Home » Behind the Ride: Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run

Behind the Ride: Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run

Since 1977, movie lovers have fantasized about flying the Millennium Falcon. Disney fans first got a taste of flying around in the Star Wars universe with the original Star Tours in 1989. Thirty years later, Imagineers fulfilled the real promise of starship piloting at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge when they introduced the themed land’s first attraction. Let’s go behind the ride to learn how Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run works.

The experience: Allowing guests to board the Millennium Falcon

The trick: Making the ship the centerpiece of the line queue

Image: DisneyDisney’s not stupid. They knew far ahead of time that the demand for a Star Wars-themed land would outpace anything that they’ve ever done before. With only two attractions planned, Imagineers had to prepare for the worst in terms of line queues. They expected most daily park guests to have at least a cursory interest in Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run.

Disney constructed the entire line queue with this thought process front and center. Since Imagineers knew that they’d planned a life-size model of the Millennium Falcon as a signature aspect of Galaxy Edge, they doubled down on the glory of such a landmark. They created a line queue that would start right beside the starship.

Just before you enter the ride building, you’ll see this stunningly detailed replica of the vessel that can make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. Imagineers have lovingly crafted a vehicle that brings every aspect of the ship into full view. You can even see into the blue windows where Han Solo and Chewbacca once sat.

Image: DisneyThen, the inside portion of the line queue provides an unprecedented view of the Millennium Falcon. You’ll start on a lower level behind the vessel. Here, you can appreciate the grit and grime of the well-traveled starship, details that Disney adds to enhance the realism of its scale model.

When you reach the upper floor, you stand over the Millennium Falcon and can appreciate the detail of the top of it. Tubes and coils go into and out of the hull, powering the spaceship. The exacting nature of the Millennium Falcon elevates the immersion. Flying Han Solo’s ship sounds thrilling in theory, but the existence of a full-sized vessel just outside the building intensifies the experience.

The experience: making a new alien frenemy in Hondo Ohnaka

The trick: building the Star Wars character to life in multiple forms

Image: DisneyIn the aftermath of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Chewbacca needs cash to fund the Resistance. He temporarily aligns with Hondo Ohnaka, the Weequay pirate. While the hilarious criminal isn’t emphatic about politics, Ohnaka recognizes that the fastest starship in the galaxy can help him with his nefarious enterprises. And that’s where you come in.

With Han Solo gone for good and Chewbacca barely seen on Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, Ohnaka is your host and thereby your boss for this mission. He’ll tell you what the job involves, and he’ll eventually narrate the mission in real-time. In other words, your new pirate ally is integral to all aspects of this attraction.

Imagineers knew from the planned story that riders would enjoy Smuggler’s Run more if they developed a personal relationship with Ohnaka. For this reason, he appears in three different phases of the attraction. You’ll first meet him in Audio-Animatronic form, and Disney went all-out in designing a state-of-the-art robot who you’ll believe is real.

In technical terms, Ohnaka is an A100 Audio-Animatronic humanoid. It’s one of the most advanced units due to the range of motion available. Ohnaka can wave dismissively, stare off distractedly, or clench his fists dramatically. This modern robot style replaces old-school hydraulic motions with electric functionality, giving Ohnaka that much more humanity. Well, he’s not human, but you get the point.

From a design perspective, cast members had an easy time recreating the look of Ohnaka. He’s a featured player in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, so he already had an established look and style. He’s got a full-length red coat, black gloves, and a kicky hat. He even wears sunglasses indoors.

Image: DisneyTo add to the authenticity of the character, Disney re-hired Jim Cummings, who had previously provided the voice for the character. He’s more famous for his portrayal of Winnie the Pooh, but Cummings is extremely good as the scandalous pirate in this tale. His interactions with Chewbacca, appearing on a digital screen, are an especially nice touch.

After meeting the scale model version of Hondo Ohnaka, you’ll encounter him again just before entering the cockpit. He’ll appear on a monitor to enlighten you about the mission and give something of a pep talk. As with the Millennium Falcon, the fact that you saw a life-size version of him moments ago adds to the illusion that he’s a real alien interacting with you on the ship’s communication system.

The final time that you’ll see the pirate is during the attraction. Would-be smugglers need to know how to pull off a heist, and that’s where Ohnaka comes into play.

Image: DisneyThis is the genius part from a design perspective. Hondo narrates the action, instructing you on what to deal. Without him, you’d be flying blind on the details of your mission. You’ve never flown the Millennium Falcon before, after all.

Ohnaka will tell you which buttons to push, how to navigate, and when to attack during the action sequences. He’ll also let you know when you’re doing poorly and even review your performance in the end. Since the pirate doesn’t know you and works with a lot of people, he’s honest to a point of fault.

When you’re doing poorly, you will hear about it. When you do a bad job, he’ll disgustedly eject you from the cockpit in the end. It’s like the audio equivalent of red ink on a test paper. You’ll always know where you stand with Hondo Ohnaka, even though you might wish for silence on the subject.

The experience: Letting guests fly the Millennium Falcon

The trick: A glossier version of the mechanics of Star Tours and Soarin’

Image: DisneyThe moment that you walk into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon for the first time, you’ll feel a rush of excitement and anticipation. It’s one of the first times in the history of theme park design that something that you’ve seen in a movie is possible in the real world.

You’ll feel so distracted by the rush of emotions that you’ll buy into the illusion completely. Disney’s creating team counted on this in planning Smuggler’s Run. Since you’re focused on the levers, buttons, and imagery surrounding you, you’re likely to overlook the similarities the ride shares with ones that came before it.

