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Star Tours: The Stellar Story Behind the Ride That Changed Disney Parks Forever

Prequels

From soon after Star Tours’ launch, fans were clamoring for more. They called for the ride to be updated and upgraded for years, and in 1998, it almost happened. George Lucas contacted Imagineering to report that he had the perfect segue to update Star Tours at Disney Parks – an in-production scene from the upcoming fourth installment, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Imagineers traveled to Skywalker Ranch to view the scene Lucas had in mind: the Podrace on Tattooine. Disney’s designers got to work storyboarding the new adventure that would’ve seen Star Tours’ destination (but not its timeline) reset, with guests visiting the Boonta Eve Classic on Tattooine as observers. Guests’ first clue that something was different about their experience would be when the Starspeeder (still piloted by REX) would depart through the correct launchway. Upon arriving on Tattooine, guests would enjoy watching the Podracers take their marks when (you guessed it) something would go horribly wrong, forcing the Starspeeder into the race.

From the start, this updated version of the attraction was imagined as a 3D experience, with guests wearing replicas of Anakin Skywalkers’s goggles.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Of course, this refreshed version of Star Tours never took shape.  To hear Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald tell it, the reason is simple: designers knew they’d have only one shot at refreshing Star Tours to compliment the highly anticipated prequel trilogy, so before Imagineers could retrofit the ride to the Episode I scene, they wanted to know what would happen in Episode II. Then, when Episode II debuted, they didn’t want to do anything to the ride until they saw Episode III.

It became clear that, whichever route Disney took and whichever scenes they were inspired by, they’d run into a major hurdle: the ride would instantly date itself by being rigidly connected to one of the new films, and re-ride-ability would suffer. People would quickly develop a “been there, done that” attitude. And by late 2003, as George Lucas was filming Episode III, Imagineers had devised a perfect solution.

After a run of 23 years, Star Tours closed forever in July and September 2010 at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, respectively. While fans lamented the loss of the classic, the “Last Tour of Endor” special events weren’t your typical Disney Parks attraction funeral. Star Tours would return better than ever…

The Adventures Continue

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

"It has been a long time since the end of the Clone Wars, and the evil Sith Lord Darth Vader continues to tighten his grip on the Empire as the galaxy moves closer to the brink of a great civil war.

A new intergalactic spaceline, Star Tours, seeks to preserve the unrestricted intergalactic travel in this age of tyranny. Freedom fighter Captain Raymus Antilles has assigned two droids, See-Threepio and Artoo-Detoo, to help launch the spaceline, fueling Imperial suspicion that Star Tours is part of the Rebel Alliance.

Star Tours is about to open its first intergalactic space terminal in the Earth System as rumors of a fearsome weapon of mass destruction dash all hope for peace and freedom in the galaxy…"

Star Tours – The Adventures Continue opened May 20, 2011 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and two weeks later on June 3 at Disneyland. The refreshed ride is all-new in both story and substance. Now set between Episode III and Episode IV, the ride is, essentially a “prequel” to the original Star Tours with guests riding in Starspeeder 1000s (compared to the 3000s-model from the original).

Image: Disney

Subtle changes mark the difference in the queue, from the sleek red Starspeeder 1000 being evaluated by C-3PO and R2-D2 to new droids conducting security scans of luggage and passengers as entertainment.

In a fun nod to the original, guests will also pass a malfunctioning droid half-packed away at Droid Customs, being returned to the manufacturer to correct defects. The sparking, shortcircuiting robot is none other than Rex, with a skipping audio track reciting his lines from the original ride!

Image: Amy, Flickr (license)

Among the ride’s noteworthy additions: the 70mm film of yesteryear was, of course, replaced with Dolby high-definition digital projection and new in-cabin special effects. And while fans will always miss REX, there’s something wonderful about your pilot being the unwitting C-3PO, stuck behind the wheel when the Starspeeder’s autopilot launch sequence kicks in while the unwitting droid is on board to repair the drive system. (“Flight 1401, you are cleared for launch.” “1401? That’s us! We can’t take off – the captain isn’t on board!”) But the ride’s starring feature now? The adventure itself.

