A Galaxy Not So Far Away
In a climactic moment of the 2015 release, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Han Solo says to his hirsute comrade in arms, “Chewie, we’re home.” With Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland in California and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, fans now have places to call home.
The Star Wars saga has been unfolding for 42 years. It is such an integral part of our collective consciousness, we feel a kinship with its characters and are naturally and eagerly drawn into their adventures.
Walking through the passageways and into Disney’s expansive 14-acre lands, visitors are instantly transported to the legendary galaxy far, far away. The reveal of the towering rockwork, looming spires, otherworldly landscape, and sheer scale is overwhelming. The domed buildings, booping droids, whispers of John Williams’ new score composed just for the land, and other unmistakable Star Wars elements establish that we’re home amid our intergalactic friends. (Or, in the case of the armed stormtroopers milling about, our sworn enemies.)
Disney’s Imagineers and their creative partners at Lucasfilm have done a masterful job bringing the cinematic “Star Wars” world to three-dimensional life. However, the specific planet to which guests are transported, Batuu, has not previously been depicted in any of the series’ films.
“We know those places,” says Scott Trowbridge, portfolio creative executive with Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), explaining why he and his collaborators decided not to revisit Endor, Coruscant, or any recognizable “Star Wars” locale when planning Galaxy’s Edge. “We know the stories that happened there, and we are not in them. [Batuu] is purpose-built so that you can live your own Star Wars story.”
Starting with a blank canvas not only gave the lands’ creators the ability to develop a place that begs to be discovered and explored, it also gave them the freedom to think outside the multiplex and conjure things never seen in the movies (while making sure that everything conformed to the “Star Wars” oeuvre and conceivably could be in the movies). A never-before-seen planet also levels the playfield between diehard enthusiasts who know the mythology inside and out and more casual fans who are not as well-versed. Everyone arriving at Batuu is a newbie primed to embark on his or her adventure.
To begin the creative process, the WDI and Lucasfilm team wove an elaborate story for the new planet and underpinned it with layers upon layers of details. Located on the literal edge of the galaxy, Batuu, it seems, had been a bustling refueling station and trading port. The advent of lightspeed travel, however, eclipsed its heyday, and it has devolved into a haven for pirates, smugglers, and other outliers—including members of the First Order and the Resistance. By setting the timeframe during the series’ current trilogy, the lands can reference characters such as Kylo Ren, Rey, and Finn, as well as all of the heroes and scoundrels who came before them.
With the story in place, how did the Galaxy’s Edge team fashion the look and feel of its new planet? It seems at once familiar, yet strange and exotic. That was a deliberate choice made by the lands’ visionaries. They rooted the otherworldly Batuu in our world. It’s a design trick that Doug Chiang, Lucasfilm vice president and executive creative director, says he learned during his many years working alongside Star Wars progenitor George Lucas.
“George never considered ‘Star Wars’ to be sci-fi,” Chiang says. “He thought of it as historical drama—80 to 90% of it is real.”
To get that long-time-ago and far-far-away look, the team conducted location scouts to real places such as Istanbul and Marrakesh. The architecture, color palettes, building materials, and other details the designers discovered in their journeys found their way into Batuu, particularly Black Spire Outpost, the village at the center of the lands. Its market stalls, food stands, and ship-docking stations convey some of the intrigue, romance, danger, mystery, and beauty endemic in the region.
Chiang adds that Arizona’s Petrified Forest provided geological inspiration for Batuu’s painted rock outcroppings. Its petrified tree stumps are mirrored in the land’s giant spires.
Parked none too inconspicuously in Black Spire Outpost, the 100-foot-long Millennium Falcon can’t help but turn heads and stir emotions. If coming face to face with the exterior of the iconic “hunk of junk” isn’t enough to make grown men cry, getting to go inside its storied cockpit and actually commandeer the ship should do the trick.
Piloting the Millennium Falcon
According to Steve Goddard, WDI ride project engineer, “Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run” represents decades of pent-up dreams for fans. “We did a lot of polling and asked what’s the one Star Wars experience people wanted to have,” he says. “The answer was almost always, ‘I want to fly the Millennium Falcon.’”
