Friday, April 16, 2021

Around Disney’s Galaxy in 25 minutes

Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance impresses with advanced ride systems, projection and animatronic technology, and cast member passion

by Martin Palicki

ABOVE: Next gen animatronics are surrounded by detailed sets and spectacular projection technology. All photos ©Disney

Since the opening of the game-changing and award-winning Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure attraction at Shanghai Disneyland in 2016, both fans and industry professionals have been anxiously awaiting the next Disney attraction that would achieve or surpass that level of complete immersion. Now, with Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (RotR) open on both US coasts, many are heralding the attraction as the pinnacle of what Disney does best: combining expertly crafted storytelling with state-of-the-art technology and media to create a captivating and thrilling experience. It’s also expanded the boundaries of what an attraction experience can be.

Start with the Basics

RotR is the highly anticipated second attraction created for both Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands at Disneyland (California) and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Florida). The land places guests on the fictional planet of Batuu. Galaxy’s Edge and its debut attraction, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, have already been named to receive TEA Thea Awards for Outstanding Achievement [see sidebar].

RotR fits the narrative created for the land and expands upon it. After traversing a highly themed queue seeming carved out of the Batuu landscape, guests are recruited for a trans-galactic mission to assist the Resistance.

It’s probably worth noting here that the attraction does not follow the standard theme park format of pre-show, then the main ride/show event, and then a post-show walk-through or retail exit. RotR has two distinct ride experiences, and multiple pre-show scenes. In many ways, the model looks like two connected back-to-back attractions.

As such, the first pre-show featuring the spherical BB-8 and a hologram version of Resistance icon Rey gives guests information about their mission, and the space cruiser that will take them across the galaxy. Doors open and guests are briefly back outside on Batuu where the cruiser is waiting for them to board. This is actually a key divergence from a typical attraction path (or trajectory). Normally one remains in the four walls of a building once the experience starts, but this brief return to the outside reminds people of the connected narrative of the land of Batuu, and makes the whole experience feel more believable.

Entering the Intersystem Transport Ship puts guests into the first ride of the attraction. Doors close and an animatronic Lieutenant Bek guides the ship off of Batuu and into space. LED lighting and screens give the standing guests a view of both where they are going and where they have been, while a motion simulator base enhances the feeling of flight. Of course, things go awry and the ship is captured by the First Order.

Because the cruiser is actually on a turntable and rotates 180 degrees, guests exit through the same doors they entered, a neat effect that enhances the narrative illusion. First Order officers escort everyone into the iconic docking bay of a First Order Star Destroyer, populated by a small army of stormtroopers. It’s arguably the largest selfie-set built, but it’s paying dividends in publicity as folks snap and share photos in the impressive hangar.

From here guests are led to “interrogation cells” that serve as the second pre-show. Here, a series of projection and special effects lead to the cell being breached by the Resistance, who rescue the guests and put them on vehicles to escape the First Order ship. These trackless vehicles take guests through the rest of the attraction, in what might be considered a more traditional dark ride format.

Except it’s hardly traditional. Once the vehicles leave the loading bay what follows is non-stop action and effects until the ride ends five minutes later. As the vehicles try to evade stormtroopers, AT-ATs, and Kylo Ren himself, guests are surrounded by action in every direction. Projection mapping blends with fabricated sets, lasers and other lighting effects to create realistic scenes. It’s one of the few attractions where guests really feel like they are in a different space, not just on a set. Lighting racks and sound equipment are nowhere to be seen. There’s no drop-tile ceiling overhead – it’s 360-degrees of spaceship.

During this portion of the attraction the ride vehicles ascend a lift to a second story, and at the end of the attraction, move into a drop-tower shaft with a motion platform designed to simulate the vehicle’s return to planet Batuu. The vehicles then travel outside the show building, completing the story arc and physically putting guests back on Batuu. Guests then disembark and return to explore the rest of Galaxy’s Edge.

Technically speaking

Although RotR opened months after the land debuted, planning for the attraction began along with the rest of Galaxy’s Edge. Imagineers knew early on that they wanted to have a Millennium Falcon attraction (Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run). But they also understood they needed what Jon Georges, executive producer at Walt Disney Imagineering refers to as “a Star Wars cinematic spectacle” within the land. They began with a traditional storyboarding process to develop the narrative for the attraction, which took nearly six months.

