Polygon was invited during a press conference last week to visit Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, Disney World Resorts’ new high-concept hotel experience in Florida. One of the bullet points that really wowed fans at the facility in 2019 was a lightsaber training experience that promised to conjure up the earliest scenes of Luke Skywalker wielding a lightsaber in 1977. I tried it during my visit and found it kinda tame technologically speaking. But as is often the case aboard the Halcyon, it’s more about the mood than anything else.
One of the first major demonstrations of lightsaber training appeared on YouTube only three months ago. In it you can clearly see how the system works. Contestants insert a special lightsaber into a beam of light and if they get the timing right, the lights will flash and the saber will vibrate. Shields also play a role in the experience, allowing for more tactile involvement while also helping to avoid slapping fingers and hands on the backswing.
Honestly, it really doesn’t look that much like it does in the movies. It doesn’t even look very much like the early concept art. The reason for this is, I hope, pretty self-explanatory.
Lightsabers aren’t real, and even if they were, there isn’t an insurer in the world that would allow guests to wield a weapon that could cut through metal. Also during laser weapons are real, their rays don’t form coherent flashes of light that zip through the air like tracer bullets. Basically, the laws of physics take a lot of the fun out of lightsaber training, making it feel a lot like reverse laser tag. But according to Disney’s creative director Sara Thacher, it was still a big step forward for the technology.
“This is the maximum, epic challenge,” Thacher told Polygon. “When we started the project, [we noted] There are many, many amazing VR lightsaber experiences out there. That’s great, but it’s very difficult to share it with the people you care about – to be there together, to experience the same thing together.”
As Thacher describes it, the lightsaber training experience that was eventually implemented aboard the Galactic Starcruiser is a bit of a compromise. It focuses on safety by having everyone look ahead and participants not fighting each other. The technique works; I can personally attest to that, and she said it’s not least thanks to that legendary Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot
Your guide during lightsaber training is a Saja, an actor who portrays one of the descendants of the Guardians of the Whills that were featured Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. They are essentially Force-sensitive refugees who found a home aboard the Halcyon. Her message during lightsaber training is simple but powerful: it is our duty to protect one another and we are stronger together than alone. The Saja give their heart to the experience – and they help tie it into the larger storyline of the two-day immersive experience as a whole.
“The actors are so important,” Thacher said. “From the early, early playtests, they were all with an actor. We’ve been working on this continuously, because what you notice and how you feel about it also depends on what the technology of the room and the game part of the room tell you. [and] it’s what that person tells you and how they direct your focus that changes your experience. So that script and how they interact with you is so important. We found that we couldn’t test them separately.”
In that sense, lightsaber training is only part of the whole picture. The Saja that guides you into this room feels as real as any other passenger on the ship. They are someone to talk to and role-play with throughout your stay. While these actors aren’t on stage, the Play Disney Parks app takes over, allowing guests to use the datapad to reinforce lessons learned during the training. The app can even help guests unlock unique narrative experiences, including additional Force training and even a visit with Jedi Master Yoda himself.
For Star Wars fans burned out by an uneven prequel trilogy or jaded by the prospect that they may never be able to afford the hotel’s roughly $5,000 asking price, however, this can feel like yet another disappointment.