Disneyland’s new adventures in Batuu go far, far beyond the Star Wars Ride

If you haven’t heard about the new addition to California’s Disneyland, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, by now, it’s likely you have been living under a space rock. The level of hype about the new attraction – which as we pointed out when it opened was just one single ride – has been the highest I’ve ever experienced for something theme park related; and it’s been eagerly anticipated since the moment it was announced in August 2015. So the questions to answer are: what exactly did Disneyland deliver, and does the experience live up to the hype?

But before we answer those questions, we need to look at how substantial this addition to the park really is. Disneyland’s original California location has never been one to enjoy massive expansions, due in part to the historical significance of the park and a notable desire to maintain the original vision of Walt Disney, being the only one to open in his lifetime. In fact, the last expansion of the park was when Toontown opened at the north end of the park in 1993. Prior to that, the two major additions were when Critter Country was introduced in 1974 (at the time known as Bear Country), replacing a section of Frontierland known as “Indian Village”, and New Orleans Square – home to the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion rides – in 1966; the only expansion Walt Disney oversaw, replacing a short lived section of the park called “Holidayland”.

After 1993, the focus of the Anaheim location turned to a second park, taking over the mammoth parking lot that served as the inspiration for the Itchy and Scratchy parking lot in the infamous “Itchy & Scratchy Land” episode of The Simpsons, to give some cultural context. Originally they were looking to create a west coast version of the Epcot Center (dubbed “WestCOT”), though in February 2001 they opened California Adventure, an exclusive concept for the resort, with rides and lands that aren’t replicated anywhere else in the Disneyland universe. A massive outdoor roller coaster and Ferris Wheel served as the park’s central visual stimuli on what is now known as Pixar Pier.

Pixar Pier circa 2019 (Photo by the Author)

For a variety of reasons, the park didn’t launch with the success they had anticipated. In fact, it took them 11 years, a lot of updates, and in particular the launch of Cars Land in 2012, to reach the attendance they had forecast for year one of the park. And though they continue to update California Adventure, with Marvel Land set to open next year, the comfortable yet delayed success of the park finally allowed them to start thinking back to their stronghold and answer the question – what’s next for Disneyland? The answer came in 2012, when Disney acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise, and three years later they announced plans to bring a Star Wars themed land to their Anaheim and Orlando locations.

Though the scale of the land was unparalleled, this wasn’t the first time the brand had been given a presence at the park – the iconic Star Tours ride already a stable at Disneyland parks around the world, first debuting in California in 1987. Interestingly, it was the first licensed franchise to appear as a Disney attraction. Perhaps the writing was on the wall all along?

What was a first for the park, however, was that plans were drawn up to bring the new land to both Anaheim’s Disneyland and Orlando’s Hollywood Studios with an identical 14.1 acre footprint, in the same year. The former would open at the end of May, and the latter in August, with two key attractions initially planned, both among the most technologically advanced attractions to ever step foot in Disneyland, or any park for that matter. But the key to the new land – which is centred on the fictional planet of Batuu – was to do more than just present a couple of new rides. It was to do what Disney parks do best: create a completely immersive, interactive experience. But the extent to which they were to do this had never been attempted by the Parks – in fact, it would be fair to expect that a lot of the inspiration for what Galaxy’s Edge came not from their own parks, but from what Universal Studios had done so successfully with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in Orlando in 2010.

In the past, though the theme of a world may have been realistic, immersive and fantastical, it was always clear you were in a theme park. Stores may have been themed, but the staff were clearly park employees. Food courts were just that, and there was often disconnect between the “land”, and the rides themselves, with a contained experience (think the Jurassic Park Ride at Universal Studios), be it for a couple of people in costumes floating nearby. But now – as with the Wizarding World – they wanted you to feel like you had left the park and entered a new reality. In Orlando’s Diagon Alley, you can go into the shop fronts from the books and movies, and enter Gringott’s Bank for the sole ride of that section of the park. Those working in the storefronts are selling real merchandise from the films, but they’re often also actors, there to help you choose your wand (which you can purchase for a nominal fee), which you can actually use to interact with the world around you (a stroke of genius by any stretch of the imagination). While the Gringott’s Bank ride was remarkable, it was the land itself that was the real attraction. True immersion unlike we’d ever seen. Well, until now.

