In Star Wars movies, people flying the Millennium Falcon pull a very specific lever to jump the ship into hyperspace, which is technobabble for “Go very fast!” People do the same thing at Disneyland, on a ride called Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. It’s part of Galaxy’s Edge, a new billion-dollar, 14-acre expansion, and to get to that lever, visitors first navigate a queue that twists through a meticulous re-creation of a spaceport and the inside of the Falcon. Then six at a time are ushered into the ship’s cockpit (the ride actually has several) to get rumbled and wobbled while a screen outside the window shows a first-person POV movie of a swooping, dogfighting space mission. It’s a motion-simulator ride. The Falcon doesn’t actually go anywhere.
At least, not in our universe. In the Star Wars universe … well.
So now, me, in the pilot’s seat, a light flashing: I’m a fan, so I reach for the lever in, I’ll admit it, a transport of delight. It’s metal, a little cold, takes some real force to pull back. It feels perfect. I mean, this is exactly what it feels like to pilot the Millennium Falcon.
Sure, under the dashboard are leaf springs and gears, shaking haptics torqued to within a play-tested centimeter of their lives to give good feedback. But, like, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, how could pulling that lever feel perfect? How could it feel like anything? There’s no such thing as hyperspace. There’s not even any such thing as a Millennium Falcon. It’s Hollywood magic, polyurethane, and pixie dust.
There’s a full-size Falcon at the entrance to the ride, yes—and another in the corresponding park in Florida. They’re props, basically, dressing for a heightened environment, like Hogwarts at Universal Studios or Gotham City at Warner Bros. World in Abu Dhabi. Except unlike those, Galaxy’s Edge doesn’t end here. It is, in native nerdish, “in canon.” What happens in Galaxy’s Edge happens in the official Star Wars universe.
Me again: I’ve pulled the lever. Lots of little computational beeps and tweets. And then, wooooooooOOOO-shoom! The stars blur backward into speed lines, and something like acceleration pushes us all back into our seats. We have made the jump to hyperspace.
There are two ways to talk about Galaxy’s Edge. Both are true.
The remote planet of Batuu was once covered with trees thousands of feet tall. After a cataclysm petrified them, only their trunks remained. For mysterious reasons, one looks like obsidian, giving a town that grew up around it its name: Black Spire Outpost. A disreputable trader named Hondo Ohnaka recently opened a cargo business there, for which he is recruiting pilots to fly off-books cargo runs that may also be in support of the galactic Resistance movement. Stormtroopers from the First Order have just arrived to hunt for Resistance sympathizers.
Two (this one is longer):
In 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company for $4 billion. As intellectual property goes, Star Wars is unusual, in that sanctioned stories exist inside a rigorously enforced storyworld stretching millennia into the past and future. Disney, with producer Kathleen Kennedy heading the new division, would make new movies and TV shows (as well as comic books, novels, toys, videogames, and so on). In 2014, Disney CEO Bob Iger added theme parks to the mandate.
At the time, Scott Trowbridge was the head of research and development at Disney Imagineering, the company’s theme-park design arm. A USC film major who’d spearheaded the immersive Harry Potter attractions when he ran Universal Creative, Trowbridge proposed a novel way to capitalize on the newly acquired IP. He pitched Disney’s “first franchised, story-universe-based creative development studio.” It would include merchandise, product development, even food service, and it would build not just rides but entire stories that’d feed from the parks back into the canonic maw.
Disney brass not only went for it, they put Trowbridge in charge, telling him to build a new land every bit as significant as Tomorrowland or Fantasyland. From the moment anyone stepped across the threshold, they’d be totally immersed in the Star Wars universe.
That’s trickier than it sounds. “For an immersive world, it’s not so much a linear narrative arc as an emotional arc,” says Margaret Kerrison, whose title is managing story editor. She’s a fast talker, code-switching between in-canon discussions of lightsaber technique and meta-canonic conversations about “Starwarsification.” “As a fan, what are the various aspirational things we want to do in order to have that fulfilling Star Wars experience? We talked about taking control of the Falcon, drinking blue milk, visiting the cantina.”
Not the cantina from the first Star Wars, though. The Disney imagineers decided to build a whole new world. Batuu would have to feel like Star Wars even though it was utterly original. “A lot of us were like, the universe is a big place. That meant not going back to a planet where we’ve been before,” Kerrison says. “We wanted to create a new settlement or city so that all of us could create an experience from scratch.”
With Lucasfilm’s Story Group onboard, the imagineers set out to compile a several-hundred-page bible of Galaxy’s Edge background stories. Maintaining it was Kerrison’s first job with the imagineers, who Starwarsified the place by combining otherworldly wilderness with a teched-out overlay of full-scale greeblies (what VFX folks call the mechanical-looking stuff they attach to the outside of spaceship models). That’s look and feel. Galaxy’s Edge also obeys the rules of the galaxy far, far away: The team sited it on the timeline just after The Last Jedi, which meant they could have park employees dressed as Kylo Ren and First Order stormtroopers walking around (but not Darth Vader and Han Solo—they’re dead). Lucasfilm offered up a character who could introduce the Millennium Falcon show: Hondo, a stalwart of the Star Wars cartoons.
