My first visit to Black Spire Outpost took place within a week of its opening, yet the place felt much, much older than that. Everything looked worn and used, covered in a light patina of grime and lichen. I could see the well worn paths carved by travelers in the stone. People I spoke to acted like they were long time natives of the area, or residents of some distant city I had never been. If it weren’t for the people walking around in mouse ears, I would have almost believed it was real.
Black Spire Outpost is the fictional setting of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge; the latest themed land to open at the Walt Disney Company’s American theme parks. It offers guests the chance to live out their Star Wars fantasies; flying the Millennium Falcon, building your own lightsaber, escaping a Star Destroyer as it threatens to explode are all major attractions here, though none are advertised in the land itself. Instead, Galaxy’s Edge presents itself as an ordinary location in the greater Star Wars universe; a place where the people of the planet Batuu go about their everyday lives while the forces of good and evil clash beneath the surface. As someone who had been left on pins and needles after the ending of The Last Jedi, the prospect of not just experiencing, but living a new chapter in the story was enticing. You see, unlike the similar Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this place was canon.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando was hailed as a revolution in themed entertainment, being one of the first fully immersive experiences at a major theme park. Previous themed lands were just that: centered around a general theme like fantasy or film. Even ones that centered around a single franchise maintained a certain level of detachment. You never really lost the sense of being at a theme park. When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter first opened in 2010, it took the bold step of refusing to acknowledge it was a theme park at all. Crew members were trained to behave as if they were characters in the Harry Potter setting, responding with confusion if you implied you were at Universal Studios. Nearly every product you could purchase, with the exception of a few alcoholic beverages, was presented as something created in the Harry Potter universe. Even Coca-Cola, a ubiquitous presence in the Orlando theme parks has no presence in the Wizarding World. As far as anyone is concerned, when you’re in the park, you’re in the world of Harry Potter. Yet, as revolutionary as it was, it still makes some concessions to the theme park medium. It doesn’t exist in any particular point in the series timeline, nor does it introduce any information that didn’t already exist in published material. While it’s certainly a breathtaking experience, it doesn’t really add much to the story.
Galaxy’s Edge, viewed by many as a direct response to the success of the Wizarding World, uses similar strategies. Talk to a resident of Batuu about Orlando, and they’ll respond with bemused confusion. Products are presented as being made in universe, complete with a handmade aesthetic for certain toys and souvenirs. While they do sell Coke products (as even space is not immune to the soft drink empire), they’re packaged in universe-appropriate packaging and labeled with either alien text or pictographic versions of their logos, depending on if you’re purchasing from a cooler or a fountain. The difference is that, unlike the Wizarding World, Galaxy’s Edge is very much part of the larger story, and has a specific place in the timeline. The entire experience takes place on a specific (and unusually eventful) day between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, where the entire main cast happens to be present at the outpost. Unlike the Wizarding World, which takes pains to restrict encounters with canon characters to the attractions, Galaxy’s Edge revels in casual interactions with major characters. Over the course of multiple visits to the land, I’ve been compared to a Wookie by Chewbacca (which I took as a sign I needed a haircut), had a casual conversation about Porg husbandry with Rey, and narrowly avoided being arrested by Stormtroopers. Individual Batuuans will occasionally start card and dice games. Even with the social distancing measures imposed due to COVID-19, guests can still interact with major characters via the Play Disney Parks app, which lets guests take on missions from characters like Rose Tico, Hondo Ohnaka, or Finn. These are more than simple meet and greets. Disney has made it clear that everything that happens in Galaxy’s Edge is canon, and that the park has larger consequences for the canon. To back this claim up, they began a massive marketing push. Novels and comic books were published to tie the park into the larger universe. References to the planet were slipped into Solo, A Star Wars Story. Fans were, understandably, hyped. However, the idea wasn’t without controversy.
