The Force was with me! During my recent trip to California for the DelliVR conference, I had the opportunity to visit Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Park in Anaheim. Although this website is devoted to immersive technology (including virtual reality), I thought it would be interesting to cover an immersive entertainment experience that’s more “real” than “virtual.”
Although Galaxy’s Edge offers minimal use of virtual reality in a traditional sense, it’s main attraction does incorporate some VR elements (more on this below). Much like the rest of Disneyland, and theme parks in general, the entire environment is a “real” experience in which elaborate sets, props, and “cast members” are all working together to convey the illusion that you have traveled to another time and place: the planet Batuu, on the outskirts of the galaxy.
Disney and Universal are undoubtedly experts at creating immersive experiences in highly themed environments. Galaxy’s Edge is no exception, and at this point in time it serves as the pinnacle of theme park experiences available anywhere.
No headset required
When Walt Disney created Disneyland in 1955, he invented a brand new category of entertainment. For the first time, visitors could enter worlds of fantasy and adventure, or travel into the past and future, simply by passing through the gates of his new theme park. This was “virtual reality” long before computer simulations were invented. The objective of Disneyland was to immerse visitors in environments that transported them to other times and places. Through the use of elaborate set design, special effects, and costumed cast members, Disneyland managed to create virtual worlds out of brick and mortar.
From 1955 until today, Disney and Universal have evolved the theme park experience to include much more detail, immersion, and interactivity in the various “lands” of their parks. Notable examples of such immersive environments include Cars Land (Disney California Adventure), The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Universal Orlando/Hollywood), and Pandora, the World of Avatar (Disney’s Animal Kingdom). As each of these attractions have launched over the years since 2010, they have truly raised the bar for theme park design by both companies.
Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is comparable to Universal’s Wizarding World, as far as the high degree of immersion and interactivity provided. However, Galaxy’s Edge has gone the extra mile in creating back stories for its cast members, in order to truly bring life to the world of Batuu. Guests can interact with cast members and learn various greetings, such as “Bright Suns” (good day), or “Rising Moons” (good evening). Cast members are trained to remain in character when interacting with guests, to avoid spoiling the illusion.
Various shops and eateries are present, all themed in the world of Star Wars. There’s even a cantina that serves Blue Milk, one of the other-worldly beverages depicted in the films. Opportunities to build your own lightsaber or astromech droid are also present, for those who wish to spend the credits. Iconic characters like Chewbacca, Rey, Kylo Ren and stormtroopers make appearances throughout the day, interacting with guests in authentic encounters which outperform the typical “meet and greet” experiences found in the rest of Disneyland.
The main attraction
Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is currently the only “ride” available in Galaxy’s Edge. A second attraction (Rise of the Resistance) will be launched at Disneyland in January 2020.
Smuggler’s Run is probably the most authentic recreation of a movie experience ever presented in a theme park attraction. A great example of immersive storytelling, this attraction fully engages guests via visual, tactile, and auditory features that combine to create the illusion that you are actually piloting the Millennium Falcon. The use of elaborate architecture, vehicle/set design, props, sound effects, and CGI video all contribute to the effectiveness of this experience.
To compare it to a typical VR experience, Smuggler’s Run surpasses anything currently available in VR today. The ride is experienced in a life-size cockpit (exactly as depicted in the Star Wars films) which serves as a motion simulator. This enables the physical sensations of traveling through space, by making quick dives and turns through various planetary and space environments. The experience is also enhanced with interactive elements, where each of the six crew members can participate by pressing various buttons or levers to perform specific tasks.
Lessons in VR design
Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge has raised the bar for location based entertainment. While the LBVR industry is also thriving with venues such as The VOID and Dreamscape, they simply cannot replicate the tactile, visual, and physical elements offered at Galaxy’s Edge. Although Disneyland’s new themed area has a limited number of attractions and activities, it has effectively created a sense of reality unmatched by VR.
Because of its ability to efficiently manage multiple guests at a time, Galaxy’s Edge succeeds as a social, multi-player immersive environment. A microcosm of real-world role playing, it includes many elements that would be right at home in a multi-user VR game. Comparing it to current social VR platforms like VRChat, Disneyland’s new Star Wars land provides many features that could potentially enhance those platforms by introducing more organized activities and structured gameplay.
Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is a truly amazing achievement. As a life-long fan of the films (ever since I was a ten-year-old in 1977), I felt like I was exploring the biggest Star Wars playset ever created. Disney has created an immersive environment that captures the feeling of being present in those films, using physical and tactile elements that simply cannot be reproduced in VR.
The unfortunate “reality” is that such environments are few and far between, and can only be produced with exorbitant amounts of money. The good news is that VR has the potential to enable the creation of comparable experiences without spending billions of dollars. Let’s hope for the continued passion and hard work of talented artists, designers, and technologists collaborating to create the virtual worlds of our dreams.
Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.