Prologue — The Boy Who Changed Theme Parks Forever

I arrived about an hour before opening, but there were still about six people in front of me at the Universal Studios Orlando gate. In the bottom of my drawstring backpack were my Ravenclaw robes; I was there for what wound up being the last Celebration of Harry Potter at the Universal resort, a 3-day expo that had special Harry Potter events, an exhibition, and after-hours parties for attendees. I chuckled to myself as the entrance plaza steadily filled with witches and wizards, who of course were breaking the Statute of Secrecy by not being dressed as Muggles, and I felt very clever for my plan. This was my very first trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, but as a theme park fan I did know that I was in for an extremely immersive experience, and that if ever there were an opportunity to make the imaginative feelings I had when reading the Harry Potter series as a child a reality, this was it. I already had my robes, of course, but what I still needed was a Wand, so the first stop on the plan was Ollivanders. Then, after I was properly equipped, I’d board the Hogwarts Express, put on my robes, and head off to see Hogwarts Castle, just like Harry did on that fateful day when he joined the Wizarding World.


Diagon Alley at night

I cried when I stepped from Muggle London through the hidden, roughly hewn entryway into the shade of Diagon Alley’s Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, the background soundtrack of the bricks shifting invoking the wall’s magical transformation. I was one of the first visitors that day, and the witches and wizards who worked in the shops were lined up the street, welcoming everyone as they filtered in. The detail that surrounded me was incredible, and I was in love — grinning pictures of Gilderoy Lockhart beaming up from his display in the window of Flourish and Blotts (just like in the books!), things like floating Firebolts, self-stirring cauldrons, and potion supplies filled the other shop windows (just like in the books!), and there even was a dark, creepy alleyway, off to the side, somewhat hidden between the Leaky Cauldron and the next shop, with a small sign reading “Knockturn Alley”, pointing into the darkness, ripe for exploration for the daring, dark, and ambitious in the Magical world (JUST LIKE IN THE BOOKS!!).

Needless to say, the quality of the experience continued. From the wand choosing show at Ollivander’s where you get to watch someone from the crowd (usually a child around 11 years old, for obvious thematic reasons) try out several wands in search of the one that chooses them, to the Hogwarts Express train ride to Hogsmeade, featuring a creepy train invasion by Dementors, to wandering through the halls of Hogwarts, where you can listen to the portraits of the House Founders questioning or supporting Dumbledore’s wisdom of “Inviting so many Muggles to the Magical World” (the underlying theme-park land conceit of how any of the Muggle guests could be there to begin with), and even down to Universal Studio’s very liberal costume policy, allowing almost any cosplay; everything acted to support the fantasy and made it so easy to roleplay as if it were real. Sure, there were allowances here and there for reality — not every shop-front in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade can be entered, and there are judicious uses of forced perspective to make the environments seem larger than they really are — but the overall experience allowed me to satisfy my desire to live a day in the shoes of The Boy Who Lived.


Hogwarts Express at King’s Cross Station

I think one thing to note is how little the rides actually matter to the factor that is most important to me: roleplaying immersion. So far I’ve mentioned only one, the Hogwarts Express, and I wonder if many people wouldn’t classify it more as heavily-themed transportation between the two Harry Potter areas. This isn’t to say that the other, more elaborate Harry Potter rides aren’t world-class! Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the thrill ride that starts inside of Hogwarts Castle and features the ride queue that allows you to tour the halls of Hogwarts, is probably my favorite themed dark-ride in the world, this side of only the historic, deeply influential masterpiece that is Pirates of the Caribbean. The Escape From Gringotts rollercoaster, where you go face-to-face with You-Know-Who, is also a wonder, though doesn’t quite reach Forbidden Journey’s greatness. But in the end, I feel like the nature of the rides as linear rides only allows them to be a sort of flavoring on top of the immersive, interactive playground, filled with environments to explore, food and drink to eat, and live shows to watch, that is created within the rest of the land. It is natural that the rides offer what they do — thrill rides exist to give us the thrill of danger in a safe way, and what the rides offer is the exciting portions of the Harry Potter stories, the dangerous portions, in a safe and controlled fashion. And while that’s certainly exciting and an essential part of the experience, what leaves a more lasting impression upon me as a roleplayer in the Wizarding World are the quieter moments of everyday wizarding life, shopping and eating and chatting with the wizards and witches in the world, which The Wizarding World fortunately supplies that in spades.

Ultimately, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter set the standard for immersive theme parks with its incredible attention to detail and dedication to capturing the true nostalgic feeling of the Harry Potter franchise. Visiting the Wizarding World is a must-do for Harry Potter fans, but should also not be missed by theme park fans looking for one of the most tremendous expressions of the art-form.

