With the last Star Wars movie arriving in theaters May 19, a new Star Wars television series in development, and Michael Does Not Play Well With Others Eisner packing up his belongings, the stars seem to be aligning for a Star Tours update. Just a few weeks ago, George Lucas made clear his desire to freshen up Star Tours at Disneyland and Disney-MGM Studios.
Disneyland, in particular, has been looking of late for ways to pump life into its moribund Tomorrowland. So, feeding off Lucas's revived interest in Star Tours, Imagineering has dusted off five-year-old storyboards inspired by the pod racing sequence in Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Shall we peek?
As we enter the existing Star Tours building, we discover that we're no longer headed for Endor. Our new destination: the Lunar Olympics on Yavin.
At first glance, the StarSpeeders we board appear to be the same 20-year-old models. In fact, they've all been replaced with new, state-of-the-art flight simulators featuring the latest in video flatscreens, audio systems, and in-flight effects. (There's even a proposal that passengers strap on helmets fitted with fiber optics and devices for 3-D visual and sound effects.)
In this trip, there's no Rex at the helm. Our pilot is a more seasoned veteran. So as we taxi through the shuttle bay, we see the StarSpeeder 3000 ahead of us suddenly take that familiar wrong turn. Must be one of those new droids from Sector 7, our pilot surmises.
We remain on course and launch through the portal straight ahead. We first join a spiral formation with a large number of other StarSpeeders, before kicking into lightspeed. Seconds later, we put on the brakes, caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic. No problem; remember, we have a veteran pilot. I know a shortcut! he remarks.
Our pilot veers off to the side, but soon finds himself hopelessly lost. He takes us down to the nearest planet to ask directions of some locals-not realizing that they're one of the pit crews for the pod races. Due to the language barrier, the pit crew mistakes our StarSpeeder for a last minute entry in the race. They strap boosters to the sides of our craft, cart us to the starting line, and?
Vroooom! Suddenly we're in the middle of the pod race. With the added speed and obstacles, our pilot struggles to control our craft. We quickly catch the attention and ire of the The Phantom Menace's villainous pod racer, who seeks to forcefully drive us out of the competition. When his maneuvers don't deter us, the villain resorts to throwing a bomb onto our StarSpeeder. Our windshield explodes as glass appears to shatter into the cabin. Taking off, the villain turns up his afterburners, seemingly casting a fireball through our detonated windshield. For a brief Backdraft moment, guests feel the heat of his discharge.
The scorching destroys one of our engines and we begin to freefall. Fortunately our StarSpeeder's descent is slowed by smacking into the villain's pod racer and sending him barreling into the side of a cliff.
We crash headfirst into the sand, skid forward and smash into the bleachers. As we finally settle amid the smoke and debris, our pilot laughs nervously, I meant to do that. A little shortcut.
We exit our beat-up StarSpeeder onto the old rampway, which has been redecorated with debris and smashed-up bleachers. As we walk out, we're heckled by audio animatronic aliens in the bleachers. They mock our unpleasant landing and shout intergalactic profanities at us. The demolished stadium theme carries over to the Star Wars shop section of the Star Traders souvenir store.
Now keep in mind, there are at least two other entirely different concepts for Star Tours II being developed right now. The first proposal is supposed to be ready to pitch by the end of this month, the second in June. And, since the pod race was from a movie that came out in 1999, the newer ideas have an inherent advantage.
As well, none of this will come cheap. With George Lucas involved, this won't be a case of just making a new $10 million or $20 million movie. He'll likely demand all equipment and technology be replaced. Plus, the idea to continue showing the old movie in one or two of the four StarSpeeders won't work if they retheme the exit ramp and store as a crash landing site.
And then there's the crowd problem. Anyone remember Star Tours' first summer in 1987? The two-to-three-hour-long line would snake back and forth in front of the attraction before stretching down Main Street as far back as the Opera House. Today, there would be no room for these people. The Astro Orbiter spinner ride now clogs the entrance to Tomorrowland. The bottleneck will only worsen when Space Mountain reopens this summer and the submarines resurface in 2007.
One proposed solution is to move the spinner ride back to its rightful place on top of the old PeopleMover boarding area. The skeleton of the old Rocket Jets is still up there, disguised as the ever-restful Observatron. If the Rocket Jets could be patched back together, the Astro Orbiter could be removed entirely and shipped to Disneyland New Delhi or some other future park.
Then again, with guests' attention again being diverted upward, Disneyland would have little choice but to restart an attraction on the old PeopleMover track. Consider that over the last month or so the abandoned track has received its first TLC since the Rocket Rods vanished in 2000. Plus, at least as the high capacity, continually moving PeopleMover, the attraction was a huge people eater.
At this point, park management would probably notice how rarely the turnstiles were turning for Honey, I Shrunk the Audience and place a new movie in the Kodak Theater.
So, you can see how merely updating Star Tours would trigger a game of attraction dominos, one that could require a budget comparable to the $100 million spent on 1998's New Tomorrowland. And one that would erase the last vestiges of that failed makeover. Let's hope the price tag doesn't scare the decision-makers away.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.