Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge - What's it like to visit Disneyland's newest attraction?
Damon Smith feels the Force of an otherworldly adventure in California's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge
A single bead of sweat snakes over my furrowed brow as I hack an antenna array on the outskirts of Black Spire Outpost.
In my fog of intense concentration, carefully aligning audio signals and decrypting secret communications between members of the Resistance, I fail to register the approach of two heavily armed Stormtroopers.
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"The First Order is watching," taunts one foot soldier, his electronic voice spiked with malicious intent. A persistent thrum from the antenna bristles my nerves as I recall master Yoda's sage counsel - fear is the path to the dark side - and awkwardly stand my ground. My personal odyssey on planet Batuu has begun.
Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is the largest and most technologically advanced single expansion of a Disney park - an immersive 14-acre wonderland which invites visitors to interact with the epic sci-fi saga created by George Lucas. Walking into the far-flung trading post, where smugglers operate cheek by jowl with traders and gung-ho adventurers, the hairs on my arms prickle with fan-boy glee.
I experience a rush of midi-chlorian rich blood standing in the shadow a full-size Millennium Falcon and momentarily tremble as Supreme Leader Kylo Ren strides purposefully down the exit ramp of his First Order TIE echelon ship.
Attention to detail is jaw-dropping. Crumbling walls are pocked with blaster fire, metal fixtures are caked with rust and the droid tracks embedded in concrete pathways are cast from rubbings of the original R2-D2's tyres.
Dozens of cast members roleplay Batuuan locals in an open-ended storyline set in the aftermath of the eighth film, The Last Jedi. These characters share back stories, seek help with tasks and trade pleasantries - "Bright suns" in the morning and "Rising moons" after dark - while an insanely huggable Chewbacca greets fresh-faced recruits in a rebel encampment just beyond a full-size X-Wing starfighter.
It's a rich and involving galaxy far, far away from adjoining Frontierland and Fantasyland, augmented with a soundscape of distant animal calls, beeping droids and a new orchestral suite composed by John Williams. Entry to Black Spire Outpost is by reservation until June 23 when Disneyland introduces a virtual queuing system to manage the inevitable overcrowding.
The land's centrepiece is a state-of-the-art simulator ride, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, which allows six people to take control of "the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy" at the behest of pirate Hondo Ohnaka, who is convincingly realised as an audio-animatronic figure. Members of crew must be 38 inches or taller to respond to flashing green lights on relevant sections of the cockpit.
On my maiden flight, I'm ill-prepared for the sensitivity of the pilot's stick and glance an asteroid, permanently losing starboard power. I don't stand a hope in Hoth of making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
On subsequent night-time flights as gunner and engineer, the ride lands beneath a canopy of twinkling stars, emboldening the illusion that I'm the hero of a personalised, organically evolving narrative. A barnstorming second ride, Star Wars: Rise Of The Resistance, will open by the end of the year in both California and Florida, where a virtually identical Galaxy's Edge welcomes its first earthly visitors on August 29.
The free-to-download Play Disney Parks app deepens engagement by transforming my mobile handset into a datapad, allowing me to earn galactic credits by pledging allegiance to the Resistance or First Order.
Using my camera, I translate signs written in the native Aurebesh, hack droids and blinking door panels, scan the contents of crates and containers, and tune into data streams from satellite dishes. Every interaction has consequences, unlocking subplots that enrich the storytelling experience.
Experiential shopping scales dizzy heights on Batuu. In Savi's Workshop, up to 14 aspiring Jedis and Siths can each build a customised lightsabre for around €190, choosing sections of the hilt and decor plus a kyber crystal to power this elegant weapon from a bygone age of civility.
It's a highly theatrical tutorial that demands a family-size suitcase if you want to get the finished weapon home safely without risking the wrath of phantom menaces at airport security.
Over at the Droid Depot, customise a BB or R unit from a steady stream of parts on a conveyor belt. Prices start at around €95 for a remote-controlled sidekick, which stands approximately 18 inches tall, but you can enhance your mechanised marvel with accessories and personality chips. A full-size replica R2-D2 in the adjoining shop will set you back an eye-watering €24,000 or more.
Along with fancy dress, operating a droid at a Disney park is prohibited so forgo the mind tricks - keep your buddy in its protective box during your grand adventure, as it reacts to Bluetooth-enabled elements with trills and chirps.
Nearby, Dok-Ondar's Den Of Antiquities sells tempting collectables including prebuilt lightsabres and ancient artefacts. The proprietor - a hammerhead herbivore - is an animatronic marvel and if you survey the overhead display gallery, you might glimpse a taxidermic wampa from The Empire Strikes Back.
Unique merchandise also abounds beneath the criss-crossing power lines of a bustling marketplace, which evokes the heady eastern promise of souks and bazaars in Morocco and Turkey.
Black Spire Outfitters sell authentic Batuuan attire including robes, tunics and belts and the Creature Stall is festooned with cuddly critters. None of the goods are branded since we are active participants in a real-life Star Wars escapade.
Oga's Cantina is the heartbeat of Black Spire Outpost, which takes its name from a petrified tree trunk at the centre of the encampment. The circular bar's secluded booths provide an ideal location to exchange intelligence in hushed tones under the cover of a rollicking musical soundtrack mixed by droid DJ R-3X. He can be hacked with hilarious consequences.
The cantina is the first outlet on the Disney estate to serve alcohol, so if you intend to down a Bloody Rancor (vodka, ancho chilli-flavoured liqueur and Bloody Mary mix garnished with a baked meringue bone, around €16) or another pungent concoction, you'll require proper intergalactic clearance - a passport should suffice - to prove you're 21 earth years or older.
At Kat Saka's Kettle, I devour a bag of moreish Outpost Mix, comprising mushroom popcorn spiced with chilli, lime and grape, then head into Ronto Roasters where a pod-racing engine rattles and roars above a large barbecue pit.
The former smelter droid in charge of the meat spit vociferously laments his miserable lot - "Turn, turn turn... the whole day through" - a sly verbal reference to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. The signature Ronto Wrap is a lip-smacking delight: moist pita filled with succulent sausage, roasted pork, tangy slaw and a piquant peppercorn sauce (€12.50).
There is also "farm to table" fare at Docking Bay 7 Food And Cargo, easily distinguished by a transport shuttle on the roof. Here, I happily quench a raging thirst between datapad assignments with a Tatooine Sunset (unsweetened iced tea, lemonade, melon and blueberry, €5.30).
Equally appealing are servings of blue and green milk - a frozen dairy-free blend of coconut and rice milks with fruity accents and tangy floral notes (£6.40). I eagerly ask one Batuuan if he knows how to express milk from a female bantha. The perplexed smile he flashes me in return suggests I might be taking this roleplay malarkey too far.
How to get there
Two-day park tickets to Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, currently start at $112.50 per day (disneyland.disney.go.com). Tickets get relatively cheaper the longer you stay - a three-day ticket starts from $100 per day, while a five-day ticket starts from $68 per day.
Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opens without reservations on June 24.