Star Wars — Taking Theme Parks Out of This World

Star Wars has just… always been there. Some of my earliest memories involve watching the original Star Wars movies. X-wings and TIE fighter models hung from my bedroom ceiling. My last name, Knight, was ripe for “Jedi Knight” jokes, and if I’m not lying, dreams.

Theme parks have just… always been there. Some of my earliest memories involve the carousel themed wallpaper of my childhood nursery. My parents, antique carousel enthusiasts, took me to many theme parks in their travels to see operating carousel rides, and I fell in love with everything else, too. Particularly special to me were Disney’s parks, because Walt Disney Imagineering, the arm of the company dedicated to dreaming up and building theme park attractions, were practically the inventors of everything modern theme park fans hold dear.

So needless to say, as a lifelong fan of both Star Wars and Theme Parks, I couldn’t not be excited about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

And because I’m a massive theme-park fan, I knew that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was built as a direct response to the immense popularity of Universal’s Harry Potter attractions, so it had some pretty big shoes to fill. The immersive experience there allowed me to really feel like I was a wizard in the Wizarding World, and the rides were exciting adventures with the characters I loved. Whenever I’m there, I am a Wizard, and I’m returning home, to the familiar places I’ve known since I was a child, like Diagon Alley and Hogwarts Castle. Compared to this, what would Galaxy’s Edge be like?

Obsessively reading theme park news and rumors has its bonuses, so I did know a little bit about what to expect from Galaxy’s Edge. Instead of recreating someplace already familiar to Star Wars fans, like Tatooine, Coruscant, or the forest moon of Endor, Walt Disney Imagineering and Disney subsidiary Lucasfilm invented an entirely new planet for the Star Wars universe from which they would craft their land. This newly imagined planet, called Batuu, used to be an important trading post right in the middle of a major Galactic trading lane. That is, it was, before the invention of Hyperdrive, which caused its location on the outer arm of the Galactic territory to no longer be an asset but a liability, to all except the small Resistance cell and smuggler-scoundrels hiding out from the law in the local Cantina in Black Spire Outpost, a small trading post and space port nestled amongst the ancient petrified trees of the Batuuan primordial forest. It was here that the Intergalactic Travelers, Disneyland’s guests, would explore and play in the Star Wars universe.

This all was new and exciting, but I didn’t really feel a particular sense of calling to the location being portrayed. To invent a new planet is one-hundred percent on-theme for Star Wars; every single movie, game, book, holiday special, and cereal box creates new content to be added to the Star Wars Wookiepedia, so this being new was perfectly natural, but it does mean that I didn’t really have any nostalgic feeling toward anything in Black Spire Outpost. This should have been the first hint to me that this would be a pretty wide emotional divergence from the Harry Potter theme park experience with which it was meant to compete, whose overarching emotional theme is nostalgia.

The Falcon at night, right before Disneyland’s fireworks display

Nostalgia might be hard to come by on Batuu, except for one thing — the Millennium Falcon. It just so happens that at Galaxy’s Edge’s point in the Star Wars storyline, Chewbacca, Rey, and the Millennium Falcon are making a pit-stop on Batuu to help the Resistance cell hiding out in the forest on the outskirts of town. This means that, parked right there on landing pad B at Black Spire Spaceport, is the famous Corellian freighter herself. If the rest of the land was lacking, this, this is something that every Star Wars fan holds near and dear in their hearts, and was genuinely one of the things that I was most excited about seeing. Coupled with the promise of other experiences like drinking the infamous blue milk or building a lightsaber, that while not direct recreations of locales or events from the larger Star Wars stories, were deeply inspired by them, and I think there’s just enough here for a Star Wars fan to live out their imagination in the way that a Harry Potter fan can at the Wizarding World.

What I think is a little more interesting, though, is the feeling that takes thematic focus in Galaxy’s Edge. Instead of being focused on bringing to life story moments in Star Wars that have already been, that would satisfy the desires to experience things that the fans already know, the Imagineers instead decided to focus on a spirit of exploration, immersive interactivity, and an ever evolving platform for the guest’s personal adventure. I’ve already said that when I arrive in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I am returning home, to these specific familiar places that I have cherished my whole life. When I arrived at Black Spire Outpost in Disneyland, rounding the ess curve that hides the massive entrance archway through the outer walls of Black Spire Outpost, as John William’s Star Wars theme played in the background, instead I felt an immense sense of discovery. I wasn’t arriving home — I was an explorer, arriving on an alien planet in the Star Wars universe.

