The First Order has taken over the ship and seeks to arrest the heroes of the resistance hiding on board the starcruiser Halcyon. It’s up to you and a small band of passengers to implement a secret plan to regain control of the ship and get the Jedi holocron into the hands of General Organa. Will you save the galaxy from the clutches of the evil Supreme Leader Kylo Ren?
These are the stakes at hand for the lucky passengers of the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser Halcyon, a brand new two-night fully immersive simulated space cruise vacation that is opening this week at Walt Disney World.
It’s safe to say the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser Halcyon experience is something entirely new to Walt Disney World. While it draws on a rich history of interactive gaming, participatory theater, and story archetypes, putting them in the Star Wars galaxy for extended storytelling and play experience feels like something entirely new in the world.
A Ship Tour and Limited Experiences
I was recently invited by Walt Disney World to take a tour of the Starcruiser and participate in a few of the encounters that guests who are part of the regular adventure will also see. We were taken on a guided experience that lasted about 5 hours and included select scenes from the overarching story, character encounters, samplings of the food and entertainment, and a great look at most of different areas of the ship regular passengers can explore
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the abbreviated experience, I don’t feel confident giving a traditional review of the full vacation experience. There have been a number of people and media outlets who were invited to experience a full stay, and I’ll try to highlight a few of the best reviews in a future post.
Instead, I will share a few thoughts and impressions of the Galactic Starcruiser experience I had. If you’re still on the fence about whether you want to book a Star Wars adventure on the Halcyon, I hope you find these observations helpful.
Before we go any further, you should know dear reader, that I am a big Star Wars fan. I saw the original Star Wars film in 1977 when I was 9 years old. Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and R2D2 and C-3PO were my constant play companions as a child. I’ve seen all the movies, watched almost every TV show, like and animated, and read many of the books, including the Legends series.
9 year old me would be so impressed that 45 years later, I’m actually part of a Star Wars story and helping to save the heroes of the resistance. For that reason alone, I loved what was presented to us on the tour and am thinking of things I no longer need in my house that I can sell for $5,000 and book a vacation on the Halcyon.
As a big Star Wars fan, it was easy for me to drop into the stories of the Halcyon and its crew, rattle off a few planet names and engage with the characters. But I don’t think that’s required to get into the story. You just need a willingness to ask questions, make connections, and then follow your itinerary to get drawn into the plot.
How deep you go is up to you.
The Guest Experience
While it is a simulated cruise experience, there’s no deck to sunbathe on, no pool, and not a lot of spaces to just sit and chill. You eat, breath, sleep and wake up in the story of the ship.
The guest experience on board during the two-night adventure is unlike anything Disney has ever attempted. In fact, it may be unique to the world according to Walt Disney Imagineering’s Scott Trowbridge. Scott says he doesn’t claim to know everything, nor do I, but it feels very likely to be a true statement.
The Star Wars Starcruiser experience draws parallels to a whole list of genres. One of the big influences is immersive interactive theater like Tamara, Sleep No More, or murder mysteries like the Orient Express Train.
In these experiences audiences follow characters, sometimes interacting with them in simple ways, and attempt to solve a mystery that’s at the core of the show. I’ve attended a few of these as a guest and I have some feedback on the experience I’ll get to later.
Another influence are escape rooms. In these problem-solving games, players are given a task (escape from this room) and have to solve a series of puzzles within a certain amount of time. Usually you work together as a team with people you know. These are often complex, but usually have tasks that even a child can help with.
Interactive gaming takes many forms. One popular form is Live Action Role Play or LARPing. At a LARP event attendees dress in character, take on a role, and then interact with other attendees. Often the goal of these meetings is just to explore the fandom of a story in more depth, but they can also be a tad more organized with assignments from the event hosts given to participants.
On the Halcyon there are so many characters to meet, roles to play, rooms to explore, special experiences to encounter, that options for passengers are essentially endless. No one will have the same experience twice. (Which makes me sad that the price point for the Starcruiser adventure is so high because it has great repeatability potential.)
In fact, the promise of the Galactic Starcruiser experience was once the promise of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge too. Early on in the marketing of Galaxy’s Edge, you were told that the decisions you make in one part of the land may impact your encounter with a citizen of Batuu in another.
For a number of reasons we won’t get into here, that promise never materialized. But it will happen for the passengers of the Halcyon. The shore excursion to Batuu and the Black Spire Outpost will unlock a new level of story for guests. The missions and tasks you complete on the surface of the planet help move the story along once you’re back on the ship.
Remember when you blew up a First Order Star Destroyer when you rode Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, well the First Order officer on the Halcyon isn’t going to be too happy about that.
