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Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser
The future of entertainment is here – but we weren't prepared for it
Walt Disney World, Florida
$4,809-$5,999 for 1-4 guests
40 hours across two days and nights
Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is a real world experience set in a 100 room hotel designed to look like a spaceship. Over the course of 40 hours, players pick sides and take on missions from spies, smugglers, and soldiers.
While missions are presented as messages in the game’s Datapad app, their objectives all exist in the real world, like tracking down contraband supplies in the ship’s cargo hold or rewiring part of the engineering bay. Similarly, almost all characters are played by real actors whom you’ll run into while exploring the ship; they’re aware of your progress in the game and will often stop you for a chat.
The story is Space Casablanca: you’re passengers on a supposedly neutral space cruise liner that gets caught up in the war between the Resistance (the good guys) and the First Order (the baddies). Because it’s ostensibly a leisure cruise, there’s plenty of time to chill out in the bar and listen to an alien singer perform at dinner, but everything is refracted through the setting – stormtroopers will march into the bar demanding a spy’s location, you’ll get a secret message with your dinner check, and so on.
If you judge the Galactic Starcruiser piecemeal, you’ll find little that’s absolutely best-in-class; you can find more complex puzzles in dedicated escape rooms, better singers in bigger concerts, and better beds at the Four Seasons. You can even role play with costumed actors in LARPs (live action role playing) and immersive theatre. So it’s understandable that its high price has dominated discourse, with people making fun of this or that seeming too cheap for a $6000 experience.
But it’s also shortsighted. When you put everything together and extend it over 40 hours, the scale and ambition of the Galactic Starcruiser is breathtaking. It represents the natural extension of everything from augmented location-based games like Pokémon Go to roleplaying games like Skyrim and immersive sims like Hitman. It’s not without flaws, some of them considerable, but anyone interested in game design can learn from it.
This post is largely a chronological account of the experience, interspersed with thoughts about its technology, roleplaying, business, and marketing. It’s also informed by a 2022 GDC talk by Disney Imagineering’s Sara Thacher (Creative Director) and Anisha Deshmane (Narrative Design Lead).
It’s long! Take your time. There are lots of section breaks and places to pause. Don’t try to read it all in one go, unless you really want to.
I got my ticket to the Galactic Starcruiser at the last minute, right after it was announced the hotel would be shutting down in September. I was busy with work and travel and so didn’t do a ton of research in advance.
Surprisingly for such an expensive, high-tech, story-driven experience, I was only contacted once before my trip: a phone call asking if I’d installed the Play Disney Parks app which housed the Starcruiser’s essential “Datapad” app, containing my schedule (Events), messages (Comms), map, player profile, and various in-game tools.
To their delight, I had, so they asked if I had any questions about my voyage. Because the caller had been studiously in-character the entire time, I tried to match their tone, mostly unsuccessfully: “I know I can wear anything I want there, but will there be a shop for, uh… guests… to buy in the… hotel?”
Their reply? “Yes, there’s a shop for you to… visit… on board… on your voyage…”
Well, we tried!
The Datapad was mostly non-functional outside of the Starcruiser and the nearby Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge area of Disney World, but the Comms section had a simple chatbot with various alien phrases to learn for your voyage (e.g. "Ba ma’ shay” for goodbye), all of which promptly vanished from my mind, thankfully with no negative repercussions for my voyage.
My schedule was also visible, though frankly a liability. In their pursuit of verisimilitude, it was filled with extremely dull sounding events like Datapad Orientation, Captain’s Reception, and Sabacc Lessons. This was not what I’d signed up for! In fact, it was the similarly dire sample itinerary revealed in 2021 with its meagre 20-30 minute long “Story Moments” bookended by costume competitions and dinners that put me off from booking in the first place. Presumably they wanted to hide the fact that story and missions would be continuous throughout the voyage in fear of spoilers or breaking the illusion of reality, but I wonder how much that decision cost them.
Starcruiser’s commitment to the bit begins 100 metres from its front entrance, when a guard on the access road reminds you, “no blasters or firearms are allowed on the Galactic Starcruiser, just like on Batuu [the fictional location of Galaxy’s Edge]”. The hotel wifi doesn’t have the usual Disney network name either, but “CSL Comm-Link”, after Chandrila Star Line, the fictional operator of the Starcruiser. Disney has a reputation for paying attention to detail in its parks, but this was beyond what I expected.
I got to the Starcruiser at 12:30pm, around half an hour before the earliest admittance. There were already dozens ahead of me, over half of whom were in full costume. After checking in (oddly, no photo ID was required) and handing over my bag, I waited in line for about 45 minutes before heading into the ground floor for a video safety briefing; it made the crucial distinction between a red alert (head to the atrium for an exciting story moment) and a genuine emergency (get to the exits ASAP).
This would be the last moment for 40 hours that any staff member willingly admitted the Starcruiser wasn’t actually a spaceship. We were promptly ushered into a shuttlecraft (i.e. a very large, slow elevator). Two thin display “windows” in the ceiling showed us ascending over Floridan treetops into the sky and space, then warping to a busy spaceport and thence to the Starcruiser Halcyon, all in a couple of minutes.
The doors opened directly onto the Starcruiser’s large atrium, already filled with guests and staff. Directly adjoining the atrium was the ship’s bridge, complete with massive “windows” into space. Almost all the ship’s windows had some kind of modification to prevent them from looking too much like screens; in the bedrooms, a curved perspex layer provided a porthole effect, while on the bridge, real panes of glass looked out a wide panoramic wall a few metres in front, onto which a continuous view of space was projected. The result was a pleasing sense of parallax as you walked around the bridge.
In general, the fit and finish of the Starcruiser was excellent. Some areas like the bridge and lounge were as good as you’d see in any movie, whereas other spots betrayed their terrestrial origins, like wooden doors painted grey, too-thin plastic panels, etc. It was more than enough for me to feel immersed and out of place in my Earth clothes. Naturally, I went to the shop and bought a Jedi training costume, which according to my “cargo slip” (receipt) cost 80 “credits” (dollars) since I didn’t have a “galactic discount” (?).
As I went to my cabin to change, I noticed some guests already using the ship’s consoles, entering in codes. I felt a little miffed – they were already ahead in the game/story, and I’d barely arrived! A challenge in any live, time-limited multiplayer experience is FOMO; if you’ve been to immersive theatre with Punchdrunk, you’ll have seen crowds of audience members chasing actors hither and thither in hopes of seeing the most dramatic set pieces. Speaking for myself, I’m always worried that my aimless wandering means I’m not getting the “good stuff” – even if aimless wandering through spooky empty rooms is arguably just as worthwhile.
Now imagine that, except you’re paying ten times as much.
Starcruiser has a couple of solutions for this. The first is by leaning into the theatrical experience for the most crucial story moments. During the ship’s muster, at which all guests were present, the usual “welcome to your cruise” spiel was interrupted by the arrival of the First Order, in the form of the delightfully-named, English-accented Lt. Harman Croy and several stormtrooper underlings. Croy announced he would be investigating the Starcruiser Halcyon for Resistance activity. The moment they arrived, the entire audience erupted into pantomime-like boos, followed by “awws” at the sad beeping of the ship’s droid.