Sign on the Toydarian Toymaker shop. Text reads: “Toys”

“Bright Suns!” the Batuuan citizen milling about near the town gate called out to me and my family, using the customary Batuu daytime greeting. “Welcome to Black Spire Outpost!” The music, which had ushered us through the 50 yards or so up the path toward town, had already subtly faded out, replaced with the sounds of starships flying overhead and holo-net broadcasts blaring from a second-story window. This was more proof that Galaxy’s Edge is dedicated to verisimilitude even more fully than Harry Potter, which also features John Williams, but with a far more heavy hand, his famous magical themes suffused throughout every experience in the world. At Galaxy’s Edge, you are on Batuu. Full stop. Sure, at Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, you’re ostensibly there — but overall the approach is one of a sort of Heightened Reality, where the films soundtracks play in the background, and the items in the gift shops are branded with the official Harry Potter franchise logos. On Batuu, this is not the case; absolutely every aspect of the world is oriented around it being a real place. There is no soundtrack, except for diegetic noises and sounds, like radios being played or droids and parked speeders chirping and whirring. Shoppers are hard pressed to find merchandise explicitly branded as “Star Wars”. One can find it, but it is always de-emphasized, relegated to a corner of the packaging, near the barcode, or on the back-side of a label. Instead of overt branding, the merchandise is designed to look, feel, and even taste as if it fully originated on an alien world, made by local craftsman in their local shops. All of the toys have a hand-crafted, boutique feel, with felted stuffed recreations of Star Wars characters, “famous here on Batuu, from the Legends” the shopkeepers say. Instead of a fridge-magnet to bring home as a souvenir, you can get a magnetic Droid Restraining Bolt, just like was attached by the Jawas to R2-D2 and C-3PO, to make sure that your refrigerator at home stops running away. Rather than candy, instead travelers can bring home a “Resistance MRE”, a tackle-box looking case filled with crackers, pretzels, and M&Ms and Lemon Drops, reminiscent of the similar box Luke Skywalker snacked from in the swamps of Dagobah. Even the stuffed toy Tauntaun babies, Loth Cats, and Kowakian Monkey-lizards (trust me, those are all Star Wars creatures!) are sold not as toys but are “adopted” and sent home in little cardboard “Containment carriers”, emblazoned with the word “Caution” written in the Galactic Alphabet.

It’s not only the merchandise that acts like the world is real. Every cast member I spoke with had some sort of back-story about their life on Batuu, and it was extremely difficult to get anyone to break character at all (they even kept theme by asking if we had a “Frequent Galactic Traveler Discount”, instead of asking if we had a Disneyland Passholder discount). Almost all writing throughout the land, except for really important things like safety information (and restroom signs), is in the Galactic Alphabet, Aurebesh, the special Star Wars script that replaces the Latin alphabet. It’s not too hard to get by, though, as everything is still in Galactic Basic [English], so you just need to translate the letters, and the handy Datapad app available on your phone can help. And that isn’t all it can do; it is also a gateway to another facet of the land’s storytelling. The Datapad will be an underappreciated aspect of the land, I think, with many guests likely unaware that all around them in the land are communication panels, droids, starships, water vaporators, cargo containers, drinking fountains, and antennae that can be hacked, tuned into, or otherwise scanned in order to complete “Jobs” posted by characters inside of the Datapad Mission Board. If you are participating in missions on the app, you will even get paid for your rides on the Millenium Falcon! Embarking on these missions will also reveal additional information about the characters and back-story of the land, and offers you the choice to use your efforts in the missions to support either the Resistance, the First Order, or to be a self-centered Scoundrel only looking out for oneself.

