Star Wars Land Awakensby Todd King, contributing writer
Four years ago, when the Fantasyland expansion was mostly dirt piles behind masking walls at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, I stood at the Frontierland train station. As I waited for the next engine to come around, an old cast member in trainyard garb addressed the small group of guests. He had short white hair, combed neat on the back and sides, on top of which sat a conductor-style hat. His gold-rimmed glasses were round-edged squares and gave him an authoritative appearance.
This man looked an awful lot like Bob Gurr, Disney Legend and Imagineer. He told this small group that he would share with us some secrets about coming attractions to Walt Disney World. I listened intently; it seemed we were in for a treat and I loved getting any secrets and this was about as close to any primary resource material I was going to get on my family vacation.
He began speaking about the movie, Avatar by James Cameron, and continued to share details about a new area of Animal Kingdom that would be transformed into Pandora for a whole new guest experience.
He had me… until Avatar.
"That won't happen," I thought to myself. "They may be considering the idea, but it seems like a knee-jerk attempt to compete with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that opened in Universal Studios just the previous summer. Neat idea, but it's not even a Disney movie."
I boarded the train along with the other guests, and thought how impossible it would be for Disney to create Pandora, and how such a fictional place just wouldn't fit in with the realistic tone of Animal Kingdom.
But as time has told, the old man was proved to be right. Soon, "Pandora: The World of Avatar" will take some of the natural landscape of the Kingdom and bring it to life in the spirit of natural wonder that the movie evoked. It will include a flying ride and boat ride.
By now, I'm sure all MousePlanet readers have seen the news from the D23 Expo this past weekend, on August 14, 15, and 16, about all the new attractions coming to Disney parks (here's a quick summary from Disney). There's an update to Soarin', "Frozen Ever After," the aforementioned World of Avatar, Toy Story Land, and of course, the official announcement of a Star Wars Land. Cue the music of the opening crawl, alert the Bith Band, and sound the blasters—it is indeed coming.
Before I even got to read all the details, I asked, "When?" When is it coming? So, then I had read the details. No opening date was shared. Like any movie from back in the day, it's "coming soon." That's fine, I didn't expect it to come out this year, and like the movie, I don't mind if they take their time, besides, Disney must build two of these: one in Disneyland and one in Walt Disney World.
I noted there was no mention of any differences in these two lands. There are a few differences in some of the other Star Wars-related attractions that are on the way. For example, the "Season of the Force," which will expand the popular Star Wars Weekends events to include an overlay of Tomorrowland with a Star Wars theme that will also see Space Mountain become Hyperspace Mountain; this will come to Disneyland. In Walt Disney World, Disney Hollywood Studios will feature a new fireworks show set to the music and sounds of the movies. But still, both parks will get the new 14-acre land.
Here is the D23 video announcing Star Wars land (starts at 8:00 minutes) and other park updates:
The full Parks & Resorts presentation from the 2015 D23 Expo. Includes all of the Star Wars Land announcements; plus news from the Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World Resort, international Disney parks and Shanghai Disneyland. Video © MousePlanet.
My next question is, "Where?"
Where will these lands go? If I missed it somewhere then it was barely breathed—where are these 14 acres coming from? In Disneyland it is possible that the sun could set on Mickey's Toontown to make way for this "new planet" of the Star Wars galaxy. Where else would it go?
[Editor's note: In our Disneyland Resort Update this week, which published after this article was submitted for publication, Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix reported, "Disney executives very notably said nothing about location in their announcement, but someone behind the official @DisneylandToday Twitter account gave the first official answer. Replying to an inquiry about the Toon Town rumors, @DisneylandToday said the Star Wars expansion 'will be in the Big Thunder Ranch area, inclusive of some backstage locations."]
Most of Mickey's Toontown Fair in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom served up its space to the circus area of the new Fantasyland expansion. There in the Florida park, however, is "the blessing of size," to quote Disney. It would seem that taking a cursory glance at Google maps shows me that Hollywood Studio's Star Wars Land could be constructed in the forested area almost directly behind the current spot of Star Tours—which would make for a fine entrance.
The other attractions in the Studios that are falling by the wayside, the Backlot Tour, Catastrophe Canyon, and Lights, Motors, Action, could all give up their square footage to Toy Story Land. But this is all guesswork and conjecture from an armchair Imagineer. The site of these new lands will be revealed in due time, and once more, those piles of dirt hidden by masking walls will go up, and our curiosity and anticipation will be given focus.
Until that construction is finished, we will be getting new attractions late this year and close to the time of the release of The Force Awakens in December. This includes the Launch Bay, which will house an eclectic blend of experiences all meant as an appetizer to the coming meal of the new land. Launch Bay will have interactive activities, shops, character meet-and-greets, and apparently, all kinds of media from the previous movies and the upcoming movies, too.
This is a good thing and probably not a permanent thing (maybe?), so that fans are placated until the real thing comes. Disney, I'm sure, wants to get a stronger Star Wars presence into the parks as quickly as possible so that it's there when the new movie arrives in theaters. The merchandise alone is probably enough to get me interested in the Bay—"interactive experiences" sounds awfully gimmicky in 2015 and could be anything from touch-screen programs to holding a virtual lightsaber while viewing through Occulus Rift goggles.
