Disney aims to thrill 'Star Wars' fans

Disney aims to thrill 'Star Wars' fans

ANAHEIM - Reuters
Disney aims to thrill Star Wars fans

At a new "Star Wars" land at Disneyland Resort in California, Walt Disney Co will let visitors fly the Millennium Falcon and drink blue milk as it aims to satisfy a wide range of the space saga's fans with its most ambitious expansion ever.

When visitors step into the 14-acre section called Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, "we want them to feel great anticipation," said Margaret Kerrison, a story editor at Walt Disney Imagineering, even if they have only passing knowledge of Solo, Chewbacca and other characters.

"We want to be appealing to everyone from the very, very hardcore fans," she said, "to people who know nothing about 'Star Wars.'"

How much of the public embraces Galaxy's Edge is important to Disney. The theme parks division is the company's largest by revenue, and it has been growing profits as the media networks unit has been hit by digital competition.

Analysts estimate Disney spent at least $1 billion on two nearly identical versions of Galaxy's Edge. At Disneyland in Anaheim, California, workers relocated a river and a railroad to make room. The second location, at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, will debut Aug. 29.

"Star Wars" has attracted legions of fans with 10 live-action movies and three animated TV series since 1977.

"I think there is universal appeal to 'Star Wars," Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger said in an interview.

To impress fans, "we wanted to create something deeply immersive," he added. "You actually walk through this land and you feel like you are on the outer edge of the galaxy."

The question for theme-park designers was how to satisfy a broad group of admirers who favor different characters and have varying levels of attachment.

'Star Wars' means very different things to different people," said Asa Kalama, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering. "For a certain generation, it is the original (episodes) 4, 5, and 6, and nothing else is 'Star Wars.' Others prefer the prequels or animated series. 

As a reminder, the design team displayed pictures of fans ranging from a Disney fan with no knowledge of "Star Wars, to a casual follower in a "Star Wars" T-shirt, up to an enthusiast in head-to-toe Stormtrooper gear. 

For the setting, the designers considered planets such as Luke Skywalker's home of Tatooine, but ultimately decided to build Black Spire Outpost, the largest settlement on a planet called Batuu that appeared in "Star Wars" books but never on screen.

Kalama said the intention was "to make sure it wasn't too heavily biased toward one frame of reference." 

In internal discussions among Disney staff, a top desire was to ride Solo's spaceship, the Millennium Falcon. A life-sized replica became the centerpiece of Galaxy's Edge and will take visitors on simulated flights.

Crews also built a cantina similar to the watering holes seen on screen. Beverage experts developed drinks such as blue milk, seen in the first "Star Wars" movie, and a vodka-infused Jedi Mind Trick.

Workers constructed another attraction, Rise of the Resistance, which will open later this year and feature Rey and fellow fighters from the current "Star Wars" trilogy.

For experts, the design team added details such as droid tracks in cement, and writings in Aurebesh, a language from the movies.

Initial demand is strong. Reservations are required for the first three weeks and were snapped up in two hours.

"The demand from the public to go to Disneyland, in particular, for the next couples of months, this summer, and beyond, is huge," Iger said.

Reaction to previews has been positive. Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger called Galaxy's Edge "absolutely jaw-dropping, even against the super-high expectations that come with any Disney project."

Whether Disney succeeds in wowing visitors will spread quickly on social media, said Jim Hill, a theme park historian who runs a popular Disney fan blog.

"There is a lot of pressure here," Hill said. "These days, bad news spreads instantaneously. You only have one chance to make a first impression."