It sure has felt like a long wait since Disney CEO Bob Iger announced grand new Star Wars-themed areas (later revealed to be named Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge) for Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World back at D23 Expo 2015. Over the following three and a half years, new details have slowly trickled out about the 14-acre expansions currently under construction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the original Disneyland in 2019: upon opening they will both incorporate two E-ticket attractions— Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance– plus a fully realized, bustling city set on the now-canon planet Batuu, complete with a marketplace, character meet-and-greets, and of course a cantina.
But the most intriguing aspect of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge concerns a buzzword that has perhaps popped up too often in recent discussions of theme park design– its immersive nature. The word “immersive” has, in fact, become so overused that it can mean any number of things, and has been employed to describe virtual reality experiences, pop-up activations at comic conventions, and even promotional websites. But a growing live theater movement in major cities around the US has probably best utilized and exemplified the term, plucking enthusiastic patrons from their everyday lives and depositing them for hours at a time in entirely separate realities, removed from the restraints of a stage or screen. And immersive theater is, to my understanding based on panel discussions I’ve seen at the parks and Star Wars Celebration, the burgeoning art form Disney Imagineers have borrowed from the most in developing Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Upon stepping through the entrance to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge this year, Disney Parks guests can expect to enter Star Wars and leave the rest of their Disney vacation (not to mention that pesky real world) behind. Cast Members will be in character, acting as inhabitants of Batuu, all food and beverage options will be in-universe, and– maybe best of all– visitors will be able to participate in their own stories. I’ve said this a number of times already, but if the immersive elements of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are executed well enough (and I have almost every reason to believe they will be) the actual rides themselves may become afterthoughts, something to do in between living, eating, and breathing Star Wars.
That’s why a tiny bit of concern began to creep in– nothing to make me anticipate Galaxy’s Edge any less eagerly, but enough to give me brief pause about this specific choice– when Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek recently revealed at D23’s Destination D event how guests will manipulate many of the interactive features around Batuu: via the use of the company’s newly launched Play Disney Parks app, which has been in active use since this past summer on both coasts. Play Disney Parks is a free-to-download platform “designed for families and guests to enjoy together” that “enables everyone to join in on the fun” as guests “turn wait time into play time with all-new interactive experiences and activities created for select attraction queues.” Which in my opinion is all well and good while killing time before boarding Toy Story Midway Mania or Peter Pan’s Flight, but to me holds vastly different ramifications when integrated into the functionality of the intricately designed new Star Wars areas.
When I think of “immersive” in most of the ways I have truly known that concept as it applies to aesthetic experiences, my first instinct is to put away my phone, not to take it out. When attending shows like Delusion, Wicked Lit, or The Willows in Los Angeles, phones are often taken away at check-in or at the very least considered incredibly poor form to use during the performance. I don’t expect a theme park to be like a darkened movie theater, where no-phone policies should be (though frequently are not) enforced at all times– obviously this is a different animal– but I also don’t want to have to use an app on my iPhone in order to get everything possible out of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Though I must regularly use my phone for work while at the parks, my ideal Galaxy’s Edge experience would unquestionably involve turning my devices off at the door and getting completely lost in that world. In my estimation, the base level of thinking there should have been if something does not exist in Star Wars, it shouldn’t be an integral part of these lands. I don’t see Chewbacca using a phone to fix the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive, or R2-D2 opening an app to interface with the Death Star’s computer system. Look at how Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter uses thematically in-universe interactive wands to activate the various “magic spell” locations around Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. There could have easily been an alternative Star Wars-esque device (something Disney could have handsomely profited off of, which makes this all the more baffling) using existing MagicBand technology that would make far more sense as a ubiquitous presence in the Batuu city streets.
We’re about six months out from the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland here in Southern California, and I still wholeheartedly believe it will be the defining moment of my adulthood. My two favorite things in the world: Disney theme park design and Star Wars storytelling, are uniting in what may possibly come to fruition as the ultimate expression of both art forms. I can’t help but be beyond excited as I count down the days, but I also want to retain my absolute confidence that the Imagineering minds behind the architecture and execution of these unprecedented lands are making the best choices in every step of the process. And while I am hesitant about the idea of using the Play Disney Parks app to bring Galaxy’s Edge to life, I have to give Disney the benefit of the doubt and reassure myself that the powers that be at WDI know what they’re doing.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens this summer at Disneyland Resort and late fall at Walt Disney World.
Mike has been fascinated by theme parks and Disney all his life. He has worked in the entertainment journalism field since 2015, after spending a decade as a film projectionist at one of Hollywood’s most prestigious movie theaters. He resides in Burbank, California with his wife and cat.