Disney’s latest Star Wars themed location, the Galactic Starcruiser hotel, is set to open in March 2022 at Walt Disney World in Orlando. But the voyage so far has been bumpy, to say the least.
In December, the official trailer for the experience received an overwhelmingly negative reaction. Given the experience’s high price (~$6,000 for a two-night stay), fans thought the trailer did not showcase a premium Star Wars experience1.
A day after it was posted, Disney removed the promotional video from YouTube and from all news outlets2. Fans pointed out that the previously fully-booked Galactic Starcruiser started displaying availabilities, presumably because guests were cancelling3.
Later that month, Disney made no mention of the Galactic Starcruiser in their Christmas Day Parade, which usually features upcoming attractions for the next year4.
This isn’t Disney’s first attempt at theming a physical location to Star Wars. In 2019, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened at both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World. But compared to the resounding success of 2017’s Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the new Star Wars themed land was not as profitable5, 6.
In this blog post, I will discuss why it’s difficult for designers to capture the feeling of Star Wars in physical locations like Galaxy’s Edge and the upcoming Galactic Starcruiser.
The Burden of Expectation for Star Wars in Theme Parks
First of all, choosing Star Wars as a theme comes with the burden of expectation. Since 1977’s A New Hope, Star Wars has gained legions of fans from the movies, TV series, comics, games and extended universe over the years.
Any popular franchise is going to be up against the expectations of fans. For Star Wars in particular, the longevity and pervasiveness of the brand through different media means that there are not only many fans, but many different types of fans who could have specific expectations.
Putting expectations aside, Star Wars is a tricky franchise to theme physical locations to, for several reasons.
Storytelling in Star Wars: The Hero’s Journey
The Star Wars movies follow a storytelling pattern called “The Hero’s Journey”. This series of events was popularised by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The “monomyth” or “hero myth” follows the progression of a main character from the call to adventure, through trials and challenges, to victory and return.
Luke’s journey in the original series and Rey’s in the sequels are both examples of the monomyth. In a sense, so is Anakin’s narrative arc in the prequels, though it is towards the Dark Side.
Star Wars is based on the idea that you can be a hero (or a villain), at the centre of your own adventure through the galaxy. In this case, what we expect from Star Wars is the focus on a single central character as they progress from underdog to conqueror.
The Hero’s Journey is an effective storytelling method. We see its implementation over and over again in film, novels, comics and video games. In these formats, it’s easy to focus the audience’s attention on one main character who is the centre of the action. Video games go one step further and allow the player to become, in first person, the hero on the journey.
But when it comes to location-based entertainment like theme parks, it becomes exceedingly difficult to place all guests at the centre of the hero’s journey. The formula in video games where every player is the chosen one does not work. In this case, choosing one guest to become more important than everyone else comes at the exclusion of all other guests.
This is a crucial problem for the Galactic Starcruiser. It’s very difficult to feel like you are the chosen one when you’re in a long queue waiting to take a turn at lightsaber training, or when you’re one of many who get to send the ship into hyperspace.
A central tenet of Star Wars is that you are special and can embark on your own unique journey. Being one of the crowd contradicts with this idea.
Star Wars Aesthetics are Challenging to Replicate in the Real World
Another hurdle for designers is the specificity of the aesthetics of the Star Wars universe. There are many different science fiction worlds, from Star Trek to Doctor Who, but the look of Star Wars is very distinctive, especially to fans.
One example is the crowded, busy aesthetic in the Star Wars universe. While some franchises focus on the expanse of space, Star Wars is quite the opposite. The action of Star Wars tends to happen in busy, closed-in spaces. From the Death Star to Cloud City to Canto Bight, Star Wars is characterised by crowded settings full of interesting characters.
There are moments where the vastness of space creeps in, but empty planets like Hoth or Crait are not the places guests want to visit. Even the desert planet Tatooine is most compelling when the action centres on the cramped Mos Eisley Cantina, or at Jabba’s palace.
Replicating the small spaces of Star Wars is easy in television shows or video games, which have the possibilities of digitally-created characters and environments.
However, this is a much bigger challenge in a theme park, which is meant to have enough area and accessibility for visitors. Black Spire Outpost, the setting of Galaxy’s Edge, should have tight corners and narrow pathways. But this is not feasible for a space intended to support a large volume of tourists.
Batuu should also feel alive with traders, spies, bounty hunters and smugglers. But, creating crowds in location-based entertainment is not easy. In a theme park, this involves hiring actors and building animatronics to make the world feel alive and lived-in. This significantly raises operating costs and is not sustainable for a long-term land like Galaxy’s Edge.
While Galaxy’s Edge features a few face characters with whom guests can interact, there aren’t enough of them amongst the theme park visitors to make the area feel truly immersive as a Star Wars land.
This problem is exacerbated in the Galactic Starcruiser project. Replicating the closed-in, busy Star Wars aesthetic for the immersive experience means filling the hotel with an unreasonably large number of characters, who have to be performing all the time.
Star Wars Theming Relies on Familiar Characters and Locations
Theming always relies on the chosen theme’s greatest hits. For guests to feel a part of a fictional world, especially one as revered as Star Wars, they have to recognise things in that world.
Imagineers have made immersion more challenging to design by setting Galaxy’s Edge and the Galactic Starcruiser in brand new stories. Throughout these locations, guests have few key characters or storylines they can use to anchor the experience.
Batuu only has the Millennium Falcon and rare appearances of Rey or Kylo Ren (who only appeal to fans of the newer sequel trilogy). From the trailer, it looks like Galactic Starcruiser will also focus on brand new characters over what is already familiar to guests.
Theming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Galactic Starcruiser
Creating location-based experiences based on existing franchises is a big challenge. For Star Wars, this is especially difficult.
For Galaxy’s Edge, I hope more action and intrigue can happen there through live shows and more character interactions as the COVID-19 pandemic eases. I would also like to see the introduction of more familiar characters and locations to help ground the new land of Batuu more solidly into fans’ minds.
As for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, I hope it leans most into making each guest feel like the main character. This is a lofty task to accomplish in an in-person experience for many guests at once. Additionally, the Starcruiser should feature many interesting characters, and more importantly, many familiar ones from the Star Wars universe.
- Dowd, Katie. “Backlash to Disney’s $5,000 Star Wars hotel grows: ‘Poorly executed idea for the rich’.” Travel. SF Gate, 12 December 2021. Web. 16 January 2022.
- Steigrad, Alexandra. “Disney removes video for pricey ‘Star Wars’ hotel amid fan backlash.” Media. New York Post, 13 December 2021. Web. 16 January 2022.
- Ulatowski, Rachel. “Disney’s Galactic Starcruiser Hotel Sees Cancellations Following Backlash.” Movie News. ScreenRant, 23 December 2021. Web. 16 January 2022.
- Michaelsen, Shannen. “Disney Avoids Mention of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser During Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade.” Walt Disney World Resort. WDW News Today, 25 December 2021. Web. 16 January 2022.
- McGloin, Matt. “Disney Confirms Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is Suffering.” Movie News. Cosmic Book News, 6 August 2019. Web. 16 January 2022.
- Cavanaugh, Patrick. “Disney CEO Bob Iger Addresses Low Attendance Numbers for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.” Star Wars. Comic Book, 6 August 2019. Web. 16 January 2022.