D23 Expo 2011: Star Tours – The Adventures Continue


Wow, I can’t believe the D23 Expo was three weeks ago already! There’s still so much I wanted to share with you all — for example, what I learned at the Making of Star Tours – The Adventures Continue program, presented byTom Fitzgerald, Executive Vice President & Senior Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering.


Honestly, with all the hype that surrounded the opening of this updated attraction earlier this year, I thought I had heard it all and knew everything there was to know about the new Star Tours. I’m so glad I decided to attend this presentation anyway — I actually found out a lot of little details to satisfy my inner Star Wars geek.


If you haven’t yet ridden or read about the revamped Star Tours attraction at either Walt Disney World or Disneyland, and you want to be surprised, foolish you will be to read further! Revealed will details be!

Fitzgerald began his talk with a short video of a bearded and much younger version of himself discussing the first incarnation of Star Tours, circa 1980s. Very cool that he is still the lead Imagineer in charge of this attraction, beloved by Disney and Star Wars geeks alike.

Fitzgerald explained how the revamping of Star Tours had actually been in the works for years, as far back as 1998, in fact. (The ride originally opened in January 1987 in Disneyland and in December 1989 in Walt Disney World.) It was in ’98 that Star Wars director George Lucas was working on the prequel to the original trilogy, and he suggested to Disney that a scene from that film would be perfect for updating the attraction: an action sequence known as the pod race. Fitzgerald and his team of Disney Imagineers agreed, and even went ahead and created a whole new storyline for the ride. (And now I know where those rumors came from that were circulating for years about the ride being updated to include the pod race!)

But even though the story was outlined — they had even gone so far as to decide to do the attraction in 3D back then — they opted to wait to see what the next two movies in the new trilogy brought. In October 2003, as Lucas was filming the third new movie (Revenge of the Sith), Fitzgerald said that technology had progressed to a point where they realized they might be able to keep the Star Tours attraction fresh for years by using a sort of a “pick and mix” approach. With that in mind, they developed a matrix, listing different elements of the movies that could be combined in numerous ways to create many unique experiences.


Obviously, though, Star Tours isn’t the only project that Fitzgerald and his Imagineers had on their plates. It wasn’t until late 2005 that they were able to return to the concept and refine it further, coming up with a more streamlined matrix that contained elements that were realistically “do-able.”


This version of the matrix is very similar to what became the final concept for the ride: there are two different opening scenes or “launches”, three different “detours”, and three different final scenes, which can combine in dozens of unique ways.


By early 2007, Disney was ready to take their ideas to Lucas, and they showed him another matrix, which had added a few additional elements. They had determined that the story for the new attraction would take place sometime between the first and second Star Wars trilogies — in other words, after Revenge of the Sith, but before the original 1977 Star Wars movie (aka “A New Hope”). They dubbed this Star Tours 3.5 to indicate that timeframe.


In October 2007 they took actual storyboards to Lucas for his approval… and didn’t get it! (Fitzgerald described the process sort of like Dorothy having to go back again and again to the Wizard of Oz — you know, “We have the witch’s broomstick, can I go home now?”) Since Lucas had told them that he didn’t “do” storyboards any more, they instead created what are known as “animatics” to give him an idea of what the ride would be like. (Animatics are animated mock-ups of a scene using images edited together with dialogue or a soundtrack.) Fitzgerald shared one of these animatic scenes that they developed for the new attraction in early 2008:

If you’ve ridden the new version of the attraction, you’ll realize that the animatic is very close to what you’ll experience today on Star Tours.

At this point (about May 2008), the ride was ready for production with Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and Fitzgerald related lots of little anecdotes about how George Lucas’s input shaped the story and the finer points of the ride. He also shared some interesting little trivia about the attraction that I had had no clue about. Some of the more interesting tidbits I learned:

— When it came time to film the pre-show, they searched high and low for the woman who had done the safety spiel (she of the unique, sideswept hairdo). But they couldn’t find her! Time constraints forced them to instead create the new “spokesbot” Aly Jan Jan, who is voiced by actress Allison Janney (famous for her role in the TV show West Wing, as well as the voice of Peach the starfish in the film Finding Nemo.)

— Seat belt use is demonstrated by the same woman in the safety videos for ALL versions of Star Tours, throughout the world.

— In the attraction queue, the droid performing the scan on humans is voiced by actor Patrick Warburton (who also does the pre-show spiel for the Soarin’ attraction). Warburton was originally slated to provide the voice of the new Star Tours pilot, Ace, but when the Imagineers decided instead to make C-3PO the pilot (in an effort to inject more comedy into the show), Ace was relegated to a minor role. Still, they loved Warburton so much, they asked if he would instead voice the droid, which he does with much hilarity.


— Also in the queue, there’s a droid scanning luggage, who lets some unusual items slip past him. Some that Fitzgerald pointed out I’d seen already, but I’ll certainly be looking for some of the others, especially Wall-E’s belongings and Madame Leota!

— In the scene at the beginning of the film, where either Darth or a droid is looking for the rebel spy in the StarSpeeder, one of the images that flashes on the screen is that of George Lucas. Fitzgerald said other Imagineers and people who worked on the show are hidden in files as well.

— In one of the live action sequences filmed for the show, several of the actors were actually members of the ILM and Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) teams, including show writer Steven Spiegel.

Even though I’d been impatient to see an updated Star Tours over the years, I have to agree with Fitzgerald, who pointed out several times that by waiting for technology to progress, the new Star Tours has a much stronger concept than if it had been done years earlier. And this behind-the-scenes peek at the making of the attraction was just the sort of insider program that makes the D23 Expo worthwhile for avid Disney fans.

Debra Martin Koma wrote about food, travel and lifestyle issues for a number of local and national publications before she fell in love with Walt Disney World on her first visit — when she was 34! She's returned to her Laughing Place more times than she can count in the ensuing years, and enthusiastically shares her passion with readers of AllEars.Net and AllEars®. Deb also co-authored (along with Deb Wills) PassPorter's Open Mouse for Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line, a travel guide designed for all travelers to Walt Disney World who may require special attention, from special diets to mobility issues.

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One Reply to “D23 Expo 2011: Star Tours – The Adventures Continue”

  1. Surely, we’re all thinking the same thing – how lucky Tom is to have that job! It is amazing that he would still be involved in Star Tours and quite a testament to the quality and continuity of the attraction.