Yesterday we had the opportunity to tour around Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, briefly exploring Black Spire Outpost on planet Batuu in between chatting with Walt Disney Imagineering Producer Rachel Sherbill about the ambitious new land and its grand opening this week.
Sherbill oversees the development of the "Living Land" element to Galaxy's Edge, helping make the park feel as detailed, lived in, and authentic to Star Wars as possible so guests can live out the dream of being their own character in this universe.
We had the opportunity with a group of Canadian print journalists to ask a few a questions - while standing between an X-Wing, an A-Wing, and the entrance to the upcoming Rise of the Resistance attraction opening later this year - about the development and plans for Galaxy's Edge, working with the Lucasfilm Story Group and artists who helped develop the park, and planning for the future.
How long have you been working with Star Wars at Disney Parks?
Rachel Sherbill: I got the opportunity to work on Star Wars Launch Bay and Season of the Force when it launched here in Anaheim November of 2015. And then I had the opportunity to transition onto this project shortly thereafter. It’s been a lot of fun working with the Star Wars team for so long.
On this project, do you work for both parks or is it specific to this one?
Rachel Sherbill: I’m largely Anaheim-based. But there are some things, mostly around the area of interactivity that I will get to go to Florida in a couple of weeks to help get them to the finish line.
So can you tell us all the secrets?
Rachel Sherbill: As you know, we’ve been working on this project for over four years. And so, it’s so exciting to be able to welcome guests here for the first time this week here at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge has truly been an amazing project to work on, from its scale to its ambitious nature. Getting to work on it has been an amazing treat. The project is quite literally one of the largest, most technologically-advanced projects – I should say ‘single-themed lands’ – that we at the Walt Disney Company have ever undertaken. And so, it’s so exciting to be able to welcome guests here this week.
When you first joined the project four years ago, was the plan the same? Was it always Black Spire Outpost on Batuu, or did it evolve along the way?
Rachel Sherbill: I think, from the very beginning, we always knew that we wanted Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to be a place where you could live your own Star Wars adventure. You know the stories of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and all of those characters so well. We wanted to create a new place where you could actually be able to live your own adventure and explore new places that have not yet been seen on film. And so, we really designed Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to be a place where you can explore and uncover all new things and really live your own Star Wars story, whatever that might be.
Here we have a more relaxed seeming area, and over there we’ve got the Millennium Falcon. Can you talk a bit about how it all ties together?
Rachel Sherbill: Absolutely. We are over here in sort of our Resistance Outpost area. The idea in this area is that it’s a little more covert, a little more undercover. Sort of the perfect spot for a secret resistance encampment to set up. You’ll see over here we’ve got a couple of ships behind us, an X-Wing and an A-Wing that are parked for refueling. We’ve got a couple of different temporary set-ups that the Resistance team has set up as part of their base, but everything is sort of temporary and transient in feel – with the idea that should the watchful eye of the First Order find themselves here, that they could take off at a moment’s notice. So that is a little bit about this Resistance forested area. Over in the other area, we’ve got our sort of Black Spire Outpost village. Black Spire Outpost is the largest settlement on the planet Batuu. And Batuu is a brand-new place that we worked with our partners at Lucasfilm to design and create specifically for our Disney Parks guests. Batuu is a place that has a tremendous history within the Star Wars canon lore, but this is the first time – or among the first – that guests will actually be able to come in and experience it themselves. Over in our Black Spire Outpost settlement, there are a huge number of things that guests will be able to see, smell, taste, touch, right? It’s the first time we’re getting to experience Star Wars with all five senses. It’s really exciting for guests coming in.
Are there favorite things that are in the Outpost that you’re particularly excited to see people experience?
Rachel Sherbill: Short answer: yes. There are so many. Among my personal favorite things to do is actually our Droid Depot shop where you’ll actually be able to build and customize your own personal droid. So you’ll be able to do everything from select the parts and pieces, whether you’re building a B-Series droid or an R-Series droid, and then you’ll actually be able to assemble the droid yourself. And there’s an activation moment where you’ll actually be able to see your droid come to life.
But my favorite thing about the experience itself is that, once you come outside the shop and start interacting with the village, the droid is sort of your own personal buddy or proxy as you’re going through. And you’ll actually see it respond to different elements in the land as you walk. And that’s a really cute lighting and audio animation.