Everyone could experience this because all the actors were fully mic’d up and on a raised walkway at the rear of the atrium, inaccessible to guests. In other words, Starcruiser made damn sure you couldn’t miss what was going on, and it would continue to do so a few more times, during dinner performances and at the end of the voyage. Oddly, the staging was undercut when the actors walked above either side of the atrium, making them hard to see unless you were standing in the centre. Not for the last time, I wondered whether it wouldn’t make more sense seeing some of this stuff rebroadcast on screens…
Following the muster, the actors mingled with guests. For anyone who’s done role play or LARPs, this was obviously an important opportunity to connect with the various factions who’d just been revealed: Resistance, First Order, smugglers, etc. I’m not sure everyone else understood, because a lot of people immediately disappeared back to their rooms. True, the instruction leaflet left in every bedroom said:
This is your invitation to get involved! Explore the ship, introduce yourself to characters, and if you see a curious commotion, feel free to join in.
But as anyone who’s written for the public knows, no-one reads anything, especially instructions. And so you have a problem where the commitment to the bit – the Starcruiser is a real spaceship so the captain can’t say, “you really should go and talk to all these actors right now” – runs up against the fact the most guests aren’t experienced in RP.
So I awkwardly followed Croy into the lounge as he spoke with the Halcyon’s Captain Riyola Keevan. The studiously neutral Captain Keevan proposed a toast with the First Order, which was met with loud boos and scattered cheers. Like I said, Space Casablanca. Croy spoke with a few guests and led them over to a ship console and tapped their wrist-worn “Databands” (plastic RFID MagicBand bracelets used for ID, payment, and room key) to a reader.
Eventually Croy came back and I sidled closer. Noticing me eavesdropping on his conversation with other First Order wannabes, he spun around and said, “Ah, Adrian! How can I be of assistance?”
I can’t overstate how unusual it is for any actor to know your name at these kinds of productions. It’s the sort of thing that only happens at Michelin-starred restaurants or if you’re checking into a first class flight, not in a theme park or even many escape rooms. It was shockingly impressive and I’m still not sure how they did it. The actors, including Croy, wore earbuds, so perhaps he was being fed lines from a “mission control” operating behind the scenes, examining camera feeds and matching up names and photos, which is mindboggling to consider.
Me: “The question is, how can I assist you?”
Croy marched us over to a console, saying that he was giving us access to First Order communications. We were to be on the lookout for Resistance activity, await further orders via Datapad, and assist each other in any investigations. To that end, he had us introduce ourselves to each other. In anticipation of being asked to explain a backstory, I’d googled “geneticist Star Wars” on the Uber over to remind myself the name of the planet of cloners in Attack the Clones (Kamino). One of my fellow recruits was dressed in full white Imperial regalia and gave himself the title of “Director”, which is the kind of RP where you’re worried exactly why someone is into it.
(No-one really cares about your backstory, certainly not the actors. Later, I’d have a drink in the lounge and strike up a conversation with a guy dressed like Han Solo. I gave him my Kamino spiel and ran out of facts to share after about 30 seconds, beyond which the best I could do was “yeah, the weather’s not great.”)
This brings me to the second way Starcruiser ensures you don’t get FOMO: by treating every guest like the main character of their very own story by means of the Datapad app. Following Croy’s introduction, I began receiving messages from him, or more accurately, his character, since the flesh-and-blood Croy wasn’t likely tapping out messages to a hundred people at a time.
In classic RPG fashion, I could respond to messages with the usual 1-3 options of varying levels of curiosity and enthusiasm. More unusually, not only could I lie to Croy and others, I could outright betray them. On Croy’s first mission, I tapped my Databand on the nearest ship console (he’d unlocked access to restricted areas for me), and pressed a button to view the ship’s logs. I discovered the Halcyon had diverted its itinerary on previous cruises to supply Resistance bases with weapons; I was able to copy the logs to my Datapad, but I could also delete or overwrite them. Because I am a boring RPer, I sent the logs to Croy, but I don’t doubt that betraying him would’ve had lasting story consequences, perhaps introducing me to Resistance members.
In case it’s not clear: the Galactic Starcruiser operates very much like a video game! You talk to characters, make decisions, go on missions, report back, and get offered new missions and meet new characters. In fact, your progress within the game (technically, your character’s “game state”) is updated in real time, so when you unlock a room or check in at a console with your Databand, you’ll immediately receive a message in your Datapad with next steps.
Actors are also aware of your actions within the game. A friend told me that an actor appeared to be aware of a decision they made in the Datapad just seconds before speaking to them, suggesting some kind of behind the scenes mission control magic – or perhaps it was a coincidence. The point is that it seems like it works, and it is like nothing I have ever seen before.
Which is not to say it’s perfect. I had to queue to use consoles at the start of the voyage as everyone got bunched up in their missions, and scanning my Databands on their readers was unreliable and inconvenient; they work within the fiction of the Starcruiser but I wonder if QR codes might have been better. I’m curious why there are ship consoles at all; every single guest must use the Datapad app to participate, so they could’ve used the app to perform exactly the same functions (guests can get loaner devices in the rare cases they don’t have phones/tablets). I have a few theories:
It doesn’t look cool if guests are staring at their phones all the time, unlike using ship consoles, which have a retro sci-fi cool to them
Guests can learn about what’s possible in the game by seeing other people using public consoles (the source of my early FOMO)
Relying on phones would kill their battery even faster (I was always charging, as it was)
Guests’ phones might not be good enough for the functions the consoles fulfil (doubtful; the consoles didn’t do much special)
Consoles can be used to limit information to specific physical locations; doing so with indoor phone positioning is still unreliable.
As far as I could tell, this last point was applicable in only one (1) situation which I didn’t even get to experience but sounds wonderful: unlocking the brig’s door. The door is unlocked by entering four symbols into a keypad. Easy, except the symbols change every ~30s, like two-factor authentication codes. The closest console to the brig is too far to run in time, which means you need to convey the code by other means.
I noticed more than a few kids playing in the brig and, e.g., breaking Chewbacca out from it; on one occasion I’m told they formed a human chain to relay the code from the console to the door, an attempt that failed abjectly because they couldn’t agree on the meaning of the various symbols (we can all relate) but was no doubt very fun.
I also received a message from Raithe Kole, the manager of galactic superstar singer Gaya, and also a Han Solo-esque scoundrel. I hadn’t spoken to the actor yet, but presumably Starcruiser had assigned his storyline to me because his missions had spare capacity, and because guests were meant to have at least a couple of ongoing storylines each. I can’t say it made much sense from a RP perspective to be a First Order sympathiser and be helping a smuggler, but stranger things have happened.
Kole noticed I’d been given access to engineering; he wanted me to set up a secure comms channel by finding the Systems Patch Bay and calibrating the primary sensory array. I had no idea what any of this meant and it took me a while to figure out I had to go to engineering room on the lower level. There were so many guests streaming in and out of engineering that my access was unnecessary, but I tapped my Databand on the door on the assumption the system would want to know where I was.
The engineering room was surprisingly big, with thick cables and sockets and levers and buttons all over the place, all with an air of total indestructibility. It was divided into at least seven areas corresponding to different consoles, most of which already had guests puzzling over. I identified the Systems Patch Bay via its console, which had a fearsome array of lights.
