Immersion – it’s a term theme park, resort, and attraction designers have used for decades to describe how guests, riders, and participants experience themed creations. Virtually every themed attraction on the planet has some level of guest immersion to take them to another place, time, or story.
For some attractions, guests experience attractions from a third-person perspective as they watch stories or action play out in front of them. For most classic dark rides, guests are immersed in stories from a third-person perspective, watching a set of scenes and/or a full story play out in front of their eyes. These attractions and themed areas create atmospheres and stories where the guest experience is like reading a book or watching a movie and guests have little control over how the experience unfolds or what part(s) of the attraction they can see. For other attractions, guests are part of the action as participants, volunteers, or are written into the story of an attraction while they experience events, scenes, and stories from a first-person perspective. Guests are literally in the action, and are characters in the story, but in most cases guests’ ability to change the story or alter the character they play in the story is limited. In many first-person attractions, guests are asked to complete a simple task or board a ride vehicle to engage with the story – think boarding a stretch limo to see an Aerosmith concert or becoming an M.I.B. agent to save the planet from an alien invasion. However, even in these first-person attractions, the guests’ ability to change or drive the action occurring around them is not very expansive, and the experience is over in a matter of minutes. Even an epic attraction like Rise of the Resistance, where the story unfolds over the course of just 20 minutes, while guests can expand upon the ride’s story further in the surrounding land of Galaxy’s Edge, the level of immersion can only go so far even if you choose to further engage in all the aspects of Batuu.
However, for guests looking to take immersion to a level far beyond what can be experienced anywhere in the world, Disney has created the Galactic Starcruiser. I was invited to represent Theme Park Insider and experience this groundbreaking and ambitious new project firsthand, and while my stay was complimentary, the opinions presented here and within future articles regarding the Galactic Starcruiser are my own.
The Galactic Starcruiser, often referred to as the “Star Wars Hotel”, is Walt Disney World’s newest resort, and will be opening to the public beginning on March 1, 2022. However, guests do not book and stay at the Galactic Starcruiser like a normal hotel, nor should guests approach this experience as if it were just a fancy themed resort like Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, or Universal Orlando’s Portofino Bay. The experience and expectations from guests should be more like a cruise ship, and when guests book a stay on the Galactic Starcruiser, they are reserving a cabin on a three-day, two-night adventure. You cannot make a booking for a one-night stay, nor can you book a one-week stay on the Galactic Starcruiser. The reason for this is not just to maintain the cruise-style atmosphere that forms the backbone of the Galactic Starcruiser experience, but also because the entire stay is part of an overarching story that plays out and envelops not just you, but all the Starcruiser’s guests in real time over the course of 48 hours.
When guests arrive at the entrance to the Starcruiser, they will see a grey cast-concrete structure that is designed to look like a bunker.
Its angular and stark forms are deliberate to bring weight and intrigue to the façade as guests prepare for their voyage. The exterior is merely a portal to the adventure, but it also provides a sense of place within the Star Wars universe and harkens back to other bunkers and land-based ports that have been seen elsewhere within the IP’s canon. This ground-based port is for the Chandrilla Star Lines, and acts very much like a standard sea-based cruise port.
Whether you arrive by bus, taxi, or car (valet parking is included if you bring your own car or a rental car), Cast Members will gather any luggage or other items you would like to have delivered directly to your room before you enter. As part of the media voyage, we were given Datapad devices (which were iPhones with minimal apps installed) to link with the Play Disney Parks app, which has exclusive functionality for guests of the Starcruiser. You can access the same functions through the Play Disney Parks app on your personal device, but media were asked to use the loaned devices. I will go through how the app integrates into the overall experience in a later article.
Because the Galactic Starcruiser provides a direct connection to Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park, guests are required to pass through a security checkpoint prior to boarding, like what you would experience at the front gate. Guests are then whisked through a long corridor to the Launch Pod area where you are shown a brief safety video before boarding.
