A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, 6-year-old me went to see Santa Claus at a local department store in London. They always made his grotto something special, and this year, they’d chosen a theme from a new TV program that was seriously trending: “Dr. Who!”
We were taken on a journey into space (aka, a darkened escalator) before being ushered into “Dr. Who’s” Tardis. Stars were flying by the windows, the spacecraft’s machinery was all whooshy, and there was even a gutted Dalek we could sit in. (Terrifying.)
I bought into it completely. Santa was in the Tardis — a blue police box that’s bigger on the inside and can travel through time and space! One that I had seen on TV! And that had been on incredible imaginative journeys to other worlds inhabited by amazing aliens! Some of which try to kill you!
Honestly, it was fantastic.
Make the jump to lightspeed into 2022, and now I’m going into the “Star Wars” universe aboard a Galactic Starcruiser called the Halcyon. She will take guests on a cruise through the outer rim during a fully immersive three-day, two-night, all-inclusive stay, featuring space pod cabins, themed entertainment and experiences and, yes, stars flying past the windows.
Characters from the “Star Wars” sequel movies (think Finn and Rey, not Luke or Hans) will be there, as will a plethora of franchise-recognizable aliens, First Order officers and renegade resistance fighters.
In reality, the Halcyon is a 100-room, windowless hotel just outside Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, sitting pretty in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. She’s enjoyed a significantly bigger budget than the London department store, and far superior technology, but also carries a very heavy payload of expectations from “Star Wars” aficionados, Disney devotees and theme park fans all looking to get the same spark of immersion that I had all those years ago.
When plans for the hotel adventure were announced in 2019 for a 2021 opening, it was overwhelmingly met with anticipation and awe.
Then came a giant asteroid storm in the form of 2020. COVID beat up Disney World’s fortunes, timelines altered, Bob Chapek took over as CEO, prices at the parks went up while the service and value went down, with fans calling for Chapek’s head.
That was followed by the announcement of the price of the vacation. The very cheapest rate is $4,809 for two in a standard cabin, off-peak, spiking to $6,000 for four. That’s a lot of credits. Death Star explosion-sized shock waves rippled through the fan base.
More recently, online rumors circulated about the standards of the experience, and some travelers who had booked packages in advance pulled their deposits, presumably to go to Europe or Hawaii instead. Dates in the diary opened up like black holes, and stock in the Galactic Starcruiser started to plummet like a shot-down TIE Fighter.
Despite this disturbance in the force, the Halcyon is about to open her airlock doors for the maiden voyage on March 1. It’s a surprisingly low-key opening — no ABC affiliate TV tie-in, Christmas Day plug or Superbowl ad, and less media fanfare than there was for Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway — all adding to the conspiracy theories.
However, behind the scenes we’re told the experience, which as been over 6 years in the making, has been quietly “pressure tested” and fine tuned over recent months.
Either way, there’s no turning back now. Do, or not do. There is no try …
And so into space we go. Our space shuttle uses the same technology as the Rise of the Resistance ride in Galaxy’s Edge — unsurprisingly, since the Starcruiser was developed parallel to the Star Wars themed park extension — so we see Earth disappear out of the window until clunking noises mean we’ve docked with the Halcyon.
Now, the Halcyon is pegged as a “luxury cruiser” from the Chandrila Star Line, so entering the atrium looks a lot like boarding a high cruise ship, albeit in keeping with the franchise (Lucasfilms had a hand in the process). On one side, there’s the bridge, with a huge picture window into deep space; on the other there’s the Sublight Lounge, where you can kick back with a beverage. (Note to wallet: alcohol and some specialty drinks cost extra.)
Various aliens and characters are mingling, including blue-faced Capt. Riyola Keevan, the ship’s droid SK-620 and — bam, right away you are immersed into your elongated dinner theater-cum-escape room event.
The Halcyon actors insert themselves into a narrative, so you might get pulled aside and asked about your home planet or background. It’s your chance to re-invent yourself as a royal escaping the First Order, or a smuggler, or a First Order spy, or whatever floats your boat.
As the voyage continues, various parts of the plot are playacted around you. Sammy the hapless mechanic might need help on the bridge, where some asteroids need pounding, or you might be asked to the engineering room, involving flashing buttons and wrenches.
