By HEATHER GREENWOOD DAVIS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
ANAHEIM, CALIF. -- It's a galaxy so far away, even Luke Skywalker never expected to see it.
At the opening ceremony of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland on Wednesday, Mark Hamill, the actor who plays Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise, told the crowd he didn't think anything could top Star Tours, the ride that opened at the theme park in 1987.
But he was wrong.
"Look at where we are today," the actor said, standing in front of a 30-metre-long replica of the Millennium Falcon, alongside fellow actors Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford, Disney chief executive officer Robert Iger and Star Wars creator George Lucas.
"We get our own land!"
It's true. Batuu - a realm on the outer reaches of the universe - is the name of the newest land to open at the California theme park. The 14-acre site is the largest and most technologically advanced single-themed land expansion in Disney's history.
And while Luke, Lando and Han may have been invited to the party, the character at the centre of this story is the guest.
"From the very beginning, we always knew that we wanted Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge to be a place where you could live your own Star Wars adventure," explains Rachel Sherbill, a producer at Walt Disney Imagineering. "You know the stories of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and all of those characters so well. We wanted to create a place where you could actually be able to live your own adventure and explore new places that had not yet been seen on film."
Previews and drawings of the land have been circulating for years but they do little justice to actually walking in and seeing it for yourself.
From the moment you enter Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, it feels like you've walked right into a movie, not a mere movie set.
Sure, Google Maps places me in Anaheim, Calif., in a corner of Disneyland that is within walking distance of Sleeping Beauty Castle and an Uber ride away from Target, but mention those words to anyone in the land and they'll shrug, wish you "Bright Sun," and recommend you head to the Droid Depot for a companion. Or that you rethink any temptation to join the First Order as stormtroopers head your way.
The look and feel of the land is equally encompassing. Realistic rockwork facades tower high above, shutting the area off from views of anything outside of it.
And at its centre, the first fullsize, 100-per-cent complete model of a Millennium Falcon sits parked in the Black Spire Outpost spaceport, sporting every dent and scratch you remember from the films. Board it for a chance to sit in the cockpit and steer the ship on a mission to collect coaxium to help the Resistance. (It's the first of two rides in the land. The second, Rise of the Resistance, is scheduled to open later this year.)
If it all feels familiar, it should.
Doug Chiang, a designer and artist with Lucasfilms, shares that much of the land's look and feel come from scouting visits to Marrakech and Istanbul.
Everything from the shapes of the buildings to the way drapery hangs across ceilings in the Black Spire Outpost's market to the detailed way that food and toys are laid out in carts, bring back memories of spice and fruit markets abroad.
"The audience instinctively knows that this feels real," Chiang says.
And walking through Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is an allsenses experience, from the rattling and humming of machines you pass, to finally being able to taste the blue milk that has its roots in the original Star Wars film.
Guests who opt to download the Play Disney Parks app and use it in the land get an even greater level of interaction.
Among the options are the chance to hack into door panels, install or remove surveillance cameras - depending on which side you've aligned yourself with - or translate signs written in the planet's native language of Aurebesh.
Guests might even overhear snippets of conversation between locals about themselves as they pass. It's a very personal and specific experience.
And there is more.
"Among my personal favourite things is our Droid Depot shop where you'll actually be able to build and customize your own personal droid," Sherbill says.
The assembly plant allows you to select the parts and pieces of your BB- or R-series droid and build it yourself. There are more than 280,000 possible combinations. Activate your droid and it will come to life and interact with the village as you explore.
You won't find anything with a Star Wars logo in the shops here, either. Instead, unique logos and products that play into the look and feel of life on Batuu are for sale in the markets. Most of the items here won't be found anywhere outside the land, either.
The entire thing was a risky endeavour: Combining fans of Disney and fans of Star Wars requires an unprecedented level of attention. The smallest forgotten detail could break the fourth wall and render the entire project a failure.
The team left nothing to chance. Even the drone tracks you see, seemingly fossilized into the ground, are authentic. Replicas were made from original droids such as the R2D2 portrayed by Kenny Baker in the films.
Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opens to the public Friday, but unless you were able to snag a reservation you won't get in until after June 24 when virtual queues will attempt to regulate entry.
The true test will be to see if Disney can deliver the kind of personal attention that I felt in the land, when the population of Batuu hits maximum capacity in a few weeks.
Special to The Globe and Mail The writer travelled as a guest of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
It did not review or approve this article.
CAN'T GET INTO GALAXY'S EDGE RIGHT AWAY?
GET YOUR STAR WARS FIX IN TOMORROWLAND Star Tours: Join C-3PO on a runaway flight through some of your favourite Star Wars landscapes.
Star Wars Launch Bay: Snap photos with a huggable Chewbacca or a mildly irritated Darth Vader.
Star Traders: Purchase Star Wars logo gear and more at the gift shop built for fans.
MADE IT TO BATUU?
DON'T LEAVE WITHOUT DOING THESE THINGS Make: Build a droid at Black Spire Outpost's Droid Depot. Grab a spot on the assembly line to design and customize your perfect BB- or R-series companion. (Droids start at US$99.99, but "personality-affiliation chips" and accessories are extra.) Or, head over to Savi's Workshop to design your own lightsabre.
You'll pay just more than US$200 for the privilege of having your own handcrafted device.
Eat: If you've been dying to try blue milk, the Milk Stand is your place. The non-dairy drink is plant-based and suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Ronto Wraps (roasted pork, grilled sausage, peppercorn sauce and tangy slaw wrapped in pita) from Ronto Roasters are a great snack.
Ride: There are two rides in the land, but only one is currently open to guests. On Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, you can take the controls in one of three roles (pilot, engineer or gunner) on the "fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy." Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, an immersive ride that puts you in the middle of a battle between the First Order and the Resistance, is scheduled to open later this year.
Buy: The Toydarian Toymaker marketplace stall has items you'll only find on Batuu, including dolls that look handmade and Dejarik - the chesslike game played on the Millennium Falcon.
A visit to the Creature Stall can net you a rare and fascinating creature to take home.
JUST THE FACTS Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opened last Friday at Disneyland Resort in California. Only guests with a timed reservation ticket will be allowed access to the park until June 24. After that, access is subject to capacity. The land will open on Aug. 29 at Disney World in Florida.
The 30-metre long replica of the Millenium Falcon, above, sits parked at Disneyland Resort in Ahaheim, Calif. Visitors can take control of the ship on one of two rides at the 14-acre site. Afterward, visit the local marketplace, right, to find rare and unique toys from the franchise.
PHOTOS BY MARIO ANZUONI/ REUTERS