Gaming

How Disney built the most immersive Star Wars game ever

Don’t call it a hotel. It’s a 45-hour RPG, IRL.

The Jedi shield was getting heavy, and my Apple Watch asked me if I was at the gym.

“It looks like you’re working out.”

Technically, I was standing in warrior pose. And between me and the incredibly agile padawan wielding a lightsaber in front of me, we weren’t missing a single zap off that training turret. We were one with the Force and no other trainee in the pod stood a chance. But then I froze. There was no mistaking that impish chuckle.

The lights dimmed and we were visited by a Force ghost.

I knew to expect cool lightsabers and tangible high-tech props — and all of that was impressive. But hearing Yoda whisper “May the Force be with you” was a surprise that gave me goosebumps and got me right in the feels.

Halcyon memories

The central atrium of the Halcyon.Deanne Revel

There's been a lot of excitement (and confusion) about Walt Disney World's new Star Wars hotel. Because it's not really a hotel. It's a game.

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, which opens March 1, is a two-day, two-night concoction of LARPing, multiplayer gaming, and interactive theatre — not to mention themed eating, sleeping, and even showering — that inserts you right into the Star Wars timeline between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. (The same point in time as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.)

It’s touted as the most immersive experience ever. But what does that really mean? For Disney, it means hold my beer. (Or bantha milk.)

The backstory of this more-than-a-hotel hotel is that you’re boarding a luxury starliner called the Halcyon. Yep, a cruise ship in space, and it’s all canon in the Star Wars universe. This 275-year-old spaceship has a lot of history, from Jabba the Hutt-sponsored casino cruises to Leia and Han celebrating their honeymoon after the battle in Endor. Y

You leave Earth via a simulated transport that spits you out into a gorgeous atrium with a subtle Naboo vibe. And there’s So. Much. Chrome.

Passengers enjoy the Sublight Lounge onboard the Halcyon starcruiser in Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.Image courtesy of Walt Disney World

Lucasfilm had a heavy hand in crafting the experience, especially when it came to the Halcyon aesthetic. The fabrics used in the interior design throughout the ship are legit — right down to the carpet.

“We have all the original costumes.”

Vice President and Creative Director of Lucasfilm Doug Chiang tells Inverse he wanted to make sure the textiles guests touch feel just like the original set dressings from the films.

“One of the fun things about working with the Star Wars Universe is that George Lucas has an incredible archive at Skywalker Ranch,” he says. “So we have all the original costumes from the original trilogy and the prequels. We can actually go make sure that our fabrics match the classic fabrics so that all the textures, all the colors, and all the materials feel the same way.”

Make no mistake, this is fancy Star Wars — not rural war-torn Tatooine — and you can even dress the part. Unlike Disney’s theme parks where adults can’t wear full costumes like kids, all guests are encouraged to wear their best galactic-chic frocks aboard the Halcyon. It’s two days of cosplay that sometimes feels like dressing an avatar for a new game.

That’s the real experience here. Beyond the glitz and funky-plated food, you’re living through a nonstop game. (Actually, the glitz and the funky-plated food are part of the game, too.)

The bridge of your interstellar cruise ship.Deanne Revel

It’s the real-time, split-second, in-person action that makes the Halcyon more immersive than any Star Wars experience on a home game console, says Disney Interactive Creative Director Sara Thacher.

“That fusion of live theatre and gameplay is really where this thing lives,” Thacher says. “You’re able to play in a much more collaborative, more social way. We’re on a narrative adventure together and there is nothing like throwing a switch in the engineering room with your friends and Chewbacca yelling at you while you’re trying to do it.”

Choices, choices

From the moment you step into the atrium, every choice you make matters, including who you talk to. It’s a little Westworld-ish in that the ship is stocked with a role-playing crew, from the Pantoran captain to the Twi’lek lounge club singer to the free-roaming astromech droid SK-62O.

Choices and interactions lead to storyline paths, such as First Order or Resistance. The more you engage, the more the story rewards you by unlocking Easter egg moments, a character sighting, or even a secret mission. The more you unlock, the more embedded you become in this world. You’re not a player in this game. You’re a bonafide character.

