A galactic experience

  • TEXT LASLO SEYDA
  • PHOTOS DAVID WALTER BANKS

Disneyland Park in California has a new theme park land called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The best thing about it: Visitors are not just observers but participate in the space saga themselves

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Those words heralded the beginning, in May 1977, of one of the most famous on-screen stories of all time. Star Wars was one of the first blockbusters and a milestone in film history. Young and old alike were fascinated by the battle of good and evil, translated into a modern space fairy tale featuring what in those days were sensational special effects.

For me, too, Star Wars was more than a film series; it was a universe bursting with ideas, endlessly full of things to discover, and it fueled my imagination. As a child, I built starfighters out of Lego bricks and tried, like a Jedi knight, to move things with my mind. I particularly loved the roll of blue wrapping paper that turned into a lightsaber in my hand …

  This past summer, the Walt Disney Company opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at its two U.S. resorts, a new theme park land dedicated to the intergalactic saga. Disney spent roughly two billion dollars on the project and even rerouted a river for the 5.7-hectare premises in Anaheim, California. But the planners were generally thinking big from the very beginning: When they announced the project in 2015, they promised visitors an immersion experience so convincing that they would forget reality. Some Star Wars fans were skeptical because they feared a total sell-out of their holy of holies, but I, for one, was determined to see Galaxy’s Edge for myself.

The land of my dreams lies on the far side of Disneyland Park in California; you walk through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and then turn left. I stride up to the gates of Galaxy’s Edge and immediately find myself in a valley surrounded by high cliffs on the planet Batuu, or more specifically, in the Black Spire Outpost, a small spaceport on a dry riverbed. I hear the screech of an engine overhead, the sound is so close and so realistic that I instinctively duck. Tattered awnings hang between the domed structures, inside, loops of fat tubing hang from the ceilings. Old tanks and metal crates full of dusty blasters, power packs and hydrospanners lie around, rusting. I see the wheel marks of a Droid in the dried-up “mud” under my feet and recognize the same attention to detail that audiences so love about the films.

I wander through a bazaar that reminds me of the souks in Marrakech. One stand sells hand-embroidered Jedi robes, while at the Droid Depot, you can build your own little robot. But the real treasure awaits you at Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities: a stuffed Wampa, for instance, one of those Yeti-like creatures from the ice planet Hoth; or an oil painting of Yoda, the wisest Jedi of all; or Princess Leia’s ceremonial necklace that’s made of real silver and costs only 2000 credits. The exchange rate for dollars is one to one.

Rey, a hero in the current trilogy, stands at the gate to Galaxy’s Edge

  Next, I head to the starship dock at the end of the main street and the legendary Millennium Falcon – or rather a more than 30-meter-long replica of the “hunk of junk” in which Han Solo and Chewbacca hurtled through the universe. The power unit whirs and the hydraulic landing gear steams as if the starship had just landed. I get in line for a ride.

Five other visitors and I make up Hondo Ohnaka’s crew. Ohnaka is a former pirate with leathery skin and long braids who, in the shape of a mechanical puppet, instructs us to steal starship fuel. We are split into teams: two pilots, two gunners, two engineers. I jump into the pilot’s seat, strap myself in and find myself surrounded by levers, switches and hundreds of glinting LEDs. I can see in all directions through the cockpit window, and everything looks real. As instructed by Ohnaka, I press the button that’s flashing, and the starship takes off. The moment we leave the atmosphere, I have to pull the lever to catapult the Falcon into hyperspace at the speed of light. The stars outside the windows stretch out into streaks, an unmistakable sign that we’re traveling faster than light. Seconds later, we reach the planet Corellia, and then of course we’re attacked by hostile starfighters. As we try to escape, my copilot and I steer the Falcon past steel girders and through narrow tunnels, ramming enemy fighters in our path. The girl behind us frantically pounds the controls of the laser canon and things whiz, crackle and explode all around us. At some point, we actually secure a tank of hyperfuel and the entire crew cheers. We know we’re only part of a life-sized video game, but it feels like we’ve just saved the world.

Stepping out into the gangway, we hear the crews of other cockpits say that their hyperdrive failed or that they encountered an asteroid field and had to shoot their way out before continuing their quest. Some crews even captured two fuel containers. I’m amazed. The crews really do seem to control what happens on the Falcon’s flight.

Visitors to Galaxy’s Edge can build their own lightsabers ...

