Star Wars at Disney Parks

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Family photo featuring Kiki, Aeris, and Anika; Chewbacca is a character licensed by Disney/Lucasfilm

Star Wars and Disney Parks are two of my favorite things in the universe, and I’ve passed on my love of both to my two daughters. Disney’s planned Star Wars Land expansion hasn’t released an expected opening date but they’ve already moved in plenty of fun, so we headed to Orlando in March to be a part of it on the ground floor.

Return of the Jedi is the first movie I remember seeing in a theater. I was seven. I didn’t know what a Jedi was or why they were returning. I don’t remember what I thought of the story or most of the characters at the time.  I don’t remember what I thought of anything except Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader died to save his son. I will always, always, remember that. The Skywalker family has defined love for me ever since.

My younger daughter, Aeris, was born about three weeks before the premiere of the third prequel and might’ve been named Anakin if she were a boy. Her big sister was nine and Revenge of the Sith is her favorite of the films the way Return of the Jedi is mine. Aeris is now ten and her favorite Star Wars movie is The Force Awakens. Connecting Star Wars to the moment we start growing up is another way for the three of us to share our love of the mythos.

Image by Lucasfilm
Image by Lucasfilm; reenactment available at Disney Parks

In the behind-the-scenes special that accompanies the home release of The Force Awakens, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford refer to Star Wars as “a family experience” meant for “generations” to enjoy, the way I do with my daughters. Similarly, Walt Disney designed Disneyland to be “a family park where parents and children could have fun together” and based on personal experience I think both Star Wars and Disney Parks reach all varieties of “family.” I saw so many matching t-shirts in the parks: on parents and kids, grandparents, aunts and uncles, newlyweds, school groups, friends on Spring Break. And there were many featuring the Millennium Falcon mixed in with those showcasing Cinderella’s Castle, even in the Magic Kingdom.

My daughters and I didn’t have matching vacation tees; instead we participated in Disneybound, dressing in the style of Disney characters. And of course on our Hollywood Studios day we picked Star Wars characters!

photo of Aeris and Anika with a poster of BB-8 and Rey
Family photo featuring Aeris and Anika; image in poster by Disney/Lucasfilm

Aeris and I were two of many — she wasn’t even the only one wearing this particular Her Universe BB-8 dress that day, and Rey was the most represented character by far, which makes my heart sing. I also saw at least three women with Princess Leia’s iconic hairstyle, and Jedi of all shapes and sizes both wandering the park and on stage as part of the wildly popular Jedi Training :Trials of the Temple exercise that invites kids to learn lightsaber moves and practice them on Darth Vader.

The Training takes place beside the Star Tours ride, Disney’s jumping off point for Star Wars Land, which was first established in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland in 1987 and expanded to parks in Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris. It’s a motion simulator in which riders are cast as passengers on a standard star flight that goes wrong. The original ride featured a pilot droid created for the ride and a landing on Endor’s Moon. In 2011 Disneyland’s ride was revamped  as Star Tours — the Adventure Continues. The story now incorporates C-3PO and R2D2 and rotates through thirteen different film segments, allowing for a total of 96 possible experiences. Two of these were just added with the debut of The Force Awakens — a trip to Jakku featuring appearances by John Boyega as Finn and a holographic appearance of the newest droid star, BB-8. Thanks to Extra Magic Hours we rode a total of five times and both my daughters got to play the part of Rebel Spy.

concept art of Star Wars Land
Image by Disney/Lucasfilm

Star Wars Land is expected to include two new rides, one where guests ride and pilot the Millennium Falcon and one that drops them into a battle between the First Order and the Resistance. The Land will introduce a new planet to the established Star Wars geography and is intended to immerse the audience in a galaxy far, far away. It’s unclear if or how the existing ride and areas will be incorporated but the Star Wars Launch Bay currently sits opposite the park from Star Tours and no one minds — though I personally find it funny that photo ops with Kylo Ren take place next door to photo ops with Sofia the First!

One of the highlights of our day, and our whole trip, was meeting Chewbacca. He hugged each of us, had a “conversation” with Kiki about her t-shirt that featured images of characters in the films, including Chewie himself, and posed for a proper family portrait destined to be my holiday card. Then he finally drew us all in for a group hug, the memory and photos of which I will cherish forever. As with all character meetings and photo ops at Disney Parks their photographers take pictures available for sale and/or with any camera or camera phone you provide.

Family photo
Family photo featuring Aeris and Kiki

In addition to the photo ops, the Launch Bay houses set pieces, costumes, and props from all three Star Wars film eras.  There are video games to play, a film about the making of The Force Awakens, and of course a store. Stormtroopers patrol the area, interacting with kids and “confiscating” lightsabers from guests. And there are two new events, a live show and a new fireworks display, debuting this summer. We got to see the earlier incarnation of the fireworks, Symphony in the Stars, and I’m excited to see the expanded version when we go back.

Other members of the Geek team are visiting the parks later this year and we’ll be following the expansion news as it’s released. The new land was announced during last year’s Disney Expo so it’s likely we’ll get the most details this summer. But I already have a Disney Vacation Account named “Star Wars Land” set up! My daughters and I hope to be among the first to revisit the galaxy far, far away in the magical worlds of Disney.

All seven Star Wars films are now available to own on DVD, Blue-ray, and Digital formats.