Today, the ride features thirteen segments (2 opening launch scenes, 4 main destination options, 4 potential hologram transmissions, and 3 possible ending segments) that are randomly shuffled to allow up to 96 unique ride combinations.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

So upon launching, you might be cornered by an Imperial probe droid who scans your vehicle to find a Rebel Spy (it could be you!) or Darth Vader himself may arrive, gripping your Starspeeder in a Force hold.

After escaping the port and launching to lightspeed, you may find yourself on Tattooine (locked head-to-head in a Podrace with Sebulba), racing through a snowy AT-AT battle on Hoth, blasting through the trees of the Wookie’s home planet Kashyyyk, or storming through the ruins of starships on Jakku (inserted in 2015 to promote Episode VII, and thus out of continuity with the rest of the ride’s storyline).

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Similarly, your wild race to escape the Empire with the Rebel Spy onboard may take you to Naboo and Otoh Gunga, sweve through the traffic of Coruscant, or arrive face-to-face with the still-under-construction Death Star and the menacing Boba Fett. Chances are that if you ride again, you’ll visit someplace new. And as proven with the release of The Force Awakens, Star Tours can now be updated to reflect the expanding Star Wars universe, providing ever-changing reasons to return to the ride.

Check out the must-see video of this incredible interstellar adventure below, representing just one of the 96 possible ride combinations: 

A New Hope

After the debut of the new version in Florida and California, international Disney Parks around the globe followed suit and took their existing Star Tours rides to the next level with “The Adventure Continues” overlays, each with its own flavor.

Image: Disney

The refreshed ride opened in Tokyo Disneyland’s Tomorrowland on May 7, 2013. (In place of the standalone Rex cameo in the queue, Tokyo's version features three droids who look suspiciously familiar to fans of the Haunted Mansion.)

The last holdout of the original Star Tours rides – Disneyland Paris’ ­– finally closed on May 16, 2016 officially making Star Tours a global Lost Legend. France's Star Tours – The Adventures Continue opened March 26, 2017, bringing all four rides into sync. 

We’re unabashedly proud of the refreshed Star Tours. It ranked high on our countdown of the best “plusses” to Disney rides, and our readers seem to agree! Sure, some fans lament the loss of the original and its iconic trench run, and a generation who grew up with 1987’s Star Tours could hardly be bothered with the notion that its film was grainy and its effects dated. And we understand and appreciate the deserved enthusiasm that those fans have.

But to put it simply, Star Tours – The Adventures Continue is the right way to plus a beloved attraction. It represents the tremendous leap forward in filmmaking and storytelling that technology has provided while referencing the original and keeping the wonderful spirit of an intergalactic mishap with cameos by characters you know and love. The ride redefined re-ride-ability more than 35 years after another Lost Legend: EPCOT’s Horizons, gave visitors a way to manipulate their own ride, and more than 20 years after Indiana Jones Adventure brought the practice into immersive storytelling with the three Gifts of Mara.

Legacy: the Light Side

Image: Disney

Star Tours: The Adventures Continue expanded and innovated on the original ride, but we ought not forget the transformative power that the original Star Tours had. Right from its opening, Star Tours had hit it out of the galaxy. The perfect fusion of storytelling, tongue-in-cheek humor, thrills, and pop culture satisfaction ensured that this attraction felt 100% Star Wars and yet entirely Disney.

And think about it – as Eisner’s first real, big-budget foray into the world beyond Disney’s own catalogue of characters and stories, Star Tours would set a new precedent. Especially in Disneyland – Walt’s park! – the involvement of an outside property was a risk that, today, might’ve earned the outrage and vitriol of Disney Parks’ social media fans and followers.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Captain EO and Star Tours, then, marked a shift. They served to prove Eisner right – Disney could be a place where guests could “ride the movies,” even if they weren’t Disney movies! Star Tours allowed for the existence of most every modern movie attraction that came after… If not for Star Tours precedent (and its success), the partnership with George Lucas might not have continued to develop into Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Lost Legend: ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, or Disneyland’s triumph, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Disney might not have reached outside of its own studio to build attractions based on Pixar films, Jim Henson’s The Muppets, or CBS’s The Twilight Zone.