Being an expert in nonsense sci-fi user interfaces, I figured out I was meant to push the “Primary Sensor Array / Calibrate” button, which lit up a couple of numbers and symbols above. One of the many lurking blue-jumpsuited crew members (different from actors, but still all in character) eagerly leaped in to tell me how to solve the puzzle; I politely shooed her off, connecting the corresponding pipe/sockets with a cable, but I’m glad she was there to help as I think a lot of guests would’ve found the solution a little obscure.
The instant after I’d done this, Kole pinged me with a new message. Clearly the Starcruiser was assigning players unique tasks, but what if someone else had connected the cables before me? Maybe the designers weren’t worried about such a rare occurrence, or maybe a blue jumpsuit would’ve thrown themselves in front of the console if anyone dared solve “my” puzzle before me. Regardless, I was impressed, even though it took me all of a couple of minutes.
The other engineering consoles held similar puzzles: a pattern of lights displayed the desired configuration of nearby physical things and the player had to de-obfuscate the instructions and execute them by, e.g., pulling big levers, pressing buttons, plugging in hefty cables, etc. They weren’t hard, but I could see it’d be pleasing from a tactile perspective to figure out how to do these things quickly – in some cases, multiple levers had to be pulled simultaneously, involving fun hijinks and contortions, similar to the co-op Spaceteam video game.
(Later on, I’d revisit engineering for a bigger, actor-led mission, which joined these puzzles into a longer, harder, far more dramatic event…)
Completing these missions for Croy and Kole increased their familiarity and trust ratings with me, influencing my path through the story and the missions I received. They came thick and fast, a surprisingly hectic routine of responding to messages, running to events, digging up more information, while recharging my fast-depleting phone battery.
Outside of scheduled events like dinner and bridge training (more on those later), I didn’t feel as if my own interactions with characters was proceeding on a strict timeline. Messages came every 30-45 minutes, as if I was being given more tasks and story because I was clearing things so quickly. And yet there was a timeline because whether or not I responded to messages or completed missions, momentous things were happening on the Starcruiser, engines being sabotaged, contraband being smuggled.
Those “global events” were on rails, an unstoppable real time experience like The Last Express or massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) or big events in Destiny or Fortnite, but my private interactions and choices still felt meaningful because I was talking to a consistent set of characters who remembered what I’d said and done, as did their physical actors. It was believable that what I was doing – copying the ship’s logs, calibrating the primary sensor array – helped move the plot along, even when the game designer in me knew it didn’t.
(The GDC talk distinguishes three ways in which guests can gain access to the engineering room. Intrepid guests exploring the ship might try their databand on its door and get a message from Kole offering help. Actor-focused guests like me can convince an actor to let them in. Slower or less curious guests will be directly invited via a message from a character, a kind of difficulty-balancing system like rubber banding in video games.
On Role Play
If there’s one thing that makes the Starcruiser unique, it’s the depth of its immersion, and more specifically, the ability to roleplay with actors.
We all improvise and roleplay in our lives, whether that’s telling a story to children or pretending you know more about a scene or book than you really do. I once spent an entire flight pretending to my neighbour I’d studied at Trinity College, Dublin because I was too embarrassed to explain I’d actually gone to Trinity College, Cambridge.
Some people are naturally good at roleplay. Others might get experience playing D&D or LARPS or megagames, or doing a lot of improv comedy. Memorising a lot of lines and facts (e.g. “I’m a cloner from Kamino”) can help, but it’s no substitute for practice. I’ve done a fair bit of roleplay on both sides of the curtain, as a designer and player of alternate reality games and immersive experiences, but even I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the Starcruiser’s roleplay.
Shortly before I introduced myself to Lt. Croy, I hung around Sammie, a mechanic on the Halcyon. One guest proffered him a special coin and spun a tale of helping him out against the First Order; Sammie beckoned him over to a corner for a private chat with another guest. I noticed a couple of teens shyly hanging even further back, wondering out loud, “they’re going on a secret mission, can we do that?”
The better you are at roleplaying, the better experience you’ll have on the Starcruiser, a bit like how you’ll have a better experience at Disneyworld if you’re a super-organiser. That a roleplay-centric experience rewards roleplayers is not surprising except for the fact that Starcruiser isn’t seen as (or marketed as) a roleplaying experience. In fact, while their GDC talk frequently referenced video game RPGs as an inspiration, I don’t recall much if any time spent on guests’ role play.
It’s not like the Starcruiser’s designers aren’t aware that actors will talk to guests – they’re justifiably proud of it – but I suspect they’d disagree that good roleplayers will get more out of the Starcruiser than others. They describe three kinds of guests; one might be a “choice maker”, very quick and deliberate about which story path to proceed down; another might consult their friends on choices; and a third is happy to sit back and just watch whatever happens. The implication is that while the first guest might be the only one doing full roleplay, all three are having fun in equal measure – just in their own ways.
I get it. It’s good design for the Starcruiser to recognise that people have different tastes. I like how it accommodates everyone by using the Datapad as a low pressure means for guests to talk to characters. It also de-stresses chatting with actors, because participation in the “public story” explicitly doesn’t impact your affiliation in the game, meaning that if you’re a die-hard First Order sympathiser, no-one will know or care if you spot Chewbacca in the brig and give him a hug.
And yet I maintain the roleplayers are having more fun. How do I know that? Because I literally saw them having fun! I’ve never seen people laugh harder in a theme park than at the ribald double-entendres they hurled back and forth with Raithe Kole in the lounge. I’m sure those shy teens had a perfectly good time on their voyage but I’m also sure they wished they were better or more confident in their roleplaying. I know I felt that way.
On the Starcruiser, roleplayers get to do something they cannot do literally anywhere else, whereas if all you want to do is eat Star Wars-themed food and explored Star Wars-themed landscapes, you can visit Disney World’s Galaxy’s Edge at a fraction of the price. Even if you don’t mind the price, it’s you can’t help but notice the roleplayers and feel envious of their enjoyment.
Like a sport or musical instrument you can practice, roleplaying can be learned. But it’s more than that – I think roleplaying is taste you can acquire and cultivate. I’d go so far as to say it’s a John Stuart Mill-esque “higher pleasure”, which would make me elitist except that I’m talking about a Star Wars immersive experience. The challenge lies in helping people learn how to roleplay and communicate what’s in and out of bounds and how to deal with permission and ambiguity, which is not all that obvious.
You may be thinking: I know I’d hate roleplaying. You might! Being a First Order sympathiser or a Resistance spy in a fictional spaceship for three days may sound amazing or terrible to you, but you won’t know until you try. I just think the Starcruiser could’ve helped people realise this by acknowledging roleplaying was far more central to its perception and its experience than they’d like to admit.
Anyway, back to Day 1…
In between missions, I was playing Sabacc in the lounge when Gaya, the galactic superstar singer, arrived on board. This wasn’t such an important event for her to be on the atrium’s raised walkway, but she was mic’ed up so I could hear her pretty well even if I couldn’t see her past the crowds. Weird, but effective.
As Gaya walked into the lounge with her manager, Raithe Kole, a guest told his friend, “They did this last time too, they get a drink, the bartender asks her to…” and I realised I was in a real life version of Westworld. This uncanny sensation followed me to the shop, where an attendant reminisced about how he’d once seen Gaya perform on Coruscant, but only from many streets away. “So strange that she’s here on the Halcyon for such a small audience,” he told me.
