Gifts of the Season of the Force

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Celebration is the word that best describes the Season of the Force, Disneyland’s newest Star Wars additions to Tomorrowland. I think that the use of “season” in the event’s title is purposeful. It informs us that many of its attractions will only be available for a certain amount of time, and it calls to mind the celebratory emotions of seasonal activities like Christmas, Hanukkah, and other festivities. While it is fine to buy yourself a present and feign surprise, it’s much better to receive a gift from a loved one or friend, and it’s even better to give and share that present and others with friends and family. With that in mind, I brought my wife, daughter, mom, and two of my friends to share the experience of delving into the Season of the Force. It would be like a great, communal, Star Wars stocking where we would each reach in and take our own favorite gift and share them with the group.

In many ways, the Season of the Force could be equated to the Star Wars version of Disneyland’s own holiday decorations and parades. As you walk under the archway leading into Tomorrowland, you are met by large signs declaring that it is the Season of the Force. The old, abandoned People Mover track is adorned lovingly with banners hanging from it like garland that feature the silhouette of a different light side or dark side character and a ship or vehicle related to them; for example, my favorite featured X-wing pilot and Resistance fighter Poe Dameron with an X-wing flying in the background. My wife also enjoyed all the banners and how they incorporated not the just the characters but also their ships. This was her favorite part of Season of the Force. It might seem like an odd choice, but if you knew her, it makes sense. She takes more joy in wrapping than I once thought humanly possible, often offering to wrap for other people. She loves decorating the house and hanging ornaments on the tree, so of course this would be her favorite part. In fact, she enjoyed it so much that she was imagining more decorations that Disney could have put up. She wished that they would have hung some of the pirate and faction banners from the third trailer for The Force Awakens off the back of the People Mover loading platform, an idea I wholeheartedly agree with because that area has always been a little bare and anytime you can add in some Hondo to your day, you do it.

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As you wander leisurely (either because you want to or because you are shuffling along with the crowd that has graced you with their presence on that day), you’ll find yourself serenaded with various songs of the season through Disneyland’s speakers. Not “Deck the Halls” or “Jingle Bells,” but “Across the Stars” and “The Imperial March.” As a Star Wars fan, hearing those famous songs along with others from the various films and animated features caused my little nerd heart to grow. If I had any grinchiness left from the drive down or the crowds, the music and decorations of the season melted those away, and I just wanted to spend time with my my family and friends experiencing the four new attractions: Launch Bay, Path of the Jedi, Hyperspace Mountain, and the newly updated Star Tours that now features a journey to Rey’s home planet of Jakku.

In the old area where the Carousel of Progress once stood and where Innoventions recently stood, now stands Star Wars: Launch Bay. Launch Bay serves primarily as an area for fans to see costumes, props, and model ships from across the Star Wars saga; to take their pictures with the mighty Chewbacca and the villainous Darth Vader (and if you are very lucky, the mysterious Boba Fett); to engage in some high-end merchandise shopping, and to view a video discussing the past and future of the Star Wars saga.

When it was first announced, I was really excited because I thought that Lucasfilm had decided to send some of the props, costumes, and models down to reside at Disneyland for a while. It turns out that this is not the case. All of the items you’ll see in the Launch Bay are replicas of actual materials seen in the films and animated series. Despite not being film used, the replicas are still pretty cool to look at and some of the ships are very large, offering you a great glimpse at the smallest details of these iconic ships. If you walk in knowing that you’re going to see some awesome replicas, you will probably find a lot to like. If you go in expecting something that was actually worn by the actors or handled by ILM, you may get a feeling very similar to a kid going to the mall and seeing a mall Santa: you might have fun, but there’s something just a little bit off

Luckily for me, any disappointment I had about seeing “just replicas” was taken away when I got to wander the exhibit with my friend Tim. Tim loves models because he built them with his family as a child. Watching his face as he took pictures of the ships and visually dissected them, paying attention to the most minute details, was amazing because he had such an intense focus. People who don’t know Tim’s background with models might have been surprised to see so serious a face on someone surrounded by essentially the best Star Wars toys ever, but I knew that there was a lot of joy hidden in those scrutinizing eyes. Seeing that joy brought the scales of off of my own eyes, and I was able to enjoy everything anew because of the joy of my friend. We wandered the exhibit for a good amount of time inspecting the tiny “used-universe” touches of the ships from the classic trilogy (like the X-Wing, Star Destroyer, and TIE Fighters) before looking at models of ships that were never actually made as models for the films, like the Ghost from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels.

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We finished our time in that area by examining various props and models from The Force Awakens. Seeing Captain Phasma’s helmet, a T-70 X-wing, and Kylo Ren’s lightsaber was amazing and really awakened a longing to step back into that galaxy far, far away. The models were Tim’s gift of the season, and he told me that he would go back time and time again just to view them. Sharing the experience with him and letting his joy inspire me to set aside my expectations and just enjoy the really awesome experience I was given was the gift he gave me.