Testing out the berths on the Halcyon.Deanne Revel

Of course, there are larger, theatrical setpiece moments throughout the journey that are universal for guests, such as bridge training and lightsaber training. But the personalized experiences in between are what put the experience onboard the Halcyon in a league of its own.

It all comes back to your datapad — your mobile device — and the Play Disney Parks App. Previously, the app’s best-known use has been to keep kids engaged while waiting in line for rides. Aboard the Halcyon, it becomes a Star Wars-themed PalmPilot with the ability to collect tools, receive comms from characters aboard the ship, and look at your space cruise itinerary.

Scenes from the Starcruiser

Everywhere you look on the Halcyon bursts with impeccable detail. (Photos by Deanne Revel.)

The design is remarkably fluid and changes depending on your previous actions on the Halcyon. That’s by design, Anisha Deshmane, Creative Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering tells Inverse.

“There’s a huge logic engine behind this whole experience that connects all of these different pieces together,” says Deshmane. “So it says, you’ve done this and this and this, what is the best possible thing to serve up to you based on what you’ve done?’ It takes into account who you’re spending your time with, your choices, and also who is around you.”

“We’re on a narrative adventure together.”

If you strike up a conversation with the onboard Saja (the non-Jedi but Force-appreciative lightsaber teacher who’s the Star Wars equivalent of a SoulCycle instructor) you might get invited to a mindfulness workshop where you use the Force to move rocks.

A Saja (right) helps a young Halcyon starcruiser passenger tap into the Force in Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.Image courtesy of Walt Disney World

Similarly, if you casually drop “Ignite the spark” or “start the fire” into a conversation, that will tell characters you’re with the Resistance and you might get trusted to help harbor Chewbacca from the First Order.

“A character’s life extends beyond those face-to-face meetings,” Thacher says. “You’re also getting integrated comms from them on your datapad. And those two things together give guests a phenomenal way to build relationships with characters.”

Or you can just Pokemon Go the hell out of the whole ship and collect all the tools and all the costume pieces in your datapad. It doesn’t necessarily change the story, but it definitely brings me joy. There is something incredibly satisfying about seeing all those tasks completed. Better still, the items stay in your datapad after your trip, like a digital souvenir.

A certain point of view

With so many configurations of experiences, no one will have the same story. And even if you’re bunking with your family, each of you will likely get pulled in different directions. There’s a sense of FOMO here because you can’t do it all. But this is Star Wars. Allegiances matter. The entire franchise is all about finding your people and committing to the cause you believe in. And experiencing a different story than your friends creates some fun conversation at dinner.

Another view of the Halcyon bridge.Deanne Revel

“That dynamic of a travel party starting together, but then following different paths is phenomenal,” says Thacher, “It gives each choice a different lens to view the story. And you’ll find that each of those come to contribute in the grand wrap-up.”

Like any good video game, there is a grand finale, along with an epilogue on your datapad the next morning before you check out. There’s a payoff in these moments that is tailored to how you spent your trip.

“We’ve been testing this since October and there are still experiences we haven't seen.”

Alex Lee, Producer and Project Manager for the Disney Live Entertainment Group, knows that spoilers are bound to start popping up on Reddit soon. But he’s confident the experience can provide plenty of surprises for guests.

“As the sailings start and people start posting online, a lot of the end objectives and overarching events will be spoiled,” says Lee. “But what is really astounding about this is the way you optimize those tracks. We’ve been testing this since October and there are still experiences we haven't seen. We know how to optimize it to get there, and we still aren’t necessarily able to because there’s so much happening.”

Chewbacca stands with Halcyon starcruiser passengers in Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.Image courtesy of Walt Disney World

So how do you win? It is a game, after all. (A rather expensive game, as prices start at $749 per person for a family of four.) As a true Star Wars story, the win is the classic hero’s journey — something George Lucas baked into the DNA of the franchise since day one.

“The win for me is seeing people come on board as a passenger and leave a hero–whatever hero means in their mind,” said Deshmane. “They have gone through a transformation where they can see that the choices that they make impacted the overall story.”

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