The objective was clear. Fulfilling it, however, proved to be a challenge. Goddard believes, “Smugglers Run” is the industry’s first major interactive motion simulator attraction. “It’s certainly the highest level of interactivity we’ve done in any ride,” he says.
After making their way through the Ohnaka Transport Solutions spaceport, visitors encounter its proprietor, Hondo Ohnaka. The remarkably fluid and lifelike character showcases the A1000, the next evolution of WDI’s Audio-Animatronics models. Needing to move a surplus of cargo, the ethically ambiguous (and riotously funny) space pirate is recruiting flight crews to run shipments aboard the Millennium Falcon, conveniently stationed in his repair bay.
Guests enter the ship’s main hold and pass through familiar sets from the films, including the holochess table and cockpit. Six guests at a time are assigned one of three roles: pilots, gunners, and flight engineers. Their skill and ability to work cooperatively (or lack thereof) determine the progression of the attraction experience and the level of success with the mission.
To pull off the interactive attraction, Goddard says it was the first time WDI had to render and sync graphics and motion cues in real time. “That was a huge step for us,” he acknowledges.
How cutting edge is the ride? When Goddard and his colleagues began working on the project a few years ago, neither the ride hardware nor the graphics capabilities existed to get the job done, the engineer says. What wasn’t available had to be invented.
“We partnered with tech teams at Lucasfilm, WDI, and others to develop a game engine that would allow us to produce a level of visual fidelity guests would expect,” says Asa Kalama, WDI executive creative director.
When crafting the attraction, its developers say they worked to strike a balance between providing a realistic and satisfying dynamic motion-based experience and one that would be comfortable to ride. They also had to consider the gaming skills of guests.
“[The ride] is designed to be enjoyed by people of all ages with varying levels of ability,” says Kalama. While he stresses that no crew would experience a failed mission, Kalama does note, “It’s up to you to determine how much fire the Falcon is on when you return it to the spaceport.” The height requirement for the attraction is 38 inches.
The lands’ other major attraction, “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance,” will open in both locations later this year. Boasting multiple ride systems and a storyline that will include getting sucked into and held prisoner on a Star Destroyer while the First Order and the Resistance duke it out, Trowbridge promises the cinematic, immersive experience will be one of the most ambitious attractions the Disney parks have undertaken.
“It brings all of the scale, epic adventure, thrills, humor—everything that makes Star Wars, Star Wars into one experience,” he says.
Personalization in Your Hand
The entire land could be considered one big E-ticket attraction, according to Trowbridge. Unlike a ride with a predetermined storyline, however, Galaxy’s Edge is a place where guests “have agency to choose how they want to tell their story,” says Carrie Beck, vice president, animation and live action series development at Lucasfilm.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Star Wars: Datapad feature visitors can access by using the Play Disney Parks mobile app. Galaxy’s Edge is the first land to fully integrate from day one with the interactive app, which Disney introduced in 2018. The Datapad gives users the tools to hack droids, scan cargo crates, translate information written in Batuu’s native language of Aurebesh, and tune into covert chatter taking place throughout the land. It is a “lens though which you can engage with and interact with the world of Black Spire Outpost,” says Kalama, who helped design the Datapad.
By storing data about how crews perform their missions aboard the “Smugglers Run” attraction, the app also enables guests to develop a “reputation” that can follow them around the lands. For example, Kalama says a Cantina bartender could inform a startled customer about the gossip she has heard. “Hondo isn’t too pleased about what you did to his ship,” the barkeep might say. “And there’s a bounty on your head.”
Managing Out of this World Expectations
Disneyland’s operations team anticipated overwhelming popularity of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, believing once the new land opened on May 31, far more guests would wish to enter than could be accommodated. So, the park announced that for the 24-day period between May 31 and June 23, entry into Galaxy’s Edge would be possible only via a pre-booked reservation, or through a reservation granted by staying at one of the three Disneyland Resort hotels.
On May 2, 2019, Disneyland began accepting reservations for the special 24-day period, with all availability snatched up within two hours. However, rooms at the Disneyland Resort hotels and their accompanying Galaxy’s Edge reservations remained available for an extended period thereafter. For all guests holding a reservation, theme park admission was still required, and no standby lines were available to enter Galaxy’s Edge during the 24-day period.