I wandered out in a daze. What’s strange about the Starcruiser isn’t that it’s being shut down, I thought. It’s that it was built in the first place.
Returning to my room to charge my phone once more, I noticed a light flashing on my “Droid Link” panel. I pressed it, tapped my Databand to its reader, and was greeted by a CG video call from D3-O9, a humanoid droid on the Halcyon not unlike C-3PO.
I was able to speak responses to simple questions (“Are you enjoying the voyage so far?” “Yes”). When I said I welcomed the First Order coming on board, the comms link was taken over an invisible First Order voice who noted that Lt. Croy trusted me. I was to convince D3-O9 to unplug some red cables in order to install a backdoor into the Halcyon’s communications, which led to a very funny sequence where I kept trying to explain to the doubtful D3-O9 why this was a good idea. Honestly, if this was in a game, people would love it.
The whole bit took just five minutes and the voice recognition interaction made it fly by. Sure, it was just listening for a small selection of keywords, but the writing and comic timing was impeccable. I can’t help but think the Starcruiser should have more personalised screen-based interactions like this, not because they’re “better” than talking to real actors, but because they help guests build up their roleplaying muscles.
I’d have a few more calls with D3-O9 and the mysterious First Order voice throughout the voyage. While they were both aware of some events on the Halcyon (D3-O9 was excited that Gaya was on board), my choices didn’t seemed to impact the rest of my story. I’m guessing this is because Droid Link interactions are apparently limited to a single guest per room, so if you had four people staying together, they couldn’t all have their own story with the D3-O9.
Which is a shame because it’s so much fun! I suppose it’d be annoying and immersion-breaking to hear the same conversation four times in a row, but if Droid Link resided in each guest’s Datapad app, this wouldn’t be a problem. Alas!
Then I was off to Bridge Training. I had to sign in with my Databand since it was a scheduled event with limited capacity of maybe 20-30 people; other guests would’ve been at events elsewhere in the Starcruiser. Bridge training is essentially a multiplayer arcade game in which you collectively operate the Halcyon’s weapons, shield, systems, and loaders.
Weapon stations are simple – players use a joystick to move a reticle on the Halcyon’s vast viewscreens, with buttons to fire lasers and missiles at asteroids, enemy spaceships, incoming missiles, etc. Several players can control weapons at once, so they all have their own reticle colour and area of the viewscreen to patrol. There’s not a moment of lag between pressing a button and seeing a missile fire, everything is completely real time.
Players assigned to Loaders also use the viewscreens. Each player is assigned to their own “loader” robot in front of the Halcyon. Loaders fly themselves, but players can rotate them and deploy their mechanical arms to latch on to nearby objects like rubble, cargo pods, and so on. Once latched on, the loader will fly off the screen and return a few seconds later, empty-handed. Pretty weird and unsatisfying.
Systems operates similarly to the engineering room puzzles. Players are presented with a pattern of lights and symbols on a screen, and they flip switches, press buttons, and rotate dials on a panel to match that pattern. As soon as they complete one task, another arrives; the more tasks they complete, the better. On the one hand, these tasks had no visible impact on the ship; on the other, they were surprisingly satisfying to a shape rotator like myself, what with all the wonderfully tactile controls.
Finally, Shields. Players are divided into pairs, with one person able to move an inner shield segment, and the other moving an outer shield. Their goal is to make sure their shield segments intercept incoming things (asteroids, missiles – the usual) before they hit the Halcyon. Stopping bigger things requires players to reinforce your segment by pressing a button, which also immobilises it; really big things require players to put their segments on top of each other. Like Systems, you aren’t even glancing at the viewscreens while you’re playing; but at least you’re very aware of everyone else on Shields since you’re all standing around a circular screen.
All the stations play simultaneously, and with training sessions lasting 2-3 minutes, everyone can cycle through the four stations. You get a score for your own console (e.g. “30 asteroids destroyed”) which you can compare with your neighbours, but the only leaderboard on the bridge compares the performance of different stations (e.g. “Weapons: 70/100, Systems: 73/100”) in a way that feels completely meaningless.
Bridge Training is the most conspicuously game-like experience on the Halcyon. It’s also highly immersive: it looks and feels top-notch, from the viewscreens to the fake-CRT console screens to the chunky switches and silky-smooth dials.
Things heated up at the “end” of our training session (i.e. around 30 minutes in) when Croy marched in and took command of the bridge. After a brief argument with the ship’s computer, who grudgingly admitted the guests were adequately trained, he jumped the Halcyon into an asteroid field to collect something or other. We beat to quarters and did everything we’d done again, but to the max; Shields had to deal with more incoming objects, weapons had bigger asteroids to blow up, and so on, culminating in a huge asteroid to destroy.
(Disturbingly, Croy kept calling me by my name throughout all of this).
With that done, we jumped to a First Order planet and Croy opened a video link with his superior, Colonel Grav Talis. I am 99% sure the video message was completely pre-recorded, but Croy timed his lines just right. And then we were done.
The entire session took 45 minutes, making it the longest non-dining scheduled session of the voyage. I had an absolute blast. Sure, the minigames were basic and offered little challenge, but it felt right for a general audience. Things were so action-packed, I didn’t even mind the fact that it was plainly impossible for us to fail. After all, the Starcruiser isn’t a simulation or a strategy game, it’s a story.
Of course, you could turn the Bridge into a deeper, more challenging experience with more varied minigames. You could even turn it into a multi-hour experience like Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator or Star Trek: Bridge Crew. But if you want every guest to be able to play and have enough time to integrate story(the designers call this giving an experience a “Star Wars kick”), you have to keep it simple.
(There is one aspect in which the Starcruiser is a simulation: all the “windows” on the Halcyon are synchronised, so if you’re in your cabin when the ship jumps to an asteroid field, you’ll see that in real time. Very cool. Weirdly, this isn’t reflected in your bedroom TV, which only shows a map of major systems and was sorely underused as a storytelling device).
Before dinner, I wandered down to engineering on a mission and passed by a completely rammed corridor; people looking for Chewie, I assumed. Even with a comparatively big ship and small number of guests (200-300 during our voyage, I’d guess), it was easy for places to get busy.
Case in point: my mission was to find the Halcyon’s starship registry code on a plaque and enter it into an engineering console. The console, naturally, had a queue. Everyone was doing the same mission at the same time! We’d all come out of Bridge Training or finished dinner or something. Is there a way of avoiding this? Assuming you want guests to input the code into a fun sci-fi console rather their boring old phone, you could:
a) Have more consoles (expensive, takes up space)
b) Offer the mission to fewer guests (expensive, needs replacement missions)
c) Time the messages that offer the mission to avoid bunching (not foolproof, everyone will still come out of scheduled events in waves)
d) Stop or distract people on their way to the console (not foolproof, people don’t look at their phones all the time)
There’s no perfect solution that doesn’t cost money, and the Starcruiser is already expensive. Augmented reality might help with the final option, but putting every guest in AR glasses is quite a ways off.
Day 1 Dinner
Unlike breakfast and lunch, which are buffet affairs, dinner had assigned seating and was at 6pm and 8pm. I won’t spend a lot of time talking about the actual food (here is an exhaustive account) except to say it’s surprisingly good. There’s nothing too challenging but it’s imaginatively presented and it goes beyond the usual “blue space wine” cliches – though they did, in fact, have blue wine.
