How Star Wars Will Revolutionize the Theme Park Industry

By Kaitlin Liebling

It’s 1973. You’re sitting in a boat on a new Disney World ride, one you’ve been looking forward to experiencing for quite some time. When the ride begins, you quickly see pirate ships looming out of the fog, besieging a brick fort. As you watch in awe, one cannonball strikes the water near you. It gets you slightly wet, and your heart jumps in shock before you laugh it off. The pirates on the ship had seemed so real, and for a moment you were sure your little dingy would be sunk, downed in a sea battle.

The fearsome expression of the pirates, their costumes, the way they move is so incredibly realistic, and you feel transported into a different place and a different time- a realm of swashbucklers and pirates, buried treasure and walking the plank. The work of the Disney engineers is far out, you think, as the ride ends. Truly fab.

It’s 2019. Pirates of the Caribbean has long since ceased to amaze. While the ride remains fun, the jerky movements of the animatronics and the stagnant expressions on the pirate’s faces are slightly unsettling. Instead, you’re much more excited to try out Disney’s latest ride– Star Wars: Smuggler’s Run, the ride that will let you pilot the famous Millenium Falcon.

As you walk into the cockpit for the first time, you are slightly overwhelmed. It’s just like the movies, you think, and though you’re not the biggest Star Wars fan, you heart still lifts just a little at the thought of Han Solo, Rey, or Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy inside the same space.

Your mission begins, and you’re at the controls. It takes a little while to get used to the flashing panels, and you crash the ship through a wall at one point. As panels and bits of rubble come flying at you, your heart jumps in shock before you laugh it off. The crash had seemed so real, and for just a moment you were sure the Falcon was about to crash and burst into flames, carrying you down with it.

After your (semi) successful mission is complete, you walk off the Millenium Falcon in amazement. The work of the Disney imagineers is on point, you think. Truly amazing.

Star Wars: Disney’s Answer to Harry Potter

Technology has changed since Disney World opened in 1965. What used to amaze guests in the 1960s and ‘70s seems less impressive today in a world filled with the wonders of smartphones and the internet. In the wake of the massive success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal in 2010, the Disney company realized they needed to up their theme park game.

Guests were no longer content with dark boat rides. They wanted an experience, a place intricately designed to seem as though they had stepped into their favorite fantasy world. With Disney’s $4 billion dollar acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2014, the executives had found their answer to Harry Potter.

After all, Star Wars has been a cultural emblem of American identity for much longer than the Wizarding World–ever since Star Wars: A New Hope came out in theaters in 1977. Following their purchase of Lucasfilm, Disney planned to (and did) make bank on their acquisition.

It was inevitable that the company would announce a Star Wars land for its theme parks, now officially titled Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The land will undoubtedly be popular when it opens in Disney World and Disneyland in late 2019.

But the task of creating a piece of the Star Wars universe provided unique logistical challenges for Disney. They’d have to create a planet, from scratch, and make the details and setting convincing enough that visitors would feel transported to a different world. They’d have to populate the “planet” with alien species, bounty hunters, and droids rather than the usual Disney employees. And they’d have to create incredibly realistic, themed rides that would place visitors in spaceships or intense battles.

Such a challenge would have been impossible to overcome even 20 years ago, much less in the era of enclosed dark rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. But with some ingenuity and by utilizing modern-day technology, Disney Imagineers are currently creating a completely immersive themed land that seems destined to revolutionize the theme park industry.

Smuggler’s Run and the Millenium Falcon

Galaxy’s Edge already has a backstory. Guests will be shuttled to a planet called Batuu and a specific city called Black Spire Outpost. As described by story editor Margaret Kerrison, Black Spire Outpost is “an infamous stop for traders, adventurers, and smugglers traveling around the Outer Rim and Wild Space. Off the beaten path, this outpost has become a haven for the galaxy’s most colorful- and notorious- characters.”

With a storyline in place, Disney next turned to making the rides in Black Spire Outpost become reality. Imagineers first thought to fulfill the dreams of any and every Star Wars fan: allowing them to fly the iconic Millenium Falcon.

According to The New York Times, the ride will use “real-time, video-rendering technology invented by Industrial Light & Magic that responds to the way guests use 200 cockpit controls.” This means that visitors can pilot the ship up and down, right and left, almost without restrictions. The technology will adapt to their movements and render the appropriate Star Wars scenery no matter where the ship ends up. It also means that if the ship crashes, the technology will be able to immediately animate flying debris and smoke to signify the damage.

For the Disney aficionados out there, the Smuggler’s Run ride won’t be like the long-running piloting ride Mission: Space in Disney World. In Mission: Space, visitors push switches that help their spaceship to land safely on Mars and complete the mission assigned to them. The thing is, even if the guests don’t push the buttons, the buttons push themselves after an allotted amount of time. One could conceivably have no interaction with any of the panels during the ride and still land safely on Mars at the conclusion.

