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Impatient for Galaxy's Edge? Here's where to get your Star Wars fix until then

In Secrets of the Empire, a Star Wars virtual reality experience, players sneak onto an Empire base on the planet Mustafar to steal intelligence.
In Secrets of the Empire, a Star Wars virtual reality experience, players sneak onto an Empire base on the planet Mustafar to steal intelligence.

I’d been blasting away at Imperial Stormtroopers with some success, when an enormous monster reared up from the lava. I fired my blaster rifle at the lava flea, but it kept coming. “It has to have a vulnerable spot,” I thought, frantically trying to remember what I knew of the beast from the Star Wars movie “Rogue One.”

New stormtroopers sprang up and fired at me. Every time one scored a hit on my body armor, my skin tingled like it had received a minor electric shock. But none knocked me down.

My partner in this spy mission must have figured out the lava monster’s weak spot, because suddenly the creature was sliding backward into the roiling lava. We ran back to our starship along a narrow catwalk, trying not to look down into the fiery abyss.

If you need a hands-on “Star Wars” fix and can’t wait until Galaxy’s Edge opens at Disney’s Hollywood Studios next year, this virtual reality experience at Disney Springs in Orlando is one place you can get it. Called Secrets of the Empire, the experience is a combination of laser tag, role-playing and virtual reality; its developers call it hyper reality.

Sure, the next Star Wars movie — “Solo: A Star Wars Story” — opens in late May, but comparatively speaking, moviegoing is a passive experience, while Secrets of the Empire arms you and immerses you in the battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire.

Other ways to feed your addiction are coming soon to Central Florida. Legoland is hosting Star Wars Days and adding scenes from “The Force Awakens,” built of Lego bricks, to its Miniland. Disney World will hold Star Wars: Galactic Nights. Yes, the Force is still with you.

Disney hasn’t yet announced an opening date for Galaxy’s Edge, under construction at Disney parks in Orlando and California, only that both will open in 2019, California before Orlando.

We do know this: The stony, hilly land is set on Batuu, a remote planet that hasn’t been seen before in Star Wars lore. It’s a trading port on the Outer Rim of the Star Wars galaxy. The 14-acre land will feature two major attractions — a ride on the Millennium Falcon and a place in a battle between the First Order and the Resistance — plus a cantina and marketplace.

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Galaxy's Edge, the long-awaited Star Wars-themed land, is under construction at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. Disney Parks

“My childhood dreams coming to life!” one fan wrote on the Disney Parks blog post with a video flyover of Galaxy’s Edge under construction. “I'm so excited for Galaxy’s Edge, can’t wait to see more of it,” another fan wrote on Reddit.

Disney World has also announced plans to build a Star Wars-themed hotel that will be the setting for multi-day role-playing experiences but has released few details and has not said when it will open.

Theme park attractions based on Star Wars can be expected to have enduring popularity, industry experts say, not just because it is an epic battle between good and evil, but also because its appeal spans generations. “Star Wars,” the franchise’s first movie, now subtitled “Episode IV: A New Hope,” was released in 1977 — more than 40 years ago.

“Star Wars just cuts across so many generations. We grew up on Star Wars, our kids did and now our grandkids are,” said Peter Bordi, an associate professor at Penn State University’s School of Hospitality Management.

Into this long-standing appetite for all things Star Wars comes Secrets of the Empire, a story set between Episode III and Episode IV with characters from “Rogue One.” Created by ILMxLAB and The VOID, in collaboration with Lucasfilm, it opened in January at Disney Springs and is available at several other locations around the world.

For about $30 each, players don headsets and heavy vests — computer and battery pack in back, and on the front the “haptics” technology that creates physical sensations like the rumble of the spaceship’s engines or the tingle of a shot from a blaster rifle hitting your body armor.

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Players in Secrets of the Empire are equipped with virtual reality headsets and high-tech vests for the experience. The VOID

Your mission is to sneak onto an Empire base, disguised as a stormtrooper, and steal a particular item containing intelligence. The destination is Mustafar, the volcanic planet where Anakin Skywalker was grievously injured in a lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader was born — and where he makes his home.

Working in groups of up to four, players do battle with the Empire. The virtual reality adventure takes about 15 minutes; the entire experience, including suiting up and getting instructions, about 30 minutes.

The virtual reality headset creates the imagery of a Rebel starship and the fiery world of Mustafar in plain rooms. Look at your body and you’ll see the white and black armor of an Imperial Stormtrooper. The walls become compartments in a starship piloted by the caustic droid K-2SO, the floor becomes the top of a skiff you’re standing on for a vertigo-inducing ride, and the ground falls away for a battle with stormtroopers as lava boils beneath your ledge.

“When we got together with ILMxLAB and Lucasfilm, we agreed we wanted to tell an authentic Star Wars story, one that guests could participate in so they could feel they were part of the legend,” Curtis Hickman, chief creative officer of the VOID, said in an interview. “Sneaking into an Imperial base, as a fan myself, is something I always wanted to do.”

“It’s not just about storytelling but about story living. ... If you stepped into Star Wars, what would that be like?”

READ MORE: New attractions at 3 Disney World parks

How a player reacts to the experience often depends on that person’s experience with virtual reality, Hickman said. Secrets of the Empire is not like riding a roller coaster with virtual reality goggles, which block reality and replace it with entirely new scenery that (you hope) is well synchronized with the motion of the coaster.

Instead, it’s more like seeing reality through a filter. Wave your hand in front of your goggled eyes and you see your hand move in real time, but the backdrop is created by the technology of virtual reality, which has also cloaked your bare arm in stormtrooper garb. Step on that skiff or the catwalk, and if you have a fear of heights or edges, you’ll feel that fear — even though you know you’re standing on solid ground.

“We’ve been surprised by how quickly people accept this new reality as their real reality,” Hickman said. “There is this sort of bell curve of behavior. We put in checks and balances for the outside of the curve. Are people going to try to jump off the cliff? Ninety-nine percent won’t. But we have seen some pretty wild behavior.

“Some people get so into it, they forget it’s not real, they try to climb up the rock cliff side.”

In comparison, some other Star Wars activities to tide you over until next year may seem tame.

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The start of Rey's journey, recreated with Lego bricks, is one of the scenes from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," that is part of a Miniland display that will open May 4 at Legoland Florida. Legoland Florida

Scenes from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Episode VII), built of Lego bricks, will be unveiled May 4 at Legoland Florida. That park’s Miniland already has a sizable display of Star Wars scenes and characters based on the first six films, which will be updated with memorable moments from Episode VII with Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and BB-8.

Lego Star Wars Days follow on the next three weekends (May 5-6, 12-13, 19-20), featuring a celebration of the expanded Miniland display, meet-and greets with Lego Star Wars characters, including Darth Vader, plus Star Wars-themed costume contests and building activities.

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Star Wars: Galactic Nights at Disney's Hollywood Studios is one of the events that may help tide fans over until a Star Wars-themed land opens at the park in 2019. Disney Parks

Roughly coinciding with the U.S. release of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” Disney’s Hollywood Studios will host Star Wars: Galactic Nights on May 27. The one-night after-hours event will include encounters with Star Wars characters, a panel discussion with creators of Galaxy’s Edge, event-exclusive merchandise, Star Wars scenes projected on the Tower of Terror, and new elements added to Star Wars fireworks and stage shows.

If you’re traveling farther than Orlando, Madame Tussauds London has an extensive exhibit of 11 scenes from the first six movies. Also, a traveling exhibit, “Star Wars and the Power of Costume," with costumes from the first seven films, opens at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum May 20.

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