Darth Vader is pacing behind me, looking me up and down, breathing heavily. If it were any other man, I’d say he was checking out my backside, but this is Vader, and he’s assessing whether I’ve crossed over to the Dark Side and can serve him. Or perhaps I am a Rebel spy.
Like Mickey Mouse though, this Disney character doesn’t speak, even when I try to bait him. He doesn’t Force-choke me though (remember how he chokes his poor lieutenant in The Empire Strikes Back without actually touching him?) and after a few more passes, I’m free to leave the Star Destroyer. The Force must be with me.
Guests at the new Launch Bay attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios can meet Vader or Chewbacca, co-pilot of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon. Vader, of course, represents the worst kind of villainy. Chewbacca represents the warm and fuzzy — very fuzzy — side, more like a traditional encounter with a Disney Princess, and will greet you on a makeshift Rebel base with a big Wookiee hug.
Darth Vader is one of the few villains to be featured in a Disney World character encounter
As Disney gears up to build a Star Wars land at Hollywood Studios, Launch Bay opened Dec. 1, just weeks before the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first movie in the saga to be made since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012.
“It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan,” Michael Roddy, show director for Creative Entertainment at Walt Disney World, said as he led a reporter through Launch Bay. “Disney is known for its storytelling, and Star Wars is about storytelling.”
Disney parks were caught short by the enormous popularity of Frozen, which premiered two years ago and became the top-grossing animated movie ever. The company scrambled to add a Frozen presence at the parks while it builds the Frozen Ever After ride, scheduled to open in spring at Epcot. There are Frozen singalongs at Hollywood Studios, a float for Anna and Elsa in the Festival of Fantasy Parade at Magic Kingdom, a regular meet-and-greet slot for them at Princess Fairytale Hall and a Christmas light show at Cinderella Castle.
Similarly, Launch Bay is intended to satisfy Star Wars cravings while permanent attractions are designed and built.
Roddy calls Launch Bay a “deep dive” into the world of Star Wars. In addition to the character encounters — plus First Order Stormtroopers patrolling the plaza outside — the complex offers a couple videos about the saga, an exhibit of vehicles, weapons and other artifacts from the films, video game stations, a fireworks show set to the John Williams music from the movies and merchandise. Lots of merchandise.
$4,000 Cost of a movie-quality Darth Vader costume made in your size
Roddy points out some of the artifacts on exhibit: the Millennium Falcon; the 620C Podracer raced by Anakin Skywalker (a full-size model plus the miniature used in filming); the steel helmet worn by Captain Phasma, a First Order Stormtrooper, in The Force Awakens; a holochess table, a chess game played with holographs, introduced in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope; a selection of the helmets worn by different Stormtrooper units and of various (and often elaborate) lightsaber handles.
Disney has at least four stores devoted to Star Wars merchandise — one at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) and three in this park. Mostly they sell the usual T-shirts and other clothing, action figures, hats, purses, keychains, ornaments, jewelry, mugs and the like. Watto’s Grotto, a new store in the park, has a station where fans can build their own droids.
The Launch Bay store has the true specialty (and big dollar) items — Star Wars art, items autographed by actors and costumes made just for you. Want to be a Stormtrooper? For $1,800, you can have a movie-quality uniform made in your size. Most expensive: a Darth Vader costume for $4,000.
Existing Star Wars attractions at Hollywood Studios also have been updated. The Jedi Training Academy for kids has been reimagined with new characters — including a new villain — from the animated TV show Star Wars Rebels and is now called Trials of the Temple.
“It’s an opportunity for younger kids to actually step into a Jedi robe and … into a Jedi temple where the Master is going to make you face your fears,” Roddy said.
It’s an opportunity for younger kids to actually step into a Jedi robe and … into a Jedi temple where the Master is going to make you face your fears.
Michael Roddy, show director for Creative Entertainment at Walt Disney World,
The Star Tours motion simulator ride, a chase on a Starspeeder 1000 that was revamped and reopened in 2011, features locales and characters from the entire series, with different elements mixed and matched so that each ride is not the same. Disney has now added scenes from The Force Awakens, which later will be shuffled in with the others but currently are in heavy rotation.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the park — Disney won’t say precisely where — a 14-acre Star Wars land is being designed that will include two major attractions: a ride on the Millennium Falcon and “an epic Star Wars adventure that puts you in the middle of a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance,” Robert A. Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., announced in the summer. He did not say when the attractions would open.