As you’ve no doubt heard, Star Tours closed here in Orlando last week, joining its already-shuttered cousin in Anaheim. (Though similar versions remain open in Paris and Tokyo). I had the chance to attend the D23 “Final Flight” private party, which gave a select few the chance to have the real, true last ride on the attraction. I had previously paid to attend the “Last Tour to Endor” private party a few weeks ago, but I was willing to make the effort to attend this “Final Flight” offering from D23. It cost $5 per person for the ticket processing fee, but was otherwise free for D23 members.
Part of the reason I was eager to attend was to be part of the last group. To the extent it matters one whit, there’s a tiny something to be said for the bragging rights to do something exclusive in the parks (and after hours, to boot). To be able to say “I was there” may be a small thing in the grand scheme of things (OK, maybe a VERY small thing), but I’m weird like that. I was the very last paying Guest at the Carnation Plaza Gardens restaurant a decade or so ago (and have the receipt to prove it). Let’s chalk it up to being easily amused. But then again, us Disney fans are obsessive types, no?
I had a deeper reason, though, to be invested in this particular attraction. You see, the history of Star Tours in the theme parks is essentially my history with the Disney parks. I felt a connection to this ride that I feel to few others.
Me and my ride!
Let’s travel back to January, 1987. Fresh from the media coup (and massive profits) of the 60-hour party at Disneyland for the opening of Captain EO in 1986, then-President Jack Lindquist decided to repeat the multi-hour extravaganza for Star Tours when it opened in early 1987. I was 16 years old. A couple of my friends had gone to the EO party and raved about it. How cool must it have been, I wondered, to be in Disneyland for an entire weekend…without going home? Was it indescribable to avoid sleep and instead go on Disneyland rides all night long? Was it sublime to watch the sunrise over Tomorrowland? I resolved to go to the 60 hour Star Tours party, and to my surprise, got permission from my parents to do so. I couldn’t have been more excited.
Back then, I was a once-a-year visitor (always with my parents), so this event was very much a coming of age moment for me, a chance to sever that umbilical cord a little bit more, and a welcome chance to spread my wings and make my own decisions. I decided to spend all 60 hours there, so we arrived when it first started. The line for the new ride, Star Tours, stretched down Main Street to the Cinema. It was rumored to be four hours long. My friends and I happily skipped that line and just “did Disneyland” for two days straight (overnights, too, mind you!) I had never before been with friends to Disneyland, at least not without parents. And I had never had this much freedom.
Eventually we went on the ride. Overnight on that second evening the line had gone down quite a bit, so we finally waited in it. What a revelation! It’s easy now, more than two decades later, to forget how exciting, groundbreaking, and downright exhilarating this ride was upon its inception. There were no simulator rides in every arcade around the country. Star Wars had last been seen on the big screen four years ago, and it would be more than a decade before more movies came, so this was excitement writ large to have a new, *authorized* (and thus “canon”) addition to the Star Wars universe.
The “charming tribal village” of the Ewoks
provides the Orlando queue theme.
It was also a very different ride from previous additions to Disneyland (and by extension, all Disney parks). In Walt’s day, most rides were slow journeys through atmospheres and environments. There didn’t have to be drama, tension, or conflict. The list of long of such rides that promoted tranquility and transportation (including, perhaps, metaphorical transportation through time).
The first crack in that long-standing armor of such rides came in 1979, when Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is not just a roller coaster through an environment (the way Space Mountain is), but features a subtle moment when “things go terribly wrong.” In this case, it’s the earthquake at the end of the ride. It’s so subtle that most visitors pay it no mind.
But at EO (the first show to do it) and then Star Tours (the first ride to do it), the “things go terribly wrong” concept moves to center stage. The whole ride is not an adventure; it’s a misadventure. And this would be a pattern to reassert itself for decades to come (Indiana Jones Adventure, Mission Space, Tower of Terror, even Expedition Everest may be some of the most commonly cited examples, but the rule applies to almost everything). Only some the most recent attractions (Toy Story Mania, for example) do away with the need for misadventure to provide the impetus/excuse for the attraction’s existence. That mold which has lasted so long was set by Star Tours.
The oversized AT-AT in Orlando even leaves behind a footprint.