Since this is a unique and unusual resort, there are some interesting things to note about your time on the Starcruiser if there is a real emergency. It’s critical for guests to understand the difference between an emergency within the immersive experience and stories, and when there’s an emergency that actually threatens the safety of guests. The safety briefing shows guests examples of alarms they may hear and to recognize the difference between a story-driven emergency versus a real-life emergency. Also, guests are shown how to evacuate from their cabin, which I found incredibly interesting since cabins have no actual windows or balconies to the outside world.
After the safety video, guests enter a Launch Pod for their voyage up to the Galactic Starcruiser known as the Halcyon.
This experience is a very highly themed elevator ride with some windows near the ceiling to provide the views of a flight up into space to dock with the Halcyon. While I haven’t personally visited Space 220, the Launch Pod experience seems very similar to the EPCOT restaurant’s Space Elevator, though the windows on the Launch Pod are smaller and more limited than what you see on the Space 220 experience.
Once you’ve docked with the Halcyon, guests enter the Atrium of the Galactic Starcruiser.
This area is the main hub for all activity on the ship. When you arrive in the Atrium, a Crew Member will give you a brief tour of the space and take you up to your cabin where your luggage is magically waiting. Cabins are located across three decks (Decks 4, 5, and 7) along the back wing of the structure with two decks of public space occupying the front wing of the structure (Decks 4 and 6). A pair of elevators services all floors with doors on both ends that either open to the cabins or the public spaces. In addition, there is a wrap-around stairway that links all floors, which is what we frequently used to get from place to place, though boarding an elevator might be important during certain parts of your experience on the Starcruiser.
Cabins are modestly sized, but efficiently utilize the available space. I’ll talk more about the specifics of the cabin in a future piece but given the limited amount of time you are likely to spend in the space, they are more than adequate. However, given their proximity to all the action occurring on the Halcyon, it’s very easy to take a quick walk to your room if you need to change clothes, freshen up, or take a quick nap, though I’d advise against napping if you don’t want to miss out on important aspects of your journey.
Once guests are settled into their cabins, a buffet-style lunch is served from 1 to 4 PM in the Crown of Corellia Dining Room.
For me, the food aboard the Halcyon was one of the many highlights of the experience, so I recommend arriving at the Galactic Starcruiser during the first half of the 1 to 4 PM boarding window. Like any standard cruise, you can’t arrive after the boarding window, because the ship has “left port”, nor can you arrive before the window. Again, guests should not treat this experience like a hotel, and while the Galactic Starcruiser building never actually leaves WDW property, showing up late would significantly impact your experience, particularly given its cost.
During the arrival window, Crew Members of the Halcyon can give you a tour of the ship as well as an orientation on how to use the Datapad. If you’ve never used the Datapad in Galaxy’s Edge, I highly recommend taking the time to learn the nuts and bolts of the system either before arriving (guests with confirmed reservations can access certain functionalities within the Datapad including itinerary and Deck Plans before they arrive) or through an onboard orientation. The ship’s tour is also important to know the lay of the land and where important parts of the ship are located. The Halcyon crew members are extremely helpful, and have unique insights into the overall experience, so don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Crew members were constantly providing recommendations and guiding us to critical locations throughout our time on board, and following their lead is almost certainly going to enrich your experience.
Once all guests have boarded, there is a Ship’s Muster in the Atrium, just like on a standard sea-faring cruise. This event becomes the jump-off point for all of the stories that play out on board the Galactic Starcruiser. Guests are introduced to many of the characters that are with them on board as well as the anticipated plans over the next 2 nights. I will refrain from spoiling any of the specific storylines and characters here, but this is where the Galactic Starcruiser blurs the lines between resort hotel, cruise, video game, role playing adventure, dinner theater, and escape room. You are no longer just hanging out in an all-inclusive resort with access to Galaxy’s Edge, you are in a living, breathing Star Wars story that evolves and changes depending on the decisions that you make and what paths you choose to follow.
