Join us as we take a look ahead to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Star Wars has legions of fans, and quite a few Unofficial Guides team members are among them. Let us indulge you in our musing.
In the decade or so that they’ve been open, Universal’s two Harry Potter-themed lands have been the standard against which all other immersive theme park environments have been judged. Potter fans rave, rightfully so, over the intricate details; well-fit storylines; and sense of place found in the rides, restaurants, and shops throughout Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley.
Disney’s first response to Universal was to build the land of Pandora, based on James Cameron’s Avatar films, at the Animal Kingdom park. Pandora is as beautifully detailed as any theme park land ever built, and its signature ride, Flight of Passage, is the highest-rated attraction in any Disney or Universal theme park in America. But Avatar does not have legions of devoted followers like Harry Potter. Only one other film franchise does.
That franchise is Star Wars, which has so many dedicated fans that the belief system of the films’ warrior class, the Jedi, now constitutes a government-recognized religion in several countries (including tax-exempt status in the United States). Disney announced plans to build Galaxy’s Edge in 2015.
Galaxy’s Edge is arguably the biggest bet Disney has made in its U.S. theme parks since starting Epcot in the late 1970s. Two virtually identical, 14-acre versions are underway—the other one in Disneyland in California. Together they are rumored to cost more than $2 billion. For comparison, Disney bought the entire Star Wars franchise for $4 billion; building the whole 500-acre Animal Kingdom theme park cost $1.5 billion (in today’s dollars) when it opened in 1998.
Disney’s goal with Galaxy’s Edge is to redefine the entire theme park experience. They’re throwing more money, technology, and storytelling effort into Galaxy’s Edge than we’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s also, as you can imagine, secretive. Here’s what we know so far—or have been able to guess—using publicly available sources.
The Land Galaxy’s Edge is an outpost in the village of Black Spire, on the planet of Batuu. It was a busy trading port and waypoint before the invention of lightspeed-capable transportation. Now it’s a dusty backwater, filled with bounty hunters, smugglers, and those who make a living by not being recognized. In the Star Wars canon, the timeline is between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. This gives Disney the ability to feature almost every popular Star Wars character in Galaxy’s Edge’s narratives.
Concept art shows Galaxy’s Edge as a collection of squat, sand-colored buildings set amid rock outcroppings and surrounded by a green forest punctuated with tall rock formations (hence “Black Spire”). That art also shows many walk-around characters and droids similar to those from the films. We expect both to be integral parts of the experience.
The Rides Two rides will open in 2019. In one, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, you’ll pilot the starship on a secret cargo mission out of the Black Spire. As the story goes, Hondo Ohnaka and Chewbacca “borrowed” the Falcon for your adventure, making you the smuggler on this run. In the other, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, you’re caught in a fight between the First Order and the Resistance and must find a way out. In this immersive ride, you are taken prisoner on a Star Destroyer. Are you ready to fight the First Order and escape?
That doesn’t sound like much, does it? Patience you must have, young Padawan. For one thing, you’ll supposedly be able to make choices while flying the Millenium Falcon, much like playing a traditional video game, that can result in failure or success. How you fare with that piloting will have consequences for the rest of your day in Galaxy’s Edge. Do a good job, and word of your skill will spread quickly among the villagers. Get caught by the Empire, or lose your cargo, and maybe those bounty hunters will already know who you are. For the full experience, you must download and opt into tracking on the Play Disney Parks app.
The Technology Providing custom game-play on the Millenium Falcon would be groundbreaking by itself. Tying that ride’s outcome back to you is almost certainly going to happen through Disney’s MagicBands RFID technology, which nearby Disney characters will be able to read through sensors. The ability to be recognized and remembered by theme park characters is another giant leap forward in theme park innovation.
Here’s where it starts to get crazy: We’re reasonably confident that Disney’s trying to build working lightsabers, possibly for the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride, using helmets with computer display screens as face shields. The U.S. Patent Office published Disney’s application 20180137680 titled “Augmented Reality Interactive Experience” in May 2018, describing how to render visual effects for a “virtual light sword”; Figure 3 is either a lightsaber or the world’s most dangerous electronic cigarette. Earlier Disney patents described how to render visual effects for things that look an awful lot like lightsabers, such as blaster fire ricocheting off a blade, how two lightsabers clash together, and how to simulate cutting through a door with said lightsaber. (You know, if you happened to need to get out of somewhere quickly while being shot at.) A couple of other patents describe what look like holodeck display implementations. Those are typically used in the movies to show building schematics, which again might be useful if you’re looking for an escape route.