But I had an even more personal connection with this ride, for it was “the new thing” at Disneyland when I first became aware of Disneyland as a place to go, visit, and even study. Impressed by my 60-hour visit (the truth is, I finally gave in to fatigue and called my father to pick me up on that Sunday afternoon, perhaps at hour 50), I had turned a corner. Disneyland wasn’t just something to visit once a year anymore. I visited again at the end of “hell year” (in my Junior Year I took so many honors and AP classes that my GPA was 4.67 both semesters, and I promised myself a Disneyland visit as reward). And because of my Star Tours visit, I had a new mindset and mental map of Disneyland in my single-day June visit.
The time was ripe. Ripe for what? For me to see a fellow high school (and honors) student. I ran into her working as the cashier in the Village Haus. Astonished by the sight, and even more amazed that it had never entered my head that I could work here, I asked her what it was like. She answered with a lot of positives, and my friends and I sent in applications that next weekend. As you no doubt know, I got hired (two of the three of us did) and this led, rather directly, to me writing as your columnist today. Star Tours wasn’t the critical link here – the cashier friend was – but it set the stage. I wonder if I would have been as receptive (or as interested) in her story if I hadn’t had the 60 hour Star Tours party.
Controversially, the AT-AT in Orlando is just a set piece; the
backside shows that the front view is just a façade.
Those of you reading this who have worked for a Disney park before know the excitement, the almost visceral and palpable electric thrill that runs through you when you first work for Disney and get to visit the park *for free* as a result. This was especially highlighted in 1987, when few people (certainly not me) had annual passes.
Perhaps that’s why this ride never completely lost its luster for me. When my friends and relatives would express a desire to skip Star Tours because it felt old and dated to them, I never felt the same way. It wouldn’t bother me that we’d skip the ride, but if there was a single person in our party wanting to ride, I was always willing to go with them. Is it strange for a ride to engender such strong feelings that years later I’d still ride it mostly on the strength of those associations rather than on its own merits? Or maybe it was its own merits after all. I’d always been a huge Star Wars fan, so over the years it has remained a treat to actually step into that universe, albeit briefly and in ways that I’d long ago memorized.
Star Tours was one of the highlights of the Backstage Magic party for Disneyland Cast Members in the early 1990s. I recall a few other things from that party – a positively terrifying ride into the cherry-picker hedge trimming crane, way up high deep in Fantasyland leaps to mind. And we got to ride Space Mountain with the work lights all blazing. But Star Tours was the pinnacle. We were allowed in small groups to actually watch the ride in operation from the outside (and from down below). It was amazing. The cabin really does move around a lot; more than I was expecting. And the detail that most surprised me was the nestled loops of film (I think 35mm) that were spliced together to form an endless loop, all attached to the back of the speeder. This was the main “movie” of the ride. The side monitor with C3PO and others was contained on laserdisc, we were told. Am I imagining the memory or was it real that at some point in the intervening years they switched the main viewscreen to digital rather than film projection? If so, I assume they haven’t had those film loops running behind the speeders for some time.
The looping film behind the cabin is far from the only secret at this attraction. A good many Disney park lovers will know the prominent tribute smack dab in the ride movie itself: the Mighty Microscope. Star Tours replaced an Omnimover ride at Disneyland called Adventure Thru Inner Space, in which our “Atomobiles” were shrunk by the Mighty Microscope (seen right there in the queue) to sub-atomic size. This prop (or one looking exactly like it, perhaps?) appears in the hangar near the start of Star Tours, on the right hand side. These are some of my favorite moments in Disney parks, when a new ride pays homage to whatever it displaced.
The Disneyland attraction pretended it was a real spaceport, but in DHS, it’s all
elaborate “set”, so we find wink-wink gags like these chairs for the droids.
We were told that one of the baskets circulating overhead in the second queue room contained a small Atomobile model (a prop from the Microscope?) but try as I might, I was never able to catch a glimpse of this one myself. To this day I don’t know if the story was true. Anyone know for sure?
Here’s something that was known: those G2 droids in Disneyland’s queue were borrowed from America Sings, the nearby musical robot show in the carousel that only had a further year to live. It would later close down (eventually becoming Anaheim’s Innoventions) and donate all the rest of its Audio-Animatronics cast to Splash Mountain.
1989 was the year this ride opened.
For both Star Tours and Splash Mountain, the Orlando park mimicked Disneyland and created new figures (though I’ve also heard that the Orlando G2 droids were not duplicates, but actual geese from the Disneyland show). Yes, I said geese. Look at their feet and you’ll see “webbing.” And the G2 droids have actual wagging tails!