The Fuzzy Tauntaun at Oga’s Cantina

Even the food is designed with an alien bent, and it wound up being one of my favorite features of the experience. This isn’t necessarily to say that everything in Galaxy’s Edge tastes good, but that everything in Galaxy’s Edge tastes interesting. It felt like traveling to another country and sampling their cuisine; it’s just so DIFFERENT from what you’re used to, and that aspect really landed for me. The hotly anticipated Blue and Green Milks, recreations of the beverages Luke Skywalker has been shown drinking throughout the Star Wars series, have had a somewhat mixed reaction on the whole. Described as a “Plant-based Dairy blend of Coconut and Rice Milk with zippy citrus and tropical characteristics”, the Green milk looks like a liquified tennis ball, and as my family passed the small cup of slushy drink around, we each took a sip with trepidation. My Mom and I went first, and after a thoughtful moment, we both said nearly in unison, “It’s not bad… but it’s not good…” as my Dad took his sip. His reaction: “Wow, this tastes really good!” We stood there and passed the cup around for about fifteen minutes, discussing our thoughts on the flavor, which is like an orange julius (yeah, like from the mall) with a hint of herbal notes, something like macha, but a little more piney, and not very strong. In the end, as we tried more and my Mom and I acquired the taste, we decided that it was actually kinda good, certainly refreshing for a hot day, and definitely tasted like something that we could never get “On Earth”. We felt the same when we tried the Blue Milk the following afternoon, which tastes strongly of pineapple and berries, though I wound up preferring the Green Milk overall, as I enjoy citrus more and the more complicated herbal undertones were more interesting than the fruitier Blue Milk. And while it is certainly no Butterbeer, the ridiculously delicious and sugary drink served in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in terms of mass appeal, the Star Wars Milks offer a more unique experience that has to be tried at least once. There also were some creative drinks offered in the immersive Oga’s Cantina, a thumping night club with a robot DJ (fan favorite ex-Pilot R-3X of the original Star Tours ride fame), surly bartenders, and blaster holes all over the walls from shoot-outs that could break out at any moment. As I listened to the fire new Galactic electronica music echoing off the adobe walls, I sipped a delicious spin on a fuzzy navel called a Fuzzy Tauntaun that made my lips go completely numb, like novocaine. Others around me had drinks bubbling and smoking from chips of dry-ice at the bottom, little boba balls spinning around in the drink like a quantum model, and we all couldn’t help but smile as we snacked on a sort of alien chex-mix with weirdly shaped crackers that were spicy and sweet and savory in all the best ways.

A raspberry dessert from Batuu

Not all the food was so adventurously strange, though it still had an otherworldly bent, like the dinner we all enjoyed at Docking Bay 7. This restaurant is themed as, well, a Docking Bay, with a transport ship lowering a cargo pod down through the ceiling, and tables nestled inside of similar, open cargo units peppered around the wide hanger. Look around for the table made out of an X-wing fighter’s wing! My meal was the “Ithorian Garden Loaf”, a vegan “meat”loaf, made with plant-based impossible burger, with mashed potatoes, green beans, and vegan gravy. My meal had the most outlandish ingredients considering the imitation meat, but it had the most “earth-like” form, looking and tasting exactly (as I remember anyway, having been a vegetarian for nearly 5 years!) like meatloaf, with delicious sides. It was certainly one of the best vegan/vegetarian meals I have enjoyed at the Disneyland resort. My folks had meals with more traditional omnivorous ingredients, with my Dad enjoying a “Fried Endorian Tip Yip”, which is like a big fried chicken nugget, formed into a rectangular cube, served with the same sides as the “meat”loaf. My Mom had “Smoked Kaadu Ribs”, which were pork ribs with a tangy sauce. Their unique spin here was that the cut of the meat was ninety-degrees out of phase of normal, so it was a thick strip of rib meat with bones sticking out horizontally, instead of one long bone done the strip. It was served with a cornbread muffin with blueberries in it to give it a spacey spin, and a cabbage slaw. They both enjoyed their meals, and the presentation was certainly notable, with the restaurant offering a surprisingly serene experience for its theme as a working docking bay. The restaurant does get busy around meal times, so if you do visit I would suggest grabbing a seat and using Mobile order in order to put in your order, to help maximize your relaxation time in what will sure to be a busy day exploring Batuu, and the rest of Disneyland.

I feel like I’ve pontificated on the food to gluttonous excess, but I also feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface, and there is still so much more to talk about, from the sweet and spicy popcorn to the themed Coca-Cola bottles. Underpinning all of these details, from merchandise to the staff to the supplementary apps to the food, is an emphasis on realistic interactivity within the experience. The shared fantasy of the Star Wars universe is the foundational “reality”, and then the guest is provided multiple interactive outlets to live out their story within that fantasy. Even the first (and currently only) ride in Galaxy’s Edge, Millennium Falcon Smuggler’s Run, is one of these interactive outlets, offering the ability to actually sit at the controls of the famous ship. The Black Spire Spaceport is situated in the rearmost corner of Black Spire Outpost, built into massive cliffs peppered by large petrified trees, including the eponymous Black Spire towering above the rest. It’s here that the Millennium Falcon sits, a beautiful reveal no matter how one approaches her, whether from the main-drag from the south or from the eastern overlook outside of Dok-Ondar’s shop and Docking Bay 7. To her side is a small portico leading in to the depths of the spaceport, with lit signs advertising, “Ohnaka Transport Solutions: Flight Crews Wanted”: this is the entrance to the ride. The line snakes you behind the Falcon, first along the outside of the building along the edge of its landing pad, the hulking hyperspace engines glowing blue above your head, a low hum emanating from within. After looping around, the line brings you inside to ascend catwalks criss-crossing a large maintenance bay. A blue starship engine hangs suspended in the middle of room, occasionally flaring to life with light and sounds as unseen mechanics in the control room put it through various diagnostics and report the results over the PA system. Soon you’ve reached a second-floor overlook, with huge bay windows looking out on the Falcon from above, offering a new vantage point of both the famous ship and the surrounding area of Black Spire Outpost.