Beyond that, Disney’s patent filings show development of autonomous droids—robots that navigate themselves around the theme parks and resorts. Droids are central characters in all of the Star Wars stories, and they’re featured prominently in virtually all of the Galaxy’s Edge concept art. Teaching a robot to weave safely though a park full of unpredictable guests is a very complicated technology problem, though. We’d be very impressed if Disney has this ready for 2019. Finally, other long-term patent applications describe methods for teaching computers how to improvise dialog that matches the speech patterns of well-known characters—and how to make up stories on the spot in the style of established canon. If this takes $1 or $2 billion to happen, it will be money well spent.
Food and Drinks We know there’ll be an actual cantina like the one featured in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Disney promises that Oga’s Cantina will be home to “the most interesting and disreputable characters in the galaxy.” RX-24, a droid, who is a former StarSpeeder 3000 pilot, stars as the cantina’s DJ. On the menu will be a variety of Star Wars-inspired alcoholic beverages, as well as nonalcoholic drinks. Be prepared to quaff blue and green milk. So far, no information about the dining experience has been released.
Last, but certainly not least, Academy Award-winning composer John Williams has composed new original music for the land.
The Hotel The Star Wars-themed hotel adjacent and connected to Galaxy’s Edge will be a separate, fully-immersive experience. Upon arrival, guests will board a shuttle that will take them to their accommodations on the luxury space ship.
What we’ve heard so far is that you’ll sign up for 2-, 3-, or 4-day live-action, role-playing adventures, most of which will happen inside the hotel, but which could spill out into Galaxy’s Edge. Like the Millenium Falcon ride, what you do in each location will become part of your running narrative. Along with regular guests, the luxury space ship will be filled with Star Wars characters that you’ll have to interact with (and occasionally outwit) as part of your adventure. Disney hasn’t announced an opening date, and we’d be surprised if the hotel opens before 2021.
The Crowds Here’s how to beat the lines at Galaxy’s Edge: Put down this book. Turn to your spouse. Kiss them on the cheek and say, “Make sure the kids get in to a good college.” Then get to the airport. Hop on the next flight to Orlando to hold their space in line.
We’re kidding, but barely. Ten-hour-long lines to get into the park formed when Hogsmeade Village opened at Universal Florida in 2010. That was 10 hours to get into the park, not into Hogsmeade or on any of the rides. Ten hours might be optimistic for Galaxy’s Edge.
Consider this: More than a year after opening, guests routinely arrive 1 to 2 hours before park opening to be near the front of the line for Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Flight of Passage’s waits are 2½ hours on moderately busy days, up to 6 hours on holidays. And that’s a ride based on one film that nobody really adores. Star Wars has its own culture.
Getting FastPasses for either Galaxy’s Edge ride will be like winning the lottery—there’ll be so much competition for them that your odds will be close to zero. If those rides are worth their cost, each will have Flight of Passage-like waits of 3 to 6 hours for the first few months of operation and on holidays. Expect long lines at Oga’s Cantina, the restaurant, and in the shops too. It may take the better part of a 12-hour day just to experience Galaxy’s Edge.
The only way to mitigate those waits will be to arrive early. We’ve heard that Disney won’t allow overnight camping in line. What they haven’t said is what time “night” ends. We fully expect die-hard fans to line up for Galaxy’s Edge as early as Disney’s security team permits, just a couple of feet beyond whatever security perimeter is established. We’ll bet a box of doughnuts right now that families will be walking around the Epcot resorts at 4 a.m., waiting to start the line to get into the Studios.
It’s also likely that the Studios will reach capacity and stop admitting guests on many days after Galaxy’s Edge opens. Pandora brought a 15% annual attendance increase to Animal Kingdom in just the first seven months it was open—maybe 20%-25% over a full year. Galaxy’s Edge may deliver a 35%-40% increase in crowds. That would make the Studios the second-busiest park in Walt Disney World by a wide margin. We’re not sure the Studios has enough rides or restaurants to handle that many people. As huge fans of Disney, Star Wars, and Operations Research, we can’t wait to see how this is handled. We’ll keep you updated as we learn more.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is slated to open in Summer 2019 at Disneyland, with an opening at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in the Fall.