The other cool thing about droids, though, is that you can also if you want buy your own personality chip that will then change sort of the inner workings of the droid. So, an example of this is if you purchase a First Order personality chip, then in the First Order area your droid might be happy because it’s there with its friends. It’s be proud to be a First Order sympathizer and it will share that emotion with you. But if you come over in this Resistance area, it might sound a little bit different.
Can you talk about some of the characters that guests might encounter?
Rachel Sherbill: Yeah. At Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, one of the great things about the project is, guests have an opportunity to be able to meet some characters that they know from the films as well as get to know some news ones. Some of the new characters, specifically for Galaxy’s Edge, are a lot of our shop proprietors. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to Dok-Ondar's Den of Antiquities yet, but inside you’ll actually meet Dok-Ondar, this ancient Ithorian character who’s traveling the galaxy and collecting all sorts of antique items to sell from his shop here at Black Spire Outpost. And inside that shop, guests will actually have an opportunity to go up to Dok-Ondar, perhaps talk to a salesperson and see if they can make a deal.
In terms of characters that you might recognize from some of the films: in our First Order area, you might find some stormtroopers. The idea being that they’ve landed here on Black Spire Outpost and are walking around recruiting sympathizers. They know that something is happening, they’ve heard word that the Resistance might be hiding out on this base and so they’re trying to develop a little bit of a stronghold. So be on the lookout for those stormtroopers. If they get word of some activity, we may or may not see the arrival of Kylo Ren. So I’d definitely watch out for that guy.
Another great thing is that on our Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run attraction, Chewbacca has loaned Hondo Ohnaka his ship with the idea that Hondo is going to help Chewbacca get some Coaxium to help the Resistance. But Hondo’s got some of his own plans in mind. On that attraction, you’ll see Chewbacca as well as the first physical form of Hondo Ohnaka, which has been a really exciting thing for the team.
Those examples are very story-driven. This whole place seems very story-driven. You talked about temporary set-ups for the Resistance, Kylo Ren’s on the hunt. How far ahead do you have to plan to evolve that with the Lucasfilm story group?
Rachel Sherbill: Honestly, the collaboration between our Walt Disney Imagineering team and our Lucasfilm story team has been amazing. Their story writers are our writers, their production designers are our designers. So I think the entire process has been an incredibly collaborative one, and we feel so fortunate that we’ve been able to work with them this whole time.
As we see new movies and episodic shows come out, will that feed into what’s going on here?
Rachel Sherbill: One of the key principles that we thought about when designing this land was that it felt timeless. Black Spire Outpost is located on the outer rim, so it’s sort of away from a lot of the larger activities that we see happening. Making it the perfect place for smugglers and rogue scoundrels and people who might be on the outskirts of the galaxy. Because of that, we’ve created a place that can evolve with future stories as they come.
When Does Galaxy's Edge Take Place in the Star Wars Timeline?
Rachel Sherbill: We are usually forward leading. As you’re walking around, you’ll see those stormtrooper helmets are emblematic of the First Order stormtroopers, not one from the original trilogy. So we’re definitely set in the current saga trilogy.
How many Easter eggs?
Rachel Sherbill: Oh, my goodness. There are so many Easter eggs in this land. I think one of the things here is that obviously we’re not recreating a place that you see in the films. It’s a new place with its own stories and its own characters, but I think as you walk around and really look for those details, you’ll be able to see elements of things that might be familiar from the films. Dok-Andar’s Den of Antiquities is a great example of a place where you go in and you look up and you see all these relics from both the TV animation stories as well as the saga films. For those who have a keen eye, on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, definitely make sure to check out the chest room for a lot of different hidden secrets that hardcore fans will recognize.
Are you a "hardcore" fan?
Rachel Sherbill: Over the past several years of developing Star Wars, I’ve always loved the Star Wars stories and watched the films, but actually getting to participate in the design and evolution process of this land has just made me so much more enamored with the franchise. Getting to see what the process looks like to create a new ship and all of the things that the designers think about, and the language, has really just given me a much deeper appreciation of those films that I watched growing up.
One of the things that has so impressed me about Star Wars is the fans. I’ve gotten to go to Star Wars Celebration a couple of times with this project, and just getting to see how much fans love Star Wars has really helped our team really propel this idea forward to make sure that we’re creating the best Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge that we can.
Do you feel any kind of pressure to be making a land with fans who follow it so closely down to every detail?