Just how much cool stuff could they put there while trying to put all focus and resources into the new land itself? I won't underestimate the power of Disney and the Launch Bay could be more than a serviceable teaser for the new park and other Star Wars products like the Battlefront games.
What about the details of the land itself? When I review my predictions from some months ago it seems I was only correct on a few points; namely that it wouldn't be an entire park unto itself, but a "land" inside a park; also, that the Millennium Falcon could have a central spot and possibly a ride. I also thought a cantina would be part of it, as well, and that seems to be part of the plan.
The Millennium Falcon will house one of two major attractions. The other attraction was described vaguely as being part of some climactic battle. What battle is that? Apparently, it's a battle between the First Order and the Resistance. Hmm? Come again? Oh, yes, those are the warring groups in the new movie.
That's not really quite a spoiler at this point. After all, Bob Iger did mention in press conferences not so long ago that the new presence of Star Wars in the parks would include sights from the new movies. It's just not as recognizable, yet, as the Empire and the Rebellion (or as the Separatists and the Republic?). This is the part where I must reserve some judgement until I see The Force Awakens and see how impactful those two groups on audiences and what struggles arise from their conflict.
What initially was a beautiful rendition of the new planet setting for the park also tapped that part of my brain devoted to appreciating new things, which let out a little cough that sounded like, "Not Tatooine." I wanted the initial concepts to show that the main sights would be from iconic locales like Tatooine.
Iger said, "We're going to transport guests to a whole new planet," and that "the land will be real, authentic, and every encounter will bring new life to the Star Wars experience." He said new twice there, and that shows a lot of confidence in the new sights as well as in the new movie.
I believe you could build a park where the main plaza looks like Tatooine and people would go, "Yeah, that's Star Wars," but I can see a problem with that that the Imagineers may have discussed: it's still a desert. A desert area may be iconic to the franchise, but it was never a place meant to look pretty or inviting.
I can see why they would choose a new planet on which to base the design. But is the new planet the only world we'll actually see? Well, the presenters hint at experiencing worlds, plural, and so there could be other spots for guests to travel to other places in the galaxy. We don't have any other details so we have to take them at their word on this--the drawings seen here may not be covering all 14 acres.
Another hint from the video did a lot to win me over. The presenter said you would experience worlds, but also that you will "live your own version of a Star Wars hero's journey." Yes! Now we're talking. This idea was something I considered, and it hints at the immersion of the park and how you could live out a story in your time there. There are many great possibilities and be a fantastic idea for kids.
What does it mean, exactly? I'm not sure, but the story of Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction, more fairytale than drama, so this idea will awaken (sorry for the pun) a sense all fans had from the movies—and that is that we wanted to live out adventures like these ourselves. We wanted to be Han and fly the Falcon, we wanted to be Leia and be a strong leader.
This idea sounds like it has the makings of such an experience, one that will take Jedi Training Academy to the next level with an immersive longer story that literally is a journey. I always wanted to be Luke.
Speaking of Luke... after all this Star Wars talk—including Harrison Ford himself showing up at D23 and Han Solo being featured in a promotional poster—I have to ask: Where is Luke?
In two trailers and one behind-the-scenes video, in several pictures of cast and crew, we have seen Han and Chewie front and center, a glimpse of Carrie Fisher as Leia, and even Mark Hamill in several appearances—but we haven't had a good look at Luke.
In the second trailer, we do hear his voice—the lines he speaks are directly from Return of the Jedi and may even be the actual audio from that film. We do see Luke's hand—his mechanical hand, supposedly—in a brief moment in that second trailer when it touches R2-D2. But that's it. Officially.
My new question now is, "What's the big secret with Luke?"
They are purposely holding off any revelation about Luke until, well, who knows? I can only guess that his absence in available official media must be related to some important part of the plot to The Force Awakens. And if it is indeed some plot point, then the director won't want to give away much of that too soon.
Perhaps the next, and presumably final, trailer will feature him in what would seem to piece together a progression of revelations:
- The first teaser was to be a minimal one with new images and a glimpse of the Millennium Falcon,
- The second trailer was to still be in a teaser format but with the voiceover of Luke and the big reveal of Han and Chewbacca, and;
- The third trailer would finally show Luke and Leia, the Skywalkers, about whom the original trilogy was centered.
I could be wrong about the next trailer. I've been wrong before. That's OK. I was wrong about the Avatar land that the Walt Disney World train worker revealed. But he knew something I didn't, and yet he was willing to share it with guests. I know next to nothing. I can only make educated guesses, and can only dream.
Dreams of a Star Wars land are coming true.
Dreams of further Star Wars adventures are coming true.
Disney, you've held pieces of my heart for much of my life and after all this, I'm giving you even more. You have part of my heart now, and it seems enough people like me have grown up to work with you and they realize how many other hearts are in this and how precious they are. We've wanted to walk into this world for a long time, and you are the ones that make dreams come true.
We can't wait.