a photo of Galaxy's Edge
Joshua Sudock / Disney Parks

The Star Wars Park Doesn’t Feel Far, Far Away

Galaxy’s Edge, the newly opened expansion at Disneyland, promises an immersion in George Lucas’s universe—but it’s most effective when it’s drawing from our own world.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge hadn’t even opened yet, and the trash cans were already disgusting. Brown-green streaks ran down the sides of the bins in Disneyland’s newest, most hyped zone, but standard messes like kid spit-up and splattered Mickey bars weren’t to blame. These stains had the look of overflowing effluent, rotted in the sun and impervious to power washing. Galaxy’s Edge is the five-years-in-the-making supposed future of theme parks, and its first impression is not entirely a pristine one.

Gunk and junk are, in fact, the best part of this new Star Wars spectacle. Just as Walt Disney’s artisans selected sherbet pink to coat Sleeping Beauty’s Castle when the Anaheim, California, resort opened in 1955, some Imagineer must have agonized over the shade and shape of the scum for the Galaxy’s Edge trash cans. The 14-acre park expansion is stunning not because of its sci-fi gimmicks, but because of its shabby-chic detail. The Millennium Falcon’s interior resembles an aborted condo rehab, all drywall patches and exposed wiring. You could spend a morning counting the blaster craters on the spaceport’s stucco-like walls. In the corner of the central bazaar stands the corpse of an R2-D2 cousin, un-domed and ash-scorched, looking less like space-age tech than like a charcoal grill at a poorly maintained public beach.

The manifold crud is a sign that Disney, stewards of George Lucas’s franchise since purchasing it for $4.05 billion in 2012, understands the gut appeal of the Star Wars universe. The discourse around the original movies got clogged up with Jungian analysis arguing that Luke Skywalker’s journey scratched a primal itch for “chosen one” tales, and while that read isn’t wrong, the plot was not the most relevant factor in A New Hope’s influence. Star Wars’ breakthrough, really, came in look and sound. Lucas’s team brined Flash Gordon sleekness in the future-thinking-but-ubiquitous textures of the 1970s: concrete brutalism, post-Vietnam military surplus, sticky linoleum, S&M rubber. Though imbued with the mystical Force and populated by muppets traveling at hyper-speed, the galaxy far, far away came off like one that Earth’s people could—and maybe already do—live in. Four decades later, Star Wars still feels like the ruins of the now.

Since 1977, video games, novels, toys, comic books, and one catastrophic Christmas special have indulged fans’ desire to step into the screen. Now Disneyland offers those fans a full-body experience: a walk-on movie set where the luminescent cocktails are drinkable and the flight-jacketed extras banter back. Galaxy’s Edge thus might be the ultimate culmination of Star Wars’ original promise, and it’s no coincidence that it’s been achieved under the auspices of Disney. Mickey Mouse’s animation studio long ago ballooned into a would-be-monopolistic holding company of many of pop culture’s beloved mythologies, and its trophy case is its theme parks. In Disney’s lands, Cinderella and Nemo the fish and Captain America do not merely share the same corporate ownership; rather, they share something intrinsic and ideological. For $97 a ticket, enchantment—across genres—ceases to be fiction.

The park, like Star Wars itself, is constructed to look lived-in. (Spencer Kornhaber / The Atlantic)

Star Wars was first brought into the stable in 1987, when Disney inked a licensing deal with Lucas and opened the simulator ride Star Tours. With its travel-agency posters and Pan Am Airways conceit—complete with a safety video from a flight attendant in Leia-like hair buns—it was a campy-great product of its era (one that was ruined for me by the recent addition of 3-D glasses and prequel-trilogy tie-ins, or maybe just by me no longer being 10). By zipping guests to and from various planets and only glancingly referencing the human characters of Lucas’s saga, the ride also recognized that Star Wars appealed as much for setting as for story. Today’s biggest blockbuster entertainments have taken a similar world-building approach. The original “cinematic universe,” the galaxy far, far away, thus now needs more than a ride. It needs a land—one as scuffed as Lucas’s looked on-screen, which is to say, one as scuffed as our own.

