Saturday, March 12, 2022

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser – Weighing the Cost of a Miracle

How do you describe something that has never existed before and how do you assess the value of what it’s worth?

These are the two interlocking problems one runs up against while trying to talk about Disney’s new Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser immersive experience. Even that, “immersive experience”, what does that even mean? For people like myself who are deeply interested in theme parks, immersive theatre, weird art installations, and the like, it can conjure up images that get you in a similar zip code to what Starcruiser is doing. But for your average person, even your average Walt Disney World vacationer, I’m not sure it would sound like anything to them. And then you hit them with the punch that this thing – whatever it is – costs a little over $5,000. For two people. For two nights. That’s more than what 90% of American families spend on travel in any given year, and we’re still not totally clear on what on earth it even is.

So, let’s start there. What is Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser? Well, it’s kind of like a cruise, but not really. It’s also kind of like a LARP (live action role play), but not really. It has elements of immersive theatre and role playing game quest hunting, and part of the experience takes place in a theme park, but it’s also more than any one of those elements or even their sum total. The best frame of reference for understanding what Starcruiser is is Disney’s own research and development experiments conducted over the past decade that paved the road to get here. Many of the same people who wrote, developed, and oversaw Starcruiser worked on a series of projects with Walt Disney Imagineering that – while each connected to theme parks in their own way – were all very different from WDI’s traditional output.

This work began in earnest with 2013’s The Optimist, an alternate reality game tied into Brad Bird’s then-upcoming film Tomorrowland. It played out through a combination of at-home puzzle solving and real world events at locations in and around Los Angeles, grafting a layer of fiction on top of existing spaces through clever uses of technology, set dressing, and live interactions with actors portraying characters involved in the narrative. Similarly, there was Ghost Post in 2016, a subscription puzzle box in the vein of the Mysterious Package Company or Curious Correspondence Club that once again combined at-home puzzles with in-park technology.

Arguably the biggest step on this journey – certainly it was for me – was Legends of Frontierland, an ongoing interactive story that played out in Disneyland’s Frontierland during the summer of 2014. Or, at least that’s what it became. Originally, Legends was anchored by the pretense of a land game, with players joining one of two rival factions to do quests to earn bits to purchase pieces on map, with the winning team heralded at the end of each day. In the margins of this land game, though, was a system – internally known as “Story Engine” – where dynamic tracking of player details in concert with live game masters could orchestrate character interactions and remember your individual actions within this play space. Almost immediately the pretense of the land game fell by the wayside as players became enamored with this story system, testing its boundaries and pushing the limits of what it could do. By the end of that summer there were dozens of different ongoing story threads – from love stories to detective mysteries to heists – that grew out of the interests of the individual people playing the game. In some ways it was a failed experiment. The original conception of what it was supposed to be plain and simple did not resonate with guests, but rather than cut their losses and wash their hands of it, WDI pushed through that failure to find the thing that did work, as weird and unwieldy and unsustainable as it may be. It was lightning in a bottle. This wonderful happy accident that could never, ever be replicated.

Or so I thought.

Galactic Starcruiser is of a direct lineage with all of these projects and builds on the foundations they established, but saying that Starcruiser is merely the next iteration of these experiments would be like saying the motion picture was merely an iteration of still photography. It is such a monumental leap from one to the other that it creates an entirely new category of thing that we do not yet have an adequate term to describe.

The narrative framing of Galactic Starcruiser is that of a cruise ship, which was a necessary point of entry for people to understand the essential basics of what the experience is. It’s not a hotel where you spend the night in between days spent in a theme park, nor is it a theme park with rides and shows and seasonal festivals; it is a fully self-contained experienced that’s designed to be separate from its surroundings in the same way a cruise ship is isolated in the middle of the ocean. But again, it is not actually a cruise.

