It’s possibly the boldest undertaking in the entire history of theme parks – a fully immersive land where guests can create their own story in the Star Wars universe.
The multi-billion-dollar Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – which opened first at Disneyland in Anaheim in May last year and later at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando in August – is set on the Black Spire Outpost on the wild frontier planet of Batuu. It features attractions, shops, restaurants and entertainment offerings all as one immersive experience for its visitors.
Offering a rare glimpse behind the Disney curtain, BRC Imagination Arts’ Bob Rogers gathered four of Disney’s top Imagineers for the annual IAAPA Legends Panel to share knowledge and stories learned from bringing the game-changing experience to life.
Scott Trowbridge has an extensive background in the creation of themed design and immersive experiences. Having worked as vice president of the creative division of Universal, he helped to develop The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride and some of the early concepts for Harry Potter’s theme park attractions. Now, as portfolio creative executive for Disney Imagineering, Trowbridge integrates Star Wars content across all lines of business at Disney’s Parks and Resorts division, and had a key role in the creation of Galaxy’s Edge.
“People have been dreaming about stepping into this world for more than 40 years,” he said. “We know that our Star Wars fans are very passionate, as are our Disney Parks fans. Finding a way to please both of those audiences – which has a significant overlap – was an awesome task. Entire families have this love of Star Wars, which is being passed on from generation to generation. There’s this wish fulfilment to step into this world. Making that dream come true was definitely an intimidating prospect.”
Second in the Legends line-up was Margaret Kerrison, managing story editor at Disney Imagineering and alumni of BRC. In her role, she is responsible for the overall story direction and integration for projects in the Star Wars portfolio. For Galaxy’s Edge, she served as the story lead, working closely with other Imagineers and Lucasfilm to create an authentic, compelling and interconnected universe, “keeping the hundreds of Star Wars stories straight as they move across all of the mediums and platforms”. According to Kerrison, the land is set up to tell new stories well into the future.
“The team at Lucasfilm were incredible to work with,” she explained. “They helped us shape the slate of our programming and it’s not over.
“We’re looking at the future of storytelling for Galaxy’s Edge above and beyond what you see today. There are many moments where we say ‘we’re not ready to tell this particular story right here, right now, so let’s hold on to that and keep it in our pockets’. It’s being able to connect all of those formats because we’re building one universe. These stories speak to one another.”
Anisha Deshmane was the newest member of Imagineering to be on the panel. Joining Disney in 2018, the MIT-educated assistant producer for Imagineering was recruited to help achieve new levels of interactive experience at Galaxy’s Edge. Her approach saw the creation of “unique customised experiences” that were designed to feel special for each individual visitor.
“It’s a new way of telling a story that hasn’t been done like this before,” she said. “We wanted our guests to feel like they had a place in the world, to feel like they could make a difference. Having everyone now bringing a little computer in their pockets – a smartphone – was a very helpful way to enhance that experience.”
Deshmane helped to develop Star Wars: Datapad – an extension of the Play Disney Parks app that allowed interactivity with the land – helping to enhance the Star Wars story.
“It was something all of the creative teams were thinking about,” she said. “There are a lot of things you can find with the app that are off the beaten path that I think people don’t expect. You can use that knowledge of how to interact with the space around you to take on jobs for characters in the land as well.
“It touches on every single aspect of how the land functions. It’s its own attraction and it breaks that boundary of ‘wait in a queue, go on a ride, come out the other side, buy a souvenir’. It’s something that begins to be its own experience and can be something you spend multiple hours doing.”
No stone unturned
Imagineering’s portfolio director, Chris Beatty, was one of the creative directors in charge of development at Galaxy’s Edge, as well as acting as a senior designer for the physically built environment. Now the creative lead for Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Beatty said that the design process didn’t leave a stone unturned, with “no thread to unravel” the immersive experience.
“I’m one of those people who grew up getting actions figures for Christmas, waiting in line to go and see Empire Strikes Back,” he said. “This was an amazing opportunity with an incredible responsibility to Star Wars fans. We had to get this right and we had to create something that was new and unique.”
In planning and design, Beatty said that the approach to the land was to make it accessible for all generations and all visitors, from the most dedicated Star Wars fans to someone coming with fresh eyes.
“Star Wars for me is not necessarily Star Wars for my 10-year-old son,” he explained. “His Star Wars now is The Mandalorian. It’s Episodes 7, 8 and 9. That really was something we discussed as a team when we started this process. How do we make this experience something that’s for everyone? Something that no matter where you are in the franchise, where you’re coming in, that there’s a Star Wars for you.”
On planning and design, Beatty also revealed that a new approach was taken for Galaxy’s Edge. A traditional approach would have seen the land created, with elements such as merchandise, entertainment and food and beverage added in afterwards. For this project, Imagineering brought these partners in from day one.
“It’s no longer baking up a concept and then bringing it to our partners,” he said. “Having, for example, entertainment at the table means we can show them our design and they tell us what it might be great to do with a certain space one day. Our partners felt like they could go away and work on their individual guest experiences while we were almost ‘baking them into the cake’ that is Galaxy’s Edge.”
One of the key things that makes Galaxy’s Edge stand out in the attractions world is the attention to detail in the visitor experience. Down to the way food is presented and merchandise is sold, everything within the land is designed to feel like it belongs.
“We stopped thinking in terms of ‘that’s a ride’ or ‘that’s merchandise’ and started thinking about everything more like attractions,” said Beatty.
“If you think about food and beverage, you usually spend more time sitting in a restaurant than you do riding a ride, so shouldn’t that experience, especially for grandma and grandpa, or kids who can’t go on big thrill rides, be just as immersive? Having a meal or going shopping should be just as impactful, have just as much depth and story. You can’t look at these things as secondary experiences.”
With the added level of immersion using the Datapad, Deshmane says that if they choose to, visitors can be an active part in their own unique adventure.
“One of the things I enjoy about Star Wars is, yes there are people who are galactic heroes and members of the resistance but there are also people who own shops and people who are mechanics. There are so many stories referenced in different media but this is the first time you get to see regular normal everyday characters.
“It’s you in the land. Your actions manifest as your story,” she said. “Everyone wants to do something a little different. You might want to go and hack a droid, or hang out at Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities and have a conversation with him. It’s your choice as to how your story plays out.”
The Galaxy’s Edge journey aims to wow visitors and arguably succeeds, with only Universal’s Harry Potter attractions comparable in the attention to detail placed on the new theme park land. To achieve this level of ‘wow’, the Imagineering team took a page out of the Hollywood playbook, creating visuals comparable to a blockbuster movie.
“The journey is built-in everything, right down to the architecture and planning,” said Beatty. “When you walk into the land, we’ve set these giant vistas, these establishing shots just as we do in film. It was painting after painting of just trying to get that moment right. When you enter the land, we give you a choice. You can go left or you can go right. You take that choice and then we press you back down into a smaller space. You go through an arch, which pushes your visibility down, then we open that space back up and you get another moment of ‘arrival’.”
While Hollywood might have inspired some of the ideas and techniques, it was purely Star Wars that inspired the land itself.
“We decided very quickly that our best approach was not to do a book report and to not tell someone else’s story,” said Trowbridge. “We instead created an expansive universe that had lots of stories to tell, many of which are still coming, and then working out how to tell those stories through the mediums at our disposal.
“On 5 December we opened a new attraction inviting you to join the Resistance. There are other things coming. You also have books, games and a way that you can tell a threaded experience using all these different mediums. We’re just getting started.”