The week of December 20, 2015

Star Wars Land and Disney’s heavy burden of expectations

By Vivian Kane

This is undeniably a great time to be a Star Wars fan. With three new movies, plus three additional anthology spinoff films, we’re eagerly awaiting new material through at least 2020. Add in the video games, the Clone Wars, and all the merch you could ever wish for, and this franchise is set to dominate the geek market for years to come. But there’s another huge component to this new era of Star Wars: the live, immersive experience being built by the Disney theme parks.

It’s unprecedented for Disney to incorporate an acquired franchise in such an expansive way.

While the Disney parks hold an iconic, nostalgic place in our collective memories, they’re constantly evolving, with new parks and new rides. But even amid that constant change, Star Wars Land feels like something special. For one thing, it’s the biggest development based on a property not originally owned by Disney. When Star Tours opened at Disneyland in 1987, it was the park’s first attraction based on a non-Disney film. Now, of course, Disney does own Star Wars, after buying Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, but it’s unprecedented for the company to incorporate an acquired franchise in such an expansive way.

That acquisition brought in an entirely new audience, with a passionate fan base 40 years in the making. Disney will want to reach those fans without leaving out the kids. Nearly a third of park guests are adults visiting without children. It’s done this before, by aiming rides at an older demographic (Indiana Jones, Tower of Terror) while also expanding its parks to reach a younger audience, with, for example, Cars Land and the horribly designed, soon-to-be-shuttered bottleneck that is Mickey’s Toontown. Star Wars Land is guaranteed to draw audiences of literally every age, which will be both an opportunity and a challenge.

With Star Wars Land, Disney promises an immersive experience hardcore fans have been waiting decades for. And we—and yes, I’ll say “we,” and count myself among that admittedly overzealous horde—may let our excitement run away with us, but we’re also quick to turn. We’ve been burned before (Episodes I through III, I’m looking at you), and we have high hopes, but even higher expectations.

So how can Disney possibly please fans of all ages, who may or may not already be sold on its theme park experience? Well, first, let’s break down what we know has been planned. Disney is notoriously stingy with details, but earlier this year Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger told attendees of the D23 conference:

“We are creating a jaw-dropping new world that represents our largest single themed land expansion ever. These new lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World will transport guests to a whole new Star Wars planet, including an epic Star Wars adventure that puts you in the middle of a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance.”

Both parks—Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California—will be developing a 14-acre Star Wars Land. Each land will no doubt have plenty of shops and dining options—blue milk is basically a guarantee, right?—but will be centered around two signature rides. First is that “climactic battle” Iger mentioned. By that brief generic description, it sounds a lot like the existing Star Tours, but this far ahead of time, let’s give Disney the benefit of the doubt that it’s looking at significantly differentiating the two. The second ride is what you’ve been waiting nearly four decades for: the chance to pilot the Millennium Falcon “on a customized secret mission.” Finally, here’s your chance to time your own personal Kessel Run. (That’s almost definitely not going to be the secret mission, but we can dream. Maybe we could finally figure out how that mission is timed in a unit of distance and—nope, sorry. That’s a tangent for another time.)

There’s no word yet on what these rides will look like. The 14-acre area potentially allows for larger attractions, but the smaller 3D-motion simulator of the new Star Tours—with its customizable video, which can be easily updated and switched out or built upon based on any number of new installments in the franchise—is such a successful and efficient model, it wouldn’t be surprising if they did more with that medium.

The big question looming over Star Wars Land is: How can it possibly live up to our expectations? Perhaps the question we should be asking is, in an aggressively enthusiastic community of fans, how do we keep our expectations from spinning out of control? With a constant thrum of theories, rumors, and leaks online, it may seem impossible that hopes won’t creep higher and higher. The upcoming movies face this problem as well, but the stakes for Star Wars Land are, if not higher, at least different.

Can Star Wars Land possibly satisfy the sky-high expectations of fans, both of Disney and Star Wars?

For one, Disney fans can be as rabid as Star Wars fans, and the crossover between the two is going to cause hopes to soar to potentially unfulfillable levels. Second, and more pressing, even for casual fans, is that we know what the Star Wars galaxy looks like, and we have a clear view of how that world makes us feel—feelings intensified by decades of nostalgia. Disney specializes in creating an emotional experience appealing to children as much as it does to our desire to feel childlike. It specializes in fully immersing you not just in a physical experience, but in that childlike emotional state.

Still, from an emotional standpoint, this seems like an undertaking more ambitious than possibly anything since the creation of the park itself. Does that seem hyperbolic? Maybe it does. But just imagine enduring the years until the park opens, making your way to one of the Disney parks, and finding the experience anything less than overwhelmingly joyous. For superfans—or just anyone who’s dreamed of piloting the Millennium Falcon—that’s a special kind of disappointment.

Disney has a pretty phenomenal track record turning its movies into parks, but this time there’s an extra challenge in re-creating a land based on a live-action movie. Only a small handful of rides—again, for example, the Indiana Jones ride, and, to a lesser extent, the Twilight Zone elements of the Tower of Terror—use real-life references. Bringing animation to life makes it easier for Disney to provoke a sense of wonder. It’easy to walk through Cars Land and believe that this is what that world would look like come to life. We can look at a cast member playing Snow White and believe she is the same woman we’ve only ever seen in animated form. And because we don’t have a solid frame of reference, it’s easy to suspend our disbelief to believe the actress working the next shift, or the next day, is still the same Snow White.

Han Solo looks like Harrison Ford, not whatever actor is walking around the park when we visit.

But we know what Han Solo looks like. He looks like Harrison Ford, not like whatever actor is walking around the park when we visit. Conveniently, the only Star Wars characters currently walking around Disneyland are Darth Vader and his gang of Stormtroopers. That works well in today’s limited Star Wars experience, but it’s hard to imagine an entire Star Wars Land without a plenitude of costumed characters.

Disney will have to work out how to populate its world with live-action characters that we already know and love. But it has already shared a plan to reconcile fans’ knowledge of physical locations from the movies with the actual park. As Iger announced at D23, Star Wars Land will be set entirely on a new planet, one we’ve not seen before; that should capture the feel of the Star Wars galaxy without making fans compare it to their memories of Tatooine.

There may be no way for Disney to re-create the magic of a childhood spent watching Star Wars movies. It’s unreasonable to expect that. But if we, as adults, can accept that Disney is not trying to re-create our childhood experiences but instead evoke that feeling of childlike wonder, we’ll be that much closer to appreciating Star Wars Land as the singular experience it’s sure to be.

GIF by J. Longo. Star Wars Land concept art copyright Disney.