Let’s Fix the Defunct Star Wars Hotel

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Like the Millennium Falcon stuck in the Death Star’s tractor beam, I was pulled into witty and insightful YouTuber Jenny Nicholson’s latest 4-hour YouTube video about a theme park. Last time I watched one of her looooong critiques, it was about the Utah trainwreck Evermore Park, a failed multi-million dollar fantasy LARP. This time, her video was about the now defunct Galactic Starcruiser, aka the Star Wars hotel in Disney World, a failed multi-million dollar sci-fi LARP. Actually, make that 1 billion?

The “Star Wars Hotel” opened in 2022 and officially closed last year, making it an “Order 66” level disaster for Disney. In her video, Nicholson talks about the history of the Galactic Starcruiser, why it failed, and her own Dago-blah experience visiting the doomed hotel. It’s worth a watch if you’re into theme park design, vacation schadenfreude, or how capitalism can ruin entertainment experiences for the rich, too. (I’m not certain it’s fair to call this Disney’s Fyre Festival, but I’m certain it’s funny to do it, so here I goooooo!)

Her video was exciting to me, in the same way a mad scientist might get excited to learn about a Frankenstein’s monster gone wrong. I’m both a lifelong theme park nerd and a game designer. I wrote a whole darn book parodying the history of imagineering, which a real-life imagineer wrote an article about. I’ve been to Disney parks many times, since my mom used to live in Florida and played Fairy Godmother at Disney World. Theme parks are in my magical blood and on my Space Mountain-addled mind.

Galactic Starcruiser was advertised as a highly “immersive” interactive experience where guests could live out their “Star Wars story” in real life. And I wanted to go! I’ve still never stayed at an immersive interactive theme hotel, like the murder mystery hotel in Los Angeles. Even as a theme park fan, there was no way I could justify the +$4,800 for two nights experience. My current feelings on Star Wars as a property are mixed. But even if I was a die-hard Warshead, I would rather host an interactive Star Wars LARP at a decorated AirBnB for two nights and spend a fraction of the money. Based on Nicholson’s review, I bet I would’ve had a better time, even with cleaning fees.

So, if you’ll indulge my imagineering geekery this week, I’d like to talk about the core aspect of the Galactic Starcruiser: the interactive roleplaying game experience. As a thought exercise, if I was hired as a consultant on the project, here’s how I would’ve suggested Disney retool the gameplay. It sounds like there were many, many problems with the hotel, like the less-than-luxurious bunk beds and the lack of a space pool, but I’m going to warp past those issues and stick to the gameplay, because that’s my “story path.”

According to Nicholson’s video, the game worked something like this: guests on the Starcruiser wear an RFID bracelet and have a special smartphone app on their phone. The app has a schedule of activities. These activities include meals, opportunities to play two “main” games (lightsaber training and ship blasting, which were apparently pretty shallow in terms of mechanics), and story scenes acted out by cast members.

At times, guests were allowed explore the ship to interact with consoles via their RFID chip, scan objects with their phone, and talk to a handful of actors playing original in-universe Star Wars characters. As guests explored, their actions were supposed to trigger messages sent to their phone from the characters (a mechanic that Nicholson found extremely buggy). These messages contained “mission” prompts designed to unlock secret story scenes for guests. For example, if you tried to “hack” into a computer console (re: push buttons on it randomly), the smuggler on-board would text you a mission to steal precious cargo (ex. scan QR codes on crates), and if you succeed the smuggler invited you to the luggage room at 2:30 pm to “help” (witness) them steal some cool space luggage. Your actions would lead you down one of three story paths: Resistance, First Order, or Smuggler. The idea was that your choices affected how your story unfolded.

So, what needed fixing, besides the technical glitches and the price tag, lol?

#1 Lack of Story Paths: There are a lot of characters in Star Wars living out all kinds of potential fantasies. Yes, there are Jedis, scoundrels, and space fascists, but what about someone who wants to be a droid designer? A wookie ambassador? A blue milk pasteurizer? For my ~$5K, I expect a LOT of story options. So rather than designing the Galactic Starcruise as a pick-your-path adventure with three main paths, I would suggest retooling the experience to be more open world. Now, as interactive fiction designers know, adding branches to a story makes it more expensive. To which I say, if this was literally a billion dollar LARP, then they could’ve afforded it. But also, they already had the tools to add tons of branches without ballooning their budget…

#2 No More Busy Work: Every single Star Wars thing you do on that ship should be tracked with the tracking technology they already had. Nicholson described activities like card games and bingo as “busy work” unrelated to your story. I would suggest that everyone who plays bingo gets their bracelet scanned. If you win a prize, you get a message from the captain calling you a “high roller,” and if you run into the smuggler, his headset (all the actors had headsets that fed them data about the guests’ story paths, also buggy) should tell him you’re a rich mark, so he can comically attempt try to steal your precious bingo winnings.