In between courses, we were treated to a politically charged set by Gaya, with Croy looking on from a side table; at one point, Croy leapt to his feet, objecting to a particular song. Space Casablanca strikes back! Then Chewbacca snuck in through an entrance and edged around the restaurant to a side door; Gaya and others danced around Croy to distract him from all these shenanigans.
I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a fan of dinner theatre, but the Starcruiser’s utilitarian dining hall didn’t help. I can’t complain about the songs and food, but it was too pantomime for me. Then again, kids love pantos: they clung to Chewie and excitedly assembled secret messages whose fragments had been given to different tables. I suppose the kids have to learn about Star Wars sooner or later.
Along with the “it’s for kids” argument is the idea that the Starcruiser needs lean-back entertainment for those guests who don’t want to interact with anyone. Do you really? Maybe I’m thumping a strawman here – after all, gamers tolerate non-interactive cutscenes all the time – but that doesn’t excuse the need for the entertainment to be good.
The Starcruiser’s actor-told story worked best for me when it was more intimate and interactive. The drama on the bridge felt more natural; when Croy took us into the asteroid field, it was better than playing a video game. In fact, it was the very best spaceship bridge I have ever stood upon. Gaya and Croy sparring over space steak at dinner didn’t just feel forced; it was deeply underwhelming compared to other stories I’ve been an audience of, whether that’s a movie or a play.
It’s not that having story play out during a dinner is impossible to do well, but it’d look very different than what happened during my voyage. Perhaps it’d be in a grander auditorium over a longer period of time; the MC worried about their unexpected guests; the singer someone I knew well; the drama something I’d been involved in, rather than side story I barely knew. It’s a high difficulty proposition.
Shortly after dinner, practically every guest was invited to a new scheduled story event in the atrium. Croy had captured the ship’s droid and forced Sammie, the loveable mechanic, to prepare it for interrogation. Most people booed but there were a few isolated cries of “for the order!” too. Meanwhile, Chewbacca disappeared into an escape pod. Oddly, I received a message from Croy while the actor was speaking. Even more oddly, this didn’t strike me as strange at all, as if they existed in completely different realities.
(Casablanca isn’t just about a fight between good and evil. It’s set in neutral ground, a place that can accommodate big and small stories, one where conflict is inevitable. It’s a great lens for the Starcruiser.)
When it was all over, an announcement came over tannoy: all story events were over for the night, but we were welcome to enjoy the lounge and other common areas. Over a beer, I met someone on her third journey – this time she’d brought her mom and aunts with her this time. People talked about having made friends, their lives changed, being brought out of their shell. Others distributed gifts for free – patches, light sticks, little droids. Like in other game communities, the Starcruiser superfans made the experience so much better for everyone else.
It’s unbearably earnest stuff, the sort of thing that doesn’t play well in snarky one-liners and blurry pictures of a singer in a plain dining hall, half-hidden behind a pillar. You’d dismiss it as mere enthusiasm if you didn’t hear it in person, a sappy tale from a Star Wars superfan. You’d say there’s nothing worth spending $6000 on. And I wouldn’t blame you.
But what is it worth?
The cost of the Starcruiser is so high, it’s overwhelmed all other discussion. Every merit is dismissed due to the cost, every flaw magnified. For $6000, two people could fly practically anywhere in the world for a week or go on a real Disney cruise, not a fictional one. Why would you spend $2000 a night to stay in a hotel with no windows?
Except there are no windows in a cinema. The point being, if you’re going to compare to the Starcruiser with alternatives, you need to compare it with the right thing.
Let’s take escape rooms. I recently visited The Nest, an excellent immersive experience by Scout Expedition. It costs up to $75 per person, which is a lot for this kind of thing (but totally worth it). The Nest is hosted by Hatch Escapes in Los Angeles, whose high-end Lab Rat escape room costs up to $59 per person. You get about 20 hours of entertainment from the Starcruiser, which would come to $1200 in an escape room per person. Throw in all the very nice food and drink – say $60 for two breakfasts, $100 for two lunches and $200 for two dinners, including tips – add in two nights of an average hotel room, and you get to $1800 per person or $3600 for a couple.
That’s not too far from $4800, which is where the Starcruiser’s cost for a couple starts. But let’s be honest: most people don’t do twenty escape rooms in a year, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t want to all twenty hours in a row, either. Why would that be better than doing them separately? Why would that be fun?
And that’s the problem. The Starcruiser is only worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it. If you think it’s a windowless Star Wars-themed hotel with 20 minutes of chatting with an actor, I’m guessing you’re only stretching to $500 per night, never mind the included food and drink.
(The Starcruiser can cost under $1500 per person if you fit four in a room, which is not unusual)
What are you willing to pay for something special? Taylor Swift is coming to Edinburgh next year, and when I finally got through Ticketmaster’s queue the only seats left cost £661 ($850) each, and you can bet every single one of those will sell. The average price is lower at $215, but it’s still plenty. Neither number includes hotels or travel, both of which will be inflated for the concert, so a couple will be lucky if they spend “only” $1000 for a mere 3.5 hours of entertainment. And Taylor Swift doesn’t even remember your name! But it’s obviously worth it to over 2 million people.
Here’s the difference. Even if they’ve never seen her perform, people have a good idea of what a Taylor Swift concert will be like. They’ve heard her music; they’ve been to other concerts; and they’ve seen photos and videos and reviews of previous concerts. They are not liable to get mad if they have to wait in line to get in, or she doesn’t play their favourite song, or they have to sit down (or stand up!) for three hours, or the drinks are overprice. The trade-offs are understood.
People have no idea what the Starcruiser is like. Watching The Mandalorian doesn’t tell you anything. Some people have been to escape rooms and immersive theatre and even LARPs, but they aren’t remotely close to the lavish multi-day extravaganza of the Starcruiser. And while there are plenty of photos and videos out there, they don’t reproduce its unique interactive and personal moments.
(Kathryn Yu, co-founder of the Immersive Experience Institute, told me, “There are other experiences that have components of the [Starcruiser] but I’m not aware of anything else that has the whole package: professional actors focused on building deep guest-to-character relationships in a condensed timeline; story integration into a themed land including top tier attractions; in-world dining, merchandise, entertainment, activities, lodging, and support staff; a ship-wide narrative which culminates in a stunt finale with special effects and actors playing recognizable named characters; plus, the wish fulfillment of living inside an IP many people grew up dreaming about.”)
The Starcruiser is just too new and too unique. Yes, entertainment is going in this direction again (transmedia is back, baby!), but not as quickly as the Starcruiser. Yes, some guests dress up and role play at the parks, but not that many, and they don’t pay thousands for the privilege. Yes, Disney Imagineering has done ARG-like experiments like The Optimist and Ghost Post, but nothing on Starcruiser’s scale.
If Disney started with cheaper, shorter immersive experiences, it could’ve built up to the Starcruiser as the highest-end option. Imagine if they offered these Star Wars experiences first:
2.5 hour “super escape room” at $300/guest
6 hour “bridge training plus” at $600/guest
All-day experience at $1000
Still very expensive! But way more affordable and crucially, a way to demonstrate what’s unique about Starcruiser-like experiences. There’s precedent in Savi’s Workshop in Galaxy’s Edge, a $250 immersive experience lasting a mere 20 minutes in which you build a lightsaber, and who knows, something else Star Wars-y might also happen.
