In the past few decades, theme parks across the U.S. have been engaged in a kind of entertainment arms race, building not only ambitious new individual rides and amusements, but creating entire new sections of the parks which immerse the visitor in another world, all built around a popular franchise, movie, or brand. By far, science fiction and fantasy fans have been the principal beneficiaries of this expansion. Universal Orlando Resort fired opening salvos with their Islands of Adventure theme park, originally launched in 1999, containing sections devoted to Marvel Superheroes, Jurassic Park, and the world of Doctor Seuss. They pushed things to another level with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where not only the rides, but even the shops and restaurants were all part of the theme, and employees were trained in Potter-related role-playing. Disney World followed suit with Pandora—The World of Avatar, and then Toy Story Land.
In 2019, in a move that many delighted many fans, Disney opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge—an area of the park dedicated to the Star Wars universe—promising an experience that would again raise the bar for audience immersion. Recently, my wife Jan and I had the opportunity to visit Disney World in Orlando, where we discovered that Black Spire Outpost, set on the previously unknown planet of Batuu, truly lives up to all the hype
When I was young, back in the middle of the last century (when we walked miles through the snow to school, uphill both ways), there were not many ways to experience science fiction in the real world. We had my dad’s magazines to read, and books from the library. There were a few TV shows and movies, but many were of questionable quality. There might be a few spaceship-themed carnival rides at county fairs, and a futuristic Tomorrowland in the corner of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but not much more. Beyond that, I had some small plastic spaceships—my favorite could be launched into the air by a heavy rubber band, with a parachute that sometimes deployed the way it should (my father quite wisely did not trust us with any combustible model rocket engines until we were much older). I owned a few astronaut figures, some of them obviously repurposed army men molded in metallic colors. I remember my brothers and I putting blankets over a folding card table and building instrument panels out of cardboard decorated with magic markers, using paper clips for needles in our gauges. We had a View-Master projector with a disc from a Tom Corbett adventure, and another portraying the moon landing, which were used to illuminate our viewscreen. It was rudimentary, but it kept us entertained for hours.
Over the years, as science fiction and fantasy merged with the entertainment mainstream, there has been so much more to choose from. There are more toys, more costumes and ray guns, more movies, more TV shows, and more books, as well as more amusement park rides with space themes. And all of these have found a growing audience which the industry has rushed to satisfy. We have now reached an era in which the options for science fiction fans seeking entertainment seem to be ever-expanding: Galaxy’s Edge, as grand as it is, will soon be joined by a hotel called Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, offering occupants a totally immersive experience that simulates a trip on a space-traveling cruise liner.
The only drawback of these many offerings is that costs have risen sharply along with the quality, and it is no small matter for a family of fans to afford a trip in order to enjoy them. While there is no additional cost to enter the Galaxy’s Edge area once you have paid for admission to the Hollywood Studios park, the food, souvenirs, and experiences like building your own droid or lightsaber are quite pricey. A stay on the Galactic Starcruiser, which is slated to open in 2021, looks like it will easily rival the cost of a deluxe luxury cruise.
Black Spire Outpost in Fiction
There are several books that tie into the story of Black Spire Outpost. The first mention was in Timothy Zahn’s book, Thrawn: Alliances, where the title character passes through the planet of Batuu during his adventures. There was a five-issue mini-series from Marvel Comics entitled Galaxy’s Edge, which tied a number of characters from Star Wars, including Han and Chewie, to Batuu. There have been two books written for younger readers: A Crash of Fate by Zoraida Cordova and Star Wars: Myths and Fables by George Mann.
The book most directly tied into the new section of theme park is Black Spire by Delilah Dawson, a direct prequel to the story that informs the new Rise of the Resistance ride. This book follows the adventures of Vi, a Resistance agent sent to Batuu to establish a new base. Vi is recovering from being captured and tortured by the First Order. She is assigned an assistant who has recently defected from the First Order, who happens to be the man who tortured her. It’s one of those fictional situations that drives a lot of narrative tension but would be an unthinkable personnel decision in the real world. The beginning of the book is a bit heavy on exposition as Vi explores the outpost (a lot of characters, business establishments, and even food and drink options get name-dropped), but picks up when she must drive away a scouting party from the First Order without assistance from the undermanned Resistance. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with the main fleet of the First Order arriving at Batuu, led by Kylo Ren and General Hux. Which is the exact situation visitors find themselves facing when they visit Galaxy’s Edge…
Day One: Millennium Falcon – Smugglers Run
We started our first day in Disney’s Hollywood Studios by buying Jan a Baby Yoda shirt, and a baby porg that I stuck in my shirt pocket. Then we rode the Star Tours spaceship simulator ride to whet our appetite. The ride currently takes you to the planet Kef Bir, where you encounter sea monsters in the remains of the second Death Star. Then, Lando asks you to help in the final battle with the First Order over the planet Exegol, and you find yourself in the midst of the finale of the movie The Rise of Skywalker. The attraction has been overshadowed by the new additions, but as always, it was a fun ride. We then entered Galaxy’s Edge in the portion dominated by the Resistance, and immediately ran into role-playing cast members. I saw a woman who matched the character on the cover of the novel Black Spire, and called out, “Are you Vi?” My wife then asked me, “Why are you accusing that woman of being high?” A surreal conversation (kind of like the “Who’s on First?” comedy sketch, with less baseball and more Star Wars role-playing) ensued as the cast member struggled to get our interactions back on script. She was saved by Chewbacca, who attempted to steal and eat my baby porg, which gave Vi the chance to change the subject by talking him out of it. The quality of the role-playing, and especially the costuming, was superb. We spent hours exploring the village and the shops, where food has names like “Ronto Wraps,” and even the Coca-Cola products come in distinctly odd-shaped bottles. The park has some tight quarters in the shops and restaurants, but also expansive common areas capable of handling large crowds.
