Disney takes visitors to a galaxy far, far away

Disney parks have always been about immersing visitors in a story, of course, but Galactic Starcruiser takes immersion to the extreme. (Photo: NYTimes)
Carina Ja had a skeptical look on her face as she glanced around the lobby of her Walt Disney World hotel.اضافة اعلان

Checking in had been a cinch. But staffers were now bombarding her with a bizarre greeting (“Good journey!”) as part of a role-playing game, the parameters of which were not entirely clear. Suddenly, a siren sounded, red lights flashed, and Stormtroopers appeared with blaster rifles brandished.

Ja’s side-eye turned to a smile.

“That’s actually kind of perfect,” she said.

“But I still do not know if Disney is going to pull this off. It is easy to get ‘Star Wars’ wrong, as we have seen with their last three movies.”

Ouch. An uncompromising “Star Wars” fan is she — exactly the type of person Disney is targeting with its latest Florida attraction, one that reflects an ongoing push by the company to create premium offerings that appeal to guests who want a more intimate experience: more high-end personalization, less waiting in line with the sweaty masses.

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But never fear. Ja, a model and TikTok influencer, was soon eating out of Disney’s hand. “It is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” she gushed.

This is Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, an expensive experiment in what one might call immersive lodging. It is equal parts luxury hotel, interactive theater, theme park ride, food as entertainment, digital scavenger hunt and role-playing game. Guests are encouraged to dress in “Star Wars” garb. Forget to pack your Togruta head tails? The Starcruiser gift shop will sell you a pair for $100. Need your hair styled into an alien fashion? You can pay for that, too.

Here, you do not book a room for the night. You ostensibly “board” a 275-year-old space liner called the Halcyon and travel to a “Star Wars” planet and back. All “journeys” are two nights. The 100 “cabins” have no windows. Stars, planets and asteroid showers are instead visible on video screens. Throughout the “voyage,” your choices on an accompanying app determine whether you are recruited to help the evil First Order or the plucky Resistance, a club that includes a woolly stowaway: Chewbacca.

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As the story unfolds, crew members and costumed “Star Wars” characters interact with guests. You might get asked to deliver a secret message or get dispatched to the engine room to help repair a fuel valve. In groups, guests are invited to participate in lightsaber training. Another activity involves taking control of the bridge and working as a team to thwart an Imperial attack.

The two-night stay also includes a visit to Galaxy’s Edge, the “Star Wars” theme park (within a theme park) that Disney opened in 2019; a supper club performance by a Twi’lek diva; and surprise appearances by characters like Yoda, Rey and Kylo Ren. A space transport simulator is used to travel to and from the Halcyon starcruiser.

“Hold on with hands, tentacles and other appendages,” an otherworldly voice intones as the passenger shuttle to Galaxy’s Edge departs (after an airlock on the vessel hisses closed, of course: psssht).

None of this comes cheap, which has exposed Disney to criticism about price gouging — taking advantage of the “Star Wars” franchise’s intense fandom — and turning the 40-square-mile Disney World mega-resort into more of a land of haves and have-nots. Passage on the Galactic Starcruiser for a family of four runs roughly $6,000. A tricked-out suite can cost up to $20,000.

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Prices include rooms, valet parking, nearly continuous onboard activities and entertainment, Galaxy’s Edge entry, express access to “Star Wars” rides and all meals, some of which are extravagant. Unlike on many cruise ships, however, glasses of beer ($13.50) and wine ($11 and up) cost extra, as do specialty drinks like a Mark of the Huntress ($23), which incorporates bourbon, peach-infused black currant syrup, lemon and “sparkling bubbles”.

You can pay $30 extra per person to sit at the captain’s table in the starcruiser’s Crown of Corellia dining room (availability limited). Pricing for in-room character hair and makeup is still being worked out, according to a spokesperson. Guests can also hire a Disney photographer for portraits; the introductory price is $99 and can include up to eight guests per session.

“We’ve made the first of something that will hopefully change the way we think about the possibilities of immersive experiences,” said Scott Trowbridge, the Disney creative executive, or imagineer, who oversaw the development and construction of the Galactic Starcruiser.

“Some people out there are still calling it the Star Wars hotel, which is so not what this experience is.”

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Even analysts who follow Disney do not know quite what to make of it.

“Go big or go home?” Michael Nathanson, a partner at MoffettNathanson, said in an email in response to a question about what business strategy the Galactic Starcruiser reflected.

“Their efforts have lately amped up the wow factor.”

Nathanson said it was unclear how much the Galactic Starcruiser cost to build. Jessica Reif Ehrlich, a Bank of America media analyst, did not have an estimate, either.

Ehrlich noted that demand at Walt Disney World has exploded as the United States has started to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. The resort, which includes six separately ticketed parks and 19 Disney-owned hotels and vacation club properties (18,000-plus rooms) has almost entirely reopened. This month, Disney greatly relaxed its mask requirements for guests. On April 22, Disney will restart certain nighttime parades and fireworks displays.

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On Friday, tickets were sold out for Disney World’s three busiest parks. “The pent-up demand is extremely high,” Ehrlich said in an email. In terms of annual attendance, “international visitors makeup roughly 20 percent of the total,” she added, “and they’re not even back yet!”

Galactic Starcruiser will have its grand opening Tuesday. March, April and most of June are sold out.

Disney started working on the starcruiser project about six years ago, Trowbridge said, as part of its design for Galaxy’s Edge, a $1 billion “Star Wars” addition to Disney World’s Hollywood Studios theme park. Galaxy’s Edge was about mass entertainment, while the starcruiser was conceived for intimacy. “We didn’t want it to be so big that people lost that sense of ‘they see me’,” Trowbridge said.

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At the time, the hospitality and retail industries were repositioning themselves for millennial consumers. Staying in a hotel? Shopping in a store? How quaint. Increasingly, creating “immersive experiences” was the ticket to relevancy, and the more the experience intertwined the real and virtual worlds, the better. Interactive theater was also becoming trendy, with “Sleep No More” in New York a prime example. (Audience members devise their own story by entering different rooms and choosing, over the course of several hours, which characters to follow and when.)

But this was unfamiliar ground for Disney, which does not like leaving anything to chance. In fact, the company has spent decades perfecting the opposite.

Disney parks have always been about immersing visitors in a story, of course, whether transporting them to Cinderella’s castle or a pirate-filled Caribbean Sea. But most of Disney’s rides are passive experiences. You sit and something happens. Young visitors now expect more: They want to be part of the action and even influence the outcome.

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Galactic Starcruiser takes immersion to the extreme. If guests arrive the minute they are allowed and stay until checkout, they get 45 hours inside a game. Disney has always called its employees cast members, but the people hired to staff the hotel go a step further; all of them, even the bellhops, are “Star Wars” universe residents who stay in character when you ask a question.

This can get to be a bit much if you are not an ardent “Star Wars” fan, although Trowbridge noted that guests choose their own level of role play. “This has to be fun for the people who love ‘Star Wars’ and for the people who love the people who love ‘Star Wars’,” he said.

Too much? Too little? Just enough? It did not seem to matter to Jude Steakley, 7, who was wandering around the starcruiser media preview in a Mandalorian helmet and jumper. He was with his father, a Disney technician, and was excited about the ship’s bridge, where he learned how to “explode things and blow things up”.

That was not the best part of the trip, however. The best part, Jude said, was “being together with my dad”.

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