Galaxy’s Edge, Galactic Starcruiser & the Limits of Immersion

When Universal Orlando opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2014, the opening shot was fired in a new battle between the world’s biggest theme park companies. Universal would spend the next decade fighting back-and-forth with the Walt Disney Company over which Park could create the most intricate, ornate, fan-desired new land exploring a beloved intellectual property.

The key to this war can be summed up in just one word – immersion.

From The Wizarding World to Cars Land, Pandora – The World of Avatar to Toy Story Land, pretty much every new land at a Disney or Universal Park in the past ten years has been an attempt to create a totally immersive experience. The goal of these lands is to make Guests feel like they are not in a theme park, nor even in a themed land based around a loose concept (like the classic Disneyland/Magic Kingdom lands), but that they have been completely transported to an entirely different place, such as a world of magic, a foreign planet, or a realm where inanimate objects take on life and are just temporarily welcoming humans as guests.

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Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios might be the ultimate realization of this type of immersive theme park land, topped only by the connected Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel/experience at Walt Disney World. However, critical and Guest reaction to both attractions has been mixed, which raises an important question for the future of theme parks – is there a limit to just how much Guests want to be immersed in an experience?

Galaxy’s Edge – The problem of “your” Star Wars story versus “the” Star Wars story

 The Disney Parks website describes Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as follows:

Discover Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World Resort and the Disneyland Resort, where you can live out your own Star Wars story, fly the Millennium Falcon and explore a remote outpost where adventure awaits.

The most important word in that blurb (at least for our current purposes) is simply, “your.” At Galaxy’s Edge the focus is on creating an individual experience for each Guest that immerses them within the Star Wars galaxy “far, far away.” That’s why Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy and Disney’s then-CEO Bob Iger scrapped two years of Imagineers’ work on a Tatooine-themed Star Wars land to instead focus on a never-before-seen planet, Batuu, as the land’s locale.


Credit: Disney

Though Batuu would appear in several tie-in novels and comic books before Galaxy’s Edge opened, the planet was created specifically for Disney Parks. This would enable Imagineers to create an all-new location that Guests could explore as unfamiliar territory, rather than finding themselves on a familiar planet from the films, such as Tatooine, Hoth, or even the Death Star. Kennedy and Iger didn’t want to look to the franchise’s past, including those iconic locales from the original trilogy, but rather toward its future. This is also why Galaxy’s Edge was set during Disney’s new trilogy of films, in between Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

On the level of craft, skill, and storytelling, what this achieves is nothing short of stunning. A Star Wars fan can slot a visit to Galaxy’s Edge into a re-watch of the films and see how it perfectly encapsulates the story beats and details of that part of the franchise’s timeline. Those who wish to dive deeper, into the various novels, sourcebooks, comic books, and databases that are considered canonical come to feel that they truly have entered into this universe at a specific time and place where they can become a part of the story, rather than just passive observers of Jedi and Rebel heroics.


Credit: Disney Tips

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However, a good number of Guests (particularly, it must be said, older Guests) want a Star Wars experience to involve the classic characters they’ve known and loved since childhood, and they want to see those characters doing familiar things rather than acting out a whole new story. For that type of Star Wars fan, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge can’t help but be something of a disappointment. For them, though Oga’s Cantina may be nice, it’s just not the same as the Mos Eisley cantina would be.

Oga's Cantina

Credit: Disney

To put it simply, while Galaxy’s Edge goes all in on creating an immersive experience that puts Guests in the starring role, some of those Guests would rather take a more passive position of watching a familiar Star Wars story rather than becoming part of a new one.

Galactic Starcruiser – The problem of full immersion versus affordable immersion

For Guests who don’t enjoy immersion – and who don’t want to be a part of the story being told by an attraction – the Galactic Starcruiser experience (diegetically called the Halcyon Starcruiser but known by many as simply “the Star Wars hotel) would be a nightmare. As described on Disney’s website,

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is a revolutionary new 2-night experience where you are the hero. You and your group will embark on a first-of-its-kind Star Wars adventure that’s your own. It’s the most immersive Star Wars story ever created—one where you live a bespoke experience and journey further into a Star Wars adventure than you ever dreamed possible.

Galactic Starcruiser thus goes a step further than Galaxy’s Edge, focusing on creating an entirely Guest-focused adventure, such that even two members of the same family or traveling group won’t experience the same story during their stay. It is, potentially, the most immersive themed attraction ever created.

Of course, much like Galaxy’s Edge, Galactic Starcruiser has received a fair amount of criticism. In this case, it’s less focused on the location or place in the timeline of the experience’s story – Guests who have booked a stay are of the type who desire this kind of first-person immersion, and they know what they’re getting into – but rather on the hefty price-tag.

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser

Credit – Disney

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The Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience is thus perhaps the ultimate realization of what former Imagineer David Younger (in his book Theme Park Design & The Art of Themed Entertainment) calls Boutique Parks, “attractions which purposefully charge higher than average prices . . . in order to feasibly deliver . . . attractions which are able to focus on interactivity and personalization.”

In order to create the bespoke experience of the Galactic Starcruiser, Disney needed to lower the number of people who could visit the Halcyon Starcruiser at one time. Thus, to make it financially viable and cover the expense of the live performers, special effects, and other hard-to-maintain elements that are central to the experience, the price tag needed to be exorbitant. Unfortunately, though, that means that potentially millions of fans are unable to partake in the experience because it is simply too expensive.


Credit: Disney

The limits of immersion

As we can see, the Disney Parks’ recent big Star Wars initiatives showcase both the promise and the limitations of immersion. While Galaxy’s Edge and Galactic Starcruiser may be the ultimate immersive experiences, showing off what a talented group of caring artists can create with a massive budget, they each highlight a different way in which immersion might hit a certain wall.

For Galaxy’s Edge, that wall comes in the form of developing an immersive experience at the expense of creating a recognizable, familiar time and space, thus turning off many fans and Guests who are looking for the sense of reassurance they’re used to from the Disney Parks.

At Galactic Starcruiser, the barrier is the hefty cost, unaffordable to many, that is required in order to create a personalized immersive experience at such a high level.

As Disney and Universal both continue trying to out-do one another, it will be interesting to see what lessons they’ve learned from these Star Wars creations, and how those lessons will impact the future of immersive theme park lands.

About Andrew Friedenthal