#3 Add More Tiny Activities: There should’ve been tons of micro activities to do on the ship, all of which could’ve contributed to a unique story. For example, install a bunch of hidden porg animatrons in various corners. If a guest uses the app to take pics of all the porgs, they’re a renowned “porg photographer” and the captain says your work should be in Intergalactic Geographic, a future magazine that’s oddly still in print. Also, things they’re already doing could be story activities. If the guest spends the day drinking at the cantina, the alien bartender messages them that they’re a “concoction connoisseur” and also asks you for the keys to your spacecraft.

#4 Make Small Choices Count: At the end of the trip, all the guests receive an embroidered badge. (I can hear an imaginary executive in my head saying it should be a virtual badge and it makes my skin crawl.) The badge would signify how they spent the majority of their time on the trip. Sure, big choices are cool – “Am I a space hero or a literal space nazi?” – but I think small choices, if they’re meaningfully acknowledged by the game, would resonate more deeply with players. They’ll feel more personal and unique to them, especially if there are so many options a family of four could leave as the star of four individual Star Wars stories. Plus, they give guests a reason to return and play again. How many of the badges can you collect? (“How much money do you have?” squeaks Mickey Mouse in a Jedi robe.)

#5 Unlock All Story Scenes: I think all the story scenes should’ve been available to every player, regardless of their choices. Let’s say my friend and I are on different story paths. She’s on the smuggler path and I’m on the resistance path. However, we both want to see Chewbacca beat the shit out of a space nazi in the coat room, and that’s only for First Order guests. Why not let us go? Allow the actors to customize the scene based on the guests present – using those nifty headsets that would hopefully actually work – rather than try to filter out guests whose presence could make the scene more interesting.

Imagine, after Chewbacca knees a space nazi in the groin, he singles out my friend and I for high fives, since we were the only ones in the crowd of 20 who didn’t choose to pretend to be nazis on our luxury theme park location. It’d also be fun for the groaning nazi to be like, “I’ll stomp on your necks like they’re a bunch of porgs! Do you hear that, renowned porg photographer?,” he could say, pointing to a now crying child.

As an in-world justification for why you know every character’s private doings, despite your “alliances,” perhaps your jailbroken “datapad” (mobile phone) has the shared calendars of all the characters on it, so you know what their schedules are like. That’s as plausible to me as people re-building Death Star hundreds of times after it gets blown up again and again and again.

I could go on. Maybe I’ll do a series of prequels and sequels. But for now, to sum up, here’s what I would’ve suggested to the imagineers:

  1. Focus on open exploration. Guests should be encouraged to make their own way through the story as much as possible, rather than follow a rigid schedule.
  2. Fill the environment with tons of detail. Lots of cool little elements to discover and interact with. This is what Disney’ imagineering is known for! I’m bummed I would even have to suggest this!!!
  3. Everything guests do should “count.” Even their smallest decisions should have story repercussions, from flipping a switch to flushing a toilet. (“Congratulations, you’re a space plumber!”) That’s more memorable and fun than hunting (and in Nicholson’s case, failing to find) something “important” to do.

On a luxury vacation, the staff are supposed to respond to the guest’s every whim. That’s what the money’s for. Instead, it seems the Galactic Starcruiser expected guests to run themselves ragged to figure out how the game wanted to be played. I think they dropped the BB-8 with their design. The guests should’ve been able to focus on having fun and exploring however they wanted, and the environment should’ve adapted to them.

Sadly, not all Star Wars stories have a happy ending. RIP Galactic Starcruiser. Also, RIP Gungans. RIP Jedi Children. RIP… Oh man, who’s up for a Star Wars Galactic Funeral LARP?

🎲 Your Turn: Pick a theme park attraction. What changes would you make to it? Email me your thoughts or leave a comment with the button below.

📨 Next Week: Let me introduce you to my foremost creative collaborator, my wife Amanda, and some of the crazy things we’ve worked on over the years, like a sticker book where you put dicks on the presidents. No, really.

Geoffrey Golden is a narrative designer, game creator, and interactive fiction author from Los Angeles. He’s written for Ubisoft, Disney, Gearbox, and indie studios around the world.

3 responses to “Let’s Fix the Defunct Star Wars Hotel”

  1. Honestly, the description of the actual attraction lost me at “Smartphone App”. Then again, I’m in the minority of people not attached at the hip to their phones, want to slap the people responsible for horrible design trends like everything being controlled from the touchscreen, removable storage being non-existant or restricted to too small for practicality microSD cards that are hidden in hard to get to places, MTP replacing good old USB mass storage mode, batteries that aren’t user accessible or might even be impossible to replace without breaking the phone, trying to kill the 3.5mm audio jack, sacrificing functionality in the name of making the things too damn thin, and charging hundreds or thousands of USD for devices meant to be held to the side of one’s head that are lucky to survive a 3 foot fall onto carpet, never mind the 6 foot fall onto concrete such devices should have as baseline durability.. and of course, everyone and their grandma assuming you have your smartphone on you at all times and wanting you to install their crapp that 9 times out of 10 is just a glorified web browser that serves a crappier version of their actual website and is bulky as a real web browser, so you end up wasting most of the phone’s anemic storage on a few dozen copies of slightly different versions of the same web framework.

