Two years ago Disney announced that it was planning on adding massive Star Wars-themed expansions to its parks in California and Florida, and today at Star Wars Celebration it revealed some new details — including a behind-the-scenes look at the design and construction of the parks.
The panel itself kicked off with a brief bit of news: that Disney’s Star Tours attraction was going to be receiving a Last Jedi-themed update later this year. The new addition will give visitors the chance to visit the mineral world of Crait, with Anthony Daniels getting ready to record new material for the sequence in the months ahead. (In case the name Crait doesn’t sound familiar, it’s the strange new planet featured in the Last Jedi trailer — the one where ships scraping its surface leave behind billowing red trails.)
However, discussion quickly turned to the new Star Wars expansion lands. From the very beginning these have been described not as your usual theme parks, but as immersive experiences — ones that will allow audiences to step inside the world of Star Wars and become a character in their own right. While some of the points hit upon in the panel were discussed in the video above, many weren’t, so I’ve put together a quick list to keep you updated on what Walt Disney Imagineering creative executive Scott Trowbridge called “the most epic attraction that we’ve ever undertaken.”
It’s a world we’ve never seen
Trowbridge stated that the problem with building a land around a well-known planet like Tatooine or Hoth is that audiences already know the stories set on those worlds, and associate them with certain characters. “We wanted to build new Star Wars stories, new Star Wars destinations,” he said, “but this time you can be in the story.”
To accomplish that goal, Imagineering and the Lucasfilm Story Group created a new planet from the ground up. While no details were given with regard to names or particular characters, the world was described as a “remote frontier outpost” where people that often want to stay off the grid can go to hang out. That makes it home not just to traditional good guys and bad guys, but smugglers and bounty hunters, as well.
Lucasfilm creative executive Pablo Hidalgo cautioned that the world has existed in this universe for thousands of years, however, and just because audiences don’t know it, that doesn’t mean characters we’re familiar with haven’t visited it before. It wasn’t clear if that meant the world would be popping up in new movies, or if the Star Wars-themed lands will feature cameo appearances from familiar characters, but it did seem to indicate that the world will be part of the franchise’s official canon.
It’s set in the era of the new trilogy
With so many eras to choose from, the Star Wars lands could theoretically be set anywhere, at anytime. However, the panelists made it clear that the land would be set in what can be considered the “modern day” of the Star Wars franchise: the current trilogy, where the Resistance and the First Order are battling it out across the galaxy.
The original Star Wars concept art was the inspiration
Given that the Star Wars lands won’t simply be recreating something that was already seen on-screen, the new world needed to really adopt the style and feel of the universe’s general aesthetics. That meant going back to the original concept drawings by artist Ralph McQuarrie, with the Imagineering team visiting the Lucasfilm archives to dig as far back as possible in order to really take in the design DNA of the series.
Guests don’t ride the Falcon, they fly it
When word first broke that Star Wars Land would feature a Millennium Falcon ride, the first thing that came to mind was Star Tours itself: an attraction where audiences sit passively and are taken on a journey. Trowbridge made it very clear that this was not the kind of experience that the team was currently working on.
Instead, the new ride will allows visitors — along with a “flight crew” of friends — to actually pilot the Falcon itself. Whether that ride ends up being bumpy or Han Solo-smooth will depend on the choices of the team flying the ship. And while the odds are the ship will always make it to its destination, the condition it arrives in is another matter. It could show up without a scratch, or it could arrive beat to hell. Either way: it’s up to the pilot and the flight crew and what they decide to do.
Your decisions have consequences
While the Falcon ride as described would be fun unto itself, Trowbridge and Imagineering executive creative director Asa Kalama stressed that that was just the beginning of a much more in-depth kind of interaction. If visitors bring the Falcon back all beat up, that might anger another character in the world — one that might decide to say something when they next see the pilot. “An experience might begin on board the Millennium Falcon, and follow you right out the door of the attraction and into a local watering hole,” Kalama said. “So it really is up to you to determine how you want this thing to play out.”
Hidalgo put it even more simply: “You can essentially build a reputation in the Star Wars universe.”
Visitors can join a faction
Given the nature of the world, there will be plenty of opportunities for people to interact, taking that idea of decisions and consequences even further. Some visitors may opt to take a side job with some smugglers and have their own side mission. Others might decide to join the Resistance, while still others may decide to pledge their allegiance to the First Order.
Mapping interactive, narrative storytelling tracks onto a real-world location is perhaps the most exciting thing about Disney’s plans. It essentially amounts to taking the kinds of interactive, real-world interactions we currently see in immersive theater or haunted houses, mixing them with the Star Wars mythology, and letting the whole thing play out in a massive, all-encompassing sandbox built for that express purpose from the ground up.
Guests will become part of the action
Rather than watching an action show happen off in the distance, guests will witness them up close and personal. A stunt workshop was shown during the panel, in which a woman fought off several would-be Stormtroopers in a sequence that felt pulled right from Rogue One. “You’re going to feel like you’re in the thick of it,” said Imagineering creative director Wendy Anderson. “You’re not going to be sitting in a chair watching it.”
That concept, paired with the idea of joining factions and actively taking sides, obviously leads to the question of whether a giant Star Wars-style action face-off will occur during a visit. According to Trowbridge, that’s exactly what the team is planning: a dynamic that puts visitors “in the middle of an epic battle between the First Order and the Resistance.”
And even though it received only a brief mention: yes, there will be lightsabers.
The goal is “total immersion”
Given the focus on in-world interactions and experiences, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the entire world is being designed so that every detail helps visitors suspend their disbelief and feel like they’ve truly joined this fictional universe. Everything from the characters that visitors will meet, to the sights, sounds, and smells they’ll encounter, have been thought through so they fully represent this world.
Doug Chiang, the head of Lucasfilm’s art department, described the challenge of creating something that was infinitely more complex than the work he would normally tackle on a movie. For a film, he said, you often design a location or build a set for one scene, set at a particular time of day, and things only need to look believable though the lens of the camera. With this new project, everything needs to look and feel believable no matter where the visitor goes. “It’s a 14-acre movie set that’s real.”
In the behind-the-scenes video screened during the panel, Last Jedi director Rian Johnson laid it out: “You walk in there, and everything from being in the environment, to having random characters that you actually interact with… everything about it is just about total immersion.”