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In addition to the replica area, nearly a quarter of the space of the Launch Bay is taken up with a shop that sells mostly very expensive merchandise that caters to the well-financed, uber fan. It is fun to window shop at the art, costumes, and life-size props that are available for sale there, but I imagine few people will find themselves walking away with one of those big-ticket items. As my friend, Ari, put it, “Most people won’t be able to buy a life-size Boba Fett, but it’s fun to take pictures with it.”

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One of the biggest draws of Launch Bay (especially to the younglings) will be the character meet and greets. You can choose between the warrior Wookiee Chewbacca, or the dastardly Darth Vader. Depending on the time of day, you may also be able to see the bounty hunter Boba Fett though his line was always capped, very quickly causing many fans to have to walk away as disappointed as they invariably were by his death in the films. Ari heard a rumor that pictures with Boba Fett were exclusive to people who had a Disney debit card with CHASE. I hope that’s not true because I would like to see all fanboys and fangirls of Mandalorian persuasion have the opportunity to take a picture with that most famous of bounty hunters. If that’s the bounty you’re pursuing, it may be wise to do some research on your prey beforehand.

After waiting in line for any of the characters, you can greet them and take a picture with them in a Star Wars environment: a Rebel temple for Chewbacca, the bridge of a Star Destroyer for Darth Vader, and a small replica of the Mos Eisley Cantina for Boba Fett. Each of these areas was cool looking but extremely small. When my family and I took a picture with Chewbacca, I felt less like I’d walked into a Rebel temple and more like I’d walked into a Rebel storage locker. The cantina was even more disappointing. There were some cool light fixtures that were made from the discarded heads of the Rebel medical droids, a couple of cool paintings on the walls, and a bar area lined with some bottles. I use the term “bar” very loosely here because it looked like the smallest, portable open bar that you might see at a downscale wedding. The extremely small size of these environments was only made more disappointing by the size of the very large store. Disney clearly missed a chance to create some environments that felt like fans had walked right into a scene from one of the films. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida did a great job creating these moments, and Disney is supposed to be creating something similar with the upcoming Star Wars Land on both coasts. While I know that they were limited by time and space issues with Launch Bay, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I hoped Chewbacca’s pat on the back as we left our picture opportunity was his attempt to reassure me that given more time Disney could create a film-accurate, in-universe experience.

While the physical space was a little lackluster, the cast members who were overseeing the lines and the ones in costume were fantastic. If you tried to enter the Cantina area once Boba Fett’s line was capped, one of the cast members would politely but seriously tell you, “This area is under Imperial quarantine. We’re looking for Rebels.” Each cast member also sported name tags with their name and their home planet, which was a small, but really cute touch. The people in the costumes also clearly knew who they were playing and were able to interact with guests appropriately. When we took our picture with Chewbacca and Ari told him, “You should have gotten a medal,” he responded by throwing his arms up and growling in a gesture that could only be the Wookiee equivalent of “Right? I was robbed!” All of the human (and Wookiee) touches were what made this part of the Launch Bay worth waiting in line for.  

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One of the smallest areas of Launch Bay was given over to small video featuring videos and commentary from creators from all walks Star Wars. This video was one of the best examples of the celebration of Star Wars fandom that inspired Launch Bay. In the video, you see modern creators ranging from Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams to Dave Filoni and Pablo Hidalgo discuss the significance of past Star Wars works all the way from the classic trilogy, to Rebels, to “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One.” I found the experience really moving, and I enjoyed the fact that all areas of the saga were represented.  The films, shows, games, novels, and comics were all given a moment to shine. It definitely gave the sense that there were multiple paths that fans could take to get into Star Wars, and all of them were equally important and valued.

The short movie experience, “Path of the Jedi,” that has taken up residence in the old theater area that once housed “Captain EO,” was the attraction that I was least excited to see when planning out our trip, but I have to say that it Force jumped right over my expectations and hit me right in the feels. The experience really amounts to little more than various clips from all six Star Wars films set to quotes from various Jedi and Sith explaining what a Jedi is and who Anakin Skywalker was. As someone who has seen the films hundreds of times, I expected it to be no more moving of an experience than watching the Blu-rays at home. You can imagine my surprise then when I found the hairs on my arms and neck standing up multiple times throughout and my eyes growing misty at the end. The entire experience reminded me that there is a certain magic to seeing these iconic moments in a theater that many fans have not felt before. The size and clarity of the picture and hearing the legendary music being pumped through a great sound system is worth the (most likely) small wait you’ll have. A fun side note about this attraction is that the editors took the modern method of fading to black while a resounding “bum” sounds a little too far. It’s a little cheesy but if you stock up on a favorite Disney friendly beverage beforehand, it would make for a really fun drinking game.