The measure of Galaxy’s Edge’s unconventional theme-park ambitions might be seen in what it doesn’t yet provide: excellent thrill rides. Of the two planned attractions, one is still under construction. The other, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, is in the great Disneyland tradition of having a quirky queue that is as—or more—fun as the ride itself. Riders line up through a cavernous interstellar body shop and eventually arrive in the hull of the Falcon, where they can pose for pictures at the iconic holo–chess board. Intermittently, loud noises and steam erupt from pipes in the wall, and line-standers can flip switches to “repair” the sprung gasket. So deeply did I get into the habit of pressing every visible button that a worker had to stop me after I unwittingly buzzed something on the actual ride-control panel. Role-playing has its perils.

The ride itself puts visitors in a team of six crew members with assigned roles: pilots, gunners, engineers. With its famous paneled windshield and actual working toggle switches, the Falcon’s cockpit is something out of nerd Valhalla. But after liftoff, the experience becomes that of a chaotic video game (it even runs on the popular Unreal Engine software). Gunners and engineers are frenetically torn between experiencing the visuals and turning to use the controls, which are awkwardly placed to their side. At the end, players get a score based on accuracy, their smuggling haul, and how much damage the ship sustained. The two times I rode, though, I left not with the pride of accomplishment but with a minor case of motion sickness and a major case of bewilderment. The Falcon isn’t that far off from a flight simulator you’d find in a Dave & Buster’s.

But g-force amusement isn’t the point of new theme parks these days; immersion is. You need to really feel as though you’ve stroller-pushed your tykes into another dimension—one where the sights, scents, and small talk all reinforce one another. That’s the idea behind the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, a J. K. Rowling–approved model of the bustling Diagon Alley and the wintry Hogsmeade Village, and Disney World’s Pandora, the Avatar planet where reportedly the mountains really do look like they’re levitating. Disneyland was, of course, immersive all along. The kids who pull the sword from the stone in Fantasyland, for example, really do think they’re King Arthur. But Galaxy’s Edge pushes further. Imagine if the strangers around those would-be Arthurs really did treat them as royalty for the rest of the day.

Rather than send visitors to known locales such as Tatooine or Naboo, Disney built out the heretofore undepicted planet of Batuu. There, the dusty-looking trading burg of Black Spire Outpost attracts all the essential Star Wars demographics: canvas-clothed good-guy pilots, all-too-Nazi-like bad-guy squads, toddling and guileless droids, and fuzzy-scaly aliens. Some of these are park employees—or, ahem, “cast members”—and some are animatronic fixtures. In contrast to the stand-and-pose photo ops with Donald Duck common elsewhere in Disneyland, the likes of Chewbacca and Kylo Ren can be seen living their life, whether rolling dice in a cantina in the former’s case or humorlessly interrogating locals in the latter’s.

At Galaxy's Edge, famous characters like Kylo Ren are going about their lives.
At Galaxy’s Edge, Kylo Ren is just going about his life. (Richard Harbaugh / Disney Parks)

You can play a part, too, though the jury’s out on whether it’ll be an interesting one. Disney touts that a downloadable phone app will let visitors complete quests within the park, thereby aligning themselves with the dark or the light. Cast members might change how they treat you accordingly. The live-action role-playing sounds exactly like what I, a recovering Dungeons & Dragons addict, have dreamt of all my life. But the app—at least in its partially activated form on the media-preview day—was not that engaging, with missions coming in the form of simple puzzles that had only a hazy relationship to the physical landscape. (I know it’s aimed at kids, but kids today are, I imagine, more discerning with phone games than I am.) It was slightly more satisfying to use the app’s camera to translate the alien language on shop signs or on thermal-detonator-shaped Coke bottles. In person, cast interactions were jokey and tentative, as if they were at a murder-mystery dinner party. The reward for me correctly employing a secret passphrase with a Resistance commander who approached me was a collectible card that is likely to end up destroyed next laundry day.

