“Spaceships and aliens and stormtroopers and lightsabers and droids and all in one attraction.”
That’s what Scott Trowbridge, a Disney theme park designer known as an Imagineer, told me ahead of riding the highly-anticipated, 18-minute new attraction, “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance” at Walt Disney World.
“[It’s] everything that makes Star Wars Star Wars,” he said.
Disney’s new massive and innovative ride acts as the centerpiece of the company’s $1 billion park expansion, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. When the two lands debuted earlier this year at Disneyland in Anaheim, California and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida, they were packed with authentic Star Wars experiences: You could see, buy, eat, and even drink Star Wars, down to the Blue Milk.
But Galaxy’s Edge offered tourists just one ride — “Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run,” a motion simulator that puts guests in the cockpit of Han Solo’s iconic ship. At the far end of the 14-acre land, the main attraction — “Rise of the Resistance” — was still under wraps. Lower than expected turnout led to headlines describing the land as a “ghost town” and a “flop.”
Despite the early headlines, Disney execs have been quick to point out that Galaxy’s Edge has been a financial success, driving increases in per capita food and merchandise sales. “Guest satisfaction is very, very high,” said CEO Iger on a recent earnings call.
Now Disney is finally pulling the curtains off “Rise,” opening on Thursday at Walt Disney World and on January 17 at Disneyland. The stakes are high for this expensive gamble to succeed: Attendance at Disney’s domestic theme parks was down 3% in its latest quarter. The company also recently announced the departure of Catherine Powell, the president of Disney Parks who oversaw Anaheim and Orlando.
Disney is betting it can turn things around with the power of high-tech experiences. The attraction packs dozens of audio-animatronics — and a couple of giant AT-ATs — holograms, lasers, and the most complex ride system Disney’s Imagineers had ever designed: a trackless vehicle that moves laterally, vertically, and at all times unpredictably. At its annual shareholders meeting, Disney CEO Bob Iger called the ride “the most technologically advanced and immersive attraction that we have ever imagined.”
Trowbridge, the creative mind behind Galaxy’s Edge, said he’s been working on “Rise” for more than five years. Yet, even as its opening day approaches, there’s still work to be done.
“We’re still very much in the final tweaking and tuning phase,” said Trowbridge, while sitting outside Ronto Roasters, a Star Wars-themed grill where meat wraps are charred by a podracing engine. “We’re not quite ready to open the flood gates to our guests yet.”
That was two weeks ahead of the launch, when I became the first reporter to experience the attraction. Despite the anticipation and buzz around the ride, no one outside of those who built “Rise” knew what to really expect. But my expectations were certainly met — and then some.