What it is is a play space, a sand box, an environment that is purpose built to support the type of emergent storytelling and dynamic interactivity that Story Engine was created for. During the roughly 30 hours you’re in this space (not counting sleep time), you are surrounded by technology – some obvious, some invisible – that is paying attention to your actions and your choices and dynamically using that information to craft a story tailored to you specifically. And it is supported by a troupe of a dozen or so actors who are working in coordination with human game masters, supported by Story Engine, to make this story come to life. For example, after you arrive on the ship and check into your cabin, perhaps you try to use your M-band (MagicBand, for those not in outer space) to access a restricted area. You might then get a message from a less-than-reputable passenger on the ship admiring your adventurous spirit and offering to help you break in – in exchange for a favor, of course. That’s a fairly obvious example, a simple cause and effect result, but there are much more subtle factors as well. Maybe during your orientation tour your guide mentions that it is tradition to rub the champagne bottle displayed outside the lounge for good luck, and so you do. That’s a datapoint. Maybe you mention to a character in casual conversation that you are from the planet Coruscant, word might get around. Maybe you enter the climate simulator (the one room of the ship with an open roof and a view of the sky) to take some time to decompress and reflect on the experience, it’s possible in that moment that you may feel the Force flowing through you.

I am intentionally talking around certain things because, while I am aware that the entirety of this experience will inevitably by documented on the internet, the joy of it is in discovery and being open to following your own intuition rather than chasing down a checklist of moments you saw on YouTube. But even if you were to spoil the big moments for yourself, your personal experience with this story is something only you can uncover. The crucial thing is that the experience responds to you. You are not a passive observer of events, you are an active participant, and the story that plays out for you will not look exactly the same as the ones playing out for any other passenger on the ship. It’s an important reminder that technology on its own is truly neutral. As many personal freedoms as we have given up with the ubiquity of constant surveillance and data collecting by governments and massive companies, here you have a case where data tracking is being used for you rather than against you. I wouldn’t keep an Amazon Alexa device in my home if I was paid for it, and yet the ship’s information droid (accessed through a panel on the wall of your cabin) is built on Alexa technology and is one of the most surprising and delightful elements of the whole experience. The whole ethos of Starcruiser is built on learning about you in order to give you a deeply personal experience. It’s technology being used to facilitate a relational exchange. It’s that special connection you get with a good dungeon master who knows you really well, only applied at a massive scale in a comparatively microscopic period of time.

Speaking to my personal story, I came into the experience with the backstory that I had boarded the Halcyon with forged credentials, hoping to join the Resistance on Batuu. I connected with Resistance agents on the ship, but more significantly, I almost immediately landed on the radar of Raithe Kole, manager for Twi’lek superstar Gaya and self-serving opportunist. By the end of the voyage, I was helping the Resistance, sure, but I had also found myself in Raithe’s inner circle, helping to plan and execute a jewel heist right under the captain’s nose.

To have that kind of experience, though, requires an element of trust and thus an element of risk. In order for it to work, you have to be open to play, which is something that can be genuinely difficult for a lot of adults. The way you play matters less than simply the willingness to do it. For me and my traveling party, we were very focussed on the “missions” side of things, playing out assignments given to us by characters and through the datapad app, but there was also a whole immersive theatre layer sort of separate from what we were doing. While we would be heading down to the cargo hold to investigate a package that we’d retrieved from Batuu, we’d stumble upon a gaggle of people who had managed to trap a pair of stormtroopers in the brig in order to create a diversion for another character to sneak up to the atrium. It’s all facets of the same stories, but catered to different types of engagement. It doesn’t matter how you play, as long as you play. If you are absolutely dead opposed to that, this thing probably isn’t for you, and that’s okay. But if you’re willing to engage, the structure of the thing makes it easy.

Virtually every corner of the ship contains an opportunity to pull you into the story, and aside from that, the spectacular group of actors who make up the story’s core cast of characters are masterful at all the subtle tricks of creating a feeling of personal connection and engagement. Eye contact, the expert deployment of the occasional shoulder touch, even something as simple as remembering your name. In one sense, you know it’s manufactured, but it so effectively bypasses your brain and hits your emotions like a goddamn truck that it becomes immediately real. This is another somewhat risky space to play in because for the wrong type of person, this sort of thing can ruin their life. It was something that definitely happened during Legends; people who became so attached to these fictional characters that they lost sight of the fact that they were, in fact, fictional. Fortunately, the condensed time frame and a robust support system for the actors seems like it will help to alleviate the majority of problems, likely thanks to lessons learned directly from Legends. But for people who can engage in the fiction without becoming fully unmoored from reality, the experience genuinely – for want of a less tired term, especially for this specific company – feels like magic. In a little less than two days, I forged connections with characters that felt personal and intimate and real. That I felt that way feels like nothing short of a miracle.