Rachel Sherbill: I think our fans inspire us to make sure we get it right. We have gone through every possible detail to make sure that we get it right, because we know that that’s what our fans expect from us. Our Disney Parks are known for being these incredibly detailed places where story matters 100%, and for Star Wars in particular you get those Disney fans combined with Star Wars fans , and we knew we had to get it right. We knew we had to meet those expectations for what a Star Wars-themed land could be.
While we’re in the Resistance area, an example of making sure we get those details right was [that] I got to go with one of my colleagues up to Skywalker Ranch, and we actually got to look at the treads of the Kenny Baker R2-D2 that was used in the original films. And literally I got to work with the team up at the Ranch to create rubbings of the treads that we then turned into a 3D model and created a little cart that got pushed around this area that makes it look like Astromech droids are here. But the treads that are around are actually the level of detail that went into that are exactly the ones that we see in the film.
Can you speak to the interplay with the app? How does that work, and how will people who access the land use it?
Rachel Sherbill: Guests coming to Stars Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be able to interact with the land here in ways that we’ve never done before at a Disney Park through the Play Disney Parks app. When you download the app and come into the land, your phone will become your data pad, and that’ll be the unlocking a whole bunch of hidden adventures here in Black Spire Outpost. There are four key tools that we use to unlock the secrets.
The [first tool is] hack. So one of the things that you’ll be able to do is hack the droids that you see throughout the land. There’s a little bin game where you hack the droid, and it looks like a droid power port that you see in the films, and then the droid will come alive with a little bit of lighting and animation. Then you’ll be able to actually download a memory of that droid. Something that’s indicative of where that droid has been and some of the things that it’s seen.
Other things that you can hack throughout the land include door control panels. There’s a game that’s part of the app that we call our Outpost Control game, where it ties into these ideas of living your own Star Wars story and choosing your own affiliation. In the app on your data pad, you’ll actually be able to choose whether you want to install defenses for the Resistance who are on the lookout for First Order and trying to fend them off, or actually install surveillance mechanisms on door control panels for the First Order because they’re looking around the outpost and collecting intel. All of this is done digitally on your app, and there is a game that is played back and forth where at the end either side can claim victory over the other.
Other things that you can do with your data pad are scan crate labels that you see throughout the land. They’re in hexagonal shapes, and if you scan them, you’ll actually be able to download different inventory items.
We have a translate button where you can type in the Aurebesh letters that you see and actually get to see what all these things say throughout the land. And then you can also tune into different galactic communications. All throughout the land, you’ll see all these different antennas and power poles. You can actually tune into them to uncover encrypted transmissions from characters throughout the galaxy. It’s one of the more technologically complex things we’ve undertaken in this land, and I know that guests will really love getting to play with it and getting to see what some of those hidden things are that might not be so apparent at the surface level.
The guests are each on their device, but they’re potentially playing against each other?
Rachel Sherbill: If you just have one phone in your party, you can actually add more people to it so you can play as a team, but guests who are around the outpost who are hacking those door control panels for the Resistance or the First Order are sort of playing against each other. It’s all part of choosing your own adventure and choosing a side in this land.
What was the most challenging element to realize?
Rachel Sherbill: One of the more challenging things to realize is just the scale. We have so much rock work, and all the details. You look at these huge rock work vistas, and we have to figure out how to make those happen. And then you also have to figure out how you can get the little buttons on each and every tech panel or light panel. You’re looking at things from this huge scale while also making sure that we sweat the details and really nail them. I know the team has spent many hours looking at all the things and making sure that we’re getting them exactly right.
How many times does someone need to come to this to really get the full experience? Have you broken that down?
Rachel Sherbill: One of the great things about Black Spire Outpost is that there’s always going to be more to see and discover, whether it’s unlocking new things through the Play Disney Parks app or making sure you’re riding the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run attraction umpteen times to get every single detail. I think everyone has a different level of thing that they’re looking for, so we’re hoping that this is an experience that guests will be able to come back to again and again to find all those hidden things that are part of the land.
How many variations are there on the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run experience?
Rachel Sherbill: I think the awesome thing about the attraction is that it’s totally interactive. So if you fly right, the ship flies right. If you fly left, the ship flies left. So really, there are an infinite number of ways your mission can go based on who your crew it, whether you know your pilot, gunner and engineer, or whether or not you manage to wind your way through those spires and how many asteroids you hit. I think it’s infinitely playable, and the interactive elements make it so.
Galaxy's Edge opens at Disneyland May 31, 2019 and later in August at Walt Disney World.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019