The stories have been set up with multiple layers and different angles and endings, so allegedly spoilers (aka all social media, everywhere) are not going to be an issue.
“If you did this experience this week, then did it again next week, you wouldn’t have the same adventure,” said imagineer Wendy Anderson.
You are going to have more fun (and think less about the bill) if you wrap yourself in a cape and let yourself loose into the narrative. That being said, the experience is described as an adventure “for people who love ‘Star Wars,’ and the people who love the people who love ‘Star Wars.’ ” We’re told that passengers who are slightly less keen on tracking down codes or ratting out Chewbacca won’t be cajoled or shamed into stepping up, although it’s hoped that the spirit of the thing will hook naysayers in.
“You might just want to have a drink in the lounge and that’s fine — but you might get pulled in by a character and think, maybe I do want to help the underworld. Maybe I do want to be part of a heist,” said imagineer Sara Thacher.
She also thinks that the wonder of the kids on board — and the full-on effect of a horde of hopped-up kids in awe of the whole thing can only be imagined — will rub off on any shy or curmudgeonly adults. “They help us who are older remember how to play,” she said. “They help break down that barrier.”
It will certainly help older guests if you have a tech-savvy kid in tow, since data pads and interactive apps are used to help gather clues, even when on “shore leave” in Galaxy’s Edge. They may also enjoy interacting with D309, a sassy interactive video droid in each hotel room that’s essentially Alexa on steroids (and if that sort of think freaks you out, you can switch it off.)
Speaking of rooms, the space-saving space capsules evoke the cabins seen on the Millennium Falcon, all clean lines and X-wing orange accents. We weren’t shown the luxe suites (which I was sort of hoping might conjure up “The Orville”) but I can attest that the beds seemed comfy, even the bunks. A trundle means you can jam in quite a few travelers (hey, it’s only two nights). The window into deep space, which is all hooked up into the same recorded loop as the rest of the hotel, prevents claustrophobia, unless you stop and think about it. Best not to.
The Crown of Corellia dining room serves up breakfast and lunch, becoming a full-service dining room each evening. The first night features some excellent cabaret from Gaya (she’s a Twi’lek — they’re the ones with the two soft horn-like things on their head). There’s some kick-your-heels-up tunes (dancing encouraged), plus more storytelling moments for the notebook. The second night features dining from around the galaxy — all high-end tasty bites made to look otherworldly, such as black bread and Felucian blue shrimp.
Be aware, though, that your dining might be interrupted by certain bad guys and flashing lights, all leading up to a big finale. And yes, there will even be celebratory fireworks in deep space.
Our taster for this experience was just that — a chance to see a smorgasbord of interactive offerings with cast and passenger interactions, condensed into a lightning round — so how the journey feels over the course of two days is hard to say. Will there be enough to do outside the role-playing, other than lightsaber training, and the holographic card game Sabacc? There’s only one small hotel gift store for your exclusive-to-the-ship merchandise. Will a day in the park be enough? Will the role-playing perkiness get annoying, especially when everyone is filming everything on a phone?
A little bit despite myself, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps because of the stirring music and iconic characters, it worked. Yes, it’s not an equal opportunity vacation, hence all the stressing of the the word luxury during the event, but it’s also very high-caliber — we’re not talking Medieval Times here, with a couple of knights and some turkey legs.
Some have mooted that if successful, this blueprint could be the first of many interactive offerings, like a Haunted Mansion, or, over at Universal Orlando, a “Harry Potter” experience. (How long until “Westworld?”)
Meanwhile, Galactic Starcruiser has room to evolve. The plots (including a new line of Marvel Halcyon comics) have enough fodder for all sorts of spin-offs, and perhaps adult-only or fan-based cruises are in its future — or maybe even “day trips.”
“I can’t wait for the day when a group of fans who all affiliate with the First Order all show up in Stormtrooper costumes,” said Anderson. “That will create a whole new level of storytelling.”
Or, heck, even corporate events. “That would be the best team building ever,” agreed Thacher. “I’d sign up for that.”
If only it had a Tardis.
For more information and to book: DisneyWorld.disney.go.com