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The Best Attraction at Walt Disney World Isn't The One You Think

Don’t let first impressions fool you…

Lobby of The Void, Secrets of the Empire

Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Our first impressions of Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire kept our expectations low initially—it’s very new, and they are still working out a few bugs. Going against our usual pattern, we visited towards the end of the busy Christmas season after seeing online that tons of ticket slots were open (online booking is one of the nice conveniences about this attraction. The cost is comparable to most escape games in Orlando).

Disney Springs was packed, and despite having tickets for 3:50, the lobby was so crowded with walk-ins that they shuffled guests with e-tickets into an exterior line. No big deal, but check-in was a little convoluted and the wait was unusually long for an experience with a reservation time. We ended up waiting something near 35-40 minutes before we were finally ushered into the pre-show briefing area. Do note that with how immersive an experience this attraction is, you do have to sign a waiver.

The pre-show involves Cassian Andor from Rogue One giving you a top-secret mission to infiltrate an Imperial compound on Mustafar disguised as stormtroopers. Your goal is to locate a crate with intelligence vital to the Rebellion. The pre-show audio is very difficult to hear, and the briefing bugged out once while we were watching and had to be restarted. Still, the premise seemed cool enough. You even get to pick the accent color for your stormtrooper armor.

 Secrets of the Empire

Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

After the pre-show, you are ushered into a prep area where you can store your belongings and a cast member fits you with a virtual reality vest and helmet. This is the one part of the experience that slightly breaks the immersion, but there’s no getting around it—this is seriously new territory for theme parks. The vest feels remarkably similar to stormtrooper armor, a bit reminiscent of the vests used in laser tag.

Before you enter the maze (which is kept hidden for the most part), the cast member has you check your gear to make sure you can see the other members of your party. I was initially very worried upon lowering my facemask and finding a crazy blurry picture. Don’t panic or stay quiet if this happens to you. The cast member will help you adjust the knob on top of your head to bring everything into crystal clear focus. If you run into issues during the experience, that’s the knob you want to adjust.

From this point on, all our previous apprehensions disappeared.

Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?

 Secrets of the Empire Concept Art

Image: Disney

We’ll do our best to avoid plot-specific spoilers, but from the moment you lower your visor, you are 100% immersed into the Star Wars universe. Your friends and family appear in full stormtrooper gear, and when they speak, you hear their voices as if through the speakers in your Imperial-issue helmet. Your own armored hands flail in front of you when you move your arms, and if you do what I did and shamelessly tap on your beloved’s helmet, good grief, it feels just like stormtrooper armor. Looking up, you find yourself staring directly at Rogue One’s snarkiest droid, K-2SO, who lays out the parameters of your mission (with plenty of shameless sass). The floor rumbles as the transport you’re in touches down.

It is admittedly easy to stand there dumbfounded when you are ordered to step off the transport. Your brain wars with your eyes as you expect to plow face first into an unseen wall in the real world. There’s a part of you that still knows that you’re flying blind. When my husband and I finally tottered off the ship, we admittedly plowed into each other like a couple of penguins trying to squeeze through the same hole in the ice. When you step onto a guard-rail-free walkway or a floating platform hovering above a lake of lava, it is very easy to get actual vertigo.

It takes another leap of logic to realize that when you’re asked to press buttons in the story, you really do reach out with your stormtrooper arm and press a real button or pull a real lever. The experience isn’t 100% seamless but it is incredibly close. If you’ve ever done any sort of acting or role-playing (I’m looking at you Star Wars Galaxies and The Old Republic players), you just reach a point where you throw propriety to the wind and get into character.

When you finally get your hands on a gun is when things really get interesting.

Virtual Reality Armor

Image: The Void

The stormtrooper rifles are extremely responsive, to the point that if you shoot a wall or a guard rail, it will actually spray molten carbonite in protest. You’re hurried from one harrowing scenario to the next, and video gaming skills come quite in handy. During shootouts, you realize quickly that it pays to actually take cover just like you would if playing Battlefront or Uncharted. You can fire blind from cover, and almost every element responds to gunfire.  Your armor gives you slight buzzing-zap any time you are shot.

In a way, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is like Disney’s first big crack at an escape game. We have mentioned before that Disney had toyed with escape experiences as one of their experiences for corporate groups, but this takes things to a whole new level. While Secrets of the Empire isn’t a true escape room (you will still make it to the end just about no matter what), your choices do affect the outcome of the quest. There are several puzzles which vaguely echo what you might find in an escape room, only you are escaping a very angry army of trigger-happy imperials and rage-monsters.

Oh, and no spoilers, but the finale is a doozy…

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