“Once the linear story had been determined we asked ourselves what kind of technology was available to support our storytelling,” explains Georges. “As an Imagineer we want the technology to be invisible. We want you to get into the experience and be completely immersed and the technology is just an enabling device to our storytelling.”

In terms of ride system technology, they settled on integrating four different ride systems into the singular attraction. The initial transport ship stands alone. But the eight-seat trackless troop transport vehicles move through two levels of the attraction, and engage with other ride systems along the way.

“The culmination of that experience is the finale return to the planet below. Your trackless vehicle goes into an escape pod that’s mounted to a Star Tours-like motion base, that’s mounted to a Twilight Zone Tower of Terror-like drop platform,” says Georges. “Essentially at one point you have a triple ride sandwich dropping you two stories in a controlled freefall, while giving you the motion simulation experience for the return flight to Batuu.”

During the dark ride portion of the attraction, guests are seated in trackless ride vehicles that move quickly throughout the ship, seeking escape pods that return guests to Batuu.

Naturally, each of those ride systems have sub-systems, locking mechanisms and multiple, redundant safety measures, resulting in one of the most technologically-complex attractions Disney has ever created.

It’s not just the ride systems that have raised the bar. “The ride is a key element, but we also have the show, all of the special effects, the A1000 audio-animatronic figures and the media,” says Georges. “The projections are all moving-eye point media, which means as you’re moving through a scene, the media moves in parallax with you seamlessly.”

Disney partnered with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to help produce the media for the attraction. As fans will know, ILM was founded in order to create special effects for the original Star Wars film, and has since grown into one of the most successful visual effects companies in entertainment.

The A1000 animatronics also represent the latest advancements in robotic technology. In addition to providing more realistic movements, new electric motors (replacing hydraulic and pneumatic systems) makes the animatronics easier to maintain and are more reliable. “The performance we document on opening day will be the same in year 3, 5, or 20 because of the precision of the electric actuation,” Georges explains.

Imagineers also acknowledge the importance of fellow cast members, both on the development and operational sides.

“We’ve had thousands of people work on these projects over the last six years. It takes a lot of passion and a lot of talent from a lot of people to make this seem like a village that’s been here for 1,000 years,” says Scott Trowbridge, portfolio creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. Imagineers worked hard to create an attraction where guests, as Trowbridge says, “are not thinking of the 50 ride computers…and all the lines of code that are working together to make it a seamless experience.”

John Larena, creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, also credits the park cast members who are playing a critical part in the operation of RotR. “You can have all the animatronics and projection and effects but it’s that human level of interaction that takes it to the next level,” he says. “On the one hand they are so welcoming as the Resistance and bring you into the story. Then as the First Order they help you understand you are in big trouble.”

Star Wars fans and park enthusiasts will be happy to know that the story doesn’t appear to be ending with this latest attraction. “Getting Rise of the Resistance open is not a finishing point,” says Trowbridge. “It’s a starting point.”

As a point of origin, it’s a pretty impressive beginning, made possible through creativity, collaboration and drive. “Bob Iger asked us to be ambitious and then he said ‘Be the most ambitious you’ve ever been,’” says Georges. “When you tell an Imagineer that, this is what you get.” • • •

Vision accomplished

by Judith Rubin

It was only January 2020 – but it was a long time ago in a galaxy far away that I had the pleasure to experience Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in person at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. At this writing, some four months later, the Florida parks are just beginning the process of re-opening since the pandemic’s appearance.

The pioneering, new virtual queueing tool that Disney developed and had been testing for Rise of the Resistance was all the buzz around the time of my visit, and the buzz is even greater now, with virtual queuing being hailed as a key solution for safe operations in parks around the world.

Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are both named on the 26th annual slate of TEA Thea Award recipients. Of the former, the Thea Committee wrote:

“This is a crowning achievement of our industry. Guests are empowered to live their own Star Wars adventure, quite literally taking the story into their own hands, as the attraction authentically brings to life one of the most iconic experiences in pop culture.” Of the latter, the Committee wrote: “The intricate layout, sophisticated use of scale, extension of character details and high quality of execution combine to make this an outstanding example of story-driven experiential design. We’ve never seen a theme park land like this before, and it just might change how we create them in the future.”

The attractions industry is at all times a creative laboratory, operating on a highly visible public platform. Kudos to those who take the risk and make the investment. Public appetite has been huge for this genre of guest experience, enabling shared, improvised adventures themed to a story that inspires and uplifts. •

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