There is a reasonable concern among fans that, by tying Batuu into the lore of Star Wars, Disney is transforming the beloved franchise into an advertisement for their theme parks. This isn’t an unreasonable thing to be worried about. When Dok-Ondar is mentioned in Solo or when Cal Kestis wields a lightsaber from Savi’s in Jedi: Fallen Order, there’s an implicit invitation there. “Do you want to experience this for yourself? Come to Disneyland. You can be there.”
This is compounded by the fact that, at least in some small ways, part of the story is hidden inside the park. While the information there is relatively minor, it’s still limited to people who can afford to make the trip. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that these experiences are breathtaking. The chance to go into such a beloved franchise and become a part of it is exhilarating, and to have your actions contribute to the larger story (albeit in a superficial way) only adds to the thrill. When you ride Rise of the Resistance, your actions are feeding directly into the storyline of The Rise of Skywalker. That seeming non-sequitur moment where General Hux admits he’s the spy? That’s your doing. Allegedly. Maybe. It’s never explicitly stated outside of an obscure blurb in a lore book.
That is sort of the rub; people want to be a part of their favorite worlds, but these immersive stories can’t be too important. If they are, you’re running the risk of limiting critical information to people who can afford an expensive vacation or turning your franchise into an advertisement. There’s a reason why canonical theme parks haven’t been tried before; at least not in this way. Usually, experiences like this are meant to recreate the feel of a franchise, without taking place at any specific point in the storyline. This is the strategy the Harry Potter attractions rely on, taking elements from across the franchise to evoke the feel of the books without setting the park in a single moment. Other immersive experiences, like Pandora: The World of Avatar, exist in the canonical timeline, but in a place or time that’s radically removed from the rest of the story. This gives parks the freedom to do what they like, but detaches the experience from the rest of the franchise.
Of course, Disney’s line is that their goal isn’t necessarily to move the franchise forward. In fact, now that the final Skywalker film is out, they really can’t… at least not as the park currently exists. Instead, it’s a tool to allow guests to create their own stories in the universe. From that perspective, things make a lot more sense; it’s the same principle as creating a video game or a tabletop roleplaying games. You’re the main character, not Anakin, Luke, or Rey. If you encounter them, it’s like two starships passing in the night. Seeing them is cool, but it’s not the point.
At the same time, video games and tabletop roleplaying games are exactly the kind of things fans like me obsessively pour over. I’ve played multiple Star Wars roleplaying games since Galaxy’s Edge first opened, and the park has been a wealth of resources for me. The films rarely focus on things like food, or consumer products. When I’m playing out an elaborate heist on the Hutt controlled moon of Nar Shadda, being able to order a real drink from the bar is just an extra dash of vermilistude. Yet I’m the only one in my immediate friend group with the privilege of having experienced that sort of thing. They only know what a Fuzzy Tauntaun is because I’ve told them, and I’m the only one who could possibly know what one tastes like. There’s a level of information inequality there; one that is directly related to income and location. It’s weird, and yet that’s almost the entire point.
The Galactic Starcruiser, also known as the highly anticipated Star Wars hotel, is the apotheosis of this concept. Guests are given several days to live inside the Star Wars universe and build their own story, using the framework of a galactic cruise gone wrong as a jumping off point. It’s a Star Wars experience I’ll likely only ever be able to have vicariously, as it’d cost thousands of dollars to even enter. Any information in there, as major as the name of Yoda’s species or as minor as a brand of toothpaste, is something I’ll only be able to learn from reading Wookiepedia. It’s bittersweet; I’m happy that things like this and I can experience some of them, but it’s sad knowing that a portion of the franchise will be locked behind such a large price tag.
In the grand scheme of things, this is sort of a minor thing to be worried about. Franchises have always been locked behind money, even if stories haven’t necessarily been. But as the trend of immersive experiences move forward, these are the kind of questions people in the industry need to ask. These stories, by their nature, are limited to a select group of people. The important thing to consider is what sort of stories we’re willing to tell… and how much we’re willing to charge for the privilege of hearing them.