In defence of Disney’s soon-to-shut, $2,400-a-night Star Wars hotel – from the ultimate superfan

Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Adventure brings the franchise to life for fans (Graham E Hancock)
Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Adventure brings the franchise to life for fans (Graham E Hancock)

Outside the windows, there’s nothing but stars in the blackness of space. The occasional starship flies by; there might be a planet in the distance. This is no longer unusual though – it’s our second night onboard the Halcyon.

Two stormtroopers stand to one side of the gleaming atrium. Guests are milling about, some with a drink in hand. A couple of travelling musicians are playing instruments unlike anything found in an orchestra on Earth, while the intergalactic singing sensation Gaya meets her adoring fans. But I’m not here to get an autograph. Instead, my eyes are roving around the room, alert for the signal that it’s time for the heist to go down.

I’m standing in position with my partner – it has been impressed on us that our part in the operation is essential – while our fellow undercover guests move into their positions around the room. Lookouts make sure no one comes up the turbolifts, a decoy distracts the captain and a crowd blocks the view from the Sublight Lounge.

Guests get to interact with androids and staff in character (Disney Hollywood Studios)
Guests get to interact with androids and staff in character (Disney Hollywood Studios)

Moving over to the concierge, I ask, “Could you take some photos for me please? I have a special announcement.” She obliges and steps away from her desk. I take my partner by the hand and into the centre of the room, ad libbing the most epic, attention-grabbing, Star Wars marriage proposal I can muster (“from the icy plains of Hoth to the burning fires of Mustafar…”).

With everyone’s eyes on us, the mastermind behind the heist is able to pilfer the precious stone that belongs to the people of Ryloth. We’re delighted to have played our part, even if the rest of the evening has fellow travellers who weren’t in on the plan congratulating us on our fake engagement.

Although the opportunities to learn lightsaber moves, take the helm on the starship’s bridge and learn the intricacies of the engine room were the more eye-catching features of Disney World’s Galactic Starcuiser, what made the Star-Wars hotel-meets-live-action-roleplaying-experience special was the opportunity to be right in the middle of the action – to feel part of a Star Wars story.

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There are many opportunities for Star Wars fans to do something special, with the most obvious being the regular Star Wars Celebration event, where you’re surrounded by other devotees and can pack a decade’s worth of talks, screenings and exhibits into four days. Then there’s also Steve Sansweet’s incredible memorabilia museum near San Francisco, Madame Tussauds’ accurate recreations of the movie characters in London and, of course, Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s US theme parks.

What none of these attractions offer, though, is the sense of total immersion that I found on the Galactic Starcruiser at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida. This is the first Star Wars experience that allows you to actually be a participant in the story – and that’s why, despite the many people who seem to be crowing over the pricey attraction’s premature demise, in my opinion it’s a real shame that it will be closing its doors for good this September.

Participants sleep in ‘cabins’ aboard the starcruiser (Graham E Hancock)
Participants sleep in ‘cabins’ aboard the starcruiser (Graham E Hancock)

Arriving at the building filled me with anticipation, but the bunker-looking exterior is very much going for the functional starport vibe. Once we stepped on to a ‘transport’ though, and felt the ground rumbling as we were taken up to the Starcruiser (known as the Halcyon), I knew we were in for something unique. Stepping out of the transport and into the Halcyon’s atrium gave me a literal jaw-drop moment as it really did feel like being aboard a starship in a galaxy far, far away.

The building was dreamed up by the same creative artists who work on the movies, and it showed. While the broad brushstrokes are great, the smallest details are there too, right down to the hyperspace compass on display that houses the objective of the heist.

While the first impressions were great, what continued to impress me during our two days of adventuring were the interactive elements. The wristbands we received on arrival interacted with the computer terminals, so we were able to scramble an astromech droid’s memory and delete the cruiser’s flight log when the mission called for it. Down in the engine room, everything you touch can impact the functioning of the cruiser, so we decoded the puzzles and got things operational.

Stepping out of the transport and into the Halcyon’s atrium gave me a literal jaw-drop moment

One of the most innovative interactive elements is the droid that’s on call in each bedroom (or cabin) – through a monitor we had fully-fledged conversations with an animated droid, who even had me negotiate with a pirate who controlled the hyperspace lane the ship was flying through.

Although these technical innovations are impressive and add to the sense of immersion, it wouldn’t have worked without the talented and well-trained cast who play the characters that lead the story, from the ship’s blue-skinned Captain Keevan to the Basil Fawlty-esque antagonist Lieutenant Croy. Beyond the cast, the crew staffing the hotel were also fully in character, each with their own backstory – when our server ended her shift at the Sublight Lounge, she explained that she had to get back to feed her Puffer Pig.

While it wasn’t on my mind in the moment, it was very clear why the Galactic Starcruiser was so expensive to book. When Disney World announced that prices would start at $4,800 for the two-night experience, the online reaction was decidedly negative. There’s a strong argument that Disney World shouldn’t even be offering experiences that are so exclusive and elitist.

Interiors were designed by the same people who work on the films, and it shows (Graham E. Hancock)
Interiors were designed by the same people who work on the films, and it shows (Graham E. Hancock)

But if this sort of thing is going to be done – and done to this standard – then there’s no way to get around the fact that it will be expensive to run. At a Secret Cinema event, you have to suspend some disbelief because the edges are visible; you can see where the set has been constructed in a warehouse. On board the Galactic Starcruiser, though, that was entirely unnecessary; you can see the vastness of space through the windows, you can have an interaction with a Rodian musician and you can touch the walls without them wobbling.

Ever since the original Disney studio was founded, the company has pushed to tell stories in new and innovative ways. When the theme parks were first built, they seemed like an incredibly risky proposition – but pushing in an innovative direction led to holiday destinations that families travel around the world for, to experience a truly bucket-list trip.

Is any trip that lasts just two days and never sees you interact with the real world “worth the money”? It’s hard to know how to even start measuring that. But, for a fan, getting to experience the seemingly impossible and live through a Star Wars adventure felt very special indeed. Now that the attraction-crossed-with-a-hotel is closing down permanently, to become a strange quirk of Disney World and Star Wars history, those memories will be even more treasured.

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