In the summer of 2015, when the Walt Disney Company unveiled plans to build monumental “Star Wars” lands at its California and Florida theme parks, a wave of euphoria washed over the planet. Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive, made the announcement at a fan convention, revealing that one ride would allow people to pilot the Millennium Falcon. Two men sitting near me started to weep with joy.
I felt emotional too. For a different reason.
The “Star Wars” extensions, each 14-acres in size, sounded thrilling. They would cost a combined $2 billion (plus) to build and resemble trading ports on the edge of wild space. But I am one of those purists who want Disney parks to remain unchanged.
Correction: I want Disneyland, the original Happiest Place on Earth, the little park that Walt Disney personally opened in 1955, to remain unchanged. Update the sprawling Walt Disney World in Florida as you like. Disneyland belongs to me — the wide-eyed 9-year-old who first visited in 1983 and made memories, with my dad in particular, that the cynical 44-year-old still holds close to his heart.
I know it’s ridiculous. Disneyland needs to evolve to stay relevant to new generations of children. I don’t care.
So it was with some unease that I visited Disneyland in Anaheim on May 20, the first day that preview crowds were allowed inside what Disney is calling Galaxy’s Edge. The new area is the biggest expansion in the park’s history. Engineers had to reroute the Disneyland Railroad and shorten the meandering Rivers of America, where an original Frontierland attraction, the Mark Twain Riverboat, sails in a quaint loop.
Galaxy’s Edge will include two marquee rides, one of which, Rise of the Resistance, Disney describes as a “harrowing” visit to a Star Destroyer that includes a face-off with the ruthless Kylo Ren. There are workshops where you can build your own lightsabers ($199) and functioning droids ($99 and up). In a first for strait-laced Disneyland, alcohol will be sold inside Oga’s Cantina, where a tequila-based Dabogah Slug Slinger goes for $15 and the space chardonnay is bright blue. Multiple restaurants serve “Star Wars”-themed food, including something called a Ronto Wrap that combines a sausage and a pork gyro into one slaw-topped snack. (Rontos are lumbering pack animals found on Tatooine, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker grew up.)
To get inside Galaxy’s Edge between its grand opening on Friday and June 23, visitors need a reservation in addition to park entry tickets — a first for Disney, which is anticipating beyond-capacity crowds. Even with a reservation, time inside the land will be limited to about four hours. No spots are left unless you can nab a room at one of three Disney-owned hotels, where prices currently start at about $500 a night. An almost-identical version of Galaxy’s Edge will open at Disney World near Orlando on Aug. 29. No reservation system is currently planned for Florida.
I was able to visit during previews, a two-week testing period when Disney employees visit as civilians, because I cover the company in my job as a business reporter at The New York Times. Since I don’t have children, I borrowed a family, or at least half of one, to join me: Connor Ennis, an editor at The Times, and one of his sons, Sam. It would be their first trip to Disneyland, and Sam just happened to be both a “Star Wars” fan and the perfect age — 9 years old. (We paid for our one-day park tickets, which cost $321.50 total, and everything else we consumed.)
It was sunny and 68 degrees on the day of our visit. Connor and Sam, having stayed overnight in Anaheim, arrived at Disneyland at 8 a.m. to explore the older areas. When I met up with them at noon, they were in line for the submarine voyage, a ride that first debuted in 1959. Sam deemed it fun but creaky.
“It’s charming,” I responded defensively.
We walked toward Galaxy’s Edge, which is at the back of the park. Sam, who was wearing a Chewbacca T-shirt, could barely contain his excitement. “When do we get to build lightsabers?” he asked. “I want to do everything!”
Just then, all three of our jaws dropped in unison. Rock spires meant to resemble petrified sequoias and speckled with yellow lichen towered before us. Stormtroopers clomped toward a stand selling Blue Milk, a frozen galactic beverage. The Millennium Falcon itself — 100 feet long — was cooling its jets just around the corner.
