Earlier this week we reviewed Pandora – The World of Avatar, the newest themed land to open at Walt Disney World in Florida. The experience is certainly worth the visit if you’re including Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in your future vacation plans. For Star Wars fans, though, what the Imagineers have created in Pandora holds special interest. Two years from now, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will take the concepts and design features unveiled in Pandora and expand them on a grand canvass, literally and metaphorically. Disney has revealed that, at 14 acres, Galaxy’s Edge will be the largest expansions ever built in Orlando and Anaheim. And while Avatar remains the single-movie global box-office champion for now, the scope of the Star Wars franchise and its storytelling, and its fandom, is a force unlike any other.
Fans learned a great deal about the design principles underlying, and the Imagineers’ aspirations for, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge during the Disney Parks Star Wars panel at Celebration Orlando in April. With that information in mind, it is easy to see how Pandora – The World of Avatar served as a template and test-run for many of those notions.
The goal of near-complete immersion, with guests feeling like they are actually visiting the storytelling world itself, is at the core of both lands. Sights, sounds, and smells differentiate the lands from the rest of the parks; food and drinks are not the usual Disney Parks offerings but reskinned as alien fare. Cast members not only wear themed attire, but interact with guests “in character” for the story concept of the land. Much of what the Imagineers accomplished in Pandora will carry over smoothly to Star Wars, as well.
All indications are, though, that Galaxy’s Edge will increase the level of immersion considerably. The models shown at July’s D23 Expo, and construction sites within Disneyland and Hollywood Studios, make clear that the entrances to Galaxy’s Edge serve not simply as portals, but as part of directly creating the immersion. Within Animal Kingdom footpaths lead into Pandora, but the arrival is gradual rather than starkly marked. For Galaxy’s Edge, by contrast, guests will effectively exit a theme park and enter the Star Wars galaxy when they pass through the portals marking the land’s entry points. Likewise, the frontier outpost setting for Galaxy’s Edge involves a much greater reliance on buildings, vehicles, and cast members compared to the focus on natural habitats and conservation in Pandora. The contrast between Galaxy’s Edge and the rest of the parks, or with the city of Anaheim or Walt Disney World beyond their gates, will be much greater than the alien flora of Pandora compared to the lush greenery of the rest of Animal Kingdom and central Florida.
Similarly, the level of interactivity in Galaxy’s Edge will greatly exceed Pandora’s. Cast members are fairly sparse in Pandora; they are found at the rides and purchase points, of course, as well as the distribution locations for the ACE scouts to provide tourists with pamphlets and information on the local flora and fauna. In Galaxy’s Edge, on the other hand, cast members will play roles far beyond the necessary guest-services roles inherent in the theme park context. Galaxy’s Edge is driven by story, and guests will be encouraged to interact with multiple cast members during their time there as they shape their own story experience. In fact, for guests who opt-in to the most interactive experiences, the choices made by guests while participating in the rides can have story consequences in the rest of the outpost afterward. This takes the immersive realism of Pandora to a whole different level of interaction with the surrounding environment and its inhabitants.
The rides in Pandora also may provide good insight into what to expect when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens. Na’vi River Journey is a classic Disney boat ride, but delivered with 2017-caliber artistic and technological capabilities; Avatar Flight of Passage is a breathtaking and groundbreaking ride that sacrifices guests-per-hour pace to ensure a truly memorable experience. Based on the Imagineers’ remarks at Celebration and D23 Expo, the rides in Galaxy’s Edge likely will share these traits. For certain, guests will enter rides created at the very apex of the Imagineers’ current capabilities, including the queues and preshows as well as the ride experience itself. It also seems likely that both of the rides in Galaxy’s Edge will aim for the stars, creating Star Wars equivalents to Avatar Flight of Passage as guests fly the Millennium Falcon and traverse through a battle between the First Order and the Resistance. The good news is that the rides will be unparalleled and incredible; the bad news is that, unlike Star Tours, the lines will never be short. In its opening weeks, Avatar Flight of Passage consistently saw standby lines at five to six hours, similar to the initial availability of Frozen’s Anna and Elsa princess meet-and-greets. Undoubtedly the demand for Star Wars will be equally high at first, and surely will not taper off any slower, either. Perhaps the long-term equilibrium in Orlando might settle in around the two-hours mark typical for the longest standby ride waits there, but it’s a safe bet that time won’t arrive for many months after Galaxy’s Edge opens. Whether movie premieres or Star Wars Celebration conventions, Star Wars fans are known for their willingness to wait in lines. The rides in Galaxy’s Edge may test that hard-earned Jedi patience, but like the rest of the franchise the wait will no doubt be worth it.