The newly updated Star Tours attraction at Disneyland fully realizes the promise of digital screen-based attractions with a pair of spectacular new scenes based on “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” just as the final film in the epic space opera saga hits movie theaters.
Riders aboard Starspeeder 1000 spaceships surf massive waves on the Star Wars ocean moon Kef Bir and join a sprawling space battle to end all space battles in the new scenes introduced Friday, Dec. 20 to the venerable motion simulator attraction at the Anaheim theme park.
I almost expected to get wet as our Starspeeder crashed through a wave and floated into the submerged remains of a crashed Death Star. My favorite moment was when a tentacled Dianoga creature from the trash compactor scene in the original 1977 “Star Wars” movie grabbed our ship like a child playing with a toy. Fans cheered as Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams) beamed in with an urgent transmission. After a jump to lightspeed, we dropped into a raging battle amid hundreds of Star Destroyers that seemed to stretch to infinity. After the thrilling four-minute adventure, we emerged victorious as always and I was ready to ride again.
Over the decades, the quality of the imagery in the 1987 Star Tours attraction has kept pace with the special effects wizardry in the movies. In 2011, the ride was updated with destinations from the middle “Star Wars” trilogy along with high-definition video and an improved motion simulator. In recent years, subsequent intergalactic stops were added from the current trilogy along with a jaunt to Batuu, the setting for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
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The built-in box office power of “The Rise of Skywalker” means there is no need for Disney to wait and see if it’s worth the time and effort to add locales from the critic-proof blockbuster to the Star Tours attraction. Walt Disney Imagineering worked hand-in-hand with Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic to have the new Star Tours scenes ready in time for the opening weekend of Episode IX in the Skywalker saga.
At least in theory, the brilliance of digital screen-based theme park attractions is that the scenes and even the stories in the rides can be changed with the flip of a switch. The reality is more of a mixed bag as Disney — and more so their chief rival Universal — continue to lean more heavily on digital screens rather than three-dimensional environments in their theme park attractions. Much to the chagrin of some fans.
I’ve always been in favor of using the best tool for the job that gets the most bang for the buck. A practical effect is always best, especially if it works just as good or better than the digital illusion.
I enjoy well-crafted digital effects — especially when they are undetectable. The stunning digital effect of Kylo Ren stomping toward riders with his crossguard lightsaber in the new Rise of the Resistance attraction coming Jan. 17 to Disneyland is both mesmerizing and convincing.
SEE ALSO: Rise of the Resistance: I rode Disney’s new Star Wars attraction 4 times and here’s what it’s like
For me, the biggest upside of digital effects and screen-based scenes has always been flexibility — particularly when it comes to storytelling. That variety and newness increases a ride’s repeatability. Which in turn increases repeat visits and revenue — the magic words that loosen purse-strings for new and updated theme park attractions.
Star Tours now has more than 100 storytelling combinations. Which means it’s likely to never be the same ride twice. And for the next few months, Star Tours will be a completely new experience during the limited-time run of the all-new “Rise of Skywalker” scenes.
Budgeting concerns and potential audience are always factors in updating any attraction. But most if not all of the new attractions introduced by Disney and Universal in the digital age of theme parks have been tied to mega-blockbuster tentpole franchises that have a natural built-in audience. Provided the bean counters can be convinced an increase in visitorship and spending will follow the investment.
Disney has capitalized on the digital flexibility of a few other Anaheim attractions.
Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout at Disney California Adventure has a randomized feel to the scenes in the year-round model of the attraction. Disney has experimented with adding new content to the digital screens in the indoor drop tower ride during the Halloween season. Another chance to update the attraction’s story and increase the repeatability factor for riders will arrive in 2022 when “Volume 3” in the Guardians franchise is expected to hit theaters.
It’s still too soon to tell if Disney will eventually change out the story lines in the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and Rise of the Resistance attractions in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Walt Disney Imagineering has certainly suggested it’s possible to send riders on other adventures aboard the biggest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Imagineering cleverly disguised a number of digital “space window” screens throughout Rise of the Resistance that could be updated with new scenes from future Star Wars stories. We’ll have to wait and see where we head next in a galaxy far, far away. And if there are the will and the capital to reinvest in the new Galaxy’s Edge attractions.
Several digital screen-based attractions at the Anaheim theme parks are ripe with new storytelling opportunities.
A set of randomized destinations would work well on Soarin’. The biggest question is if the flight simulator ride needs a creative boost with the relatively long lines it draws on a daily basis.
The same goes for Toy Story Midway Mania. The popular shoot-em-up dark ride draws big crowds but would be an obvious place to introduce new randomized digital midway games and seasonal overlays during the holidays.
Would Disneyland regulars be more likely to head into the Tomorrowland Theater or Sunset Showcase Theater if the scenes in a film like “Mickey’s Philharmagic” were randomized and regularly refreshed? That seems like a hard sell, but it might work with the right intellectual property. The 4D special effects theaters almost seem like a relic from the theme park past. The question is whether audiences could be enticed to return to the theaters if there were more unexpected surprises inside.
Disney has had more luck drawing big crowds with outdoor digital projections, a close cousin to the indoor digital screens. Disney could easily translate the seasonal overlay concept used on the “World of Color” to “Fantasmic” on the other side of the promenade. Once again, the question is how many more people does Disney need huddled around the Rivers of America for the popular nighttime spectacular.
Heading in the opposite direction across the promenade, Disney needs to find a way to take the success it has had with projection mapping during nighttime fireworks at Disneyland and find a venue for a similar show in DCA. I vote for a Route 66 show in Cars Land on the Cadillac Mountain Range or a Marvel superhero spectacular in the new Avengers Campus coming in 2020. Fireworks might not be welcomed by hotel visitors on the edge of the Disneyland resort, but a nighttime spectacular focused on projection mapping could work in either spot. The biggest incentive: A longer day at Disney’s second gate would drive up spending in shops and restaurants. Visitors will stay later at DCA if Disney promises to light up the night with a must-see “kiss goodnight” spectacular to complement “World of Color.”