Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, the newest attraction at Disney World, is more than just a theme park ride. Conceived as the centerpiece of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a billion dollar expansion to both Disneyland and Disney World’s Hollywood Studios that lets guests immerse themselves in the Star Wars universe, Rise of the Resistance’s launch wound up being pushed back months after Galaxy’s Edge opened. Hyped as one of the largest, costliest and most complicated attractions ever built by Walt Disney Imagineering, the ride that was supposed to be the land’s highlight was suddenly cast in the role of savior by those who viewed Galaxy’s Edge as a failure or disappointment. Rise of the Resistance couldn’t just be a ride anymore, or even the most ambitious theme park ride ever attempted; it became a referendum on Disney’s entire theme park strategy for some, and on the company’s handling of Star Wars for others. And let me tell you, that’s exactly as exhausting as it sounds.
Forget the critics and the naysayers, the grumps and trolls who claim to be “fans” and complain endlessly about every Star Wars decision made since 1983, or who act like Disney can’t do anything right at its theme parks anymore. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has been a creative success since the day it launched, and was already the new standard in theme park design before Rise of the Resistance ever opened. And now that the land’s main event, the attraction that was always intended to act as Galaxy’s Edge’s climax, has finally opened, it’s more obvious than ever: Disney has built a special place that should delight guests for generations to come.
I rode Rise of the Resistance a half-dozen times earlier this week, and I’m still trying to get my head around it. It’s a sprawling adventure that combines so many different theme park ideas and Imagineering innovations with the sights and sounds of Star Wars, thrilling fans of both George Lucas’s beloved universe and Disney’s unparalleled mastery of themed entertainment. Like the best theme park attractions, it wholly transports you to another place, one that has become an integral thread of American culture since debuting in 1977. I don’t want to overhype it, but it’s legitimately a masterpiece of design, planning and entertainment.
Much of Rise of the Resistance’s genius won’t even be apparent to most guests. Take the queue: the imagineers didn’t just decorate a long, winding line to make it look like the rough-hewn tunnels of the Resistance’s hidden base. They turned what is effectively the attraction’s queue into a four or five step sequence full of show scenes and storytelling.
What is destined to be the most talked about part of the ride actually comes before you get on the main ride vehicle. After you get your mission briefing from BB-8 and a holographic Rey and leave the Resistance base, you’ll board a transport ship piloted by audio-animatronics of Nien Nunb and Lieutenant Bek, a new character from the same alien race as Return of the Jedi’s Admiral Ackbar. The ship is suddenly captured by a First Order star destroyer, with screens designed to look like windows at either end of the ship showing a brief, one-sided battle with the First Order fleet. When the slight movements of your ship come to a stop, the same door you boarded through reopens. You’re greeted by a lifesize star destroyer hangar bay with dozens of stormtroopers, a TIE fighter, and a wall-sized “window” outside which you can see other ships flying about in space. I wrote about this scene back in February, when it was unfinished; even without the stormtroopers it was a gasp-inducing moment. Now that it’s complete it’s even more overwhelming than I expected. I can’t think of anything like this moment in any other theme park attraction, and it happens in what is essentially still part of the line.
From there a First Order officer will bark at you to walk down a corridor branching off the hangar bay. You’ll line up in a hallway that looks like it was airlifted in from a movie set, with that cold, sterile brutalism of an Empire or First Order spacecraft brightened by an array of flashing lights and panels. At the end of this hallway you’ll turn into a chamber; two stormtroopers keep their rifles trained on you and your fellow prisoners as more First Order officers split you into eight-person groups and march you towards a detention cell. Once inside the cell lifelike projections of General Hux and Kylo Ren threaten you for information on the Resistance’s hidden base. After a short scene they are called away to the bridge, at which point you’re sprung out of the cell by Resistance agents in a way that I won’t spoil for you. It’s only after all of this, well over 10 minutes of story since that first briefing room, that the queue and preshow scenes are done, and you finally board the ride’s primary vehicle, a trackless ride system that Disney has used variations of in certain international attractions but that has been rarely seen in its American parks.
I won’t go into scene-by-scene detail. Over the course of the next five minutes your vehicle will glide and dance throughout multiple floors of this star destroyer. You’ll encounter probe droids, trigger-happy stormtroopers, two giant AT-AT walkers, and audio-animatronics of Hux, Kylo Ren and a certain Resistance member. You’ll see blaster fire streak towards you and watch its explosive impact upon the walls of the destroyer. Your vehicles will scurry through a room full of massive cannons that surge back and forth while firing out at a fleet of approaching Resistance ships, in a scene that feels like it could come right out of a videogame. Ren stalks you throughout, slicing through the roof with his lightsaber at one point, and using the Force to pull your cars towards him during a climactic scene. Eventually your vehicle will board an escape pod, and for a brief moment Rise of the Resistance echoes two other rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios; it has a short drop that captures the thrill of The Tower of Terror as you plummet back towards Batuu, and evokes the motion simulation of Star Tours as you rock back and forth over Black Spire Outpost. In fact, this part of the ride combines three different ride systems in a unique way, as Disney Imagineer John Larena explained; your trackless ride vehicle locks into a motion simulator base similar to Star Tours that’s sitting on top of a modified version of The Tower of Terror’s drop system, the tech of one ride stacked on top of another’s on top of another’s.
The overall impact can’t really be summed up in words. This is something you have to experience for yourself to even begin to understand, and even then it’ll take more than one ridethrough. I basically did a loop that lasted a little over an hour, heading from the exit immediately back to the entrance and riding it four times in a row with almost no interruption. Every time I noticed a new detail I hadn’t seen before, and felt something new and unexpected. Later on, while talking to some of the other writers and journalists at the press event, I heard about even more elements that I never personally noticed.
This attraction, and Galaxy’s Edge as a whole, are perfectly suited to my particular interests. I grew up loving both Star Wars and Disney World, and the way Galaxy’s Edge combines the two is smart and sublime. At its best, it provokes both strong emotions and deep thought on the relationship between art, entertainment and nostalgia. I believe that Rise of the Resistance is so fantastic—and such a groundbreaking ride—that even people who don’t particularly care about Star Wars will love it. If you are a theme park fan who grew up loving attractions like Pirates or the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, who has hoped that Disney would create more long, narrative experiences like those, full of unforgettable scenes and sensations, you just might love Rise of the Resistance as much as I do.
This new attraction doesn’t just complete Galaxy’s Edge. It doesn’t just put us inside the films we’ve been watching for over 40 years, or serve as an interactive advertisement for the biggest franchise in movies. It’s a technological marvel of unparalleled scope and scale that should stun everybody who rides it, and the best work Disney Imagineering has done in the United States since the original Tower of Terror opened at Hollywood Studios in 1994. It’s a triumph of engineering and storytelling that makes the unreal and impossible feel like real life. It’s something that every Star Wars or theme park fan needs to experience in person. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is more than just a theme park ride.
Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is now open at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. It is scheduled to open at Disneyland on Jan. 17, 2020.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @disneytheque. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.