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The new Galaxy's Edge ride is a game-changer that leads into The Rise of Skywalker and the future
When Disney lifted the curtains and dropped the ropes on both versions of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, its immersive theme park expansions in Anaheim (which opened at the end of May) and Orlando (late August), the company kept the new lands' most groundbreaking element cloaked in secrecy. On Wednesday, Disney unveiled that highly anticipated centerpiece at Walt Disney World, a ride called Rise of the Resistance — and it was worth the wait.
Galaxy's Edge offers innovative new ways of telling interactive stories, and more than a traditional ride, Rise of the Resistance is a moving, three-dimensional, three-act short film that takes about 20 minutes to experience, with a variety of different iterations possible based on where a rider sits. The ride plays directly into both the park's setting and the larger Star Wars timeline; the world of Batuu, where Galaxy's Edge is set, exists in between 2017's The Last Jedi and this month's Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker. The integration is a product of the close relationship between Disney's Imagineers and the Lucasfilm Story Group, as well as the production team — the ride features appearances by nearly all of the movie's main cast members.
Orlando's Rise of the Resistance, positioned near the entrance of the Galaxy's Edge in the Hollywood Studios park, starts with an outdoor queueing area that winds through dense vegetation, wrapping around waterfalls and the crumbling stone walls of a long-lost society. The deep, winding maze creates the impression that the secret temporary Resistance base, where the remaining underdog revolutionaries are convalescing and regrouping, is truly hidden even within Black Spire Outpost, the fringe Outer Rim settlement where criminals, smugglers, and other ne'er-do-wells thrive. As riders round through the queue, they ultimately make it inside the base, where crates and lockers of X-Wing pilot uniforms and gear conveniently split lines.
Eventually, they're greeted by an animatronic BB-8 and holographic Rey (Daisy Ridley), who sends them on a mission to meet up with General Organa. At this point, riders load into a simulation room made up like an Intersystem Transport Ship; here, they come across the first new major character created expressly for Galaxy's Edge, Lieutenant Bek, a Mon Calamari who is piloting the I-TS.
The figure is remarkably expressive — big blinking eyes and fluid motions feel unprecedented, with an ease that recalls a living, breathing organism. In fact, Lieutenant Bek is an A-1000 audio-animatronic, a new model with cutting edge internal components that Imagineering developed and debuted at Galaxy's Edge.
"[A-1000s] use electric actuation instead of the traditional hydraulic and pneumatic," explained Brian Orr, a Show Mechanical Engineer. "So, these figures really allow us to get more expressive, more poseability out of them because of the electrics."
The I-TS is being escorted by Poe (Oscar Isaac), who flies beside it in his now-iconic Black One X-Wing. Riders have a video view into his cockpit, but his ship is on full display during a jaunt outdoors that precedes the I-TS journey; a life-size model (complete with BB-8) was made for long-term display instead of a few days of film production.
"It was really thrilling for [Lucasfilm] to actually build real things, because film X-Wings are usually plywood and duct tape," Scott Trowbridge, the Star Wars Portfolio Creative lead at Disney Imagineering, told SYFY WIRE. "They're realized out of titanium and steel, the materials they would actually use."
Despite Poe's best efforts, the I-TS trip does not go according to secret plan; the motion simulator shakes and shudders during a dogfight in space, and the transport is ultimately pulled in by a Star Destroyer helmed by none other than Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). At this point, riders are whisked out of the ship and into a truly massive hangar filled with 50 First Order Stormtroopers — all of whom are actually advanced animatronics that move in subtle ways, driving home the illusion that they are bored soldiers standing guard.
Instead of operating on a fixed script, Orr says, the Stormtroopers have an assortment of movements programmed to rotate randomly, giving the impression that there are living, breathing foot soldiers under the white armor. A TIE fighter looms over it all, black and foreboding and absolutely massive.
From that point, the decor shifts from that of a makeshift base carved into weathered stone to the cold, sterile, monolithic design preferred by the joyless, utilitarian interior designers employed by the First Order. With winding hallways and high ceilings, there is truly a sense of foreboding in the place, and holographic versions of both General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren booming down at the audience do little to ease the tension.
Then comes what you could call an actual ride, a trackless 360-degree chase through the bowels of the Star Destroyer, with Kylo Ren — now also in animatronic form — in hot pursuit of the reprogrammed First Order transport that carries the. A firefight breaks out, and an animatronic Finn (John Boyega) provides coverage as the audience skids past massive AT-AT walkers and stacks of supplies, with explosions cascading around the skidding ride vehicle.
Holograms and giant video monitors that take up whole walls chart the course in space, followed by a simulator ride with a massive drop on the trip back to safety on Batuu. The destruction of a certain Star Destroyer prominent in the first new movies of the new trilogy should have a tangible impact on this month's finale, Rise of Skywalker.
It's a highly repeatable ride, both because it's the first time anyone who hasn't been on the set of a movie has gotten to see full-size AT-ATs and TIE fighters, and because the Galaxy's Edge Datapad on the Play Disney app adds several layers of depth to the experience.