The Millennium Falcon’ ride’s interactive cockpit

Since the story is that you’re there to take a job for alien smuggler extraordinaire, Hondo Ohnaka, your next stop in the queue is a briefing with your new boss. You’re ushered into a large room where Hondo himself, portrayed by one of the most realistic audio-animatronic figures ever created, explains what’s going to happen. Hondo needs a fast ship to fly a “perfectly legitimate transport mission”, Chewie needs to raise some supplies and cash for the Resistance, so they’re teaming up together, along with you, to use the Falcon to run the job, make the cash, and tick off the First Order in the process. After getting the lowdown from Hondo and seeing the Falcon reposition from the outside landing pad to a docking bay deeper inside the spaceport, you’re led down a jetway, given instruction by crew to wait in the next room until your party is called to the cockpit, sent through a docking ring, and suddenly you’re on the Millennium Falcon, where you always dreamed you could be. The holo-chess board is simply right there. The lightsaber training droid that Luke used with Obi-Wan is resting on the top of a pile of junk in the corner, and a porg nest sits nestled in some coils of wires. Soon your party is called by the Ohnaka Transport Solutions ground staff to the cockpit, where you strap in and your adventure begins. What follows next is a simulator ride, but unlike other simulators, you’re in full control. Each rider fills a different role in the flight crew; pilots, gunners, and engineers, each responsible for flying, shooting, and fixing the Falcon. This experience is like a video game crossed with a ride, with riders able to influence the outcome and degree of success of the mission. Depending on how well you do, you’ll earn a different amount of “Credits”, which act as your score, and the experience as you exit the cockpit and leave the Millennium Falcon changes based on your performance, with the exit hallways sparking with warnings sounding over the PA if you did poorly and scraped the sides of the ship against the canyon walls as you were taking off, or Ohnaka Transport Solutions staff commenting on your great performance if you were able to successfully complete the mission.

Not only is the ride interactive, it makes you interact with other people. Because my family enjoyed the experience so much (and the early crowds were so low), we rode Smuggler’s Run seven times. The ride doesn’t do a great job of explaining how things work, but we picked it up and began asking our assigned teammates if it was their first time and started helping explain the mission and the positions to them as we waited for our turn to take the cockpit. Once we started doing this, we started to win!! At the end of the ride you’re high fiving perfect strangers and talking about what you just experienced. That was a brand-new experience that I hadn’t had a theme park before, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for adding cooperative gaming to a ride. There also is a lot of potential for the ride to change, with additional missions being added over time, or current missions being changed based on various factors.

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is the highest quality experience Disney has ever produced. It is absolutely worthy to be included alongside the all-time greats like The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Walt’s driving desire was to bring fantasy to reality, whether it was through film, or theme parks, and there’s no way that he wouldn’t approve of how real the fantasy has been made here. The fears were unfounded — Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge belongs in Disneyland, and fits in so perfectly, so naturally. It abuts Fantasyland — it is an expression of science-fantasy that deals with good and evil, the hero’s journey, the deepest part of our cultural subconscious: it fits in Disneyland. It abuts Frontierland — Batuu is the Frontier of space, a future-west town on the edge of civilization: it fits in Disneyland. And its forest abuts Critter Country and the Rivers of America, offering a long walk through the nature of the Batuuan forest: it fits in Disneyland.

Walt’s apartment in Disneyland. It is located above the firehouse on Main Street

One interesting quirk of Walt Disney, that lives on in many fans hearts I think, is a desire to stay overnight inside the parks. Walt had two apartments built for him in Disneyland, the first being above the Fire House on Main Street, and the second immediately above the entrance of Pirates of the Caribbean. I think that if Walt were alive today, he would have asked for a fully-themed apartment to have been built for him on the second floor in some corner of Black Spire Outpost, so that he could go to sleep and wake up suffused in the fantasy. I think he would, because it’s what I want to do when I’m on my homeworld of Earth, dreaming of returning to the Edge of the Galaxy.