Like any good magician, imagineers are so cagey about the mechanics of all this careful world-building. Hondo had to be translated from an animated character to a 7-foot-tall animatronic robot, his face “aged” since his cartoon years. An imagineer initially insisted to me that they’d constructed the Falcon‘s interior according to “original blueprints,” which is nonsense, of course, since the ride accommodates versions from all the various movies and multiple cockpits. A spokesperson finally allowed that a Falcon built from original plans wouldn’t have passed muster with Earthly building codes. The Millennium Falcon flew the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, but it is not ADA compliant.
And that uncanny hyperspace lever? They spent months play-testing it with pilots of all ages and sizes. “But we don’t want you to think about the complex multi-GPU real-time rendering system and the custom game engine with stochastic anti-aliasing,” Trowbridge says. “We just want you to think about, you know, ‘I’m flying on the fastest ship in the galaxy.’ ”
When Disneyland opened in 1955, a low hill surrounded it, demarcating its borders and cutting it off from the world outside. The berm was inviolable, except when visitors walked under the train tracks that circumnavigated it and found … Main Street, an architectural fantasy of small-town America that led to a fairy-tale castle.
As Disneyland’s rides got more complex, the park needed more room. Imagineers started breaking through the berm, mounting elaborate facades inside the park but constructing boxy “ride buildings” or “show buildings” beyond the rim. It was an all but undetectable bit of architectural prestidigitation; no one ever really asked why the Pirates of the Caribbean boats slid down a couple of drops or the stretching room in the Haunted Mansion carried you down only so the doom buggies—the vehicles you ride in, “omnimovers,” tilting and pivoting to direct attention—would carry you back upward again. It was in service of getting people under the berm and into the fictional space of the ride building.
All those switchbacks, drops, and omnimoves provided structure for a story. On so-called dark rides, one tableau here gives way to another tableau there, a spatialized version of a classical story’s temporal sequences. As John Hench, the lead imagineer from the 1950s to the ’80s, told the magazine New West in 1978, Disneyland “was planned like a motion picture, to evolve and unfold in time so a thread runs through it.”
The whole experience of Galaxy’s Edge, then, becomes one very long filmic take. You never (well, let’s say rarely) experience anything you wouldn’t find in Black Spire Outpost. Except on rides, any music you hear is on a local “radio station,” or sometimes playing from an open second-story window, or courtesy of the droid DJ in the cantina. There’s a stand that sells both blue and green milk. The alcoves of the souk are real shops. Park workers—the “cast,” officially—have all been encouraged to come up with backstories plausible for a Batuuan. Most of the signage is in the Aurebesh alphabet, translatable via the Disney app. In the language of story-building, that’s called diegesis. Everything is diegetic, in-story.
On a walk around the park, Asa Kalama, a bearded imagineer in tech-regulation khakis, shows me an even deeper diegetic level. A visitor can use their phone as a “data pad” to create a character—good guy, bad guy, neutral—and play games localized to specific parts of the space. Beating a maze-like minigame causes lights to flash on control panels next to doorways, or you can accept “missions” to find stuff hidden in scattered cargo boxes, to be scanned with a QR reader.
After Kalama shows me how to “hack” a comm tower to make it emit a resonant beep, he points at the unfolding text messages on my screen. “You can eavesdrop on a conversation,” he says. “These towers are relaying messages between characters.” I get a little backstory on a gunfight in the marketplace that left a wall pockmarked with divots.
Think about what all that requires. Kerrison’s story team comes up with that bit of plot and writes the dialog of the messages. “Blaster specialists” carve the impact marks into the wet plaster of the walls under construction—the imagineers decided that each one should look different depending on the type of blaster and the angle of impact. Kalama’s interactive group has to code all that into the minigames and link those games to Bluetooth beacons around the park. This fine-grained, fractal detail adds to the sense that not only is Batuu in canon, but so is anyone who buys a ticket.
On my second trip to Batuu—to the one in Anaheim—I watched a little girl race off Smugglers Run at hyperspeed and slam into her dad. “Papa, I was pilot!” she screamed, making swooshing noises. Kids, right? All the Starwarsification didn’t much move my adult partner, until she took over my phone to help our 10-year-old hack the giant First Order ship looming over one corner of Black Spire Outpost. Its running lights flashed and its engine roared, and so did her delight. She was in the story.
In 1997, realistic, highly rendered videogames were ascendant, and developers and the people who study narrative were arguing about whether a game could—or should—tell a story. Celia Pearce, a game designer and former theme park builder, coined a phrase to cut through the fight: spatial narrative.
