GDC 2022—How Disney Designed Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser

A little girl excitedly looks over her shoulder in front of a window showing "space" on Disney's Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.

By now, Star Wars fans have all read reviews of Galactic Starcruiserthe new immersive (and expensive) attraction at Walt Disney World set aboard the Halcyon, a hotel designed to make guests feel like they’re traveling within the galaxy far, far away. As you might imagine, the “journey” required a hell of a lot of story planning behind-the-scenes to make sure every visitor got their money’s worth out of the experience.

That’s where people like Anisha Deshmane, assistant producer at Walt Disney Engineering, and Sara Thacher, senior R&D Imagineer at Walt Disney Engineering, come into the picture. At this week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which io9 attended, the pair gave an illustrated talk— “Starting With the Ending: Narrative Design of Galactic Starcruiser”—That outlined the frankly exhaustive process that went into building the narrative portion of the attraction. Forget strapping yourself in for a five-minute roller-coaster ride; Galactic Starcruiser lasts two days and has to tailor an entire story (filled with multiple moving parts and helped along by both technology and a full cast of performers) around its dozens and dozens of “passengers.”

No small task, and one Thacher said it took over six years to develop. “It is a really long three-act play,” she explained of the two-day structure that comprises each guest’s visit. “[We take] that basic three act-structure and divide it up over the two days, two nights, 45 hours worth of Star Wars that we have going on here. ” The first act introduces “some of the essential conflicts and [offers] a chance for passengers to decide what role they want to play, what path they want to follow and what choices they want to make. ” In act two, passengers start to see the consequences and results of their choices — a blend of actual choice and some careful nudging by Galactic Starcruiser‘s behind-the-scenes plot mechanics — all leading up to act three’s “several dramatic conclusions” en route to a grand finale.

In that journey, Deshmane said, “You are able to look at different things that are happening throughout the ship. Throughout those different spaces, you may get caught up in the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. You may choose your own path and become a scoundrel who’s just in it for the credits. Or you might even find yourself in the middle of a romantic comedy love triangle situation. ”

This guy wants a piece of your vacation, or else.

All of these different yet simultaneous stories follow each visitor throughout all the various locations on the ship, and are enhanced by an app that’s accessed by both guests and Galactic Starcruiser’s costumed performers (which helps to keep everyone on the same page). “The exciting part of this being a multi-day experience is that you’re not just like meeting them and walking away, you’re actually establishing a relationship with these characters over two days,” Deshmane said. “You’re going through the story with them together.” The narrative is scripted, Thacher said—though interactions are often improvised—and the story takes twists and turns depending on the guest’s actions. “There’s a lot of ‘It’s me in the movie!,’ but ‘movie me’ has an editor who can make it clear what choices are being made.”

So how did creators like Thacher and Desmane keep all these plot threads from tangling together, and how did they ensure that every guest would be able to follow the necessary story beats to get to the big finale? Knowing that Galactic Starcruiser was set in between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalkermuch like Disney’s adjacent Galaxy’s Edge attraction, helped guide the characters and plots aboard the ship. But the name of the talk gives it away: they started at the end and worked backwards.

“One of the key moments of high drama and high impact we had to [build to] is a live-action stunt finale. And that takes some planning, that takes some preparation, and it takes a lot of building those effects and into the very fabric of the building, ”Thacher said. “But also, we want to make sure that everybody gets to see that. So we had so we started work on these years in advance; we actually designed it at the same time as the building. We started at the ending and then worked back from there. ” Every passenger gets to see the big finale, but since everyone also has a different experience aboard the Halcyon, they might perceive it in different ways. “We’re still experiencing the same lightsaber battle, but the context … is going to change depending on what [each person’s] platform on this experience has been. There’s a lot of different plotting going on all across the Starcruiser, so we want to make sure you have the relevant information so that your story feels connected [to the finale]. ”

Your every move is planned out, no matter what move you make, aboard Galactic Starcruiser.

Your every move is planned out, no matter what move you make, aboard Galactic Starcruiser.
Photo: Cheryl Eddy / io9

The speakers likened Galactic Starcruiser to a single-player RPG (“There’s a lot of things that we borrowed from that genre,” Thacher said), but also noted that it has MMO elements too, since each two-day experience includes over 50 people — including in many cases members of the same family. However, that doesn’t mean if you arrive together, you will automatically have the same experience, something that the Imagineers have had a chance to witness firsthand now that Galactic Starcruiser is open for business.

“We know that people are going to also make different choices, right? So let’s say one of your components of a party starts making significantly different choices. Maybe one of them wants to go in for the First Order and the rest of you are playing with the Resistance, ”Desmane said. “That means that the folks who are still playing together sort of create a subset of their travel party and keep them together, but then allow that person who’s made different choices to go off on their own and figure out what’s happening on the other side. ”

Added Thacher, “We play tested with it, but there’s a lot we just didn’t know [in advance], and the real players are definitely play testers. It’s been amazing over the last three weeks to actually watch this unfold and we actually see a lot of travel parties splitting up. And whether that’s a really conscious decision of ‘you go over here and I’ll go there so we can get a feel for what’s going on, and we’ll share information later,’ or genuinely being pulled [in a different direction and becoming] interested in different things. It’s really amazing watching different travel parties go through this. ”

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser (which, we emphasize yet again, is rather expensive) is now open at Walt Disney World.

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