could see Darth Vader.

Not sure if they will be able to fix that anytime soon, but I wonder if there's any discussions in back rooms of Imageneering, on that specific topic.

October 8, 2021 at 9:21 AM

"It was at that meeting we were told not to look back at old Star Wars movies, but to the next episode of the Skywalker saga...." I felt a pang in my stomach when I read those words.

October 8, 2021 at 9:27 AM

I can't believe the expertise and creativity of WDI was overruled by Bob Iger.

October 8, 2021 at 11:17 AM

20+ years ago when the prequel trilogy was introduced, many fans who grew up with the original trilogy hated it, but the kids who we’re first introduced to Star Wars at that time loved it. Now those kids are grown up and hating the new trilogy. 20 years from now today’s kids will hate whatever new Star Wars content us released and swear the most recent trilogy was the best. Placing the new trilogy in GE is best for the land in the future even if Disney will not be able to make everybody happy.

I could hear OT fans moaning as they read this article what could have been had Galaxy’s Edge been based on the OT. The same group would have complained that some character’s voice would not have sounded correct (like Hermione’s voice over at Universal’s Hogwart’s Express) or a character’s de-aging didn’t look right (like a certain character in the Mandalorian season 2 finale).

Meanwhile, despite all these perceived shortcomings, GE is still considered one of the most immersive lands in the theme park industry.

October 8, 2021 at 12:42 PM

"We were all set to make the Star Wars ride that everyone wanted, but then Bob Iger told us the ride had to promote Disney's new Star Wars movies. That was a bummer, but then after we read the script for the Force Awakens, we got excited again. Unfortunately, the two movies after the Force Awakens completely crapped all over the characters we decided to use, and so now we're left with a ride where the two primary bad guys are actually good guys, according to the movies."

I mean, the problem is not original movies versus new movies, it's coherent storytelling versus the jumbled, unplanned mess of a "story" in the new trilogy. You notice on RoR they have to keep saying over and over "uh-oh, here come FIRST ORDER tie-fighters" and "are those FIRST ORDER star destroyers," because otherwise everyone would assume they are from the Empire, because that's what people remember. Honestly, I can't even remember what happens in the Last Skywalker, it sucked so hard.

Bottom line: Disney chose to tie GE to a trilogy of unplanned and ultimately crappy movies. It would be as if the Indiana Jones ride included aliens with crystal skulls. It's a monument not to the classic movies we love, but to movies that most everyone (including my younger kids) revile. Huge swing and a miss, and now they're left with a giant dead zone that is already looking tired.

We all know Disney will never spend a penny if they don't have to, but if they'd simply send out 2-3 OT characters every hour to walk through the land--if you can sometimes see Chewbacca, Boba Fett and, like, a guard from Jabba's palace--it would shut most of this griping up. Just populate the land with characters like the original plan!!!

October 8, 2021 at 1:27 PM

I call b.s. on most of the complaints above. First of all, beyond a noisy minority, the new trilogy is not reviled; the average audience score for all three, on Rotten Tomatoes, is 71%, and all three garnered big box office. The conclusion of the trilogy got 86%. I think most would agree that the climax of a long story is the most important part.

Second, GE is a big draw on both coasts, and Rise of the Resistance is a bases-loaded home run, the most popular ride since FOP. Do you really think the average WDW visitor gives a hang which trilogy GE is based on? The average guest is not some Star Wars purist uber fan, wondering why we get to see First Order Storm Troopers instead of empire Troopers. Guests are dazzled by the visuals of the new land, take pics in front of the Millenium Falcon, and can't wait to do the two rides.

I will agree that the new land isn't perfect, and more walk around characters would help. What I read was that they decided not to do that because the characters would get mobbed every time they came out. I will also grant that GE on the whole is not as overwhelmingly popular as people anticipated. Would it be even more popular if it was based on the first six movies? Maybe, but that's speculative -- for one thing, the younger generation is more acquainted with more recent movies. It also depends on the execution. For example, the original concept of that Darth Vader meet and greet, in which you get rescued by Princess Leia, sounds pretty lame compared to ROTR.

P.S.: thecolonol, don't invent phony quotes. I don't think Imagineers appreciate having you put words in their mouths.

October 8, 2021 at 1:27 PM

Disney seems to have done a pretty good job of setting this in the new trilogy but keeping it pretty classic. The Millenium Falcon is there. RotR has Star Destroyers, Storm Troopers, and that classic docking bay appearance. Aside from a couple of animatronics, the occasional roaming character, and some minor lines of dialogue in the rides what is there to make this explicitly new trilogy?