Games didn’t invent that, of course. “Spatial narrative is a very old kind of storytelling. You see it in ancient Rome, in cave paintings,” says Pearce, a professor at Northeastern University who teaches, among other classes, Designing Imaginary Worlds. Consider medieval churches. For attendees, many of whom were illiterate and didn’t understand Church Latin, the church was the Bible—stations of the cross along the nave or in stained glass, important characters represented as statuary in the transept. “It’s about where you are, what you can see from where, how you feel as an embodied entity in the space,” Pearce says.
It’s also true that narratives—books, movies, whatever—have spatial elements. Action takes place. In 1938 the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called the way people and things move through narrative a chronotope, a Russian translation of the Greek for “space-time.” Bakhtin set out to map the ratios of time and space in stories, and other critics have extended the idea to a chronotopic network, all the movements in space and time a story covers.
I think Pirates of the Caribbean or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are immersive without being narrative, necessarily. Ditto the new heavy-immersion theme parks spreading across the Middle East and China. But Galaxy’s Edge is a full-fledged chronotopia. It exists in the sanctioned Star Wars paracosm; it’s a door between our universe and theirs.
Two doors, actually. Your character in the phone-based games in California persists if you go to Florida, and vice versa. The lands are identical in architecture (albeit inverted on the north-south axis). Canonically, in the Star Wars universe, they’re the same place, on the same day, over and over; several imagineers mentioned Groundhog Day to me as a touch point. Galaxy’s Edge is a Möbius story: one place in the Star Wars universe trapped in a time bubble that’s also two places in ours, where we all move through time normally. I’d like to see Bakhtin unravel that chronotopic fuckmuddle.
Actually, I bet a gamer could speed-run that four-dimensional topology. In games, “you’re designing a space that people are going to use and be in and traverse,” says Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center. “You want to use it like an artist, to convey ideas.” Games (like architecture, cinematography, and omnimovers) direct people’s gaze, put resistance and friction into people’s movements to guide them in certain directions.
The common element that science fiction and games—and even cities—share is world-building. “This part of storytelling was always one of the nerd ingredients in literature,” Lantz says. World-building rules are especially overt at theme parks like Disneyland, if you look for them. “Everything there is mechanical and designed, and that’s chilling and weird and creepy and beautiful,” Lantz says.
In other words, Disney has literalized world-building and made a space for people to live out fan fiction—a massively multiplayer online role-playing game with a chewy live-action role-playing center. Pearce again: “You have emergent fan behavior converging with a spatial experience.”
The only thing that doesn’t work in an immersive environment of such refinement is—with apologies—you. It’s your baseball cap, your shorts, your churro. Or my notepad and backpack. “That takes away from the immersion, doesn’t it?” Pearce says. Disney parks have a longtime rule against adults wearing elaborate costumes, which militates against that instantiated fanfic; Galaxy’s Edge is no Comic-Con in terms of Han Solos and Boba Fetts. (Though it is a place for Leias, Reys, and Holdos. I saw more than a few women cosplaying on the down low, hair done weird, rocking galactically appropriate boots.)
Perhaps Disney will relax these rules. Eventually, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser will open. That’s a two-day stay adjacent to the Orlando park in a hotel designed to look like a Star Wars spaceship, a luxury liner called the Halcyon. The windows will somehow look out onto space, families will get tours of the bridge, and “port day” will connect to Galaxy’s Edge. Apparently even the hotel building will be bermed off from arriving guests—all they’ll see is the “terminal” where they board a shuttle to the Halcyon in orbit above.
It’s murky to me whether that’s an experience people want—two days of immersion tips away from a vacation and toward reenactment. In fact, it isn’t clear that people even want Galaxy’s Edge. Disney anticipated a huge bolus of visitors for the new lands’ openings, and, hey, I get it—my family went to opening week of Star Tours in 1987, and the line ran all the way down Main Street. For Galaxy’s Edge? Not so much. The company cracked down on annual passholders and asked for reservations for entry to try to avoid a flood, and instead ended up with a trickle. Disney spokespeople denied they’d had an attendance problem, and further denied that the September departure from the company of Catherine Powell, president of Disney Parks West, had anything to do with the performance of Galaxy’s Edge.
That’s the business side, though. A whole other universe. For me, down here, planet-side, Galaxy’s Edge works. When I stood inside the Falcon that first time, I stretched my hand out, reverentially, to touch the pads that line the rounded corridors, and my Disney-assigned minder smiled. “Everyone does that,” she said. The walls felt just right—a diegetic apotheosis. Stories about places are common. But this is a place about a story. It feels, well, maybe not real. Stranger than that, it feels like Star Wars.
ADAM ROGERS (@jetjocko) is a senior correspondent who covers science and culture.
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