... and fly the Millennium Falcon

  Galaxy’s Edge is full of interactive experiences. All the park employees are in costume, dressed as tradespeople, waiters or street cleaners. They treat me like a visitor from another planet, claiming they have never heard of smartphones and that they use “data pads” instead. Rising rents don’t concern them, but the war between the dark First Order that occupies the planet and the brave resistance fighters, does. One of these fighters is the spy Vi Moradi, who’s hiding behind a wall. She begs me to distract the patrolling stormtroopers so that they don’t find her. I also run into Kylo Ren, the leader of the First Order, who threatens to crush me if I don’t take him to the resistance camp, which intimidates me momentarily. Then I meet Chewbacca, the furry copilot of the Millennium Falcon, who speaks a language consisting of howls and grunts. I don’t understand a word, but he seems to like me because he pats me on the head with his big furry paw in farewell.

Oga’s Cantina, where you can eat your fill

  Disney has taken no small risk, creatively speaking. The new theme park land tells the story of Black Spire Outpost. It’s part of Episode IX, which doesn’t hit the cinemas until this month. So visitors will search in vain for familiar characters like Luke Skywalker, his father Anakin or Obi-Wan Kenobi because they belong to another time and place. In other words, Galaxy’s Edge is not a “best of” Star Wars, aimed at drawing as many fans as possible to see their favorite characters from the films. And it isn’t the ultimate milking of the brand, as some fans have objected. It’s a well-conceived, partial Star Wars universe that works very well, I think.

I’m happy to bump into Rey, the hero of the current trilogy, who gives me a some advice: If I really want to help the resistance win against the dark side of the Force, I should go to Savi’s Workshop and build my own lightsaber!

Icons of the Star Wars universe: Chewbacca ...

... and his space ship

  The entrance is hidden among some trees. In front of it stands an elderly woman in a heavy leather apron, the hood of her beige robe drawn low over her face. After checking to be sure no one is listening, she reveals that she belongs to a group of scrap dealers who keep the traditional way of building lightsabers alive. She also tells me that she only trusts one Jedi and that everyone else has to pay – 200 credits. Unable to resist, I hand her my (very earthly) credit card, thinking: May remorse
be with you (for charging me this much).

In a partially darkened room with a large oval workbench, a thin man with red curly hair explains the responsibilities that come with owning a lightsaber. He asks us to close our eyes and imagine the kyber crystal that will give our saber its energy and whose color will reflect the bearer’s values. I find it a bit silly, but then I remember imagining the exact same thing as a child. I want my lightsaber to be blue like the old roll of wrapping paper. Blue lightsabers are worn by those Jedi who have dedicated themselves to protecting the weak.

A dream come true for Star Wars fans: Meet Vi Moradi, a spy from the current film

Visitors to Baatu are “threatened” by tyrant Kylo Ren

  When I open my eyes, an elderly woman holds out a container filled with sparkling crystals, including a blue one. I take it and place it in the empty space in the main part of the lightsaber, snap on the activation plates, slide on the hilt and tighten the pommel and emitter caps – all under the watchful gaze of my assistant, who eyes me sternly over the top of her spectacles. When I’m done, she weighs the finished product carefully in her hands, tests the activator and places the lightsaber in the oblong chamber in front of me for the final step. The room goes dark. Out of nowhere, we hear Master Yoda’s voice saying: “Come your time has” in his typically garbled syntax, accompanied by the magical music of the Force. The chambers open and the room fills with the glow of green, purple, red, yellow, white and yes, blue, lightsabers, as well as a strange humming and whirring sound. My eyes glaze over. At last! My lightsaber is complete – with Yoda’s blessing.

Holding the dream of my childhood high in the air just like the others in the room as if pledging an oath, I understand the true magic of this place: My adventures here feel both epic and intimate. The galaxy so far, far away has never felt so close.

NEW PERILS

Rise of the Resistance is the next ride to open in Galaxy’s Edge. It will take visitors straight to the heart of a galactic battle.

STAR LODGING

The world’s first Star Wars hotel is going up in Orlando. Guests of the Galactic Starcruiser check into a starship for three days and take part in crew activities.

NEXT STOP, PARIS

Construction of a Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Paris is scheduled to begin in 2021.


GETTING THERE

Lufthansa is offering daily flights from Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC) to Los Angeles (LAX) in December. Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app

 

SERVICE & TRAVEL TIPS

Service and travel tips for this destination are available in the Lufthansa Travel Guide at lh-travelguide.com