There are no fast passes given for the new rides, and because my wife Jan has health problems that make waiting in ride queues difficult, we thought we might have to skip these rides. But we were able to work with Disney’s Disability Access Service to find accommodations, and at the end of the afternoon, were able to get on the Millennium Falcon ride. We received a briefing from space pirate Hondo Ohnaka, a character from The Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons. He had rented the ship from Chewbacca, with a plan to hijack a shipment of coaxium from Corellia. This will help the Resistance, and also earn a tidy profit for Hondo. We then mustered with our fellow crewmembers in the central room of the Falcon, around the holo-chess table. For me, the best thing about the ride was the high quality of the sets. As you walk to the cockpit, you feel like you are on the actual Millennium Falcon that you have seen so many times on the big screen.
The ride is a six-person flight simulator, with two pilots, two gunners, and two engineers. Jan and I were engineers. The ride was a bit rough, but that may have been because our pilots seemed determined to hit every rock, building, and ship we encountered. Our gunners were more than a bit trigger-happy, laying waste to large portions of the Black Spire village for no apparent reason before our journey had even begun. Jan and I responded to emergency indicators and operated magnetic harpoons. Jan also made our mission a success by capturing some coaxium, although at the end, most of our profits were confiscated to repair the badly damaged Falcon. We both had a great time, and were excited that we had been able to see so much.
Day Two: Rise of the Resistance
Access to the extremely popular Rise of the Resistance ride is controlled by boarding groups. To get into a boarding group you must be in the park when it opens, and either register using the My Disney Experience phone app or by working with a cast member. Even though I woke up well before dawn and pushed the button right along with everyone, we didn’t get a return time until the end of the afternoon. Even a few minutes of delay can cause you to miss out on the chance to ride that day. I then returned to our room for a nap, so we could get back to the park at a more respectable hour.
After dropping into the new Toy Story Land (another fun and immersive success, in my opinion), we got back to exploring Black Spire Outpost. I poked my head into Oga’s Cantina and found the look and themed design to be completely spectacular. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with that opinion, because the bar was too crowded to enter, with a line at the door. We looked in on build-your-own lightsaber and droid construction workshops, as well, but passed on them because of the price. We then explored the other end of town, the area controlled by the First Order. We found a stand that served the famous Blue Milk from A New Hope, and Green Milk from The Last Jedi. While were enjoying our Blue Milk (kind of a fruity flavored almond or coconut milk slushie), we heard angry voices coming from the nearby town square, and soon found ourselves in the midst of stormtroopers, a First Order lieutenant, and even Kylo Ren himself. They informed the town that they were taking over, and demanded information on the Resistance. Again, we enjoyed the fantastic role-playing and spectacular costumes.
At that point, we headed to the other end of town to find our way to the Rise of the Resistance ride. Arriving at the head of the queue, we found cast members dressed like rebels, who greeted us with a great deal of urgency. They shuffled us into a briefing room where we were told that the Resistance was evacuating their forces because of the arrival of the First Order, and then we were rushed to a military transport. Jan complained that it was difficult to understand what was going on during this journey, as it was hard to see what was going on over the shoulders of the flight crew and through the tiny windows. But to me it felt just like being in the back of a military helicopter or cargo plane—a very realistic touch.
Then our transport was caught in a tractor beam and pulled into a First Order Star Destroyer, and the door opened to a spectacular scene. We were greeted by a platoon of stormtroopers standing in a hangar, with the fleet arrayed in the distance behind them. We were lined up to board transport vehicles by First Order naval personnel barking orders at us (and who confiscated Jan’s wheelchair so that she could sit in those vehicles). But then a Resistance infiltration team reprogrammed our vehicle, and soon we were careening around the Star Destroyer trying to escape. Our getaway was complicated by the arrival of an attacking Resistance fleet. The sets we traveled through, the animatronic figures, and the special effects were simply incredible. When the ride was over, even Jan, who is not the biggest science fiction fan, called it the best ride she had ever experienced, and I just stood there for a moment dumbstruck. In fact, the ride was so completely immersive that at the end I was surprised to see Jan’s wheelchair waiting for us, amazed that it had survived the chaos on the Star Destroyer.
Not quite ready to end our visit to Batuu, we decided to have dinner at Docking Bay 7, a counter service restaurant that featured food served with a bit of an alien twist. We enjoyed the Smoked Kaadu Pork Ribs, a Batuu-bon dessert, and a drink called Moof Juice. We decided to end our day after that, exhausted by two busy days immersed in Star Wars, but more than satisfied by our experience.
I’d been extremely excited to experience the new Galaxy’s Edge attraction ever since it opened last summer, to the point where I was wondering if it could possibly meet my high expectations—but I wasn’t prepared for how effectively it engaged me in its world. While I knew on an intellectual level that it was all make-believe, I was swept up by the quality of the sets, costuming, role-playing and special effects to the point where I honestly forgot I was still on the planet Earth, on an emotional, in-the-moment level. For a few days, I was like a kid again, joyfully traveling through space in my home-made card table spacecraft, totally caught up in a science fictional world.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.