It’s hard to imagine a time when Star Wars wasn’t a major part of the Disney Theme Parks. Even before Disney purchased the franchise in 2012, Hollywood Studios was the place to go for Star Wars, thanks to Star Tours and Star Wars Weekends.
But how did we go from a single attraction to the biggest themed land in Disney history? Let’s jump to lightspeed, all the way back to 1977…
A Long Time Ago, In A Theme Park Far, Far Away…
The beginnings of Star Wars at the Disney Parks didn’t begin with Star Wars at all. In fact, Disney initially didn’t want anything to do with Star Wars.
The Rise of Star Wars
It’s hard to imagine now, but George Lucas’s homage to sci-fi serials and samurai films was a big risk back in 1977. Sci-Fi films were mostly relegated to B-Movie status, as realistic dramas like Taxi Driver were what was really dominating the box office. While Disney was one of several studios that were offered the chance to distribute the film, it represented too big of a risk to justify the cost. There was no way this little sci-fi movie would be a hit! But, then it came out…
Disney’s Answer to Star Wars
The meteoric rise of Star Wars completely changed the landscape of cinema, leaving other studios scrambling for an answer. For Disney, that answer was The Black Hole.
This 1979 film, originally intended to be a “sci-fi disaster film” in the vein of The Poseidon Adventure meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, was one of Disney’s most ambitious films at the time. It was also meant to be one that would have brought with it the most ambitious ride Disney had ever built — a military-grade flight simulator repurposed to simulate scenes from the film.
However, the massive success of Star Wars led to some last minute retooling, adding laser battles and cute robots in an attempt to draw in audiences. The result was a moody disaster-horror film that was also trying to be an action-packed sci-fi adventure. While the movie was vindicated in later releases, and even made a small profit at the box office, it did not perform to Disney’s expectations. This, combined with the astronomical price of the proposed Black Hole attraction, led the idea to be shuttered… almost.
Enter George Lucas
George Lucas had been interested in a theme park attraction based off his films for some time, and Disney still needed an exciting new attraction to bring a slightly older crowd to the park.
The Original Star Tours
In 1986, Disney and George Lucas had already pulled off a successful in-park collaboration with the release of Captain EO. From there, it was just a few short discussions before the seeds of Star Tours were born.
Disney purchased a quartet of military-grade flight simulators for $500,000 a piece, and then Industrial Light and Magic began work on developing the actual ride experience. The original Star Tours film was a feat of cinematic magic. Created before the advent of CGI films, everything on the ride was a practical effect in some form. Not only that, but the first person perspective of the film meant that the most spectacular effects all need to be part of a single, continuous shot.
The plot of the ride was that, in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, tours across the galaxy have been made much safer. As a result, you’ve been invited on a tour to the forest moon of Endor! Unfortunately, your pilot, RX-24 (or Rex, voiced by Paul Reubens) has not gotten used to his programming, sending you on a wild recreation of the Death Star run.
The ride was a major hit when it opened in 1987, attracting thousands of guests to Disneyland as the hype surrounding a Star Wars attraction started to spread. Duplicates of the ride opened at Tokyo Disneyland and Hollywood Studios at 1989, with Disneyland Paris getting its own version in 1992. To date, only Hong Kong and Shanghai Disneyland don’t have an iteration of this insanely popular ride. But this was only the beginning…
The Beginning of Star Wars Weekends
Disney-MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios), the east coast home of Star Tours, was designed to compete with Universal Studios as the main studio-themed park in Orlando.
Bringing Star Wars to Disney World
Alas, as the dream of a second Hollywood faded, Disney was forced to turn to alternative options for attracting guests to the park. One of the biggest? An annual Star Wars event meant to bring fans from around the world to the park!
Starting in 1997, May and June would become Star Wars season at Disney-MGM Studios, with special events popping up on four consecutive weekends during the year. The event was like hosting a Star Wars convention in the middle of the park! Cosplay was encouraged, special panels were held… you could even meet Mark Hamill and Billy Dee Williams!
The event also featured precursors to some contemporary Star Wars attractions, including a meet and greet with characters like Darth Vader and Chewbacca. However, there was one show that, while originally limited to this special event, soon became a permanent fixture at the parks.
Jedi Training Academy
The Jedi Training Academy was originally a temporary installation during Star Wars Weekends, though the basic premise has remained the same since its inception. Children were invited to be Jedi Younglings and participate in a training session with prop lightsabers and robes. After some basic training, Darth Vader and Darth Maul would appear, along with two Stormtroopers, and attack the class, leading to an exciting saber battle before the two Sith were forced to flee!
In 2006, the show travelled to Disneyland as a permanent installation, setting up shop in Tomorrowland. The following year, the Disney-MGM Studios version also became a permanent installation, settling in its current home next to Star Tours.
Star Tours – The Adventure Continues
By 2010, a lot of things had changed at the Disney Parks. Disney had dropped their partnership with MGM, leaving the park as just Hollywood Studios. The Clone Wars TV Series was renewing interest in the prequel era, and Disney had its eyes on the franchise.