So why did Disney go so big, so fast in making the Starcruiser a two-night experience? One argument against shorter experiences is that you need to sell to a lot more people to make the same amount of money; maybe they felt it was easier to market a bigger ticket item. Another is that the company’s last attempt to expand their physical footprint beyond theme parks with arcade-like venues, DisneyQuest, was a failure.
My take? Organisations tend to keep doing things they’re already doing, out of inertia and economy of scale. Disney already knows how to build themed hotels, so why not do that here? And because their recent park attractions and hotels have been in high demand, they might have assumed the Starcruiser would’ve been an easy sell too. Sure, making the Starcruiser this big might have cost up to $350 million, but if the plan was to build identical hotels in Paris, Tokyo, and even Anaheim in California, maybe it made sense as a landgrab for the future of immersive entertainment – especially given the prevailing macroeconomic winds. Yes: Starcruiser may have been yet another low interest rate phenomenon.
What’s darkly hilarious is that even assuming 100% occupancy, Disney likely couldn’t have priced the Starcruiser any cheaper than they did if they wanted to break even. Every single guest got an absolute bargain.
(Aside from building shorter “super escape rooms” – imagine escaping a trash-compactor! – Disney could’ve helped their case with video games or VR that put true role play at the forefront, like an extended version of the Starcruiser’s D3-O9 droid experience. Imagine being a double agent, having to lie to both the Resistance and the First Order – this would work nicely on mobile, with simulated video calls and messages…)
After breakfast, I lined up with friends to catch one of the “transports” from the Starcruiser to Galaxy’s Edge.
There were multiple framings for this trip. From a plain old cruise perspective, this was a typical shore excursion to a tourist destination, specificially Black Spire Outpost on the planet of Batuu. Given that Batuu is meant to be a remote planet and Black Spire Outpost a seedy smuggler’s haven, we’re meant to rationalise the Starcruiser stopover as a homage to one of Chandrila Star Lines’ earlier routes.
More pressingly, I’d received missions to complete on Batuu, some that conveniently took place on existing Galaxy’s Edge rides, like investigating rumours of a rebel base (Rise of the Resistance) and doing a heist for the pirate Hondo Ohnaka (Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run); Starcruiser guests were given a “skip the line” pass for each the rides, since they’re both very popular.
Finally, as fans, we wanted to get to the theme park as early as possible so we could go on them more than once. My friends had gotten up early to reserve another pair of timed passes for the rides, and since Galaxy’s Edge opened early for Starcruiser guests, we were able to run onto the popular rides before they had any queues. In the end, we went on Rise of the Resistance twice and Smugglers Run three times.
The transport (in reality, a bus) was made up to look like a spaceship inside, with no windows or even screens. More impressively, it docked seamlessly with sealed doorways at both ends, meaning I didn’t even have a glimpse of the non-Star Wars universe en route. It would’ve been cheaper, faster, more reliable if the docking weren’t as precise, and probably most guests wouldn’t have minded or even noticed; but someone decided the Starcruiser’s suspension of disbelief needed to be absolutely perfect, which I have to respect. Lots of guests were amazed that I would be going to Galaxy’s Edge for the first time via the Starcruiser, and it absolutely worked.
We exited to a roped-off area of Galaxy’s Edge with free water bottles and towels; there was much talk of “Batuu’s three suns” being fearsomely hot for visitors so we should be careful to hydrate. Disney creating a sealed, climate-controlled immersive experience in the Starcruiser is smart, grim bit of foresight.
First up was Smuggler’s Run, where a group of guests pilot the Millennium Falcon on an action-packed flight. It was fine! Being able to fly the ship or fire weapons or repair systems didn’t add a lot to the experience for me, especially given the significant lag between steering and movement; giving guests a score based on their performance (more specifically, credits) seemed more like a cynical bit of gamification to encourage repeat visits rather than anything organically fun. Frankly, whenever theme parks try to mimic video games, they often end up looking much worse – case in point, the dreadful Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge augmented reality ride at Super Nintendo World.
Somehow, the ride was aware we were on a mission for the Halcyon, with Hondo name-checking our ship. We didn’t even tap our Databands the first time we visited, so I’m assuming it sensed them at a longer distance, which is neat.
Next, Rise of the Resistance. I won’t spoil this except to say it’s excellent and highly immersive, featuring a surprising number of staff (aka cast members), all in costume and in character. One especially good cast member recognised the Halcyon pins we were wearing and asked after Lt. Croy. Smuggler’s Run also had a lot of cast members arranging people into groups and lines, which gives you a glimpse at the sheer number of humans required to run these attractions and how they all need to remain in character – though not consistently, as one tired cast member, when asked which planet she was from, replied, “Tampa”.
As soon as I exited Rise of the Resistance, Croy messaged me for a report. This didn’t add up; he’s a minor functionary leading an investigation on an old cruise ship, and we’re meant to believe he’d be involved in such a momentous event, or wouldn’t have already heard about it through other means? I’m sure there are ways to rationalise this within the fiction, but ultimately it’s a casualty of having to tie together too many barely-related bits of story, each trying to do their best at their own particular thing.
After these two big-ticket rides, I had a few, much more boring, Datapad-based missions to accomplish. To be clear – these were all optional, it’s not like I’d have missed anything important or been denied access to later scheduled events if I didn’t do that – but these had the whiff of filler material. Croy asked me to locate a forger to help him override the Starcruiser’s systems (or something), which saw me running around Galaxy’s Edge completing various sidequests. Each of these boiled down to:
Reading a message (“go to the droid yard and scan the cargo boxes”)
Going to a location (FYI the map is not great, someone needs to fix this)
Telling them I’d arrived
Completing a minigame
Being told what to do next
Classic RPG stuff! Unfortunately the minigames were pretty uninspired, I assume because there’s only so much you can ask tired guests to do under the heat of three suns. One involved scanning codes on boxes and arranging tangram-esque shapes; a hacking game to shut down a noisy engine involved a grid-based maze puzzle. The most interesting minigame was tuning into a radio transmission, where I had to rotate and tilt my phone to locate the signal. Sadly, it was not at all obvious that I had to tilt, even to me, an acknowledged lover of weird phone interfaces, so I was pretty frustrated by the time I figured it out.
Except on one occasion, these missions didn’t involve speaking to any cast members: that was where I had to say “Oga has information for me,” to a host outside a bar. I was given a bar mat with a code on it. Neat!
This all culminated with the discovery of some data tapes near a droid depot. I’m told that once upon a time, these were physical data tapes I could carry back to the Starcruiser, but apparently guests kept stealing them so they changed the story. Alas! Once completed, Croy added some new events to my schedule; they would’ve been added later anyway, but it was nice for my actions to be rewarded so directly.
All of these Datapad missions took around 45 minutes of back and forth in between rides; I imagine if you were really fast, you could do them in 20 minutes, and if you got stuck, they might take well over an hour. I didn’t find any of them especially fun, though I think that’s largely a problem of their execution rather than the principle of the thing. If you rewrote the app to be faster and easier to use and added some richer content, it’d be much more enjoyable.