From a meta perspective, this attraction combines elements from Star Tours and Soarin’. You’re looking at a giant projection screen during the entire ride. You just don’t think of it that way since it seems like a view of outer space from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

The mimicry happens when your ride cart, which is the entire room, starts shaking. It’s no different than the way that your seat vibrates in Star Tours. Similarly, the changing backgrounds on the projection screen are the same as the gigantic IMAX display from Soarin’.

In this way, the ride premise is identical. You remain in a stationary position for the body of the attraction. Imagineers do all of the work for you by changing the display, thereby causing you to believe that you’re transported to faraway locations.

A popular statement about Avatar Flight of Passage is that it’s Soarin’ on steroids, the same ride style taken to another level of intensity. Presuming that’s true, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is Star Tours on that Bane juice that made him the monster of Gotham who broke Batman. The premise is still the same, but the presentation is vastly superior to the point that you’ll never even think about the similarities.

The experience: Role playing…with roles!

The trick: Giving three different job options to players

Repeat value matters with theme park attractions. Ones that lack it rarely have longevity. With Smuggler’s Run, Disney’s done something unprecedented. They’ve introduced job classes for the attraction. You’ll select one of three cards moments before you enter the attraction.

Your choices are pilot, engineer, and gunner. You’ll actually have six different ride experiences rather than three, though. The cockpit has three rows, each with a left and right seat. The sides have slightly different roles. You can fly the Millennium Falcon six different times before you ever repeat a task!

The gunners have the most straightforward jobs on Smuggler’s Run. They fire lasers at TIE fighters and other enemies during the coaxium heist. Imagineers want guests to savor the environment, so they’ve made the assignment tasks extremely user-friendly. For example, auto-fire is the default setting, giving gunners a better chance of success.

How you perform directly correlates to what happens during your quest. When gunners fail to hit their targets, the ship may take damage. When this happens, the engineers come into play. These are the fixers in the cockpit. When something breaks, it’s up to the engineer to save the day. They’ll know that they’re up by seeing lights display in the cockpit, alerting them to impending dangers. The engineers are also in charge of the hooks that grab the trains carrying coaxium, which is arguably the most important job of all.

The strongest indication of the differences in jobs is in the pilot chairs. The left and right pilots control entirely different movements. On the left side, the pilot controls the horizontal motions of the Millennium Falcon, steering the vessel left and right. The other pilot controls the vertical, the up and down motions. This person also gets to perform the single most enjoyable action, boosting the vehicle into hyperspace.

Imagineers consciously decided to split the steering motions rather than giving a single pilot full control of the ship’s movement. They wanted to involve as many people as possible in determining the outcome of the mission. A pilot who could move the ship in all directions would have had too much influence on the final result of the smuggling quest.

The other remarkable aspect of the design is that each job role comes with a certain level of intensity. Engineering is the job that guests should pick when they want to do the least. The people in that job role can spend the largest amount of time admiring the beauty of the digitally rendered visuals.

The gunners fall into the middle category as a worthy choice for adrenaline junkies. The chance to blow up some members of the First Order is a lot of fun but not especially taxing for the most part. It’s the pilots who will feel the most frenzied during Smuggler’s Run. They must pay attention at all times, lest they drive into one of the environmental obstacles, thereby damaging the ship and lowering their final score. Speaking of which…

The experience: Working with your friends to aid the Resistance

The trick: Adding a gaming element to raise the stakes

You may not think of it that way, but when you ride Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, you’re effectively inside a videogame. You’re a member of a six-player co-op team trying to steal some cargo in order to earn a few intergalactic credits from your pirate friend, Ohnaka.

When you enter the cockpit, you’re staring at a digital monitor. You won’t think of your perspective that way due to the quality of the immersive Imagineering techniques in place, though. The Millennium Falcon famously has a unique cockpit that juts out in a cone shape. The construction crew’s replica aided the gaming element of Smuggler’s Run. The angular sections of the cockpit became the viewing screen, just like in the movies. The difference is in what Disney does with them.

Disney asked ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s virtual reality entertainment team, to render the imagery that you see in the cockpit. It’s rendered in real-time using the Unreal gaming engine. That’s the same system utilized in blockbuster videogames like Fortnite Battle Royale, Gears of War 4, Kingdom Hearts III, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and the Final Fantasy VII remake. In other words, it’s a hardcore gaming system for first-person perspective, which is also what Smuggler’s Run is.

In fact, this ride employs more complex graphics than anything that you can play in a videogame today. Eight NVIDIA Quadro P6000 GPUs power the digital film, and five QuadroSync projectors exhibit the film on the digital display monitors. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the hardware alone. You’re watching the best possible video rendering of a Star Wars story, which explains why you’re so into it.

To amplify the adrenaline rush, Smuggler’s Run grades you at the end. You’ll receive a score that judges how well you’ve performed on the mission. You’ll earn bonuses for gaining additional coaxium, and you’ll have credits taken away from damaged incurred on the ship during the mission. Ohnaka has to pay for that, and he’ll pass the expense on to you.

The grading on this attraction is harsh because Smuggler’s Run is tough. Almost everyone fails their first few missions. Since it’s a co-operative game experience, you receive a group score…but it’s easy to tell who held up their end and who didn’t. You’ll never feel more embarrassed in your life than when the pirate overlord of Batuu kicks you out of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.