Legacy: the Dark Side

Which isn’t to say that the precedent hasn’t also hurt or diminished Disney Parks… Many fans cite the elephant in the room: PANDORA – The World of Avatar. Taking Eisner’s movie acquisition to its extreme (and, admittedly, probably just to try to combat Universal’s striking Harry Potter lands), Disney gobbled up the worldwide exclusive rights to James Cameron’s Avatar without even seeing if the film would remain a pop culture phenomenon. (It hasn’t, largely disappearing from public consciousness, leaving Disney with one very big and very beautiful land themed to a film from which most people can’t name a single character. Even with no less than three sequels reportedly on the way, people just don’t seem to care about Avatar, and if Disney hadn’t snatched it up in a knee-jerk reaction, they would’ve seen that. Here on Theme Park Tourist, we chronicled the in-depth story of what that land was supposed to be used for in our Possibilityland: Beastly Kingdom feature.)

Image: Disney / Marvel

The same quick, knee-jerk decision to shoehorn current properties into Disney Parks before they’re proven timeless seems to be the impetus behind the almost universally-despised, short-sighted decision to permanently close Disney California Adventure’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to turn it into the odd Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! despite scathing outcry from fans, guests, and the media. A 1920s Hollywood hotel looming over Hollywood Land in a California themed park that just got $1 billion to reinforce its Golden Age of California story will now become (we’re quoting here) “a warehouse power plant fortress” from a futuristic sci-fi superhero movie. We’ll tell the whole story in our upcoming feature, Lost Legends: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

Ultimately, Disney Parks fans would find it tough to recall the most recent major story-driven attraction based on an original concept. U.S. Disney Parks aren’t in the business of building Pirates of the Caribbeans, Haunted Mansions, Jungle Cruises, or Mystic Manors anymore. Rather, we see a lot of shoehorning box office hits into fan-favorite classics, like in our Lost Legends: Maelstrom feature, or any number of recent additions at Disney Parks.

Conclusion

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

In any case, it’s clear that Star Tours’ success crafted the Disney Parks style that we know today, topping off with the highly-anticipated debut of an entire Star Wars themed land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and (more controversially) Disneyland Park. (Ironically enough, this Star Wars land at Disneyland will be located on the exact plot of land once set aside for Discovery Bay with its motion simulator into liquid space.)

Also odd, fans now debate the future of Star Tours, given that the opening of a Star Wars land on the other side of the park will make the Tomorrowland outpost seem out-of-place, a bit like if Universal had massive, immersive, themed lands dedicated to Harry Potter, plus a single standalone Harry Potter ride by itself in a studio soundstage building next to the Despicable Me ride. Of course, we’d be much happier to see Star Tours simply relocated, so we’ll keep an ear to the ground to listen for how this one develops.

Image: Disney

At the end of the day, Star Tours was a brilliant ride that redefined Disney Parks by bringing new stories, new characters, new thrills, and new technologies into parks that risked becoming stale. If it weren’t for Star Tours, we probably wouldn’t have the modern, thrilling, film-based rides and lands we know today. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, we’ll let you decide. In any case, Star Tours did more than redefine where Disney Parks could take us – it thrilled a generation of fans and gave us our first chance to step into Star Wars. That is a feat worth celebrating.

In the meantime, visit our In-Depth Collections Library to set course for another Lost Legend, then use the comments below to let us know – where does Star Tours fit within our library of Lost Legends? Was it truly an industry-changing gem that defied time? Or was it a tired, dated remnant of the 1980s whose time had come? Is The Adventure Continue a worthwhile replacement? Or does the jumbled new-age version lack what made the 1980s original so special? What other closed masterpiece attractions would you like to see in our Lost Legends series?

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There are 2 comments.

Fun little article. Only correction is C3PO is the Pilot not R2D2. :)

Never rode the ride before but we are visiting the parks in June for the first time. This ride looks really promising and this article was very interesting. It was great learning about the history of this ride!

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