In a classic act of “we’ll take your Harry Potter and raise you a Star War”, the Imagineers at Disney (the real name given to those who design rides and attractions at the parks), took that concept and aimed to perfect it, bringing one of the most iconic franchises of all time along with them for the literal ride. The result is Disneyland’s biggest park expansion in history, and a self contained universe that allows you to interact with the legacy of Star Wars in truly remarkable fashion.

The ride, Millenium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, certainly sits at the centre of the area, with a life size recreation of the iconic vehicle sitting against it. Guests are encouraged to take a photo in front of it, and occasionally you might be lucky enough to see Chewbacca emerge from it. An actress who looks remarkably like Daisey Ridley is often by his side as Rey. You’ll see them in the distance, repairing ships, and sometimes they’ll come and interact with you. Chewy usually seemed to be in a bad mood, and dismissed guests who wanted a photo, as he ran from one section to the next, while Rey was on a mission to to fix a droid, and asked us for assistance. When she saw your phone for the inevitable selfie request, she’d refer to it as a “data pack”, and if you weren’t careful, Kylo Ren and a selection of Stormtroopers may demand identification (also a clever way to ensure guests weren’t trying to enter before their allotted time, while the park was running on a timed ticketed system for its first month).

Near where you can purchase a lightsaber, Jedi trainees are practicing their moves, only to be broken up by Stormtroopers. It’s seems to be a scripted scenario that can happen when you least suspect it. Similarly, you’ll find some entertaining interplay between Kylo and the Stormtroopers when they engage with guests. And this is all happening in the streets of the planet – to a level of detail and planning I’ve never seen in any themed attraction, even in the Wizarding World.

This experience is amplified indoors, within store fronts that are often hidden, and different from other souvenir outlets in that they’re often dedicated to a particular type of toy or experience. There’s a stall dedicated to animals of the fluffy, furry and occasionally animatronic variety.

There’s a place you can build droids, purchase a lightsaber, and a cantina where you can have an alcoholic cocktail, or try the franchises famous blue milk (which is basically a frappe made out of coconut milk, ensuring vegans will be happy and also tasting pretty good), while a robot (not unlike the one who piloted the Star Tours vessels) DJs for guests.

The expanse of Batuu is disguised cleverly, too, with ships seen off in the distance that can’t be accessed by guests, and other implemented tricks that make you feel like the world is ever expansive and never ending. The immersion is truly remarkable even by Disneyland standards, and being someone in their 30s who had their mind regularly blown away by the experience, I can only imagine being a little kid, interacting with the good guys and the bad guys, choosing your side and getting to live out your Star Wars fantasy on a scale that will probably confuse you about what is real, and what is not. Whether or not that will warp your fragile little mind is up for debate, though it’ll certainly damage your parent’s wallets. But can you truly put a price on happiness? Disney have long held the belief that yes, yes you can.

Honestly, the land itself is so impressive, by the time you board the Falcon, you would have understood if it was just an afterthought – but it is anything but. This is the most interactive ride experience ever implemented – with six passengers on every voyage helping make the decisions on what you see and experience.

To get there, after you finish lining up with your group, you get to enjoy the scale recreation of the Falcon – and take a quick photo at the iconic game board – before they call your group colour and you walk through the corridors to jump into one of three positions on the vessel. Will you sit in the pilot’s chair, which gives you the ability to drive the ship, the gunner’s seat, in which you shoot everything around you, or the engineer’s seat, where you fix the mistakes of the rest of the crew by way of pressing flashing buttons, and help achieve the mission of the ride, capturing some boxes or something.

