Halcyon Days (and Nights): An Inside Look at Disney’s Star Wars: Galactic StarcruiserAll photos courtesy of Disney Travel Features galactic starcruiser
I was in a galaxy far, far away when a war started.
It wasn’t a Star War. It was the real kind, here on Earth, with real people suffering real pain and destruction. I helped a bridge full of guests fight off a squadron of CGI TIE fighters on the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser while avoiding the news on my phone—a phone that didn’t really have much of a signal in space, anyway, even if that space was squarely within the Florida wetlands.
It is weird to be in the middle of an exclusive, luxury experience based on movies I’ve loved since I was a kid at the same time that the most ominous global conflict in decades breaks out. Theme park attractions too often hinge on things going wrong and the unthinkable happening, and while I was visiting Disney’s latest theme park attraction something truly unthinkable started to happen in the former Soviet Union. I’m pretty sure my grandparents didn’t have a Felix the Cat or Doc Savage hotel they could visit back when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. I want to be a responsible adult, keeping up to date with world events, while also giving myself over to this Star Wars story—to embrace the fantasy of the Galactic Starcruiser, to shut myself off to the real world, but without trivializing or disrespecting the victims of Russia’s violence. I want to play along with the crew’s fear and stress over being boarded by the First Order, even as I’m legitimately stressed and afraid over what’s happening in Ukraine—while also realizing whatever I’m feeling is infinitely less immediate and frightening and desperate as whatever the Ukrainian people are feeling. I’m safe. I’m nowhere near a warzone. I’m drinking cocktails at a lakefront bar outside Orlando. I want to do my job, but without feeling like an asshole about it.
That can be tough in a place whose closest Star Wars analogue is Canto Bight, the high-rolling casino planet of The Last Jedi.
The Galactic Starcruiser is a two-day immersive experience modeled after a cruise, aboard a hotel themed to a cruise ship within the world of Star Wars, at Walt Disney World in Florida. Imagine a real-life role-playing game featuring actors playing specific parts, inside a hotel that’s supposed to be a spaceship with the nostalgia-evoking name of the Halcyon, across two days full of activities and entertainment. If you’re the kind of fan who demands your Star Wars to focus solely on Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, you probably shouldn’t book yourself a room—but you also probably already realize that. If you enjoy the larger universe that has been built across 11 films, various TV shows, and hundreds of books and comics, and find something meaningful in its central conflict between light and dark—and, crucially, are willing to set aside any cynicism and too-cool-for-school posturing and embrace the spirit of the whole thing—you’re likely to have a good time… if you can afford it.
I didn’t actually stay aboard the Halcyon, or experience the full two-day program, but I was part of a group of press that was given a Starcruiser crash course over four hours. I met the crew, tried out the major activities, visited the bar, enjoyed a variety of its unique food, and saw all the major story beats play out around me. I can’t speak to how it feels to be fully immersed in this world for 48 hours, or what happens when it’s 3 in the morning and you want to leave your small cabin for a walk around the ship, but I can speak in broad strokes about what you can expect from a trip on the Halcyon.
Most of the online conversation about the Galactic Starcruiser has centered around the price, and that’s because it’s as sky high as the Halcyon itself. This is not something you book on a whim. The Galactic Starcruiser is a commitment that will set you back thousands of dollars. For that money you’ll get two days worth of meals, a handful of activities and experiences you can’t have anywhere else, a half-day excursion to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and your own role within an engrossing Star Wars story where you can choose to aid either the Resistance or the First Order, and participate as much or as little as you wish. You’ll need some level of passion for Star Wars to want to book a trip this expensive—or at least have a family member who does—but you don’t need to be an obsessive fan, or a student of the sacred Jedi texts, to enjoy yourself.
Above all else, Galactic Starcruiser is about story. Every crew member has their own story to tell, and they will tell it to you, if you give them an opportunity. When I first stepped onto the bridge, I was immediately hailed by a friendly bearded man in the Halcyon’s distinctive blue uniform. He gave me a quick tour of the bridge, shared some facts about the ship, and talked briefly about his home planet Kijimi, an icy rock that was apparently the site of one of Han Solo’s adventures. He wasn’t familiar with the planet Atlanta when he asked me where I came from. His name was Dan.