Guests were asked to limit their stay in the new land to four hours. Utilizing colored wristbands, the park enforced time limits. If a guest’s wristband indicated they were beyond the time limit, they were not admitted into “Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run” or other locations within the new land.
After June 23, reservations were no longer required. However, a virtual queuing system has been implemented as needed to manage demand. A dedicated module in the Disneyland smartphone app allows guests to request entry into Galaxy’s Edge with a specific boarding group. Then, push notifications alert them when it’s their boarding group’s time to enter. Guests not using the app need to monitor their boarding group status by means of signage throughout the park. The park notes that admission into Galaxy’s Edge is subject to capacity, so having an assigned boarding group will not guarantee entrance into the land.
Goods and Grub on the Galaxy’s Edge
Within Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, there are nine different retail locations selling nearly 700 distinct items, and five food and beverage locations with more than 50 different creations offering a taste of another world.
The enclave of these vendors is the Black Spire Outpost. Its appearance and atmosphere were carefully honed, according to Lucasfilm’s Chiang. Starting in 1995, Chiang spent seven years with George Lucas, learning what he dubs the “Star Wars design language.” He says Galaxy’s Edge’s creators wanted the merchandise locations to be a place that represents Star Wars but add a freshness so it has its own identity.
“It had to have layers and layers of history and story,” he says. “One of the really fun joys I learned about designing Star Wars from George is that you anchor it in a real place.” Therefore, ancient-seeming, open-air markets from the Middle East help bring the atmosphere of Black Spire Outpost to life.
“If you’ve visited any place in the world, you know the marketplace is where all the locals come together,” says Brad Schoeneberg, director of merchandise strategy and new park experience development for Disney Parks. “You see the food, get the smells, and you get to shop, and ours is absolutely no exception.”
In developing the merchandise for Galaxy’s Edge, Schoeneberg says although some products were shown in various Star Wars movies, his creative team members had to fashion much of it themselves.
“We knew we were going to build a place where people could be the hero of their own story and live their own adventure. So, we started with a giant whiteboard of ideas and said, ‘If you could dream any dream with Star Wars merchandise, what would you dream?’ Over a few weeks, we kept coming back to ideas we just couldn’t let go of,” Schoeneberg says.
Two products that seem essential are lightsabers and droids, as they are among the Star Wars universe’s most identifiable objects. In Galaxy’s Edge, guests can custom-make each. In Savi’s Workshop—Handbuilt Lightsabers, under the guidance of a group called the Gatherers, guests choose from among four different themes for their lightsabers, an array of handles, and a selection of decor. There are 120,000 possible combinations for constructing a lightsaber using the shop’s available pieces. To the right of the display case awaits a large Audio-Animatronic figure of Savi, hard at work, tinkering in his workshop. The alien creature sits in a chair, swiveling around, seemingly building his own lightsaber from the spare parts within his reach.
The Droid Depot allows guests to build their very own R-series or BB-series droid, with a wide array of choices of parts and colors. Legs, arms, torsos, and heads can be mixed and matched. Once selected, visitors take their parts to a workbench in the dimly lit factory setting—where life-size robot legs whiz overhead on a conveyor belt—and build their robot right in the store. When complete, guests place the droids in an activation station that initiates the ability to operate them by remote control. Now the droids will interact with elements throughout Galaxy’s Edge.
“I couldn’t shake the images of young Anakin building a protocol droid for the first time,” says Schoeneberg. “If there was ever a [Star Wars] world you could step in, why not have a Droid Depot, where you can choose from parts, have your own construction, your own design idea, and watch that droid brought to life.”
The collection of other shops in Black Spire Outpost include Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, where relics dealer Dok-Ondar features an assortment of antiquities for purchase. Among them are old lightsabers and other Jedi and Sith artifacts, including kyber crystals, which are attuned to the Force.