We had entered Black Spire Outpost, a trading village built on a dry riverbed on the planet of Batuu (or so the story goes) and the center of Galaxy’s Edge. Sam spun in circles, unable to decide which direction was most exciting. Connor and I just stood there blinking as we tried to take it all in. In the dried “mud” beneath our feet were droid tracks. (To get them just right, Disney artisans took rubbings of the treads on the original R2-D2.) Black Spire had clearly seen some action; some of the brown walls were pocked with blaster marks.
Chewie himself even appeared.
“How often do you get to see CHEWBACCA?” Sam said with a giggle as the Wookiee bayed approval of his T-shirt.
I was struck by the way Disney had created an earthy yet otherworldly place that seemed to bridge everything in the “Star Wars” universe — movies, books, video games, TV shows. A podracing engine, familiar from “The Phantom Menace,” barbecues that Ronto meat. Hondo Ohnaka, a miscreant from the “Clone Wars” cartoon series, plays a role in the Millennium Falcon ride. Oga’s Cantina, the tavern, is referenced in “Thrawn: Alliances,” a Lucasfilm-sanctioned novel.
Disney parks have traditionally offered passive experiences designed to celebrate — sit in a flying galleon on Peter Pan’s Flight or soak in the merriment of It’s a Small World. Galaxy’s Edge is about role play: You are part of the action. One ride really does let you fly the Falcon. Disney has always called its employees cast members, but the 1,600 people hired to staff Galaxy’s Edge go a step further — all of them, even the store cashiers, are Batuu residents who greet you by saying “bright suns” and stay in character when you ask a question.
“The sense of place they have created is unbelievable,” Connor said. “I almost don’t even care if there are rides.”
What, no Luke?
That is Disney’s hope too, at least at first. The ambitious Rise of the Resistance ride will not even open until sometime later this year, because it isn’t quite finished. (“In light of tremendous demand, we are opening the land in phases,” a spokeswoman said. No word on whether Disney World will do the same.) That leaves only one high-capacity ride, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, operating in the initial months.
The stakes are high for Disney. With its vast television business facing significant challenges in the streaming age, Disney needs its $20 billion theme park division to work harder. The company is investing billions of dollars in new attractions and hotels (and cruise ships). Projects like Galaxy’s Edge are also designed to address the changing expectations of theme park customers. Sam’s generation — raised on Netflix, Fortnite and iPhone apps — expect personalization and active participation. The passive rides that so enraptured me in 1983 still entertain today’s children. But for how long?
“Star Wars” fans have their own likes and dislikes, as Disney learned the hard way with “The Last Jedi,” the 2017 blockbuster that killed off Luke Skywalker. Many fans howled their disapproval over the story line. Some also took issue with “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which Disney released last year to disappointing ticket sales. A third raft of negative “Star Wars” headlines might prompt uncomfortable questions about Disney’s handling of Lucasfilm, which it acquired in 2012.
Galaxy’s Edge takes one major creative risk: The story of Black Spire Outpost is a new one set after the events of “The Last Jedi.” So there will be no opportunity for visitors to meet Luke Skywalker. Ditto for Han Solo, Darth Vader and Yoda. All dead they are.
“We wanted to create the deepest level of immersion possible, and those stories have already all happened — people know, even if it’s on a subconscious level, that they don’t belong in them,” Margaret Kerrison, managing story editor for Galaxy’s Edge, told me in a phone interview before we visited. She added that Disney wanted to create an entirely new place to level the playing field. “Everyone is experiencing this for the first time, no matter the level of fandom,” she said.
It worked well for our group. I’m a casual “Star Wars” fan. Connor placed himself higher up the scale, recalling the “Star Wars” action figures he had as a boy. (I preferred the Disney princesses. Go figure.) Sam is a serious aficionado.
“When can we get lightsabers?” he asked again, this time as if his life depended on it.
To the workshop
First, we needed to eat. A busy restaurant called Docking Bay 7 seemed like a good option, although Sam was skeptical about the menu: no fries in sight. “I don’t know if I’m going to like this,” he said, staring at an item called Endorian Tip-yip. He put a crumb-sized piece of the crust in his mouth.
