My morning began in Key West in the south-western corner of Florida. I’d always fancied visiting the Conch Republic just to see what all the fuss was about, and while driving there for an evening and overnight stretched the bounds of sanity there was some method to my madness, as the route allowed me to tick off three of the nine Hard Rock Cafés I’d yet to visit in North America (Hollywood Florida, Key West, and Miami). By the end of this trip the only stateside locations still on my to-do list should be Honolulu, Houston Airport, and Sacramento – and yes, I am a nerd.
I’d intended to have a lazy morning and late departure, but set an early alarm in order to enjoy an evening with a friend at Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios. On the way north I got some exciting news: he’d managed to secure a coveted evening boarding group for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, an achievement that at the time required a combination of patience, luck, and divine intervention. The information elevated my mood considerably, so much so that I wasn’t even remotely miffed when my rental car started complaining about needing a service. I made a quick detour via MCO for another replacement vehicle, and having done that arrived at the Disney gate just after 6:00pm.
We were a little too early for the main event, and as such our first hit became Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway, a trackless dark ride that premiered at the park on 4th March 2020, less than two weeks before Covid resulted in the shutdown of all Disney properties around the world. For once in my life I’d read almost nothing about the attraction ahead of time, allowing me to enjoy it with no expectations. This made a nice change, though I doubt the same will happen again in the near future given how closely I typically follow the amusement industry.
The experience begins with a pre-show cartoon and a specially-composed song sung by Mickey and Minnie. An on-screen explosion accompanied by a dry ice effect reveals a large hole in the centre of the screen, which guests pass through to get to the main boarding platform. A faux train engine is waiting there with four cars behind it, though anyone looking closely will spot that there is no coupling whatsoever: the five vehicles all move independently. On dispatch doors open in the back of the engine to reveal a projected Goofy, who asks what could possibly go wrong just as the cars branch off in a different direction to the engine.
The main portion of the layout involves the cars moving in and out of a series of rooms featuring a cartoon world accomplished using a variety of bright colours and projection-mapped visuals. The effects work well and are no doubt enthralling for the target audience, though as an enthusiast I found myself lamenting the fact that the vehicles really don’t take full advantage of what trackless technology can do. Case in point was the “dance studio” scene where four cars engage in a synchronised waltz; a follow-up conga is somewhat more interesting, but it was a small portion of the ride; I’d love to have seen variety throughout, along the lines of Pooh’s Hunny Hunt in Japan.
Having said that, I did enjoy my cycle, and I’d have gone back for another ride were it not for the lure of the Force. I wouldn’t rank it among Disney’s greatest achievements, but it is nevertheless a respectable addition to a park that was crying out for more things to do, and particularly more things for all ages to do together. While the hourly capacity hasn’t been officially published, online searching suggests a throughput of around 1800 guests per hour on a typical day, which should hopefully help make the midways a little less crowded. (It’s worth noting that a clone of the ride will be going into Disneyland in 2023, suggesting that the Mouse was happy with the end product.)
A short walk from the exit brought us to the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area of the park, and our timing was more or less perfect; seconds after arrival a buzz of a mobile phone indicated that it was time for us to present ourselves at Rise of the Resistance. As we entered the queue I found myself feeling a little bit uneasy; would the ride variously described as “groundbreaking”, a “masterpiece”, the “the most ambitious theme park ride ever attempted”, and a “technological marvel of unparalleled scope and scale” live up to its promise, or would it prove to be a load of Bantha Fodder? One way or another I was about to find out. (Those eager to avoid spoilers should skip the next four paragraphs).
The experience begins with a themed queue featuring assorted props from the Star Wars universe. The reservation system meant that it was possible to walk straight through without stopping into a pre-show room, where a mobile animatronic BB-8 establishes a communication link. A projected Rey delivers an inspirational speech about the resistance infiltration of a First Order Star Destroyer. As a result of this a temporary outpost on Batuu is no longer safe (was it ever?), and transport ships under the command of Lieutenant Bek are ready to evacuate everyone to a secret base on Bakara (not to be confused with Bukhara, an easy mistake for a coaster counting enthusiast to make).
Guests head outside to step aboard the transports, which look the part both inside and out. An extremely realistic animatronic Bek in the commander’s seat runs through a quick preflight sequence, after which the ship takes to the skies. Motion effects and a changing view out the window are perfectly synchronised to give a remarkably convincing sensation of flight. An announcement is made about a jump to light speed, but before that can happen a wave of Tie Fighters attacks, and a tractor beam pulls the transport on board a Star Destroyer that just happened to be in the area. It’s amazing how that sort of thing can happen.
There is a door opposite the entrance that everyone assumes to be the route to the next part of the show. Surprisingly, it isn’t; guests leave the way that they came in, though the door now leads to a room with an enormous window into space and about fifty stormtroopers. This was one of a number of moments to seriously impress me as I couldn’t immediately figure out how it had been done. I’ve since learned that the entire transport sequence is mounted on a turntable, but it’s done so cleverly that most visitors will never notice. Arthur C. Clarke stated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and that’s definitely true here; it took a close watch of a POV video for me to twig just how the effect had been achieved.
After a short amount of additional queueing guests find their way into interrogation cells: tiny rooms that predate Covid restrictions and the advent of social distancing. An exceptionally realistic video projection at ceiling height talks about what lies ahead before resistance fighters cut through the wall, revealing a series of trackless vehicles and the main portion of the ride. The route that follows is based around the more recent Star Wars movies, but it features numerous throwbacks to the classic original trilogy: probe droids, firefights with stormtroopers, imperial walkers, lightsabers cutting through walls, close-up views of pitched battles in space, and a view of the deck of the ship. The journey spans two floors and culminates with a vertical drop and a motion-base sequence that ends with a crash landing back on Batuu.
To describe the ride as amazing does it a profound injustice; Disney Imagineering has created an experience so mesmerising that even this jaded coaster enthusiast felt for a brief moment like I’d been transported to a galaxy far far away. The result is light years beyond the competition, and sets new standards for what an immersive theme park can be. Universal et al have a lot of catching up to do.
The second attraction in Galaxy’s Edge is Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. As with Rise of the Resistance the experience begins with a themed queue featuring a variety of photo opportunities, the highlight being a life-size Millennium Falcon. A pre-show is guided by an animatronic Hondo Ohnaka, an infamous pirate and outlaw who I’d never heard of before but who apparently operated throughout the galaxy. Once the talk is finished guests head to the main portion of the ride, an interactive video game designed for six people. Two pilots get either a left/right or an up/down lever, while two engineers and two gunners have buttons to press at appropriate times.
The ride visuals are absolutely superb, and given that I was quite surprised to learn that they’re rendered in real time. A little digging has revealed that the hardware consists of a BOXX chassis packed with eight NVIDIA Quadro P6000 GPUs, or roughly $75,000 worth of kit if you or I were to buy it at retail prices. The software is a customised version of the Unreal Engine adjusted to take advantage of the multiple GPUs. The code changes were apparently fed back to Epic, though one suspects that it’ll be a while before they find their way into consumer titles.
The experience is fine for what it is, though it really isn’t the sort of thing most guests will need to repeat; one ride was enough for me despite a short queue. The punters apparently think the same; as I write this the all-time average queue time for Smugglers Run stands at 47 minutes, while the equivalent figure for Rise of the Resistance is more than double that at 109 minutes. I can’t help but wonder whether the money spent on Smuggler’s Run might have been better used on a second show building for Rise of the Resistance in order to improve throughput there.