A relatively new thing for me is managing expectations by setting what I feel like is a reasonable ceiling. For example, I knew walking into The Rise of Skywalker that there was virtually no possibility I would like it as much as The Last Jedi, but if I liked it more than The Force Awakens, I’d be content (I still managed to be disappointed). For Galactic Starcruiser, my expectation ceiling was knowing it wouldn’t be special in the same way Legends of Frontierland was. Legends was this weird, freak accident, something that was officially deemed a failure, and yet had a seismic impact on the dedicated players that experienced what it became, myself among them. After two days on the Halcyon, I got as close to feeling the way I did after Legends as I have in eight years. Legends of Frontierland was incredible, but very clearly unsustainable and unrepeatable. With Starcruiser, they found a way to recapture that spark, make it sustainable, and condense it down into an experience that lasts two days rather than three months. It is a miraculous feat, but what is the cost of a miracle?

This is the hardest part of the calculation, where we have to take a step back from what this thing is and look at how it fits within the broader context of what surrounds it. Oddly mirroring the same timeframe as the R&D experiments that paved the road to Galactic Starcruiser, Disney’s Parks and Resorts division has been carving out spaces within the parks as exclusive only to an ultra-wealthy clientele, creating a system of upcharges and add-ons of dubious value, and aggressively raising the base level cost to simply get through the gate, all the while steadily stripping away much of what made these places interesting and special in the first place. Whether it’s the expansion of Club 33 or gating holiday entertainment behind after-hours events that are now knocking on the door of $200, your dollar at a Disney theme park doesn’t go anywhere near as far as it did even ten years ago. It’s a philosophy that has only been emboldened in the aftermath of the pandemic with new corporate leadership that is actively and openly hostile towards the audience of their own product. And that’s focussing only on the parks side of things. Whether it’s monopolistic corporate consolidation or financial support for politicians backing nakedly unconstitutional law, the sins of the Walt Disney Company are vast and numerous and largely outside the scope of this article.

So, with all of that being said, we need to have an honest conversation about Starcruiser’s place within this ecosystem, and with that, I need to make a confession. I did not pay $5,000 to go on Starcruiser. I did not pay $2,000 to go on Starcruiser. The only reason I was able to get in on the first public booking of this experience was thanks to someone else’s bad luck combined with some extraordinary generosity. On the one hand, that puts me in a weird position to try and talk about this since my experience did not come with the same literal buy-in that everyone else on that cruise volunteered for. On the other hand, it puts me in a unique position of getting to experience it, knowing it was something that I realistically would not have been able to afford – at least not anytime soon.

Going into the experience in not just its early days, but early day, I knew that there would be jitters and bugs and things that just did not fully work the way they were supposed to. That’s the kind of thing you have to be forgiving of when you make the choice to be an early adopter. What I was not going to be forgiving of was anywhere where the experience felt “cheap,” whether that was in amenities or offerings or any undue friction from a guest perspective. Turns out, I needn’t have been worried. From start to finish, the experience feels premium in a way that a lot of Disney’s most expensive offerings rarely do. The physical space is incredible, the service is exceptional, and, most importantly, the story and character elements do not feel shortchanged in the slightest. The cumulative effect is so transportive that it’s extremely easy to forget that you’re in Walt Disney World. I won’t go so far as to say that it actually feels like you’re in space, but it does feel very much like being on a cruise ship – the rest of the world fading away as you exist for two days in this little, self-contained pocket. A feeling that’s further enhanced by turning off notifications on your phone, which I highly recommend. I have a few things I could quibble about – I’d have loved, for instance, to see a few more small physical props that could be interacted with or even taken home, but I also have seen how that sort of thing can become a barrier to storytelling rather than a boon when people start demanding to be given the trinket they saw someone post about on social media rather than earning it organically through play.