There’s so much going on it’s hard to know what we did or didn’t do except to know we didn’t do a great job and we crashed a couple of times. In the truest sense of the word, this is an experience which demands replay. The visuals as you go to light speed and fly through the environments, matched with precision by movement of the vessel, are remarkable too – you’ve never been this in control of an interactive experience like this before. It’s an absolute blast, and as they work to explain the ride better and improve the load in procedure, it’s an experience that will only keep getting better.

This experience also extends digitally through the Disney Play app, which allows guests to treat the whole experience like a video game – gaining points both within the app and through riding the Falcon, choosing whether to align with the empire or the resistance, and interacting with other aspects of the attraction.

For now, Smuggler’s Run is the sole ride in the park, but another (Rise of Resistance) is expected to open before the end of the year, simultaneously at both parks – once again pushing technical boundaries and bringing a level of interactivity that continues on the theme of making Galaxy’s Edge the most immersive landscape ever to set foot in any theme park, anywhere on the planet.

We expect to hear more about when this ride will open, and some more about its features, at the D23 event in August – around the time Orlando’s location will open. And I can only imagine how incredible the Star Wars Hotel out there is going to be when that opens in 2020 or 2021. If the land is anything to go by, they’re going to reinvent the Hotel experience, too – they’ve already indicated guests will be provided costumes and the spaceship theme will extend to the fact you’ll look out into space from your room. So, this is going to be pretty special.

The groundbreaking Star Wars resort hotel coming to Walt Disney World Resort is a multi-day, fully immersive adventure will take guests aboard a luxury starship with all the features expected of a first-class hotel, including dining, recreation, and accommodations, all authentic to the Star Wars universe. (Disney)

So, did the ride and its land live up to expectation? Honestly it smashed it out of the park (pun intended). The level of interactivity, be it with the actual characters from the movies, in the ride itself, or through the app and wider Disney experience, is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. It takes what Disney Parks do best, with the inspiration of their competition (and maybe even a little bit of Westworld), and sets a new benchmark for what is possible for themed lands around the world.

Oh and if you thought that was it for additions in Anaheim for now, think again. As mentioned, California Adventure will see a Marvel Land open in 2020 – following on from the recent additions to its Hong Kong counterpark. This week, the park also just saw the launch of a new ride, Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind, which sits on Pixar Pier and is the first ride to be taken from the popular Pixar movie. It’s technically a refit of Flik’s Flyers, a ride that was taken down last year from the former Bug’s Life themed area, but is nonetheless bringing a bit of extra family fun to the park while everyone’s eyes are on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Within Disneyland, there’s been an upgrade of the iconic Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, too – a new paint job and other enhancements that had seen the iconic structure closed for more than 5 months. It’s all part of the park’s wider “Project Stardust”, which is essentially a rebeautification project, and keen eyes will see some of that stardust on the castle itself. Though chances are most park enthusiasts may be a bit too busy enjoying the star dust in Galaxy’s Edge to notice. Beyond this, the next ride planned to open in the park is “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway”, which will open in Toontown in 2022 – the first new ride in that section since January 1994 saw the opening of Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin (still one of the most popular rides in the park).

Oh and if you’re wondering whether or not Star Wars Land will make an appearance at any other Disney Park around the world, the only plans are to introduce a smaller version of Galaxy’s Edge into Walt Disney Studios in Paris – but it will still be a couple of years at least before it launches, and it looks like only half of the land – the part dedicated to the Rise of the Resistance ride – will be implemented. But for now, California is waiting.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is open now at Disneyland in California, and is available to all ticket holders. For more details head to Disneyland.com.

While at Disneyland we stayed at the Anaheim Marriott, across the street from the Disneyland Resort and next to the Convention Centre. Headline photo and app screenshot provided by Disney, and map from archival material. All other photos by the author. 

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.