“It’s actually really good,” he said. “A little spicy.”
Connor also tucked into the Tip-yip, which turned out to be the “Star Wars” version of fried chicken. I had smoked Kaadu ribs, which were delicious — saucy, tangy, tender.
As we ate, Sam discovered the Play Disney Parks app, which adds another layer of storytelling to Galaxy’s Edge by turning smartphones into interstellar “data pads.” It took me a minute (or 10) to get my bearings in the elaborate app, but Sam quickly realized that he could use it to activate droids in the land; scan cargo crates to see what was inside; and translate shop signs written in Aurebesh, a “Star Wars” language. You can also use the app to interact with other guests in a game called “Outpost Control,” choosing to play for the First Order or the Resistance.
But there was no game that could distract Sam from his primary mission: finding those lightsabers.
Galaxy’s Edge has nine stores offering roughly 700 items, almost none of which are available for purchase elsewhere, according to Brad Schoeneberg, a Disney executive who developed the merchandise strategy. One of our favorite spots was a pet shop where you can “adopt” critters, including Porgs ($45), which chirp and flap their wings. “Twenty-five dollars is sort of my Porg limit,” Connor said, choosing instead to pick up a snorting Puffer Pig ($17) as a gift.
“Don’t eat it,” the shopkeeper said.
“No promises,” Connor replied.
As Sam had predicted, however, the lightsaber workshop was the retail showstopper.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside. In fact, the workshop is hidden next to the inventive Droid Depot, where guests can construct robot sidekicks by selecting parts off a moving conveyor belt. But inside the workshop something magical happens — a genuine how-did-they-do-that moment.
I don’t want to spoil it by being too descriptive. The experience involves themes like “peace and justice” or “power and control” and the selection of crystals (red, blue, green, violet). Each lightsaber is personalized with hilt adornments allowing for 120,000 possible combinations. Mysterious Batuu residents called Gatherers guide the process.
We made three. There is one buzz kill: The glowing weapons cost $199 each.
But seeing the look on Sam’s face when his blue lightsaber came alive for the first time was worth every penny, at least in my estimation. It even crackles and buzzes as you swing it, just like in the movies. Connor was less convinced about the value, and he worried that airport security would be a hassle. (Nobody batted an eye.)
Aboard the Millennium Falcon
We saved the Millennium Falcon simulator for last.
Lightsabers strapped to our backs, we walked into the ride building (err, Hondo Ohnaka’s cargo depot) and snaked our way through the detailed queue areas until we encountered old Hondo himself. As it turns out, Chewie lent him the Falcon in return for much-needed replacement parts and now Hondo needs flight crews — especially crews who won’t ask too many questions about what kind of cargo they are transporting.
Once aboard the starship, you hang out for a few minutes in the main hold, which looks identical to the Falcon from the films, right down to the Dejarik (chess) table. Alerted that it was time for our mission, we strapped ourselves into the pleasantly timeworn Falcon cockpit, which seats six and has dozens of working switches, blinking buttons and controls.
Each person is assigned one of three roles — pilot, gunner, flight engineer — and you are supposed to work as a team; if your group doesn’t do a good job, the ship goes off course. It’s like being inside an elaborate video game.
We did not do a good job. We smashed into other ships, which was actually a lot of fun, and crashed into a hole on a planet I didn’t recognize. You definitely feel the bumps. “Daddy, face it,” Sam said as we stumbled out, pleasantly dazed. “Your steering was garbage.”
They laughed together. It was adorable.
I was touched by the way Sam was making memories with his father, just as I had done with mine in the early ’80s, when we rode the Matterhorn Bobsleds — 12 times in a row — and bonded over the cheesiness of the since-demolished Country Bear Jamboree. Sappy, but true.
And if their memories feature Chewie and Hondo Ohnaka and Porgs instead of banjo-playing bears named Buford, Trixie and Liver Lips McGrowl, well, who am I to judge?