The one exception to all of this is during your excursion to Batuu. It’s not that walking out into the theme park is particularly immersion-breaking – a lot of effort was clearly taken to make that transition as seamless as possible – but your experience “on planet” is fundamentally different from your experience “on ship” in a few key ways. The biggest one being, there are no characters to interact with. The core of the Starcruiser experience is rooted in character, and while the datapad element works in concert with that, it remains kind of underwhelming on its own. This has been part of the problem with Galaxy’s Edge for going on three years, and the juxtaposition of moving from the Halcyon to Black Spire Outpost only serves to underscore it. The missions you are given on your datapad in conjunction with Starcruiser are slightly more elaborate than the standard set of assignments that have been around since Galaxy’s Edge opened, but functionally, they work in the same way. Read some text, go scan a QR code, unlock an item, rinse and repeat. There are a handful of fun new gags in the land that can be triggered through these missions, but it’s nothing that feels like it belongs behind a paywall. Taken as a whole, the Starcruiser experience is not something that could be achieved in the context of a theme park, but the elements added in for the Batuu excursion feel like things that should have already been available to everyone three years ago. I do have to acknowledge the potential that some things in-land may simply not be available yet due to pandemic restrictions (particularly in regard to character interactions), but looking at it in context with Disney’s current corporate culture, it feels like there was an unwillingness to let any benefits of the wildly expensive pretend cruise trickle down to guests of the also expensive theme park.

It’s a feeling that is compounded by having some of the best interactions with Galaxy’s Edge cast members that I’ve had in years as part of this experience. Despite CEO Bob Chapek’s infamous insistence that Disney’s new Star Wars Land didn’t need additional character performers because each and every cast member is already a character, without a genuine story framework in place to support them, most Galaxy’s Edge CMs very quickly burned out and stopped engaging with the narrative conceit. This is no judgement on them. They were expected to do very difficult work with very little support and very little additional benefit over any other front-line cast member working in the parks. Even back during Legends of Frontierland when there was a support system in place, it still was far from perfect. As Kayleigh Erber, one of the entertainment hosts who worked on Legends, recalls, “It was EXHAUSTING staying enthusiastically in character while also running the show with just the regular breaks/lunches and no sympathy from execs. And to not be payed more is insulting!” That Galaxy’s Edge cast members are seemingly instructed to be more “on” for anyone visiting from Starcruiser while presumably not receiving any additional benefit for that work is frustrating, and it’s one of the few parts of the experience that left me feeling icky. Similarly, the new entrance into the park for Starcruiser guests is anything but subtle, and that there is yet one more corner of these parks that is made inaccessible to regular day guests for the benefit of those with more money to throw around rubs me the wrong way.

But Batuu was the only part of the experience that broke the spell and forced me to think about this thing in terms of class. It was the only part where the now standard Disney tactic of conning guests into paying more for things that should be included with the cost of admission reared its ugly head. As far as what’s on the ship, it’s clear that it could only exist within the context of this closed system.

It’s well known that nearly all of the live, interactive components of Galaxy’s Edge were cut from the land prior to opening. It is something that I personally have been outspoken and frustrated about. But in the lead-up to the opening of Starcruiser, a narrative has emerged that this experience merely repurposes the pieces of what was intended for Galaxy’s Edge and locks them behind a multi-thousand dollar paywall. The truth is more complicated. What Galactic Starcruiser is doing could only work in the context of Starcruiser, where there is a fixed number of participants sharing the same relatively small space for a fixed period of time. The level of intimacy in storytelling that Starcruiser achieves would not and could not work in a theme park setting. Yes, there is a dinner show on Starcruiser and there was meant to be a dinner show in the land. Yes, there is a big lightsaber duel in Starcruiser and there were supposed to be lightsaber duels in the land. Yes, there is a live, interactive, dynamic story that plays out in Starcruiser, and something similar was intended for Galaxy’s Edge. The crucial thing to understand is that these things were developed in parallel, not one in response to the other. Starcruiser was always going to be the expensive, ultra-deluxe, extra step above Galaxy’s Edge, but the two as originally conceived would have been more symbiotic with one another. Galaxy’s Edge would have been less intimate, but more approachable. Part of the reason why Starcruiser is such a hard thing to sell is because there’s so little else to point to and say, “it’s like that.” Once you’re in it, the experience immediately speaks for itself, but it also costs $5,000 to get in it. Galaxy’s Edge should have been a way to make people familiar with the fundamentals of Starcruiser without simply throwing them headfirst into the deep end, but because Galaxy’s Edge was never allowed to be that, it makes the conversation surrounding Starcruiser all the more difficult.

