A journey inside the Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire VR experience

Contributed by
Jan 29, 2018

There is still some time before Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is open to the public at Disney World and Disneyland, but there's a new and incredible Star Wars attraction that is ready for guests to experience right now. Yes, Star Tours is still up and running (and now includes new material from Star Wars: The Last Jedi), but we're talking about something that Disney enthusiasts can enjoy without even buying a ticket to one of the parks. It is called Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, and it is a co-venture between ILMxLAB and the hyper-reality company The Void.

What is hyper-reality exactly? It's basically virtual reality taken one step further. It's the most immersive kind of VR one can imagine — you're not just miming the touch of a door handle, for instance, you're actually touching it. The Void has pioneered this technology with previous efforts (both based on original sci-fi material and the Ghostbusters franchise), but this is their first collaboration with ILM and Lucasfilm. The result is a match made in Lira-San, and it is a Star Wars experience like none other.

Mostly based around the characters and story of Rogue One (with a rather cool Star Wars: Rebels Easter egg included), guests become Rebel soldiers who are posing as Stormtroopers. The mission, given to you by Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna himself), is to infiltrate an Imperial Base. The good news is that his sarcastic droid K-2SO (played, of course, by Alan Tudyk) is there to help you along. The bad news is that the mission takes place on the lava planet of Mustafar, a location that is featured on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, a little bit in Rogue One, and most notably in the climax of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.

As far as a list of "planets to visit in the Star Wars galaxy" might go, Mustafar would probably end up at the bottom... but the upside is that the planet is very atmospheric. The planet might be bad for Jedi, but it's great for a hyper-reality experience. Not only do you see the planet (and the Imperial base located on it) all around you, you're touching, feeling, and smelling it as well. All of these things help to ratchet up the fear factor considerably, but more on that in a bit.

Visitors are put in groups of four (feel free to bring friends), and after getting your message from Cassian you are fitted with a VR rig. A large bulky vest is placed upon you with a giant headset attached, but as soon as the visor goes down (glasses can be worn) all of that vanishes. You're now in full trooper armor and helmet, so the weight of the apparatus only makes that feel more realistic. If you put a hand in front of your face, you're seeing the armored hand of a trooper. When you look at your teammates, you're seeing them as troopers as well, instead of what they really look like, which is something like this:

Courtesy of The Void

Never once did I feel like that guy. I was most definitely a disguised Rebel, and though I played the part rather badly, there was never a moment that I was not immersed.

The journey can be taken at two locations stateside, Disney Springs in Orlando, and Downtown Disney in Anaheim. In case you're not familiar, they're the areas of Disney that you don't need a ticket to get into. If you're London based, there is another location in Westfeld. You'll get away with one ticket for $30 or so, and it is well worth it. Reservations are encouraged, though even going with reservation in hand I ended up waiting around 20 minutes. Go to the Secrets of the Empire website to book tickets ahead of time, and be sure to plan ahead.

As for my adventure? If you promise to keep it a secret, I'll tell you about it. Though no two journeys through the experience are the same, the general story does have its surprises, and some may want to go in completely spoiler-free. If this is the case, best to disembark now. If you want to hear my heroic tale, I'll continue on after the jump, but from this point onward there will be spoilers.

 

My father and I were having a fine time in Disney Springs before we ran into Captain Cassian Andor from Rebel intelligence. His ship had been damaged, and there was some precious imperial cargo that needed to be recovered. We were Rebels, after all, so who better than my father and I to go after it? (Many, many people would be better actually, but who cares.) We joined up with two other guests, jumped in some color-coded trooper outfits, and boarded a shuttle to go after the cargo.

I'm writing like this because that's how it felt. From the moment we stepped on that shuttle, we were in that world, full stop. Never before have I been so entrenched in a Star Wars tale, and in my mind I don't feel like I played some kind of virtual reality game — I feel like I took a trip to Mustafar. The four of us may not have left the room (the security footage must be hilarious), but nevertheless, that is not how it felt.

K-2SO was with us, which was good because I proved to be a very clumsy trooper. We traced the cargo to Mustafar, better known as the planet "where Jedi go to die." I never had plans to set foot on this lava-rock, but the Rebellion was counting on us. The shuttle landed, and we walked out into the halls of an imperial facility.

It looked and felt just like I had always imagined, with Imperial small-talk and intercom announcements going on all the time. We did our best to blend in (especially when a little mouse droid sped through my father's legs), and fairly soon a massive gate opened ahead of us, with a rush of steam hitting our faces and an ash-like scent filling the air. A pond of lava sat in front of us, with only a tiny platform meant to take us across to the other side of the base.

The rest of my team seemed frozen in their boots, so I went for it. I stepped onto the platform, and as soon as my team was behind me, we started to travel across the lake. My heart was in my throat because, for kriff's sake, I was hovering over a pit of lava with a feeling of elation mixed with dread. Ash surrounded me, a burning smell permeated the air, and rising far in the distance? Yep, it was unmistakable — Darth Vader's castle. Thankfully we weren't going there, but the sight of it growing closer filled me with terror. I pointed it out to my father, and he looked back through the eyes of his trooper mask and said, "What?" I didn't have time to trooper-splain what the castle was, so I didn't bother.

