Disney makes the jump to light speed in theme park design

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Mouse Fan Travel CEO Beci Mahnken sitting at the iconic Dejarik game table on the queue of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
Mouse Fan Travel CEO Beci Mahnken sitting at the iconic Dejarik game table on the queue of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Travel advisors are confident their customers will be enchanted by Disneyland's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. As Jedi master Yoda might say, "Like it, guests will."

The 14-acre Galaxy's Edge, the largest single-theme attraction Disney has ever introduced, is located in the northwest corner of Disneyland here. An almost identical Galaxy's Edge will open Aug. 29 at Hollywood Studios in the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

"I think this is a home run," said Sue Pisaturo, founder and president of Small World Vacations in Washington Township, N.J. "I can't wait to tell our guests about it."

Beci Mahnken, president and CEO of MEI-Travel and Mouse Fan Travel in Issaquah, Wash., agreed.

"The Disney Imagineers have truly raised the bar in terms of an immersive experience," Mahnken said. "The amazing creative detail gives a new perspective on a familiar environment from the movies, and it is refreshing."

Both advisors lauded Galaxy's Edge, which is set in Black Spire Outpost, a shady spaceport on the planet Batuu. 

The planet has yet to be seen in a "Star Wars" film. That was a deliberate decision, according to Scott Trowbridge, creative executive with Walt Disney Imagineering. Disney, he said, wanted to build a new place that guests could use as a backdrop to their own adventures. The land was also designed to be an attraction in itself.

Referencing Disney's original ticketing system in which guests would purchase tickets for attractions labeled from A to E, with A being the tamest rides and E being the most adventurous, Trowbridge said, "You can think of [the land] as its own E ticket attraction."

"I thought it was mind-blowing, I really did," Pisaturo said. "The creative genius that went into it went down to the most minute detail."

Things like cast members with their own "Star Wars" back stories and interactive retail experiences throughout add to the immersion at Galaxy's Edge.

First look: Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland

Mahnken said, "I spent the majority of my time just wandering and discovering the details that pulled me further into the experience, from just taking in the rich environment to talking to the cast members, who created their back stories themselves, to building my own lightsaber. It was all so entertaining and emotionally engaging that the four-hour reservation time was not nearly enough."

Through June 23, guests must have a reservation to visit Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland. They are admitted to the land in four-hour increments. Mahnken and Pisaturo, who were there on opening day, both gave Disneyland high marks for organization and a good overall system.

Bob Chambers is the founder and co-CEO of the Producers Group, a company that offers consulting and design services to theme parks and produces attractions around the world. He said Disney is a leader in the industry and is consistently good at sharing its intellectual property over as many channels as possible. 

"Galaxy's Edge is an extension of that," Chambers said. "It's a synergy from the fact that they bought Lucasfilm. They are fortunate enough to have done Star Tours rides in the old days with Lucasfilm and had that history. But then to take this and go to the next level, it's a brilliant use of their intellectual property."

Chambers said Galaxy's Edge represents a next level of immersion for Disney, the likes of which the theme park world first saw with Universal's "Harry Potter" lands.

"What makes it kick up a notch is the number of staff, the live-actor engagement," he said. "You're now introducing better technology storytelling through mobile and the interactivity, which is amazing. So it's almost like they took what's been done and said, 'How do we take it to the next step,' which is a big deal for them."

Chambers added, "Their other lands have not been this integrated and have not been this immersive, so this is a big deal not only for them but for the whole industry. It's another milestone, basically, a benchmark that we now all have to figure out if we can meet or exceed."

The land also holds the appeal of a popular franchise spanning generations. 

A fan of "Star Wars" since she was a teen, Mahnken said the land "exceeded my expectations." She enjoyed walking the corridors of the Millennium Falcon and piloting the legendary spaceship as part of the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run attraction, and her experience in the land was amplified with its food and beverage options (including the franchise's iconic blue milk) and the cast members who play the role of residents of Batuu.

"You almost forget you are in a theme park, especially because the sightlines to anything outside the experience are pretty well hidden," she said.

Galaxy's Edge isn't just for die-hard Star Wars fans, though. Pisaturo said she doesn't count herself among the film series' superfans, but she enjoyed the land nonetheless.

She recalled, "I thought, 'Am I going to be left out of the story because I'm not the greatest Star Wars fan?' But I really felt that I could get into the story. They made it easy enough for the average guest to engage without knowing every [facet of the story]. ... I felt like it was really fun."

Galaxy's Edge isn't just a one-time thing for Disney. In both the area in Disneyland and the area that will open in Disney World at the end of August, a second ride -- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance -- will open later this year. Disney has called that ride its most technically advanced ever. There will also be a Star Wars hotel opening at Walt Disney World.

Guests can also use the Play Disney Parks app to further immerse themselves in Galaxy's Edge, using it to translate languages, interact with the world around them and even gain a reputation depending on their performance on Smugglers Run.

"Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge has set a new bar for attention to detail," Mahnken said. That started with projects like Cars Land in its California Adventure park in 2012 and Pandora -- The World of Avatar in Disney World's Animal Kingdom in 2017. Those, she said, "were certainly on that trajectory, but the added components of the citizens' stories, the immersive story and the app that lets you scan items and even hack into systems have created a new watermark for what's next."

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