October 8, 2021 at 1:45 PM

100% agreed, TwoBits and Still a Fan. For all the ballyhooing from Star Wars fans over what Disney should have done, Galaxy’s Edge as-is still pulls people in. Somewhere out there, people must have still liked the new movies enough to keep coming two years later.

Personally, I probably would have preferred it if the land wasn’t limited to any of the timelines like Star Tours, but what Disney did evidently works.

October 8, 2021 at 2:45 PM

And I also agree with StillAFan. With exception to a small loud and obnoxious minority, the new trilogy was a hit with each movie topping $1 billion in worldwide box office receipts.

And speaking of which, The Colonel wrote: "...we're left with a ride where the two primary bad guys are actually good guys, according to the movies."

Just in case you do not know, Colonel, but (spoiler alert) the big bad guy Darth Vader in the original trilogy turns into a good guy at the end. So what you sarcastically state is a problem now at GE would still be a problem had it been set in the OT timeline.

October 8, 2021 at 3:34 PM

I was reading this article with Joe Rhode where his nasty earlobe said, and I quote, "It was a huge mistake to effectively ignore the original trilogy in something that was supposed to be Star Wars land. Almost as dumb as using screens where an animatronic would have been far more realistic and interesting."

Joe's earlobe went on to say, and again, I'm quoting here, "Fricken Minions made over a billion at the box office, so box office returns say a lot more about marketing and ticket prices than the merits of any movie."

October 9, 2021 at 11:29 AM

This very site has had two great lines that sum it all up:

"What is "true" Star Wars to one fan is not to another."

"No one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans."

I've been a fan since the first movie in 1977 when I was two and even I think some take it way too far. TwoBits nails it, 20 years ago, fans ravaged the prequels and wanted Lucas gone....and now it's "the prequels were misunderstood, Lucas should have been allowed to keep up his vision."

And I can guarantee you, had they gone for the OT, what would the reaction have been? "Disney just played it too safe doing the older movies, they had a real opportunity to flex with something fresher and didn't take it."

Nothing...nothing...will every satisfy many Star Wars fans, they can be a truly fickle and demanding bunch and I speak as one so no matter how GE went, you'd have some folks complaining "it's not what I wanted so it sucks."

October 9, 2021 at 6:34 PM

i really like that they set galaxy's edge in a (relatively) neutral space, allowing to give ~star wars vibes~ without harkening back to a specific movie or a specific trilogy, rather taking bits and pieces from things as the individual attractions demands. the necessity (i guess) to set it in a specific time is (i imagine) kind of a bummer, but, idk, i'm not losing any sleep over it. i also like all the movies and, uh, don't take this that seriously.

i also have worked a lot of jobs, sometimes creative ones, where i've presented what i thought were good ideas to a boss who has said, "let's try doing this instead," and had to suck it up and do "this instead." you know, like a grown up. the world keeps spinning.

October 10, 2021 at 10:40 AM

Art is suppoused to be subjective rigth?? I grew up with Star wars, love those movies to pieces. The prequels i like, not as much. I did like the final trilogy, i like the characters, and when the credits came up I had a huge grin in My face. I liked them a Lot. The problem with this versión of Star wars is competition. The Minions, the Avengers, Harry Potter, the fast and the furious, Transformers, Godzilla, etc, etc. Is dificult to stand out. And our perspectives changes growing up. I used to love the Dukes of Hazzard as a kid. I watched it an episode on cable a couple of years ago and men did I regret that. It was tv for Another time, And thats all. And all crítics can show us their " billion dollars flop" so we can have a reference. The ride is great so we can enjoy it. Thats what matters and its very interesting that it started out as an elaborated meet and greet.

October 12, 2021 at 9:00 AM

I consider myself to be a Star Wars fan, going all the way back to the original trilogy. Honestly, I liked GE, and so did my “Oh good grief, my Dad is such a nerd” family. It’s immersive with a lot of detail, and I’d put it on a par with Potterland at Uni and Pandora at DAK. I’m sorry that Disney didn’t create a land that met the expectations of the hard-core Star Wars fanboys and it’s tied to a set of movies that they decided wasn’t up to their standards, but the casual fans - who will spend most of the money at GE - won’t care about that.

That said, be careful what you wish for. I could totally see Chapek green-lighting a “re-Imagineering” of GE where Kylo Ren and Darth Vader are walking together for photo ops and Smugglers Run becomes Star Tours in a smaller ride vehicle.

October 13, 2021 at 12:17 AM

I'll admit I enjoyed Toy Story Land just as much, but my family was there before ROTR opened (October 2019).

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