Following the Ship’s Muster, guests either proceed to the early dinner seating at 5:30 PM or are given activities in their Datapad itinerary before their late dinner seating at 8 PM. When guests book their Galactic Starcruiser experience, they make the choice of either the early or late seating for both dinners on board, so it’s important that this decision is appropriate for your entire party. Whether you choose early or late dining, there are activities on board the ship throughout the evenings, and various items will populate your Datapad itinerary as your story unfolds. At the end of each evening, guests should make their way to the Atrium for critical story elements that will connect characters, interweave story elements, and reveal plot points pertinent to all guests on board the Halcyon. As you might expect, the end of Day 1 involves something going wrong, while the end of Day 2 brings all of the events of the voyage to an epic conclusion. To keep this overview relatively spoiler free, I’ll refrain from giving away any specific story points here.
On Day 2 of the voyage, guests are given a departure time to visit Batuu (Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios) within their Datapad itinerary. Guests board their Transport Shuttle to Batuu on Deck 4 of the Halcyon, which is similar to an airport jetway.
A Transport Shuttle then takes you to Docking Bay 9 on Batuu (between the First Order encampment and Oga’s Cantina),
and while this particular mode of transportation has taken a bit of a critical beating since it was discovered a few weeks ago, it does the job. Personally, I would have preferred the Transport Shuttle to have some “windows” and other story elements like the Launch Pod, but I can also see why this method was chosen.
The trip between the Halcyon and Batuu only takes a few minutes, and the theming of the experience is still seamless, but I think there was a bit of a missed opportunity here for something more akin to an airport tram or automated train system.
As part of your reservation aboard the Galactic Starcruiser, guests are given 1-day DHS-only admission with Park Pass reservations along with Lightning Lane passes for both Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run. When you land on Batuu, Crew Members remind guests that Shuttles depart for the Halcyon continuously until 4 PM, when the last Transport Shuttle departs (don’t be late!).
The expectation is that most guests will stay immersed within Star Wars while in DHS, but there is nothing preventing you from exploring other parts of the park- however, you’re not allowed to hop to another park. In fact, since we had just missed the opening of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway on our last trip to WDW in January 2020, we made a beeline to the attraction after landing on Batuu since we arrived in the park during the Early Entry period for on-site resort guests. For us, it was probably for the best choice, since Rise of the Resistance was not running during the first few hours of the day. As part of your Starcruiser Reservation, guests can get reservations at Oga’s Cantina since a potential story point may unfold in the establishment. Unfortunately, you don’t have much control of the reservation time, so if you want to go at a specific time, you may have to change it manually if the time given doesn’t fit into your schedule. In our case, we were given a reservation at 12:30 PM, which did not allow for enough time to return to the Halcyon for the Mini Droid Races at 1 PM, so we ended up finding a reservation for 9:25 AM at the last minute and adjusted our schedule so we could leave Batuu a little earlier. I assume the same issues could occur with reservations for Savi’s and Droid Depot, so just be prepared to prioritize what you want to do in Galaxy’s Edge against what’s happening on the Halcyon as there are events on the ship throughout the day. Reservations for these additional activities can be made 60 days prior to arrival, and the Starcruiser reservations line has access to appointments for Savi’s, Droid Depot, and Oga’s that you may not be able to reserve for yourself.
As noted, Galactic Starcruiser guests receive Lightning Lane access to both Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, so guests should plan time to experience those attractions. Additionally, each guest receives a dining credit for any quick service restaurant at DHS, so that’s another thing you should plan for while in the park. On top of all that, there are missions and activities guests can complete with the Datapad while in Galaxy’s Edge that are exclusive to Halcyon passengers. Your ”shore excursion” to Batuu could end up being a very busy day, especially if you plan to explore the park beyond Galaxy’s Edge or want to do all of the reserved experiences (Savi’s, Droid Depot, and Oga’s). It’s also difficult to weigh the offerings on Batuu against the activities on the Halcyon, and I could see some guests choosing not to leave the Starcruiser while others will want to spend every available moment in DHS. As with every other part of this experience, the choice is yours, and those choices will impact the way the stories unfold for you as part of the overall experience.