We went to Savi’s Workshop to get lightsabers, got a drink at Oga’s Cantina, then a nice quick lunch (Starcruiser guests get this for free) at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo. This, plus shopping and the rides and missions, equalled about 4.5 hours. Shuttles were running back and forth between Galaxy’s Edge and the Starcruiser throughout, though on my return one was out of action, so we were offered “alternate transport”. This was a plain old bus that we reached by walking backstage, which was a treat for anyone into logistics. Everyone took it in good spirits: “wow, what part of Batuu is this?” etc.
Back on the Starcruiser, a brief rest and then a scheduled 25 minute Lightsaber Training event. This event became notorious even before the Starcruiser opened when it was revealed guests would be waving replica lightsabers at beams of light rather than, I don’t know, slicing droids apart with a real lightsaber. And I’ll say this – the two people running this event did the best job they could’ve, with abundant enthusiasm and sincerity. When Yoda appeared at the end, they managed to sell it!
My problem with lightsaber training isn’t that I didn’t get to hold a real lightsaber. It’s not that there were only four lightsabers between the fifteen of us, so we had to take turns. It’s not even that it might have been done better with Kinect-style motion tracking or in VR, though not without major technical challenges.
It’s that the gap between what we’ve seen in movies (space wizards with laser swords) and reality is insurmountable with today’s technology. This training event is billed as a kind of fictional cultural appreciation, like learning an ancient martial art, but the problem is that guests already know too much about lightsabers. If the Starcruiser invented a brand new practice, like space archery, people might not have been as disappointed.
I can’t fathom why it was included. It’s only 25 minutes long, so even if you love it, it’s not like it’s a major pull. And the damage it did to the perception of the Starcruiser feels massive.
At some point after the training, Croy formally took over the Halcyon and declared a blockade of the ship because he’d discovered Resistance agents on board. The actor posted up in the atrium, looking very pleased with himself. As I walked by, he spotted me from the raised walkway and called me out by name, asking for a report from Batuu. I, of course, had already reported back back to Croy via the Datapad, but clearly this version doesn’t know. Later, he’d give me a firm handshake and a “well done” while doing his rounds of the corridors.
Unlike other characters who have actual jobs (e.g. Captain, mechanic, spy, etc.), Croy had good reason to be wandering around in public all the time, looking threatening in a foppish English manner. Still, if you hung around long enough in the atrium, actors and staff tried to engage you; I saw a group being taught the card version of Sabacc, and a couple of alien musicians always seemed to be lounging around worrying about their love lives and writing new songs.
The lounge was Raithe Kole’s home. I spent a good half hour there listening to a constant stream of double-entendres and scoundrel improv as guests teased him for giving the same nickname to multiple women. Not a jot of plot was discussed – just pure vibes. It reminded me of paid hosts and hostesses in Japanese bars, in fact, or a real life version of dating and relationship sims.
After Kole finally left, Saja arrived, asking us to help keep things calm if they blew up during Gaya’s next performance. This wasn’t a mission, just a way for people to stay more immersed in the building tension of the Halcyon.
A couple of final missions before dinner, both with Croy:
The first was on the Bridge, where he needed guests’ help to get a signal to Colonel Talis. Unlike previous events, this was solely for guests who’d chosen to side with the First Order – a fairly small group. If I recall correctly, we had to blow up loader drones that were blocking his signal, then blow up incoming missiles from First Order ships who thought someone on the Halcyon was violating the blockade. We learned that Rey (yes, the one from the movies) was on board, and Kylo Ren was en route to sort things out. All very dramatic and entertaining!
Next, we were in engineering to take full control of the Halcyon’s systems. Again, this was a small group of around fifteen First Order loyalists. We inserted the data tapes from Batuu into the various engineering consoles and ran through the usual puzzles except on hard mode (i.e. pulling more levers at once, time pressure, etc.). Our first attempt inevitably failed, but the second succeeded.
You may think this makes the entire exercise pointless, except the dramatic lighting and sound and and physical nature of the tasks made it feel genuinely intense. I got quite flustered when Croy shouted at me to press a particular button and I didn’t understand which one – there were a lot of them! Then again, I suspect he figured I could take it, and immediately undercut it with a joke: “see, we all work so much faster under pressure with shouting, don’t we?”
It was during this mission that I encountered the one and only unwelcome heckler of the entire voyage; a kid who’d hidden in a crawl space. Croy was completely unfazed: “Ignore them! What are they going to do, spit cheerios at us? Look at how short their legs are!”
That was the final interactive mission of the voyage, but the story hadn’t ended. On our way out of engineering, we had to devise an excuse for why we’d all been meeting there secretly (celebrating Croy’s birthday, it was agreed). Out in the corridor, Croy delayed some of us from leaving with a bit of chat, which I soon realised was because he knew Rey was about to come by from her own secret Resistance meeting, and he didn’t want us to miss it.
While the scripted face-off between Rey and Croy felt a bit forced – both declaiming the superiority of their positions and Rey eventually mind-controlling him into walking away – it worked because of its small scale. The only problem were the occasional injections from guests, shouting jokes and ideas. In video games, players aren’t allowed to disrupt these proceedings – they’re usually silenced and often immobilised. You could achieve a similar thing in the real world if you made guests wear noise cancelling earbuds all the time, and muted people during dramatic moments. Just a thought!
By the time it was over, I missed whatever drama was meant to happen during Gaya’s performance. That’s how they get you to come back!
Dinner, then red alert – we were all to proceed to our muster stations in the atrium to watch a fight between Rey and Kylo. This looked as good as a live-action lightsaber fight can be, which is to say: fine. The actors were great, Rey looked exactly like in the movies, the combat and acrobatics were on point, I just think that fighting with fake lightsabers looks silly.
More importantly, Rey and Kylo being Force-wielders almost invalidates the efforts of every other guest and character on board. You could argue that we were all important in our own ways, but had Kylo beaten Rey, there wasn’t a single person on board who could’ve stopped him from murdering everyone. It’s a shame more wasn’t done with other characters, like Poe, Finn, Mandalorians, or those we’d spent so much time with on the Halcyon. Tonally it felt off, as if at the end of Casablanca Hitler suddenly emerges and Captain America punches him.
Of course, Rey defeated Kylo and mind-controlled him to depart, at which point Croy’s stormtroopers threatened to shoot Chewbacca. When all seemed lost, one of the stormtroopers removed his helmet to reveal he was Sammie, the hesitant mechanic who’d finally thrown his lot in with the Resistance. Now, this I loved – a classic stormtrooper switcheroo! And then Yoda appeared, which I was less hot on.
Perhaps everyone else loved Rey and Kylo’s fight. All I can say is that I’m sick of seeing Star Wars stories conclude with lightsaber battles between OP Force-wielders. But I don’t think I’m alone, judging by the popularity of The Mandalorian and the critical success of Andor. This isn’t the fault of the Starcruiser’s designers – how were they to know The Rise of Skywalker would be received so poorly? And yet this is the danger of operating in such a tightly interconnected story universe – sure, you can harness fans’ affection for the IP and characters, but it also means you have to include elements that might not fit perfectly in your own production.
Following the finale, the Millennium Falcon flew around the Halcyon, in front of the bridge and past the atrium windows, and we were treated to a space fireworks display. I would’ve loved to have seen credits roll, if only in a corner, but it was not to be.