Of all the characters I met, the alien crew members were the most believable. Maybe it was the makeup, the headpieces, and the costumes, but they seemed to have more conviction than their human colleagues—or at least hiding their humanity helped cover up their actorly tics enough to make it easier to suspend my disbelief. (Also: none of them were named Dan.) At Disney’s theme parks some characters are in full-body costumes—think Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck—while others are what they call “face characters,” actors whose normal faces remain visible as they portray human characters like Snow White or Peter Pan. You see the same contradictions at play there; despite not talking, a character like Goofy feels realer and more alive than Jasmine or Aladdin do, and that’s true on the Halcyon, as well.
Captain Riyola Keevan has legit gravitas. The blue-hued Pantoran stopped me in the atrium to introduce herself and ask where I was from. (I knew enough to not just say “Atlanta” at this point.) She popped up throughout our four-hour sampler platter of an adventure, with her stately demeanor bringing a calm presence to various tumultuous scenes—including a climactic battle with the First Order. Meanwhile the intergalactic pop star Gaya and her band, including a Togrutan guitarist and a keyboard player / backup singer that was basically a sassy female pop star version of Greedo (and, yes, my absolute favorite character on the Halcyon), played a short but energetic set that included space pop, a sultry torch song, and at least one hot-ass guitar lick from the guitarist, whose instrument looked like a perfect combo of a guitar, sitar, and dobro. Acting all skeptical and dismissive about Star Wars pop music is the easiest and most boring thing in the world; fake pop music has been a part of this universe since the very first movie, when those bug-eyed, bald-headed little weirdos played what George Lucas inexplicably decided to call “jizz” music. Gaya’s set probably had too much English in it—only one extended breakdown during the ballad featured non-English lyrics—but once you’re wrapped up in the spirit of the whole thing you won’t find it that easy to mock or dismiss the performance. Our meal, a sampler platter of Halcyon’s food, wasn’t especially notable, but Gaya’s performance was one of the highlights—especially when the story kicked in, and Gaya and her band held strong against the First Order’s encroachment.
Story also elevates activities like bridge training and lightsaber training. Bridge training, where guests cycle through four different stations in an exercise that’s supposed to be purely recreational, feels like the coolest arcade of 1979 until the story takes over. The weapons station is like a fancier version of Space Invaders, with one guest moving a target on the bridge’s huge screen over a TIE fighter or asteroid while another guest presses a button to fire. The shields system is basically Pong or Breakout; you twist a knob to slide a paddle back and forth to block projectiles headed towards the ship. Instead of the CRT screen of an arcade cabinet, though, you’re looking at a large, round station with what appears to be a hologram of the Halcyon itself at the center. This would’ve killed at a Chuck E. Cheese in 1983. Of course today’s kids probably don’t know about Breakout, or even Arkanoid, and their parents might appreciate the retrograming flavor. Either way, the old-fashioned gaming stations of bridge training become surprisingly exciting when the ship’s crew members start to impress how vitally important it is for you to accomplish these tasks. Playing fancy Pong on a giant table is oddly fun for a few moments, but playing fancy Pong to keep Chewbacca alive inside his escape pod as the ship’s mechanic passionately urges you on is suddenly a matter of life and death.
Compared to that, lightsaber training is peaceful, reflective, almost soothing. Sadly there are no floating orbs, as Luke faced off against on the Millennium Falcon; instead fixed probes shoot lights out in four different directions, and guests have to pivot their lightsaber to block them. The two guests in line behind them hold shields to block whatever blasts the saber wielder misses, letting those in line partake in the action while waiting for their turn with the Jedi’s laser sword. Training is overseen by a Force sensitive crew member who isn’t quite a Jedi but still knowledgeable of their ways. My trainer was able to inject real emotion into the Force while remaining personable; she wasn’t as stoic or distant as Jedis can be in the movie, but she was able to project an understanding of the Force that made the whole experience unexpectedly touching. And that was before Yoda’s voice filled the room, encouraging us to use the Force instead of our eyes to block the lasers. Lightsaber training is a parlor trick, sure, but like Savi’s Workshop at Galaxy’s Edge, it’s one that taps into our innate appreciation for the lore and aesthetic of classic Star Wars.