Smuggler’s Run is working to change this and actively incorporate riders into the experience. Depending on your piloting skills, the Millenium Falcon could limp back from its mission spewing smoke or return in pristine condition. You can fail your mission if your team’s skills aren’t quite up to scratch.

This increases the ride’s stakes and invites a more realistic experience, but also provides some new challenges for Disney. As VentureBeat points out, Smuggler’s Run will be one of Disney’s first attractions to be truly video-game esque, and Disney doesn’t know where to set the difficulty level. Set it too high, and guests may walk away upset if they fail their mission. But set it too low, and everyone would succeed, making the ride no different from the passive Mission: Space.

Unlike video games, guests may get only one chance to learn the Falcon’s controls. Smuggler’s Run will be a popular ride when it opens, and line wait times may mean that guests only ride once. In video games, players often fail the first time they fight a boss or begin a game, and it’s only through hard practice that they succeed. In Smuggler’s Run, most people won’t have that luxury. They’ll have to figure it out on the fly, the first time through, or they’ll fail and may have to wait until their next Disney vacation.

Commenting on this problem, Disney Parks expert Jim Hill said, “It’s the whole notion of, ‘I don’t want to be on the Millennium Falcon when the power is cutting out, or when the TIE Fighters are overtaking us.’ I want to succeed. [Disney execs are] trying to work with that expectation, tweaking some story elements so at least you don’t go away with a bad taste in your mouth.”

According to Hill, Disney doesn’t want to make the difficulty level too easy. Instead, they are working “to make it so that even when things go horribly wrong, it’s as funny as possible.” Whether visitors succeed or fail, Disney is working to make sure guests have fun regardless.

Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance Ride

The second ride in Galaxy’s Edge is as technologically ambitious as the first. Called Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, the trackless ride will place visitors in a battle between the evil First Order and the brave Resistance.

According to Entertainment Weekly, guests will enter a “hangar bay and control deck of a First Order destroyer” and come face-to-face with Kylo Ren in a final battle. The hangar bay will presumably be constructed to near-actual size in the face of Disney’s comment that the attraction will be “built on a scale we’ve never done before.”

Rumors posted on a reliable Disney leaks website suggest that guests may actually get off the ride at one point and walk around inside the attraction, before a “rescue” leads them to board a different ride vehicle. If this rumor is true, it poses numerous logistical difficulties for Disney. How would they efficiently shuttle guests from one ride vehicle to another? What about those with disabilities who may have a hard time getting on and off the rides quickly?

All of these will be challenges Disney Imagineers must overcome in order to make Rise of the Resistance a reality. But if successful, the ride could provide Disney’s guests with an experience unlike anything they’ve seen before: combining two rides into one epic adventure.

The Star Wars Hotel: An Out-Of-This-World Experience

The last part of Galaxy’s Edge is Disney’s most innovative idea yet. A new, still-unnamed Star Wars hotel will provide tourists with an adventure that goes a step beyond what’s offered at Galaxy’s Edge. For those willing to pay up, the small hotel (rumored to be just 68 rooms) will thrust guests into their own personal Star Wars story.

Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, said the storyline will entail “dressing up in the proper attire. Once you leave Earth, you will discover a starship alive with characters, stories, and adventures that unfold all around you. It is 100 percent immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”

To increase the immersiveness, the hotel lobby and even the rooms themselves will be decked out with Star Wars decor, and all “windows” will be specially-designed screens to provide the illusion of a hotel in space. Employees of the hotel will get in on the action too- they’ll be dressed as alien species or Resistance pilots interacting with guests.

Based on the construction progress at the hotel site, analysts expect it to open a bit later than the rest of Galaxy’s Edge, potentially in 2021 for Disney World’s planned 50th anniversary celebration. For this reason, key details about the hotel–such as pricing and the specifics of the experience–remain yet to be answered. However, the concept art that has been revealed is sure to get fans excited for their chance to live in the Star Wars universe.

Such innovative rides and hotels are not going to come cheap. Disney is pouring about $2 billion into the development of Galaxy’s Edge, though the investment will undoubtably pay itself off if Smuggler’s Run, the hotel, and Rise of the Resistance prove even half as fun as Disney’s presentations have made them out to be.

In fact, Disney’s $4 billion purchase of the Star Wars franchise in 2014 was probably the deal of a lifetime. The company has made billions from the new movies, billions from selling Star Wars merchandise, and is now prepping to make billions more at Galaxy’s Edge as guests fall over themselves to get an in-person glimpse at a galaxy beloved since 1977.

Images courtesy of the Disney Company and