On the other side, I congratulated myself for not falling off of the platform while K-2SO advised us to arm ourselves. Thankfully there was a rack of imperial issue rifles close by, so we all grabbed one. Who knows how the Imperials became alerted to our presence... maybe someone stepped out of bounds, or maybe it was because I immediately started firing the blaster off... we may never know. It didn't matter, because they were on to us now, so we all got blasting. Aim for the head, I thought to myself. I may have yelled "karabast" more than once.

As we progressed, Cassian got in touch with us. He didn't show his face, but this symbol appeared holographically:

Courtesy of Lucasfilm

In all honesty, this did take me out of the immersion for fraction of a moment, but it was only to appreciate the detail. The symbol was first seen as the sign of the mysterious "Fulcrum" on Star Wars: Rebels, and after Fulcrum's identity was discovered, it was revealed that multiple characters use the Fulcrum code-name. According to Pablo Hidalgo's Rogue One Visual Dictionary, one of the Rebel agents to use the alias was none other than Cassian Andor. It's perfectly in-universe (and in canon) for him to use this sigil, and this attention to detail got a short "oh that's cool" out of me before I realized that we were being shot at again.

At some point we all became locked in a small room, and I couldn't get the controls for the door to work. Blasting the console repeatedly didn't help things, so the two members of the team I didn't know got to work on it. Soon enough I heard another door open and my back started to ping, and turning around I realized that the wrong door had been opened, and a full squad of troopers had taken us by surprise. A real-world curse sprung from my mouth as my father and I took cover and blasted several waves of them away (my aim was much better in this than it is in Star Wars: Battlefront, but not by much) and soon enough the correct door was open and we hurried along.

At this point I'm shooting up everything — every wall, every ceiling, every console. It wasn't just because of the pleasing sound effects and scorch marks, it was because I really wanted to mess this place up. Everything was just so responsive and so real, and I couldn't help myself. Unlike with almost all of my laser-tag experiences, nobody came along to tell me to "rein it in a little" either, so I just kept on blasting. We must have taken out around one hundred virtual troopers (and one tough lava monster) before we finally arrived at the room where the cargo was being held.

Personally, I was convinced that the cargo was going to be a kyber crystal. What else would it be? As it happens, I was wrong — the actual cargo was something far cooler, and more of a deep dive into Star Wars lore. I'm not going to reveal what the cargo was — the mission was classified, and I made Diego Luna a promise.

Did we snatch up the cargo and get away? Almost, but take one guess what happened when we tried. As soon as we approached our prize, we suddenly heard an all-too familiar breathing, as well as a lightsaber being ignited. The room grew cold, and looking over to a dark area on our left, I saw one bright red blade burning in the black. None of us needed to be told who was holding it.

Just like Han Solo when he went for "a little refreshment" on Cloud City, I immediately opened fire. It was useless of course, as every shot was deflected back at us by the red lightsaber, but it didn't stop me from trying. Pretty soon some kind of force had our blasters rendered non-responsive, and Lord Darth Vader was upon us. He reached out his gloved hand, and I may or may not have whispered, "I'm one with the Force, the Force is with me."

That's when a shuttle came crashing into the bay, with the trusty K-2SO behind the stick. We scrambled aboard, and once clear of the planet the droid took us to lightspeed. The stars stretched out into those classic white lines, and we were clear.

Did we succeed? Honestly, I don't remember. I think we got the cargo aboard, but I'm not entirely sure. What I do know is that I faced down Darth Vader and lived to write the tale. When a Void employee told us to lift our visors and welcomed us back to reality, it was jarring. The gun in my hands suddenly looked nothing like an imperial blaster, and I sure didn't look like a stormtrooper. My father and I ventured back out into the sun of Disney Springs as changed men. Were we heroes? I don't wish to brag, but yes. Yes, we were.

Did I go completely over the top in the recounting of this? No question, but the experience warrants such hyperbole. To reiterate what I wrote earlier — I don't feel like I went on a ride, I feel like I stormed an imperial base. The Void is still honing their technology, and their next immersive experience will most likely go above and beyond this one — but if you'll forgive the cross-franchising, this is some real-life holodeck stuff we're playing with here. The potential is to that degree. My thinking used to be that with 3D IMAX movies being what they are, we may not see something similar to a holodeck in our lifetimes, but now? It might be within our reach. Less magical (and hopefully not breaking down and trying to kill us every other episode), but possible all the same.

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire has the highest possible recommendation that I can give. If you are anywhere close to any of its locations, go and give it a shot. The Rebellion needs you, and best of all it won't break your bank of Republic credits. Your adventure will surely be different from mine, especially if you don't go around blasting everything in sight, but I guarantee a truly immersive and insanely fun time. Godspeed, Rebels.