    My displeasure with the post-iPhone consumer electronic’s market aside, it sounds like they designed their game like it was a computer game rather than a meatspace inprov game. Limiting choices in a computer game is necessary because you have to code every valid player action and the game’s reaction to every player choice of importance, but in real-life, the actors provide intelligent agents that can improvise when a player goes off the expected script. Plus, people don’t fit into neat little boxes, and sometimes someone wants to play the trickster playing multiple sides against each other(e.g. maybe you’re a smuggler who thinks the First Order and the Resistance are both bad for business, so you blend into whichever group you’re around at the moment to feed info to the other side in hopes to speed up mutual destruction… or their conflict is good for business, so you infiltrate both sides to prolong conflict).

    Instead of just badges for whichever path you fit best, perhaps combine the concept of Xbox Achievements/Playstation Trophies with Scouting merit badges and have dozens or hundreds of little mini goals one could accomplish during a visit, ideally more than one could realistically get in one weekend unless they were trying to speedrun things.

    As for picking an attraction of my own to critique… I haven’t been to many theme parks in my life(went to Disney world a lot as a toddler because my brother worked there, but don’t remember much, went to Disney world again with my parents when I was highschool and remember thinking DW went for quantity over quality, and I’ve been to Busch Gardens a few times, and if you want to stretch things, the school for the blind and visually impaired I attended for grades 4-12 took the entire student body to the State Fair every year), so nothing comes to mind on that front… though, on a tangential note, I would love to go to a museum exhibit focusing on the tactile arts, perhaps even where sighted visitors are encouraged to wear blindfolds… sadly, when art museums aren’t focused on painting or photography, the tapestries and sculptures are often cordoned off and there’s a strict no touching policy(somewhat understandable with centuries old pieces that are lucky to have survived this long, but still, I feel like half the point of sculpture and of many textiles is to touch them… and I’ve given thought to patchwork that uses a pallette of different materials(e.g. an American Flag made of red flannel and white linen stripes with a denim field adorned with embroidered stars or a Union Jack made of white silk, red velvet, and blue suede(The different choices of material to represent the same color combo playing off the idea of the quintessential American as a down to earth, hard worker and the quintessential Brit as a refined gentleman), or an entire patch work scene with a dozen or so distinct materials(red flannel, orange polyester, yellow burlap, green felt, blue denim, violet velvet, brown corderoy, black leather, white linen, pink silk, etc.).

    1. I agree the game is too phone dependent. I didn’t include this idea in the final draft, but I really like how immersive attractions by the art collective Meow Wolf have large communal touchscreens everywhere that actually work (unlike the ones on the Galactic Starcruiser that are basically props), so you don’t have to drain your phone’s battery.

      That’s a good idea allowing for many achievements. After watching the video, I kept hearing the idea in my head of, “What’s your Star Wars story?” But there’s no reason it couldn’t be Star Wars stories.

      I agree they structured it like a video game, which can be limiting, but I think they made it overly limiting for themselves. (Even by video game scoping standards.) The only challenge with unstructured improvisation is that story data needs to be carried over throughout the ship, so all the cast members know the information. If a cast member is improvising with a guest and agrees they’re a Jedi, they’d need a way to get that information to all the other actors to keep the fiction consistent. If they allowed greater improv within that constraint – agreeing they’re a Jedi, but saying that’s a secret between them that can’t be discussed again – it would work.

      I think an art museum exhibit focusing on tactile is a genius idea. I’d love to experience that!

      1. I’m a very tactile person and feel like tactility in general is underappreciated in modern society. And the irony(or at least what’s commonly mistaken for irony*) is that, despite touch being in their name, touchscreens have a tendency to strip away tactility. Main reason I rely on audio to interface with technology is that tactile tech just isn’t up to snuff(Braille displays start at a few hundred bucks and it was only a few years ago that they started in the thousands, even the largest Braille displays have capacities of 40 characters(compared to the 80 characters of a single line in a standard Linux console, last I heard, the pinnacle of a tactile graphics display had a resolution of 40*60(compared to the 96*64 of a TI-83 or the 160*144 of the original Gameboy), had a single digit dpi, and a five-figure price tag.

        *I know enough to know most people get irony wrong, but not enough to get it right.

        And yeah, some level of communication between the actors would be needed to allow for staff-guest interactions to depart from the default scripts… though, of course, some things that help here is not every staff member needs perfect information of what every guest is doing, they just need the information their character would realistically know(though knowing a little extra wouldn’t hurt). After all, an Imperial officer is likely to be unaware of what happened in a meeting between Rebels… Plus, disregarding holograms and FTL communications, real world telecom dates the majority of Star Wars media pre Disney’s buy out, so most of the coordination among the cast could be accomplished with company issued phones in thematic cases and the use of standard phone features. RFID tracking of environmental interactions is probably useful, but even without making guests install a custom app and bringing in the variability of phones into the equation, it sounds like the attraction might have suffered from some overengineering.

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