Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Experienced in Themed Entertainment
Well, it’s finally here. Today is the opening day of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a sprawling 14-acre expansion (the largest ever for the 64-year-old Disneyland) that was originally announced at the 2015 D23 Expo, just across the street at the Anaheim Convention Center (I was there, obviously). For a while it seemed like this day might never come, that the land would reside permanently in a state of almost there, as you counted the latest spire in Black Spire Outpost (the remote trading village on the planet of Batuu, where all of Galaxy’s Edge is staged) from the hills of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. But that’s over. This morning the gates were flung open and the first honest-to-goodness park guests were able to enter the land. And, as someone who was fortunate enough to be in the land and experience it for myself, I can say that it is unlike anything ever attempted in themed entertainment. It’s not just next level, it soars up and over and beyond what those levels even are. It’s a stunning achievement and a reminder of what these kinds of experiences can be for those bold enough to push the envelope.
Walking into Galaxy’s Edge, it’s very clear that this isn’t your average Disneyland “land.” For one, it’s devoted to a single property, unlike any other land (in Fantasyland alone “Pinocchio,” “Peter Pan,” “Dumbo” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” are represented, amongst others). For another, it’s huge. You can read that it’s the largest expansion ever for Disneyland but it’s another to walk around in it (hot tip: wear comfortable shoes), soaking up the sheer enormity. You don’t feel like you’re in Disneyland; this is something else altogether. Leaving the land and walking back into Fantasyland, Frontierland or Critter Country is jarring. Oh right, we’re still here is what I thought.
Another thing is just how highly themed it is. Cast members fall into three camps: Resistance fighters, First Order creeps, or native inhabitants who are more neutral. They will respond as such, too. Shopkeepers won’t accept your money, but they will take credits. (In Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, one of the stores that has as much intricate detail and wonder as an actual attraction, an animatronic alien communicates with the shopkeeper.) And thanks to a tracking system embedded in the Disney Play app (it wasn’t up and running at the time of my visit and I didn’t get a chance to play test it with a loaner phone Disney was handing out), these same cast members can follow your journey – are you getting drawn more towards the Dark Side? Did you really screw up the Millennium Falcon during your time on the one (for now) E-ticket attraction? Cast members will know about it. And they’ll let you know that they know. Signage is loose, exploration is encouraged.
This is also unlike any other Disney theme park experience because everything feels like an attraction. There are more animatronics in a small marketplace stand selling stuffed animals than all of Pixar Pier, the hastily re-themed boardwalk area of Disney California Adventure. Building your own lightsaber becomes a 15-minute-long experience that more than one friend had described as “religious” (it also features a secret cameo from a beloved “Star Wars” Jedi); ditto making your own droid in the intricate and adorable Droid Depot. A disgruntled, occasionally talkative droid (8D-J8) roasts a giant slab of space meat. If you drink from a certain water fountain, you'll come eye-to-eye with the creature that visited our heroes in the trash compactor in "A New Hope."
Maybe most impressive is Oga’s Cantina, which captures the spirit and lawlessness of Mos Eisley cantina from the original “Star Wars” (and to a certain degree Maz Kanata’s weird castle from “The Force Awakens”) while adding its own spin and storyline. (They keep saying that you are the star of your own “Star Wars” story in Galaxy’s Edge and that isn’t just a marketing line. It’s the truth.) Oga’s Cantina is the home to DJ R3X, who you might remember from the original version of Star Tours. Now he’s a DJ and he’s spinning some truly incredible “Star Wars”-y music for you. But more than that, the whole vibe of the cantina is totally infectious. Every once in a while, the lights will dim and you’ll hear a big clanking noise and the bartenders will have to get the bar (including R3X) back online. There are little details everywhere: look up at the top of the bar and you’ll notice a small animatronic frog surrounded by eggs. Those are the Boba-like eggs that are found in many of the cantina’s drinks (they delightfully pop in your mouth). This level of story isn’t just jaw-dropping, it’s wholly unprecedented. The last time you bought a Coke in Tomorrowland was there a novella-worthy backstory for your crushed ice?
And this is all before talking about the land’s premiere attraction (for now), Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run. Nestled in a corner of Galaxy’s Edge is the Millennium Falcon. Not some kind of oversized prop or replica. This is it. You can see into the cockpit. It occasionally malfunctions (don’t worry, Chewbacca is pretty handy) and even blows steam. As you snake your way through the queue for the attraction, which is filled with so many Easter eggs that your brain will hurt, plus one of the most advanced and lifelike audio-animatronic figures you’ve ever seen, you’ll get even better views of the Falcon. There isn’t a bad angle on the old hunk of junk. For the attraction itself, you and five of your friends will each be assigned a position – there are two gunners, two mechanics and two pilots. (The pilot on the right gets to “punch it” and engage the hyperdrive, just so you know.) The ride experience is half videogame, half Star Tours, with a screen in front of your cockpit that reactions, tilting this way and that, depending on how your pilot flies, your gunners shoot and your engineers perform. The storyline from the ride is equal parts inspired by elements of the cartoons and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (whoops) but if you have only passing familiarity with either, you’ll still have a great time. It’s a thrill. And, in keeping with the overwhelming interactivity of the rest of the land, when you leave the cockpit the rest of the ship will show signs of either your careful piloting or general recklessness. If you see sparks, then it might be time to go back and try again.
And that’s really the feeling that Galaxy’s Edge leaves you with (and one of the reasons I’ve tried not to get too specific here) – it promotes discovery and rediscovery. I spent an entire day there and only feel like I’ve scratched the surface (and not just because I didn’t do the lightsaber-building scenario). I can’t wait to go back, again and again, and find out even more about the mysterious planet of Batuu. Quite frankly, the four hours that they are currently allowing scheduled guests to visit the land won’t even come close to scratching the surface. This is something unlike anything else in themed entertainment. Quite frankly, it’s in a galaxy all its own.