Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Star Tours

Back in 1987, Disney opened a flight simulator based ride set in the Star Wars universe, in a collaboration with George Lucas.  The attraction was called Star Tours, and featured what was supposed to be an uneventful shuttle tour flight to the Endor moon, piloted by a new 'droid.  Of course, 'something goes wrong', and we end up on a high-speed, turbulent voyage which includes a close encounter with the Imperial forces and a bombing raid on the Death Star.

For those who have not been on the ride, it's a small theater (maybe 30-40 people) built in an industrial flight simulator, so the room you are in actually moves.  (You have to seatbelt yourself in before it starts.)  The front "window" of the shuttle is actually a movie screen, and there is an animatronic (robotic) "pilot" sitting in front of the viewscreen.  Of course, the motion of the room is synced with the film, so that it feels like you are really flying, swerving, dodging, and (occasionally) falling.  When it opened, the argument was made that it would be fairly easy to update to new adventures, since shooting a new film and programming new motion was a considerably smaller investment than building a whole new ride, but it remained unchanged until 2011.

In 2011 it got a major facelift.  (Some spoilers follow, if you're planning on riding it yourself.) The film you view is a new adventure, set between the three Star Wars prequels and the last three movies. The adventure is randomized now: there are several different opening segments, some different middle segments, and some different end segments which can be pasted together at random, so that each ride will be different, and various characters from the Star Wars universe make different appearances. (In fact, your pilot is now the well-known C3PO, although he wasn't really supposed to be piloting, according to the plot.  Yes, we have another Something Goes Wrong story, which is a pretty standard trope for Disney adventures anymore.  But it's still fun.)  And the film itself is also now shot in 3D, so the virtual reality element of this is really stepped up:  You have a 3D visual representation of the view screen synced with the motion of the simulator.

Like Radiator Springs Racers, this is still considered a hot new attraction, and so the lines tended to be long.  Unlike the racers, there was no single rider line (that I could find), so I picked up a FastPass before I left for an afternoon nap.  When I got back refreshed, I checked it out.
Entering the Star Tours queue:  This isn't the attraction you're looking for.
The queue has been upgraded somewhat itself, with a few new robot characters and dialog, plus a translucent panel at the end of one corridor which shows the shadows of various 'droids, aliens, Jedi, and others walking past in another (fictional) corridor.  (I almost choked laughing when I noticed the outline of Jar Jar Binks frozen in carbonite being pushed past.  Someone has a sense of humor.)

The ride itself is pretty awesome.  I'm not sure how much the 3D effects add most of the time, but occasionally it's pretty nifty.  The basic gist of the ride involves the Empire trying to capture a rebel spy supposedly on the shuttle.  (In a clever twist, we are shown a picture of one of the guests actually on the shuttle at that point, which gets a rise out of them and their friends, and tends to get some laughter from the auidence.  The gift shop at the exit of the ride also sells "I am the rebel spy" t-shirts.)  Motion simulator and 3D hijinks ensue, and eventually you make it safely to some rebel haven and disembark.

I went back several times during my stay, because it really is pretty cool.  I saw several different middle and ending segments, but always got the same starting segment, which featured Darth Vader trying to stop the shuttle from departing.  Overall the ride is a lot of fun.  The 3D effect is neat, the "rebel spy" story line is fun, and the whole experience is just fun.  And hopefully the random selection of different segments for each adventure will help keep the ride fresh even if it doesn't get updated for another quarter century.  (But given that Disney now owns the Star Wars franchise and will make more movies, I bet updates will be coming.)

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