I am not what you would call a Disney nerd. At least, not compared to the truly hardcore. However, I think it’s safe to say that Disney’s various parks have always been part of my life.
I grew up in Florida, and many of my formative memories come from time spent at Walt Disney World. I remember spending the Bicentennial there, I have crazy stories to tell about my Grad Nite, and I probably went to the park somewhere between 50 and 100 times between the ages of 3 and 20.
When I left Florida, I also left behind the Disney habit. I know adults who adore Disney and who spend a lot of time and money there each year, and I don’t begrudge anyone the pure enjoyment of it. I admit I had a really snotty attitude about Disneyland when I moved to California, so that made it easy to break the habit. After all, you could take every square inch of the property in California and put it in the parking lot of Florida’s Magic Kingdom. The scale of the Florida property is amazing, and that’s what I was used to. Over time, I’ve come to really love Disneyland for the history and for the charm of the place. It’s a very different experience than the Florida version, and I appreciate that.
Having kids is a good way to bring Disney back into your life, and we’ve started to plan semi-regular trips. Last year, we celebrated Allen’s third birthday there, and it was a great day, the sort of day he’s talked about on a regular basis ever since. This year, Toshi’s godfather gave us four 2-day park hopper tickets for Christmas, and when you use those, you have to use both of the days within 15 days of each other. We knew we wanted to go on Allen’s birthday again, which is March 4, but we weren’t sure when to schedule the other until Disney announced their Leap Day plan.
This year, to commemorate Leap Day, Disneyland decided to stay open from 6:00 AM to 6:00 AM, and we realized that was the perfect day to use the other half of the ticket. So within a week, we ended up at Disneyland twice, and one of the things that’s changed since we were there last year turned out to be the single biggest event for the little boys, and a real surprise for me.
The original “Star Tours” was one of the first wave of big motion controlled simulator rides, and since it was installed at the MGM/Disney park, it’s been imitated and emulated repeatedly. The advantage that “Star Tours” always had was that it was officially licensed by Lucasfilm, and they were able to use all of the iconography of “Star Wars.” The original ride was created before the prequels were even in development, so it was a pretty pure Original Trilogy experience. I still remember the first time I visited the exhibit in Florida and saw the giant AT-AT standing outside, and what a kick it was to see something tangible that was tied to the films. MGM/Disney went out of their way to treat “Star Wars” as a special part of the park, and their “Star Wars” events were really special for fans. Even after the ride started to look dated, it was sort of like emotional comfort food for fans.
I knew they were updating “Star Tours,” and I heard some of the details about the way they incorporated the prequels and the way they added an element of randomization to the experience, and I was very interested in giving it a try. But at this point, we’ve ridden it four times, and I’m pretty sure if I took the boys down there and offered them a chance to ride it all day long, they’d do it. They’ve become big fans of all things “Star Wars” recently, so to them, just walking into the building where the ride is housed was a pretty big deal. After all, there were C3PO and R2D2, in the flesh, so to speak, and just walking through the line, you end up seeing so many great little Easter eggs hidden in the attraction. By the time we actually got onboard the shuttle that takes you on the trip, the boys were completely enchanted, utterly convinced that the entire thing was real.
There are numerous different planets that were created for the new version of “Star Tours,” and each time you ride it, you go two two planets. There are different openings, different interludes between the planets, and different conclusions, and that randomization is part of what makes it feel real. The first time we went on, a scanning droid was sent to stop our ship before we left the hangar, trying to find and identify a Rebel spy onboard. They snap a photo of one of the real passengers and show that as the “Rebel spy,” and each time we rode it, there was a big reaction from everyone with that person. The final time we rode it, Allen was the one who got picked to be the Rebel spy, and I think it may have been the single proudest moment of his four-year-old life. We saw another opening where Darth Vader tried to use the Force to intercept our ship before it could take off. Yoda appeared by hologram at one point, while on other trips, we saw Princess Leia there or Admiral Ackbar.
On the actual trip, we ended up on Hoth, on Naboo, on Kashyyk, and on Tattooine. I love the way each of the different planets play out, and the kids had a blast pointing out each thing they recognized, each familiar sight. The worlds are pretty remarkably rendered, and the difference between native 3D and converted 3D has never been clearer than when I saw the pod race that’s part of “Star Tours” as opposed to the sequence in the theatrical re-release of “The Phantom Menace.”
More than anything, what “Star Tours” does so spectacularly well is it expands the worlds of “Star Wars” in a way that makes it feel more real for young fans and that allows older fans to see the property from a new perspective. It is a persuasive experience, gorgeously realized, and there is something wonderful about being able to lose yourself in those immersive eight or nine minutes.
One of the greatest strengths that Disney has is their ability to update things as they want or need to, and their ability to preserve the classics in other cases. It feels to me like these parks are always in flux, but even so, some things like “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” and the first ride that Disney ever built for the park, “Snow White’s Scary Adventure,” feel largely unchanged. That ability to mix the cutting edge and the culturally historic is something that makes Disney feel special, and while everything we did during our two days of Disney was wonderful, and there were a number of highlights, it was the revamped “Star Wars” that made me feel like as long as there is a Disney, it will continue to re-invent itself in the most remarkable ways.
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