At the recent Star Wars Celebration conventions, particularly Orlando in 2017 and Chicago in 2019, the Disney Parks panels had focused on the development and construction of Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland in California and Hollywood Studios in Florida. The formal grand opening of Batuu West occurred in May 2019, a matter of weeks after Celebration, with Batuu East following a few months later. If Celebration had been held in 2020 as originally scheduled, the Parks panel might have cheered the opening of Galaxy’s Edge and provided some early hints about the Galactic Starcruiser immersive experience, which opened in Florida in March 2022. The delay of the convention until April 2022, however, recast the panel with a more retrospective celebratory feel.
The theme for “From a Galaxy Far, Far Away to a Disney Park Near You” at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim 2022 was the simple fact that the longstanding amicable relationship between Lucasfilm, especially Star Wars, and The Walt Disney Company, particularly Disney Parks, predated by many years the formal corporate acquisition of the former by the latter. Hosted by Amy Ratcliffe, the panelists from Walt Disney Imagineering were familiar faces from previous events – Scott Trowbridge and Asa Kalama, instrumental players in creating Galaxy’s Edge, and Ann Morrow Johnson, the project lead for Galactic Starcruiser – as well as Lucasfilm’s Matt Martin.
The panel began, though, with another participant: retired Imagineer Tony Baxter, a key contributor to the early years of the corporate collaborations. Baxter noted that the first collaboration was not for the parks, but rather the Star Wars read-along storybooks released (from 1979 to 1985) by the Buena Vista Records division of Disney. (Trowbridge briefly invoked another deep cut: a Star Wars-inspired “intergalactic” rock band, Halyx, that performed on Disneyland’s Tomorrowland stage in the summer of 1981.) Baxter then discussed the development of the Star Tours ride and the new technology that needed to be created for it. He also explained that the Captain EO “4D” film experience – written by George Lucas, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Michael Jackson – was pushed into production by Disney CEO Michael Eisner to offer an exciting new experience in the parks with a significantly shorter lead time than the motion-simulator ride would require.
Proceeding in chronological order, the panelists then shared insights on the recent decades of collaboration. The upgrade to digital video enabled the randomized trip routes in Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, fulfilling as aspiration that the original Imagineers could not have achieved with then-available projection technology. Other topics included Star Wars Weekends at Hollywood Studios, Season of the Force at Disneyland (and several international parks), and Star Wars Day at Sea on the Disney Cruise Line (and expanded Star Wars experiences on the new Disney Wish ship). Kalama shared a number of previously unseen behind-the-scenes photos and engineering designs for the design and construction of Galaxy’s Edge, including the special technology Imagineering developed to enable the cockpits for Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run to rotate around a giant turntable (to ensure a constant flow of onboarding and offloading guests) without the movement being apparent during the flight crew’s experience. Trowbridge joked that his favorite part of the project was testing the food and beverage to find just the right options for the park, while Martin emphasized the synergy between the Galaxy’s Edge park experience and Lucasfilm’s publishing program with stories involving Batuu. Johnson finished the chronological progression with the Galactic Starcruiser, putting emphasis on the wide variety of story options available within the experience.
Only briefly did the panelists look ahead to the future of Star Wars at Disney Parks. Kalama spent a few minutes describing the upcoming “Batuu Bounty Hunters” game that will be playable in the Black Spire Outpost using the new MagicBand+ technology rolling out later this year. Trowbridge mentioned the Batuu-themed AR lenses now available in Snapchat and the My Disney Experience app. The panel concluded with its only piece of news: that Boba Fett and Fennec Shand would be appearing as characters inside Galaxy’s Edge beginning May 28, with The Mandalorian and Grogu to come later this year. Whatever else may lay ahead remains a secret to be kept for the time being – or perhaps held for a future panel, such as the D23 convention later this year.