One of the other attractions of The Season of the Force is less a new attraction than an update to an old one: the addition of the planet Jakku to Star Tours. All of us really enjoyed soaring through the ship graveyard alongside the Millennium Falcon with First Order TIE Fighters in hot pursuit. Kate, my wife, really enjoyed the small details like the inclusion of Finn and BB-8, Ari felt like it really helped tie the feel of the classic and sequel trilogies together, and Tim really liked how you fly through the interiors of some of the fallen ships. My favorite part was watching the Falcon as it twisted and dove around each crashed ship. The detour through one of the crashed ships reminded me in many ways of the flight through the crystalline interior of the comet in the original Star Tours, which was a nice touch. 

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The final attraction added to the Season of the Force is a revamped Space Mountain dubbed Hyperspace Mountain. Now, full disclosure, I love starfighters, so you could say that I’m this ride’s target audience. Even the sign outside of the ride now sports some amazing art of X-wings and TIE Fighters engaging in a fight with Star Destroyers hanging ominously in the background. After a long day of amusement park lines and crowds, that art reached deep into my ship-loving soul and pulled me into its queue like I’d been caught in a tractor beam. Its hold on me only became stronger as I walked through the line and saw schematics of X-wings and Star Destroyers and heard Admiral Ackbar telling me that my fellow riders and I were about to embark on a mission to attack a Star Destroyer near Jakku. The fact that he was also explaining that I would need to perform such common tasks as storing hats and glasses in the bag in front of me and pulling down on the lap bar did not detract from the experience, especially when he ended his barely veiled amusement park spiel of a briefing by saying, “And may the Force be with us.”

Once we all got into our roller coaster car and heeded Ackbar’s warning about storage, we were ready. Soon after, the blare of the Star Wars main theme erupted from the ride’s speakers and my party and I were off. Every single person in my party came away feeling like Disney had improved on Space Mountain in every way. The use of lights and sound to simulate blaster fire, projections of X-Wings and TIE fighters, and the radio chatter that accompanies the soundtrack makes you feel as if you are really a part of a battle between the Resistance and the First Order. If you are able to attend The Season of the Force on either coast, you owe it to yourself to ride this ride. I have been blessed enough to ride it three times, and I have enjoyed it immensely every time. Even when I waited in line for an hour and forty-five minutes, this ride was worth it.

Like I said though, this ride was almost custom built to appeal to someone like me who has contemplated getting a tattoo of an X-Wing fighter multiple times. To demonstrate just how much fun this ride is, I’ll going to describe the experiences of Ari and my mom because they have such opposite experiences with the normal version of Space Mountain. Ari loves Space Mountain. She was pissed when they changed the music on the attraction years ago, and she doesn’t really care for the Halloween skin, Ghost Galaxy, because she says it’s kind of cheesy. She went into Hyperspace Mountain with low expectations, but when we returned from battle she was fangirl flailing and shouting, “Yes!”  with such intensity that people in line were looking at her with alternating looks of excitement and shock at seeing a grown woman being so unabashedly thrilled by a ride.

In contrast to Ari, my mom doesn’t really care for Space Mountain. Before my daughter could ride, my mom was the consistent, reliable babysitter. By the time we had returned from our dogfight, she was ready to join the ranks of the Resistance. She looked at me and said, “That was awesome! I hope they never change it back.” That’s high praise for a ride that normally commands at least an hour line on slow days. Hyperspace Mountain was the favorite gift of my mom and I. For my mom, it took an old ride she no longer cared for and made it fun and new. For me, it gave me the exhilarating experience of being in a Star Wars fighter battle and the joy of seeing my friends and family react in ways I would not have imagined.

At the end of the night, you will see stars being projected like falling snow onto the buildings on either side of the walkway winding its way through Tomorrowland. The symbol of the Rebel Alliance rests projected in blue on one building and on the other side the iconography of the Galactic Empire lies in crimson hues. For me, The Season of the Force was both a celebration of the series I love and an opportunity to share that with other fans, some who were uber fans who could more easily name off the identities of the pilots of Red Squadron than the identities of Santa’s reindeer and some who were casual fans talking about how much they loved Ham Solo and the Millennial Falcon. That’s the real gift of the Season of the Force: its ability to be like the Force itself and bind all of our fandom experiences together. My friend Ari put it the best when she described the gift she was given during the Season of the Force: “My favorite part of Season of the Force is seeing the Force in action. There are fans young and old having a great time. Kids are running around dressed as their favorite character, parents are reveling in being surrounded by their favorite movie and people that aren’t a part of the fandom are having fun, too. For a new fan like me, it’s great to share the experience with my friends.”

Which Season of the Force attraction are you most excited for and why? Share with me on Twitter @mapplebee7567.

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