So, at $5,000, is Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser worth it? I don’t know. I realize that 3,900 words into this article, saying, “I don’t know,” is the ultimate cop-out, but it’s something I have continued to wrestle with in the days after returning to the real world. There are things I experienced in Starcruiser that I will remember for the rest of my life. Debriefing with the small group of Raithe’s inner circle after the heist, getting a private sabacc lesson from one of Starcruiser’s lead designers late in the evening of that first day, being moved to tears by an emotional connection with the people around me during lightsaber training, reconnecting with one of the Legends actors who is now serving as a show director on Starcruiser, faking a deliberately mortifying marriage proposal in front of the crowded atrium as part of the aforementioned heist, laughing to the point of being unable to breathe trying to decipher an unintentional puzzle in the captain’s letter on the final night, having a quasi-religious experience watching digital fireworks projected out the window of a fake space ship. These are the kind of moments that are impossible to put a price tag on, and yet only half of them are explicitly part of the experience of the story while the other half are the result of connections forged over ten years of following the experiments that led here. Galactic Starcruiser is the ultimate realization of the promise made by Legends of Frontierland and my experience with it became this wild, full-circle culmination of the last decade of my life. Needless to say, your mileage may vary.

And yet, having said all of that, it’s hard for me to get past the fact that – as impressive as all of this is – it’s built on the bones of an experience that was offered at no additional cost for three months eight years ago. Obviously, this is far more grand and elaborate and technologically robust than Legends of Frontierland (not to mention that food and lodging are included with the price), but $96 a day to $1,200 a day remains a hell of a leap.

If any of what I’ve described seems at all interesting to you, it’s probably worth finding a way to do it. Don’t go into debt rushing out to see this thing, but if, for instance, you’re a yearly visitor to Walt Disney World, I’d say this is absolutely worth trading a couple years of Walt Disney World vacations for. There is a level of ambition and commitment to quality here that Disney hasn’t even attempted in almost 30 years. It proves what this company is still capable of when they’re willing to invest and take a risk on a genuinely big idea. I still just wish it was more attainable.

The problem is that Disney has set the bar so low for themselves. You look at something like the Polynesian charging $900 a night for not particularly great hotel rooms, and yeah, of course it makes sense that Starcruiser costs twice as much. But the Polynesian should not cost $900 a night. Disney has pushed the price of their product to astronomical levels without doing much to justify that increased cost because, over half a century, a Walt Disney World vacation has become cemented as a cultural rite of passage. It’s not merely a fun activity, but a mandatory ritual necessary for acceptance in American society. When you cross that threshold of cultural necessity, any notion of a supposedly self-regulating market goes out the window. That Starcruiser is actually incredible doesn’t change the fact that Disney has exploited their position to make their product vastly more expensive than it has any reason to be. Galactic Starcruiser is special. It should be priced at an aspirational level. It’s not the kind of thing people should do every weekend or every month or maybe even every year, but at its current price point, it has pushed beyond the point of being aspirational to being simply unattainable for a huge portion of the population, and I don’t think that does the experience any favors. I am extraordinarily grateful and extraordinarily fortunate that I got to see it when I did. But if it hadn’t been for weird luck and tremendous generosity, I don’t know how long it’d have been before I’d have the chance.

Disney’s marketing for Starcruiser has done a poor job conveying what the experience is. They’re trying to fit it into the same box they use to sell everything else, pitching it as an experience for everyone, but the truth is it’s really not – both in terms of what it is and what it costs. Not everyone will be willing to engage in the level of play that this experience demands, and that’s okay! Not everything has to be for everyone. But even if something isn’t designed to be for everyone, it should be achievable for anyone who wants to do it. At $5,000, that simply isn’t the case. Starcruiser is a hyperspace leap over anything that has come before and will inevitably push the themed entertainment industry into new frontiers, but in chasing these new frontiers, Disney has decided that they’re only interested in letting the wealthiest among us come along for the ride.

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