Still, there might be too much of a disconnect between the Starcruiser’s ship and the visual language of Star Wars. It’s not just the real-life price point that’ll make you think of Canto Bight, but the design of the Halcyon itself. This is clearly a ship for the 1%, and the 1% of Star Wars is canonically oblivious to the struggle of the galaxy, and thus complicit in its inequality.
Star Wars movies train you to recognize the new and shiny and clean as being bad. Extreme orderliness is the sign of space fascists. The Empire—later, the First Order—are always slick and well-maintained. The heroes, from the Rebellion to the Resistance, are flying by the seat of their pants, relying on dinged up helmets and ornery droids and piles of scrap to keep their movement going. Even in the prequel trilogy, when we see a society that’s both gleaming and good, it still reads as old and out of place to us; Naboo is basically Renaissance Italy, a society already past its expiration date, with a fleet of spaceships that look like Art Deco hood ornaments from the 1930s. It’s a far cry from the New York City planet of Coruscant, the seat of both power and corruption, and a place where the Starcruiser would easily fit in. The Halcyon is immaculate, and that makes it suspicious from a Star Wars perspective—more suspicious than it winds up being within the story.
If you’re paying what the Starcruiser costs, though, you probably want it to be clean. You want it to feel like a cruise ship (which, hey, Disney has some of) that’s been freshly scrubbed before your voyage. If you can afford what the Starcruiser costs, you’re probably not sympathetic to the Resistance within the fiction of Star Wars. You’re rich; things are working out for you as is. I don’t want to harp on the expense, but there’s no way to get around that when talking about the Galactic Starcruiser. This thing costs a lot.
As cheesy and navel-gazing as this might sound, the best theme park attractions are art. They aren’t just about escape; they bring multiple artistic disciplines together to create an experience that can’t be replicated in any other medium. Galactic Starcruiser might be the most multidisciplinary work Disney has ever created, but ultimately it doesn’t quite reach the heights of what Imagineering has created in the past. Despite the many characters and their stories, despite the games that try to pull you deeper into this world, despite the focus on transporting guests to a specific universe, it doesn’t feel as organic or lived in as Galaxy’s Edge. It’s a marvelous bit of interactive theater, with a genuinely exciting final showdown between good and evil featuring characters like Rey, Chewbacca, and Kylo Ren (as well as interjections from every major Halcyon character), but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is something that should have completed Galaxy’s Edge instead of being an exorbitantly priced add-on. It’s a real show, and not a vibrant, self-contained world that you get a little glimpse into, as with the best Disney attractions.
Still: perhaps price is no issue for you. Maybe you don’t have to put a dollar amount on a good time. Our real world is pretty much a disaster right now. If I could afford to escape it, even for two days, I absolutely would. And even though I can’t, I won’t look down on those who can. (I would totally look down on those who could afford to escape it permanently by flying off to real outer space, like the Musks and Bransons and Bezoses of the world, because they could use that money to solve so many of our problems instead of running from them.) I’ve written this entire article while sitting in a hotel room and watching news coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it’s like my sensibilities have been perfectly cleaved in half; I understand anybody who wants to avoid the real world and fully jump into the fantasy of the Galactic Starcruiser and Galaxy’s Edge, and I understand everybody who feels that kind of escapism is irresponsible or ill-advised at the moment. Part of me wants to live on the Halcyon and repeat the same story every 48 hours while ignoring everything going down in the world today, and part of me is trying to figure out how my (uniquely useless) skill of writing about theme parks and videogames could help in whatever conflict we’re about to enter into. I have no problem picking between the Light and the Dark—there’s only one choice, unless you suck—but that’s a binary made up for a kid’s movie. The real world ain’t Star Wars, no matter how much we’d like it to be, and no matter how much the Galactic Starcruiser tries to make it feel. But then that’s all the more reason to book a trip on the Halcyon: to get away from what’s happening on Earth, if only for two days, and play a new role in a thrilling but harmless adventure with absolute moral clarity, and the likes of which we’ll never get to experience in real life. If you have enough credits to make that possible, more power to you—and may the Force be with you.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.