When it debuted in the summer of 2018, the Play Disney smartphone app provided theme park visitors fun little distractions to alleviate the boredom that can crop up on long lines and laps around the property. At launch, it featured mostly minigames and digital achievements, fun but not particularly in depth or integrated into any particular narrative, a natural consequence of adding new layers of technology to decades-old rides and attractions. But Galaxy's Edge was built with the app's team expressly involved from the start, providing users a way to participate and help shape the ongoing story that plays out each day in Batuu.
In Galaxy's Edge, the app is integrated into the story in multiple ways. Users can take on tasks, "scanning" and "hacking" (or, solving quick puzzles) into various crates, buildings, and other hidden signposts scattered throughout the outpost, with augmented reality playing a heavy role linking the location and device.
On Rise of the Resistance, one can choose to aid the rebels or First Order; I went the noble route and lent a hand to Finn, who needed my help to steal and decode the plans to the Star Destroyer that would soon abduct us.
This particular activity only became accessible when Rise of the Resistance went online, which points to a continued expansion of what's available in the app.
"It's very much within our strategy, and I think Rise is pretty much the first step of that," Kelly White, a Disney VP of digital strategy, told SYFY WIRE. "We definitely want to keep our content fresh. Keeping that fresh and releasing new content, that's definitely on our roadmap, it's what we're planning to do to keep it new for the folks that are coming frequently."
White suggested there were several directions in which the app will expand, even without any new big rides on the park's horizon.
At the moment, you have to be in Galaxy's Edge to use most of the Datapad's location-based features, but in anticipation of more visitors beginning to use the app, they're looking to make elements of it accessible beyond the borders of Batuu. White offered that they were thinking hard about how visitors might relive experiences and engage further with the characters they encountered in the park once they return home.
On the other hand, White also teased further integration between the rides and the real-world experience on Batuu, tying those together beyond the unlocking of achievements and collecting of points on a phone screen.
"It's going to take shape in how the cast members will respond to you," she explained. "So for example, if you go on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, how you perform and how well you fly in the Millennium Falcon, you may actually get a reputation for that. And based on how that plays out, cast members would potentially be interacting with you, based on what your reputation might be. So if you crash the Millennium Falcon, you might get a reaction versus if you do really, really well."
Theme parks have been moving toward this sort of immersiveness for most of the last decade; Disney already has themed lands based on Avatar (in Animal Kingdom) and the Toy Story franchise (also in Hollywood Studios), while Universal Studios on both coasts boasts hit expansions that drop visitors in the middle of the world of Harry Potter. Galaxy's Edge really represents the next step, moving from the passiveness that has so defined the space to more one-on-one interactions and the activities available on the app.
That presents something of a learning curve, especially because Star Wars lore has become almost bottomless with the addition of animated series, video games, and print materials. Not every visitor is going to want or be able to explore each of the layers of the fiction, especially not in the park's early days. That wasn't lost on Disney as they prepared for launch.
"I think that's always a barrier to use in anything, right? What's expected of me, and I think that's why we offer levels," Trowbridge said. "To the extent that you want to just pilot the Falcon, that's great too, and that was the one of the conceits in design. We needed to allow the deep dive for people who know what every one of these parts are behind us, but also to create an immersive environment that people can share if they have no context or have context that only comes from animation, or comics, or films."
Alertness is key here if you want the full experience. Black Spire Outpost is a living, breathing place, perhaps the largest version of interactive theater on earth, supplemented by storylines from books and comic books written specifically for the park. Disney staffers — "cast members" by Disney parlance — dress up as both First Order officers and secret Resistance fighters and play out minor plots with help (or lack thereof) from visitors.
In my time in the park, I saw a First Order officer confront a visitor that was carrying a lightsaber, and because the visitor was willing to talk back, it developed into a fully improvised scene that wouldn't and couldn't have happened anywhere else. The First Order officer definitely won the repartee, drawing laughs when he told the guy that he hoped that he wasn't the last Jedi.
The potential for "officers" or Resistance fighters' greetings to be predicated on data from individual apps is an actual good use of emerging Bluetooth and RFID surveillance technology, because we all opt into it and it's just a facsimile of real life; one day soon we will live in a subtle police state, but here, the tech makes a waking fantasy more fully realized.
Time and technology will continue to march on outside the park, but Batuu does exist in a fixed moment in the galaxy far, far away. By the end of the month, the Skywalker Saga will have concluded along with the first season of The Mandalorian. The former takes place after the frozen moment on Batuu, while the latter was many years before, and future Star Wars chapters could take place at any time. Fans are always looking to the future — and for favorites like Baby Yoda — which leaves Disney with the task of navigating new chapters and opportunities for further storytelling.
Trowbridge points to the moment in Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story when Han and Lando discuss Batuu as one example of how movies and the park can be brought together; the movie also features a mention of Dok-Ongar's cantina, a bar at Galaxy's Edge.
"We are in a definitive place in the Star Wars galaxy, we are part of the canon," he said. "So, as new creative people come, whether the directors, producers, writers, content developers, they can mine this resource, right? They do the canon of all Star Wars, and weave the stories together. So, we expect a great integration."