Where interactivity really worked was in the shopping experience; it’s not really a diss to say that Galaxy’s Edge is, at its core, a very cool mall. There are unusual-looking food courts hawking items such as Endorian Tip-Yip (crisp chicken with a colorful potato mash) and the blue milk whose ingredients fans have wondered about since 1977 (here, it’s a frozen, candy-like concoction that not only looks like slurried Windex but also kind of tastes like it). The souvenir shops are particularly creative. At the droid depot, you make like an Ugnaught in Cloud City and pick parts off a conveyor belt to assemble into a take-home friend for $99.99 a pop (this is brilliant). There’s also a lightsaber dealership with a fun, interactive concept: It’s hidden, speakeasy-like, so as to avoid scrutiny from the First Order. “What kind of scrap are you looking for?” a merchant at the weapons-dealer-cum-junk-stall asked me with a slight wink-wink. Unconvincingly, I replied, “Um … something that swings?”

Furtively, she presented laminated sheets showing the various lightsaber classes available. The experience felt very much like a drug deal, which is certainly a novel sensation for Disneyland to be providing. But accessing the actual facility where the sabers get forged required an appointment and an up-front payment of $200. I settled for a $17 alien at the pet shop around the corner. It was only a squeeze toy, but the employees nevertheless handed it over with a carrier cage and a warning: “You be careful with that.”

If I wasn’t feeling fully immersed, I was, certainly, very impressed. The land is sensorially glee-making in the way that Star Wars is supposed to be. In fact, the biggest obstacle to the adoption of Galaxy’s Edge’s official app might be that visitors will be too busy Instagramming gorgeous craggy vistas, Air and Space Museum–quality spacecraft, and the hilariously large Podracer engine being used to roast alien-meat shawarma.

The eerie fun of walking around the land, I realized after a while, came as much from the feeling of stepping into Star Wars as from noticing resemblances to our own planet. At a panel presentation, the Lucasfilm vice president and executive creative director Doug Chiang explained that the Star Wars visual language was set in the ’70s by the conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, whose use of domes, spheres, and spires helped differentiate this saga’s look. But Chiang also talked about the earthly research that went into Galaxy’s Edge. The jagged landscape of Batuu is modeled after Arizona’s petrified forests. The land’s designers consulted 19th-century paintings of bazaars and even took location-scouting trips to Istanbul and Marrakech. “The trick to designing Star Wars is that 80 or 90 percent of it is real,” Chiang said. “The [other] percent is the freshness,” where freshness translates into, for example, an extra eyeball on a creature, or a distorted sense of scale for a landscape.

The Millennium Falcon feels real, even if the ride is clunky. (Joshua Sudock / Disney)

Chiang shared one particularly striking image from his location-scouting research trips: a facade of apartment or office windows tangled with extension cords and air-conditioning units. An unbeautiful image of urban chaos and jerry-rigged modernity, it indeed felt like something from Star Wars. It reminded me of the times I’ve come across decaying shipping equipment in an industrial seaport or the concrete slabs of a municipal building and thought, Didn’t Luke Skywalker interact with this? Galaxy’s Edge, lovingly grime-caked and even tangled with power lines of its own, recognizes that Star Wars is about such moments of recognition. It’s another chapter in the postmodern mystery of why people talk about fictional universes in terms of “authenticity” or “realism.”

The general Disneyland aesthetic, of course, is more synonymous with squeaky-clean fantasy than space garbage. But browsing the park the day I visited Galaxy’s Edge, I was reminded of how much Walt’s vision was like what Chiang said about Star Wars: Amazement is achieved by an 80/20 blend of the real and the fantastical. Disney’s Adventureland is a colonialist pastiche of “exotic”—Polynesian, South American, African—architectures. Frontierland is the Wild West scrubbed of murder; Critter Country is a cartoonish Appalachia populated by talking bears. Pull back and think about the fictional franchises that have defined pop culture lately, and the 80/20 rule clearly applies there, too. Game of Thrones stood out not for its swords and sorcery, but for its application of real history and moral consequence to that setting. Marvel’s world is also our own, plus superpowers.

To enter and leave Galaxy’s Edge, I was escorted through Disneyland’s backlot, which is far less manicured than the park itself, but almost equally eye-popping. It’s a thicket of forklifts and wires and hoses and scaffolding, populated by security workers and electricians and cast members—in mouse and princess costumes—emerging from zippy shuttles and blocky trailers. Star Wars’ spaceports and cantinas make viewers marvel anew at the bustle of places like this, at the living, breathing organism that is civilization. Galaxy’s Edge can’t quite re-create the complexity that Lucas’s works point at, but what could? If you can’t get a ticket to the park, just look outside.