Upgrading Star Tours to the 21st Century
While the purchase that rocked the galaxy was still two years out, Disney decided to move ahead with an upgrade that, in all honesty, was always intended for Star Tours. One of the advantages of using a flight simulator as the base for Star Tours is that it’s reprogrammable; something which Imagineers noted back when the ride was still going to be Black Hole themed. One of the reasons the ride had an airport-inspired in the first place was the possibility of multiple destinations.
However, the sheer amount of work it took to complete the original ride film with late 80s special effects meant that adding other destinations like Hoth or Tatooine would be impractical. By 2010, however, technology had improved to the point that entire ride sequences could be done in CG, greatly reducing production time. The prequels also provided a plethora of new set pieces, including the Boonta Eve Podrace. The result was an innovative, randomized ride experience.
Each ride would begin with a random opening, in which a random rider would be singled out as a Rebel spy. You’d narrowly escape to your first destination, before jumping to lightspeed and receiving a transmission from an iconic Star Wars hero. Then you’d jet off to your final destination for the ride’s climax, which often featured an epic battle against the Empire, the CIS, or the First Order. This new version, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, opened in 2011 to critical claim, but it was just the first injection of new Star Wars into the parks.
Star Wars Expands at the Disney Parks
When Disney purchased Star Wars in 2012, the world was floored. However, the Disney Parks would remain relatively calm until 2015, when Disney dropped a major bombshell.
The Announcement of Galaxy’s Edge
In August 2015, Disney announced their most ambitious project ever; a fully immersive land inspired by the new trilogy, allowing guests to ride the Millennium Falcon, build your own lightsaber, and even join the Resistance.
Season of the Force
But that wouldn’t open until 2019, so to hold guests over, Disney began a massive multi-park initiative to build up hype for the new land: Season of the Force! The first part of this new initiative was the opening of the Star Wars Launch Bay, taking over for The Art of Disney Animation at Hollywood Studios and Innoventions at Disneyland Park. This would be the hub for Star Wars at the parks, featuring character meet and greets, a museum, a short film, and a new gift shop. Speaking of short films, a ten-minute retelling of the Star Wars saga, called Path of the Jedi, also opened at both parks.
The most significant change, however, was the reimagining of the Jedi Training Academy to Trials of the Temple, an updated version with new special effects, a more coherent storyline, and the introduction of new characters like the Seventh Sister and Kylo Ren.
Finally, Disneyland got its own special flourishes. Space Mountain was transformed into Hyperspace Mountain, a Star Wars themed reimagining of the iconic coaster that sent guests flying through a battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. The Tomorrowland Terrace was also given a re-theme, becoming the Galactic Grill, a Star Wars themed diner that continues to operate to this day.
However, this major announcement came with some bad news… with the arrival of Star Wars as a permanent fixture of the park, Star Wars Weekends would no longer be held. Some shows created for the event, like the Star Wars Galactic Spectacular Fireworks show, would remain at the parks for a few years, but a Star Wars themed event wouldn’t return to Hollywood Studios until 2017.
In 2017, Star Wars Celebration, the official convention celebrating the franchise, was held in Orlando, Florida. To celebrate, Disney hosted a one-night hard-ticketed event called Galactic Nights, which brought with it some lost magic from Star Wars Weekends.
Limited run characters like Jawas and Ewoks returned to the park for the first time in years, as celebrities from the nearby convention made special appearances. You could find special food, exclusive merchandise, and even meet working astromech droids!
One overlooked highlight was an overlay given to Rock n’ Roller Coaster, in a similar vein to Disneyland’s Hyperspace Mountain. The Aerosmith provided soundtrack would be replaced with John Williams’ iconic score as you’re launched through near total darkness, with starscapes projected on the walls. Projections similar to the Sunset Seasons Greeting show were also displayed on the Tower of Terror, showing iconic locations from across the galaxy… including Batuu, of course.
The event was repeated in 2017 for the release of The Last Jedi, which also featured a preview of Galaxy’s Edge. It received its final encore in 2018, for the release of Solo.
The Opening of Galaxy’s Edge
Finally, in May 2019, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disneyland Park, allowing guests to step into the world of Star Wars for the first time.
The park represented the most ambitious, immersive project Disney ever built, with every element being a painstaking recreation of the Star Wars universe. Unlike previous attractions, which included nods to Disney in the form of cheeky souvenirs, everything about Batuu is all Star Wars, all the time.
Even the rides are fully immersive, with Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run allowing you to take the iconic ship on a joyride, and Rise of the Resistance allowing you to escape a Star Destroyer during an epic battle. It’s quickly become one of the most popular attractions on both coasts… and it’s nowhere near done.
The Future of Star Wars and Disney
The next step in the Galaxy’s Edge project? Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. This first-of-its-kind immersive hotel will allow guests to spend two nights in the world of Star Wars, taking a galactic cruise to Batuu that becomes entangled in the war between the Resistance and the First Order.
Also, fans of Galactic Nights and Star Wars Weekends have a glimmer of hope, as Disney has plans to bring a similar event to Disneyland for Star Wars Celebration 2020, featuring an exclusive Black Spire Outpost celebration. Will this mark the return of this beloved event at Hollywood Studios? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure… Disney isn’t going to be done with Star Wars any time soon.
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