Ship design and the real world limitations
One of the challenges Disney’s Imagineers faced in building the Galactic Starcruiser was making things that had only appeared filmed for TV or the movies, an actual real thing that could operate as a themed hotel and a stage, and yet still feel a part of the Star Wars experience.
Imagineers are magicians in many ways, but even they can’t build an actual ship and transport us into space. There are elements of the real world that necessarily creep in. Exit signs, trash cans, bathrooms, fire suppression systems. You don’t see these things on the screen, but safety codes and the necessities of real life passengers say they must be there.
So yes, you can see where the requirements of design depart from stories set in the Star Wars galaxy. But it was always going to be this way. If you squint a little bit and focus on the story, all that stuff quickly falls to the periphery anyway.
Without going into too much detail, I was impressed with how Disney keeps the characters on plot while also making sure they’re not missing the little details passengers may be expecting. When you’re trying to remember a script, improvise a conversation, and stay in character, it can be hard to also remember that a certain event is about to happen and you need to get passengers down the hall and into another space. Disney makes it happen by bringing a role that is traditionally backstage on stage, but it works.
I have a few notes
Some of the few misses on the ship are where Imagineers had to work with Lucasfilm to color outside the lines of the existing Star Wars galaxy because those things just never existed in Star Wars before. Again, since I didn’t have the full experience I don’t want to say more on this, but I think these mistakes don’t ruin the entire experience and are correctable overtime as the Halcyon storytelling evolves.
It was hard to get a feel for how crowded the space of the Halcyon would be with a full ship of passengers. For this media event, we numbered around 100, or about a third to a quarter of the ship’s capacity, but we pretty much filled up the atrium for the grand finale. Do they intend to run that show multiple times for different audiences? It doesn’t seem like it.
Other experiences will be run multiple times, although your itinerary may only reflect the path you’re on. Missing a few key show experiences shouldn’t ruin the entire experience for you and there are so many paths that it would be impossible to do them all in the time you’re on the ship. But you may have to ask others to fill in plot points if you weren’t paying attention or sharing stories with your fellow passengers.
The other thing is two-nights may not seem long for a Disney vacation, but for a theater experience it’s very long. After two hours or so of trying to follow plot lines, solve problems, chase different actors around the ship, I was mentally exhausted. We also went up and down the staircase a lot to get to different spaces.
Two hours in, I just wanted to relax in the Sublight Lounge and enjoy a drink. There may be more time to just sit and breathe in the full experience, but it’s still a long time to be inside a particular theatrical experience.
Part of my frustration with previous participatory theater I’ve attended is the limited agency given to characters and the audience. The story is always going to end in a certain way, there may be permutations (the good guys win/lose, the main character turns out to be a spy, etc), but you can’t suggest a course of action that would prevent the story from ever reaching that destination.
When you try to paint outside the lines, the characters try to steer you back on script. The stories set on the Halcyon definitely have similar limitations, but it did feel there was also more agency for both characters and passengers than I expected.
The corollary of that, is if your chosen story line doesn’t intersect with other plot points, you can end up missing some big moments of the story doing some little task in the engine room, or taking a break in the Sublight Lounge, while the big space fight is happening on the bridge.
Who should book a Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser vacation?
If you’re a Star Wars fan or just enjoyed the movies, and the immersive theater experiences you have had so far in life, you’ll love the Halcyon and its stories. Really all it takes is a willingness to interact and follow a story to enjoy it. You might even have a good time if you just have a family member who loves Star Wars and you’re willing to tag along and witness their enjoyment.
On the other hand, if your idea of a perfect cruise is to avoid all the activities on board and layout near the pool all day, then you probably won’t find the Halcyon experience a good value. Let’s face it, for this sort of money you could book a week long Disney Cruise Line adventure or travel to Disney’s Aulani in Hawaii. Those might be better choices for you.
As for ages, it is clearly a PG story with a few PG-13 beats to it (romance, simulated fighting, and some scenes may be intense with flashing lights, loud noises and yelling). You know your kid the best, but you may want to attend an escape room or two and see if your kid is into it before bringing them on the Galactic Starcruiser.
The bottom line? I tried to keep my expectations realistic before my visit, but I didn’t need to. The space is wonderful, the actors and staff of the Halcyon were all fantastic, and the opportunity to be a part of the Star Wars galaxy in a way never before possible is a great one.
Because there were a few misses, and I only had an abbreviated experience, but some of those experiences were amazing for a Star Wars fan like me, I give the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser 4.5 out of 5 lightsabers.