(CNN Business) - "Spaceships and aliens and stormtroopers and lightsabers and droids and all in one attraction."
That's what Scott Trowbridge, a Disney theme park designer known as an Imagineer, told me ahead of riding the highly-anticipated, 18-minute new attraction, "Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance" at Walt Disney World.
"[It's] everything that makes Star Wars Star Wars," he said.
Disney's new massive and innovative ride acts as the centerpiece of the company's $1 billion park expansion, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. When the two lands debuted earlier this year at Disneyland in Anaheim, California and Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida, they were packed with authentic Star Wars experiences: You could see, buy, eat, and even drink Star Wars, down to the Blue Milk.
But Galaxy's Edge offered tourists just one ride — "Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run," a motion simulator that puts guests in the cockpit of Han Solo's iconic ship. At the far end of the 14-acre land, the main attraction — "Rise of the Resistance" — was still under wraps. Lower than expected turnout led to headlines describing the land as a "ghost town" and a "flop."
Despite the early headlines, Disney execs have been quick to point out that Galaxy's Edge has been a financial success, driving increases in per capita food and merchandise sales. "Guest satisfaction is very, very high," said CEO Iger on a recent earnings call.
Now Disney is finally pulling the curtains off "Rise," opening on Thursday at Walt Disney World and on January 17 at Disneyland. The stakes are high for this expensive gamble to succeed: Attendance at Disney's domestic theme parks was down 3% in its latest quarter. The company also recently announced the departure of Catherine Powell, the president of Disney Parks who oversaw Anaheim and Orlando.
Disney is betting it can turn things around with the power of high-tech experiences. The attraction packs dozens of audio-animatronics — and a couple of giant AT-ATs — holograms, lasers, and the most complex ride system Disney's Imagineers had ever designed: a trackless vehicle that moves laterally, vertically, and at all times unpredictably. At its annual shareholders meeting, Disney CEO Bob Iger called the ride "the most technologically advanced and immersive attraction that we have ever imagined."
Trowbridge, the creative mind behind Galaxy's Edge, said he's been working on "Rise" for more than five years. Yet, even as its opening day approaches, there's still work to be done.
"We're still very much in the final tweaking and tuning phase," said Trowbridge, while sitting outside Ronto Roasters, a Star Wars-themed grill where meat wraps are charred by a podracing engine. "We're not quite ready to open the flood gates to our guests yet."
That was two weeks ahead of the launch, when I became the first reporter to experience the attraction. Despite the anticipation and buzz around the ride, no one outside of those who built "Rise" knew what to really expect. But my expectations were certainly met — and then some.
An "E" Ticket Attraction
(Spoilers for "Rise of the Resistance" ahead.)
Disney has been the leading force in theme park innovation ever since Walt Disney practically invented the very concept of the theme park in 1955 with Disneyland. Back then, visitors bought physical tickets for individual attractions with "E" Ticket coupons designated for the most popular rides.
Those admission booklets are long gone, but Disney enthusiasts still refer to epic, technology-pushing rides as E-Ticket attractions. After experiencing nearly 20 minutes of sometimes-intense storytelling, I can confirm "Rise" is every bit an "E" Ticket experience that's steeped in the Star Wars saga.
The story behind the ride is complex but familiar. My fellow riders, including Trowbridge, and I were recruited to join the Resistance and sent on a mission by a holographic Rey and an animatronic BB-8. From there, we boarded the first ride vehicle, a standing-room only ship, piloted by two aliens in animatronic form — a Mon Calamari and a Sullustan, for those keeping score. As we left the planet Batuu, our ship was intercepted by the First Order, and a tractor beam pulled us on to a Star Destroyer, where a phalanx of fifty intimidating, animatronic Stormtroopers awaited our arrival.
We were then placed in a holding cell and interrogated by the sinister Kylo Ren and General Hux (presented here as projections). Suddenly, we managed to escape the clutches of the First Order — I refuse to say how; it's a great effect — only to be chased through the ship by Kylo Ren, now in animatronic form, and an army of Stormtroopers. We piled into a First Order Fleet Transport — a seated vehicle, this time — as an astromech droid drove us through the labyrinthine ship, dodging blaster fire, skirting laser cannons, and ducking Kylo Ren's glowing, cackling lightsaber as it (somehow) melted through the ceiling above our heads. Finally, we were jettisoned off the ship in an escape pod that acts as the ride's climactic drop. This was exactly the thrill ride I was looking for.
Trowbridge said "Rise" was designed like it has a "three-act structure to it" — and that holds true. At times, it felt more like immersive theatre than a Disney ride — or even more, like real life. When escorted into that First Order holding cell, I immediately thought, "Wait, this isn't cool," as though I was actually about to be interrogated.
When people talk about Disney magic, that's what they mean: environments and experiences created with such commitment to detail that you momentarily lose yourself in the story. The density of characters, sets, vehicles and effects — all driven by a clear narrative arc — condensed the emotions of a whole Star Wars movie into a tidy immersive experience.
The intricacy begged the question: How did Disney do it?
Five million lines of code
Pulling off a technical feat like "Rise" is unsurprisingly difficult. "An attraction like this that has scale and complexity brings challenges that have scale and complexity," Trowbridge said. "There are things we needed to invent."
That begins with the massive construction of "Rise," which required the largest concrete pour in the history of Disney Parks. Once guests enter the attraction, they'll be immersed by its enormous size, including full-size AT-AT walkers and TIE fighters, both stunning in detail. The ride vehicle that zips you around the spaceship has no track, making every movement feel unscripted. More than five million lines of code were written to choreograph the careful dance of pixels, props, robots, sound effects and simulators.
Characters come to life in different ways. Bad guys such as Kylo Ren and General Hux appear as both projections and animatronics, but it may be hard to decipher which form is which. Disney partnered with Panasonic to develop custom-made projectors and lenses that took several years of development to achieve the right level of sharpness and depth.
The 65 animatronic figures throughout the ride present a different challenge — not to mention the complexity of three high-detailed humanoids known as the A1000 series.
"A lot of energy is necessary to move these things with the speed and agility of a human being," Trowbridge said.
Conventional motors with enough torque to accelerate an arm or a leg are large and emit a lot of heat. So Walt Disney Imagineering worked alongside a vendor to develop thin "pancake'' motors capable of fitting inside the animatronic but still provide the power needed to achieve fluid, human-like movements.
"I often hear people say 'Is it an actor?'" Trowbridge said.
To translate essential Star Wars' elements like laser blasts from the screen to the physical world, the Imagineering team developed proprietary effects, including an apparatus for generating an illusion of a moving beam of light in in the air.
"This idea that laser bolts fly through space ... that's not how lasers work on earth," said Trowbridge. "So figuring out a way to make laser blasts travel more slowly through space — like a 'slug' of laser — took some new technology."
Do or do not. There is no try
Although "Rise" is a technical masterpiece, unmatched in many ways from any other ride on the planet, Trowbridge hopes visitors won't notice any of the technology.
"We don't want our guests thinking 'How does this work?' or 'What's really happening?' We just want you to feel like 'I'm in Star Wars. I'm having a Star Wars experience.'"
Will this be enough to get fans back to the parks? On a recent earnings call, CEO Iger admitted "some people stayed away [from Galaxy's Edge] just because they expected that it would not be a great guest experience." He was referencing fears of overcrowding around the land's initial launch, but some fans were likely, and understandably, holding off for "Rise."
And I can't say I blame them: now you can fly the Millennium Falcon and escape from Kylo Ren. It was worth the wait.