A letter from Croy was in my room when I made it back, thanking me for my assistance, along with a message in my Datapad from Colonel Talis. Even D3-O9 was unharmed and happy, despite my earlier betrayal where it seemed like the First Order were going to shoot her. From a strict narrative perspective, this is rather unsatisfying – apparently even siding with fascists has zero consequences and is easily forgivable – but clearly Disney doesn’t want to overly punish guests who choose to cosplay as the baddies.
Before I turned in on the last night, I took a bunch of photos and marvelled at how good the Starcruiser looked. So much of the discourse has been about its appearance – “can you believe this particular spot doesn’t look like a genuine spaceship yet it costs thousands?” – which is like hating on The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom for not looking photorealistic. Appearances matter, but the overall experience matters even more.
The last decade of my career has been in making and promoting Zombies, Run!, a deeply weird and unique smartphone fitness game where you run from zombies in the real world. After a couple of tries, we landed on a first-person POV trailer where you watch someone running through different environments as the audio story plays. We went with a different tack for Marvel Move, featuring real runners but with CG imagery denoting the mixture of real world and fantastical elements. In the end, the reaction was fantastic. The worst remarks have been “this seems goofy but fun” which I’ll take, along with “this looks like Zombies, Run!”.
Not everyone is going to love Zombies, Run! or Marvel Move, and not everyone will love the Starcruiser. What’s important is that they understand them, and speaking personally, I was completely misled by the Starcruiser’s marketing. It depicted a themed hotel where I’d spend precisely thirty minutes a day interacting with the story. The trailer isn’t bad, but it came long after I’d made up my mind.
Pretending the Starcruiser is a holiday cruise in the Star Wars universe is cute, but it’s so unthreatening it makes the entire experience seem boring and pointless. Here’s what happens on the Starcruiser: you’re roped into secret missions! You become a Resistance hero or a First Order operative! You double-cross droids, smuggle valuables, drink in the bar with scoundrels, dodge stormtroopers, decode messages, and blow up missiles.
It boggles belief so little of this was in the marketing. And for what, to avoid spoilers? The entire thing got spoiled on TikTok and YouTube and Twitter as soon as it opened! Spoilers are meaningless for such an expensive, immersive, capacity-limited experience like the Starcruiser. You might as spoil everything yourself because no video can measure up to really being there.
I was one of the last guests on board to depart the Starcruiser – I would be flying out of Florida several hours later and was killing time. There was precious little ceremony, no little gift or letter, and certainly no actors around. In my “shuttle” lift back home, a mom said, “we’re here, back on Earth,” to which her daughter replied, “I miss space travel!” There was a gift store outside, with various Star Wars-themed merch and exclusive convertible enamel pins that you had to do a little song and dance to buy during the voyage.
(Specifically, you had to visit the shop on the Halcyon and say “I’m looking for relics – light the spark, ignite the fire”. If there were multiple staff, they’d huddle around you and surreptitiously show you their Resistance-themed pins. When I went, there was only one staff member, so she asked me to check if the other shoppers were Resistance, and whether there were any stormtroopers outside.)
Departing guests were given a free taxi anywhere nearby, like the airport. I went to Disney Springs to catch Oppenheimer, because that was clearly a great way to decompress (explosively) from such an intense experience.
I paid to visit the Starcruiser and I did it on my own, which was extremely expensive. I would absolutely visit again, though I would definitely take friends. I’d been waiting to visit in the hopes it’d get cheaper or I’d be travelling nearby; it was only its imminent closure that made me commit. Perhaps a touch of artificial scarcity wouldn’t be amiss in future.
Regardless, it’s crystal clear to me the instant the Starcruiser closes, it’ll be lamented as a daring experiment that was tragically misunderstood. “Why doesn’t Disney do this any more?” people will wail. It doesn’t deserve its reputation – yet that reputation is partly of its own making. I hope this account explains what worked for me, what didn’t, and how Disney might do better next time.
And I’m sure there will be a next time.
Bonus Prediction Scoring!
It’s not over yet! Six years ago, right after the Starcruiser was first announced, I wrote a long blog post predicting what it’d be like. Let’s see how close I was.
I’d be astonished if the average spend per guest was less than $1000 per stay
I underestimated the actual cost, which is around $1500 per person in a group of four. Maybe not massively, but it’s more expensive than I imagined. Then again, I also predicted, “average revenue per guest per night is $1000” counting food, drink and merch sales, so maybe I was right.
Let’s say they have 100 rooms with 200 guests per night, meaning 50–60,000 guests per year.
HOLY SHIT – the Starcruiser has exactly 100 rooms!
The profit margin will be slim indeed, maybe only a few million per year.
From what I’ve read, the first Starcruiser was never expected to make much money at all, so I’m counting this as correct.
If you’re Disney and you plan to open a dozen identical hotels around the world that reuse all the content and technology, then those profit margins start expanding pretty quickly.
OK, a dozen was overegging it, but three more hotels isn’t bad.
Talking to actors … only happens briefly and at a few key moments.
Much of your time at the hotel will be spent either in group classes like lightsaber practice, where the instructors don’t need to know anything about your situation in the story; or in activities like scavenger hunts that don’t require constant actor interaction.
Correct, though not very surprising.
Perhaps Disney will [give guests smartphones] with bigger batteries and keep the screens off most of the time; or they’ll make a ‘MagicBand 3.0’, which works really well indoors and could eventually be deployed across the theme parks as well.
LOL or maybe they’ll save money by using guests’ own smartphones and their existing slow, clunky MagicBands.
If you track guests’ decisions and story progress via smartphone or MagicBand, actors can view their history at a glance on their own tablets or phones; activity rooms and computer screens can tailor their content in a split second, just as guests walk by; stories can feature dozens or hundreds of decision points; and guests can break their phones and restore their state with a replacement device within minutes.
Yes yes yes!
Disney will need a real time story engine to underpin this technology, similar to those in roleplaying videogames like Fallout or The Witcher. Such an engine is expensive to make because it’ll deal with complex, dynamic systems that, unlike videogames, needs to work with the real world, in which you might lose track of guests for a few minutes, or where crucial actors might fall ill occasionally. And Disney will need to make this technology and engine themselves.
All correct, as per the GDC talk.
One way that actors can maximise eye contact with guests is by routing guest state and reputation through earpieces or heads-up displays like Google Glass.
Earpieces, maybe. Google Glass, no.
The Star Wars hotel will feature human actors using real-time motion capture to puppeteer digital characters, like aliens or robots; and guests will talk to these characters through screens.
Also wrong, to my great dismay.
The Galaxy’s Edge area will reportedly include ‘real’ robots like BB-8 that can move around and talk. If that’s true, so will the hotel, which is an even safer and more controlled environment for robots.
Wrong, but only because Galaxy’s Edge didn’t have robots.
Families or small groups [will] embark on their own experiences at the hotel; they’ll see other families but they won’t need to interact with them to progress … [stories will have] a certain amount of randomised drama while not letting things go totally off the rails.
The challenge for Disney’s 360 vacation concept is to successfully marry technology and storytelling in a real world setting. They need to make it seamless and thrilling and reliable.
Incredibly enough, correct.
They need to make it profitable.
And then they need to scale it up to dozens of sites around the world.
Luckily for Star Wars fans — and Disney shareholders — they’re pretty good at that.”
<shuffles off stage>
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