When everyone is back aboard the ship, there are numerous activities that will populate into your itinerary, many of them based upon decisions made on Batuu or on the ship earlier in the voyage. These activities may include meetings with or missions for characters around the ship, individual story vignettes with characters, bridge operations, and lightsaber training (some guests may complete these on Day 1). Combined with the evening’s dinner service, all of these events ultimately lead to a dramatic conclusion in the Atrium. The pacing and intensity of the events and stories crescendo throughout the evening culminating with what I can only describe as one of the most epic and theatrically intimate stunt shows I’ve ever witnessed. Again, I’ll keep the details vague here so as to not spoil anyone, but I will provide all of the particulars in a future article.
After Day 2’s epic conclusion, guests can wind down in the Sublight Lounge or enjoy a dessert party in the Crown of Corellia Dining Room. Just like a sea-faring cruise, guests are provided a disembarkation time in their Datapad itinerary and can have buffet breakfast in the dining room or a quick grab-and-go breakfast from the Sublight Lounge before taking a Launch Pod back to the terminal. If viewed as a singular attraction, the Galactic Starcruiser is the longest and most ambitious experience Disney has ever attempted at just under 44 hours. It’s incredibly difficult to articulate the complexity and level of immersion on board and to describe the whirlwind that drags you into an experience that is like more living in a movie then hanging out in a resort or on a cruise ship. The undertaking to pull off something at this scale is simply monumental, and guests who get wrapped up into the stories will quickly recognize the effort involved to make this experience so seamless.
Of course, nothing is ever perfect, especially when you’re dealing with fanbases with such demanding expectations like Disney and Star Wars fans. Early impressions of the experience have been trending negative even though not a single critique has come from a person that has actually had the full Galactic Starcruiser experience. While some of those negative opinions have some validity, they are not properly contextualized. Obviously, the biggest criticism of this experience is its price. Six thousand dollars for a family of four for a three-day, two-night experience is A LOT of money. I do think Disney is reaching a little bit with this price point, but it’s not obscene considering what it is probably costing for Disney to offer an experience like this at this scale. However, as I mentioned in an earlier article, I think the price point is also designed to ensure commitment from the guests. While Disney is trying to cast a wide net with its marketing and publicity for this experience, I think it is decidedly aimed at those who are dedicated Star Wars or general role-playing fans. Even though Disney gives guests the option to follow whatever path they want while on the Galactic Starcruiser, I think taking a passive approach to this experience would be the incorrect path given the cost. Guests do receive some pretty exclusive perks as part of this experience, but those tangible items (food, tickets, lodging, and entertainment) fall well short of the current price point. That differential ultimately is the value you bring to the experience through your participation in the stories and camaraderie with fellow guests. There are some other minor issues I noticed along the way, but I will leave them for future articles since they involve some details that may be considered spoilers. However, I do expect some of those issues to be eventually resolved as the cast and crew gain more experience and guests have a better understanding of how the Galactic Starcruiser works.
The most interesting thing about this experience is that it is absolutely repeatable, especially if Disney chooses to allow the experience to evolve over time. This experience is so unique and draws upon so many different aspects of entertainment that it’s impossibly difficult to describe or even replicate. It’s Adventurer’s Club crossed with an escape room on a cruise ship with a touch of Star Trek: The Experience all wrapped in a theme park inside the Star Wars universe. The technology, skill, coordination, planning, choreography, talent, and design all work harmoniously to deliver an experience unlike anything else on the planet. When we woke up on the morning of Day 3, we were flat out exhausted, as if we had hopped to all four WDW theme parks in a single day (which my wife and I have done, BTW), but it was a satisfying, triumphant kind of exhaustion. This feeling, along with the hope that this experience makes a similar connection with the right audience, that can ensure the success of this one-of-a-kind attraction.
More Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Coverage:
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