On May 20, 2011, Disney's Hollywood Studios became the first of three Disney theme parks (so far) to host an updated version of arguably the most iconic motion simulator ride in existence.
Star Tours: The Adventures Continue (aka Star Tours II) replaced the original attraction that (officially) debuted on January 9, 1987. The updated attraction's debut represented the culmination of roughly 13 years (!) of work by Disney Imagineers who had spent the entirety of the Star Wars prequel trilogy planning how to incorporate the new ideas into a better ride simulation. Let’s go Behind the Ride to determine exactly what was changed and what steps were required to achieve one of the most impressive and unprecedented rides, even to this day.
1. The Experience: Updating a 3D simulation of a Star Wars vacation gone awry
The Trick: Over a decade of planning
The origins of the original Star Tours are amusingly mundane. Star Wars creator George Lucas happened to ask what Disney’s Imagineers were working on when he visited. They indicated that they were building a new flight simulator. He casually asked for ideas on how to implement a similar ride with Star Wars characters. Two years later, they presented a collated list to him. The rest is theme park history.
In 1986, the parties agreed that enough of a premise was in place to build an unforgettable attraction bearing the Star Wars and Disney brands, a union that would pay dramatic dividends for both parties a couple of decades later. The new attraction known as Star Tours came with a price tag of $32 million, but its instant popularity was unmistakable. Disneyland operated for 60 straight hours to handle the immediate, constant demand for their new signature motion simulator.
Approximately a decade later, the old version grew stale, and consumers often requested an update. In 1998, Lucas’ people contacted Disney to say that he was working on Episode One and knew the sequence that should become the basis of Star Tours. The ride was the Pod Race, and he was correct that it was a worthy follow-up as a ride experience.
Disney boarded out the entire attraction as this one part, presuming the Pod Race the complete ride experience. In 1998, they’d already decided to make the ride in 3D with glasses similar to Anakin’s to further tether The Adventures Continue to the planned Star Wars prequel. They had no idea at the time that the film itself would break the hearts of many moviegoers.
Alas, fortune was in their favor. Nothing happened with the actual design of the ride until October 2003. Since the Imagineers had no advance knowledge of what would be in Episode 2 or 3, they decided to wait until the new trilogy ended. After their release, however, Disney’s employees couldn’t pick their favorite sequence from these films, either. They knew that for Star Tours II to surpass its grandiose expectations, more oomph was needed.
2. The Experience: 54 Different variations of the same ride
The Trick: A storytelling slot machine
Have you heard of the Choose Your Own Adventure books by Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery? Disney’s Imagineers recognize that Star Wars was a global phenomenon unlike any other. Its fans hungered for an original experience that would allow them to enjoy multiple visits into the fertile imagination of George Lucas. The designers settled upon a “storytelling slot machine” premise.
Their pitch to Lucas involved a five-part story of a take-off sequence for a ship, a journey to a new land, a detour caused by shenanigans, a transition away from this area, and a main event that would comprise the body of the ride time. The trick they embraced was revolutionary for the time and remains largely novel today.
There is a random calculation made to determine which of multiple options each ride will employ. The initial pitch called for four possibilities on take-off, six on the travel segment, 12 on the detour, an undetermined amount for the transition, and another dozen for the main event. I’ll save you the math here. As originally envisioned, The Adventure Continues would have offered at least 3,456 potential variations and probably somewhere around 13,824, presuming that there were at least as many transition possibilities as take-off segments.
Alas, such lofty ambitions demanded too much legwork for the time. As it was, Star Tours II required new 3D as well as digital technologies, neither of which was well established during the design phase. Filming another 30-34 potential ride mechanics would have taken far too much time. They eventually settled upon providing enough random variations to offer 54 permutations of Star Tours – The Adventure continues. That’s 53 more than virtually any other ride on the planet.