Saturday, May 21, 2011

Disneyland Star Tours Preview Day

NOTE: You can also view video highlights from that morning here!


I was only supposed to ride Star Tours once. By the time I left Disneyland, I’d been on it five times.

How is that possible? Let me start at the beginning.

I won’t bore you with how I woke up far earlier than anyone had any business being up in the morning, or where I met my guest so I could get someone else’s measure of the ride without all the judgment I was carrying with me, or how astoundingly long the line and the wait was that Friday morning. (But seriously, if your event check-in closes at 7:30 AM, and the event itself starts at 9 AM, what’s going on in that hour and a half in-between? At least we had good music.) I won’t wax poetical about what the park was like without people in it so early in the morning. I won’t even go into the awesome guy we met in line whose excitement for the ride was so infectious, we carried it with us through the whole day. No, this post is going to be long enough as it is, maybe even longer than my short stories. I’ll focus instead on the event itself and what it was like to be one of the first non-cast members (that’s what they call Disneyland employees) to experience what is both the most anticipated and most dreaded ride in all of Disneyland.

“Dreaded?” I can hear you thinking. “Why dreaded?” I’ll get to that in a little bit.

The Disneyland Star Tours Early Departure was promoted as a preview event, granted initially to a select 1,200 or so randomly selected contest winners and the one guest each that they were allowed to bring with them. Even if only half of the winners brought a guest like I did, you’re still looking at around 2,000 people who all wanted a sneak peek of the newly revamped ride.

The assembled participants were gathered outside the gates of the park and led in, single file, to fill in the queue outside of the new ride. Once the blast doors officially opened, under much media coverage, everyone in the queue would be able to ride Star Tours once and only once, trading in their ride wristbands for an exclusive button marking their participation in the event as “First in the Galaxy” to ride the new attraction. Then the ride would shut down until its official grand opening on June 3rd.

At least, that was the plan.

While full details of what happened are hard to come by, I was able to gather from certain employees around the ride that someone from ABC 7 News accidentally extended an open invitation for people to come down and participate in this private event. As Disneyland has a strict “truth in advertising” policy, they had no choice but to open up the preview for anyone who wanted to ride Star Tours in the afternoon. While this pretty much defeated the purpose of a private sneak peek event, it did give those of us who wanted to ride again (including myself) a chance to get right back in line for a second go. Or third. Or fifth!

“Yeah, that’s all very interesting, but what about the ride? Is it any good, or did Lucas screw up one more piece of our Star Wars childhood memories?” I’m so glad you asked!

ST Day

From the moment you step into the Star Tours building, you’re faced with the antics of R2-D2 and C-3PO as they banter while performing diagnostics on the spaceship that will take you to the far-flung corners of the galaxy. This part is very familiar to those who have been on the ride before, and the only real changes made here are the new lines of dialogue referencing the all-new Star Tours videos that play on the big screen and the new color scheme. As this takes place between trilogies, the Starspeeder 1000 isn’t as stark as the original ride’s 3000 counterpart and has a paint job reminiscent of the Jedi starfighters. So far, I have no complaints.

In the next room, visitors come face to metallic face with RX-24, AKA Rex, who fans of the original Star Tours will recognize as your bumbling droid pilot. Since this takes place before the original ride, Rex is still in his shipping crate and is, in fact, marked defective for return to the factory. This status is made more apparent in his stuttering attempts to activate and recite lines of dialogue from the original ride. The pang of nostalgia for the little pilot droid is soon replaced with awe directed toward the two security droid occupants in the room, one scanning luggage and the other scanning people, both utilizing all-new special effects that really impressed me. You can see some nifty 3-D effects at work even here in the scanners and control panels, but it’s mostly subtle and adds to the atmosphere of the ride. Aside from poor Rex’s condition, I have no complaints.

The boarding area that comes up next holds my only real complaint about the ride, and why I and many other Star Wars fans initially dreaded going on it. After picking up your “flight glasses” (AKA 3-D glasses) and going through the turnstile for placement at a “departure gate,” you’re treated to the usual instructional video, this time narrated by spokesdroid Aly San San, preceded by a short bit of story featuring C-3PO and pilot droid AC-38 (Ace for short) to set up the circumstances of the ride’s adventure. While both videos do include live actors in their segments, the story video in particular seems as heavily CGI-centric as the prequels are… which is to say that the whole “Golly gee, look at how awesome our CG characters are!” approach makes the featured droids look obviously fake and detracts from the realism they’re trying to build to sell the storyline of the ride. This was my greatest fear, that the fakeness of the prequels would worm their way into my beloved ride and ruin it beyond recognition. Seriously, if you can take the time to film guys in jumpsuits as they prep your Starspeeder for take-off, can’t you get someone to put on Threepio’s suit and act out his bits? You’ve already got Anthony Daniels voicing him, you may as well put him in the suit, too. Or at least work on improving the realism of your CGI effects so they’ll hold up after multiple viewings over the years. My guest complained about the videos, too, but only because a particular hand gesture of Aly San San seemed particularly bitchy. I had to agree. At least the videos are short.

After watching the CGI spectacular, the doors opened, we took our seats inside the largely unchanged but subtly upgraded passenger cabin, and were instructed to put on our flight glasses.

I want to address the matter of the 3-D glasses separately, because it’s going to be a concern for some people who can’t stand 3-D movies or the headgear that goes with them. Personally, I love watching 3-D movies. I don’t get the headaches that some people complain about when watching them, but the glasses annoy the hell out of me. I wear eyeglasses to see any detail more than 5 feet away from me, so it’s obnoxious to put those cumbersome and ill-fitting glasses over them. The glasses for this ride, however, are incredible. They fit over my prescription glasses without a fuss and didn’t slip at all. I didn’t feel like I was wearing a fire hydrant on my face. They felt light and natural, and looked awesome, too. If I didn’t think it’d raise the prices of 3-D movies higher than they already are, I’d start a petition to have them made for movie theaters everywhere.

As for the 3-D ride itself, I won’t spoil anything in regards to the story that plays out on your journey. I doubt I could ruin everything in the ride, anyway, even if I wanted to. With 54(!) different combinations of characters and locations to experience, you could ride Star Tours every week for a year and still not see every scenario. I went on it 5 times, and each ride was different from the last. I can say, however, that I visited four of the six destinations listed on the Star Tours page (you get to see two locations every time) and saw each of the featured characters at least once. Some characters pop up that you don’t expect to see, and one character made an appearance that I had hoped to never see again. (Meesa dun wanna give it away to yousa, but I’ll bet you can figure out who it is on your own. Thankfully, his cameo is mercifully brief and SILENT.)

All that said, I’m happy to report that Lucas and co. did not, in fact, totally ruin Star Tours. Quite the opposite, they finally made the attraction I had wished for after the umpteenth time of riding through an ice crystal asteroid to attack the Death Star. Sure, there are some parts that irk me (I’m looking at you, CGI extravaganza), but the majority of the original Star Tours experience remains the same and is made even better in all the ways that really count. Truth be told, I’d really like to renew my annual pass so I can become a regular Star Tourist.

Now, how do I get a pair of those 3-D glasses so I can take them with me to the movies?

ST Night

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