Concerning costs, Schoeneberg acknowledges Galaxy’s Edge will have some visitors who have been emotionally invested in “Star Wars” for more than 40 years, while others are experiencing it for the first time. Regarding the latter, he says, “They’re making a connection but not really heavily invested and wanting to spend a high dollar amount. For price points, I’ll use droids as an example. We’ve got opportunities under $20, even under $10, to get into droid characters. Or you can spend for the life-size. You can really live your adventure and connect with them the way you’re brought into the story.” Custom-built droids start at $100. Handmade lightsabers hover around $200.
Among all the retail items being sold in Galaxy’s Edge, one thing you won’t find are Star Wars logos on the merchandise. Schoeneberg explains that those living in a Star Wars realm are very aware of the characters around them, the vehicles, and the stories. But the one thing they’re not aware of is that they are in a Star Wars movie, thus the logo would not make sense.
Galactic Gastronomic Concoctions
Though some guests may choose not to buy merchandise, almost all of them will buy food or a beverage at some point during their visit. Galaxy’s Edge offers an assortment of both, not sold anywhere else—at least not the way it’s presented here.
“Our journey started over four years ago, and we did some brainstorming sessions in our Flavor Lab, which is our test facility in Florida,” says Brian Koziol, food and beverage concept and development director for Walt Disney World. “Then we journeyed on to Lucasfilm to validate some ideas we were thinking of doing, and they gave us some ideas about things we could possibly bring to life.”
A single beverage item garnered the lion’s share of interest and speculation from both Star Wars fans and park enthusiasts alike in the months leading up to the opening of Galaxy’s Edge: blue milk. The drink made its appearance in “A New Hope,” in 1977 when Luke Skywalker sat down for a meal with family. So, Disney embarked on an effort to re-create the drink that would have wide appeal.
“We had to get the color right, and then from there, we knew summer is pretty hot here [in Anaheim] and definitely very hot the whole year in Florida, so we wanted it very chill, going toward frozen,” Koziol explains. “Then we thought we had to have a berry flavor and wanted something that had a sweeter profile. From there, we did a lot of trial and error on flavors.”
The result is a soft-frozen beverage made with coconut milk, rice milk, dragon fruit, pineapple, and watermelon. It’s non-dairy, lactose-free. Galaxy’s Edge also features a concoction called green milk, taken from a drink Luke Skywalker consumed in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Its texture and consistency are similar to blue milk, but Koziol says, “We went toward citrus and a tropical characteristic with this one. So, they’re each very different in their profiles in taste.” Both drinks are available at their own location, simply named the Milk Stand.
As for other places to imbibe the exotic brews of Galaxy’s Edge, Oga’s Cantina is called by designers as “the heartbeat of Black Spire Outpost.” Sporting blaster-bolt scorch marks on the walls, it’s the place where guests gather to impart tales of their adventures around the galaxy and enjoy musical entertainment.
Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo features Chef Strono “Cookie” Tuggs’ fried Endorian tip-yip, Kaadu ribs, and Batuu-bon, a dessert. Ronto Roasters is hard to miss because a huge podracing engine fires up its barbecue pit, where meat is cooked for its signature Ronto wraps. “The Ronto wrap I think is going to be a fan favorite,” says Michele Gendreau, director, food and beverage, experience integration, for Disney Parks. “It’s a wonderful walk-around layered sandwich, with roasted pork, grilled sausage, and a little bit of peppercorn sauce.”
Though Galaxy’s Edge food items have unusual names and appearances, they’re actually made from recognizable ingredients. “From a food standpoint, the menu we’ve created has food that looks a little different, but some familiar flavors we know our guests love,” says Brian Piasecki, concept development culinary director, Flavor Lab at Walt Disney World. “So, while they’re in this incredibly immersive land, we feel the food is approachable.”
The Next Chapter
The Florida version of Galaxy’s Edge is scheduled to open Aug. 29. It will be virtually identical to its sister land in California. On December 19, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” will be released in theaters. The film directed by J.J. Abrams will bring to a close the “modern” film trilogy that began in 2015. Future plans also call for a high-concept, Star Wars-inspired hotel that will seamlessly connect to Batuu in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, opening at a later date. It appears the Force will indeed be with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge for a long time to come.