Speaking of Audio-Animatronics, this was one of the few places where everyday visitors could see the control mechanisms for the AAs, hiding right there in plain sight. Right below each of those geese (er, G2 droids) on the level below was a stand-up cabinet, upon which many cylinders were arrayed in a lying-down position. These metal cylinders – they looked like Campbell’s soup cans – were the control mechanisms for the AAs above.
Where else can you see the AA controls?
Here’s a secret specific to the Orlando attraction: there’s a Hidden Kermit in the second queue room. Just to the left of the G2 droid with the welder gun was a half-built droid lying down amid the other junk, perhaps 2-3 feet tall, with the distinctive Kermit face and body, though done in metal and gold colors. The tribute here was an intentional and calculated one, since the park (then Disney-MGM Studios) opened in 1989 with a strong collaboration with Jim Henson’s Muppets and an intention to increase it. Unfortunately, Henson died not too much later, and it wasn’t until Iger replaced Eisner before the collaboration was renewed and began to bear new fruit.
The Hidden Kermit.
A pretty well-known fact (I’m not sure it qualifies as a “secret”) was that the voice of our pilot Rex was Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Hermann. His voice may have been quasi-recognizable, but his staccato laugh (heard just prior to entering the Death Star trench) probably gave it away to anyone still wondering.
The other celebrity voice was Anthony Daniels, who recorded new lines for C3PO for the ride. At the recent Celebration V Star Wars convention, he reported that they weighted down his feet during the recording, since they were not only doing an audio recording, but also a motion capture of Daniels’ body, arms – everything but his face. So in a way, that’s a real acting performance you witnessed in the line. At the same panel, Daniels shared that it was he who voiced the “Kuchana Kuchana” line in Endorian (Ewokian?) as part of the terminal voiceover. I heard it again after Daniels told us that, and then I could tell, but I never would have guessed before then.
Star Tours in Orlando, mere moments away from final shuttering and dismantling.
Speaking of celebrities, some of you may be wondering when I’ll come to George Lucas himself. Well, it’s not him. That guy at the very end of the ride (who ducks down because he almost gets hit by our Starspeeder before Rex finally locates the brakes) bears a passing resemblance to the Forcemaster himself, but more than one credible, on-the-spot source has come forward saying that wasn’t George (one of them even listed the actor’s name, but I can no longer locate the reference).
If you’ve been on the ride more than once (or visited only once but have a keen eye), perhaps you’ve noticed the red “packing” tape on one side of our pilot Rex. Humorously, it reads “Remove Before Flight.” It stayed there from his first ride all the way through to his last! (as did his admission that it was his first flight – “mine too” – and his protestation that he’s sure he’ll do better next time!)
I know it’s probably your first flight, and it’s… mine too.
Since part of Star Tours is a movie, I always ended up doing what I do on all movie-based attractions: I take note of the same things every time. On Soarin’, for instance, my eye is always drawn to the skier at one peak who tries to make an impressive jump as the camera reaches him, but he falls (probably to his embarrassment). On Captain EO, I’m always looking at the evil henchman who crouches down (watch the bottom-right of the screen) and then doesn’t get converted with his brethren. Or I’m watching how the first guy liberated from the columns is not the same guy who joins the line with Michael – it’s like they switched actors at the last minute.
On Star Tours, my eye was drawn to the Mighty Microscope of course, but the next thing that seized my attention was the clutch of comets. We approach from a vast distance so we can see the entire bunch, wouldn’t you agree? And yet as we get very close, a comet enters our field of vision from the left – that shouldn’t be possible, as we followed this same swarm from very far away, when they were small on screen, and there shouldn’t be any surprises.
I always wonder why Star Tours can just “ease off on its main thruster” and thus escape the tractor beam – couldn’t the Alderaan blockade runner have done the same thing in the Star Wars movies? Oh, I see the X-Wing shooting kinda sorta near the docking clamps on screen, but nothing significant appears hit, so this looks like a gaffe to me.
I could get technical that the explosion we see from the trench torpedoes looks more like the “impacted on the surface” miss from Star Wars than the actual hit by Skywalker a minute later, but what really gets me going is the timing. We score a hit on the Death Star and the other ships jump to lightspeed. If you watch the side monitor (which showed the action behind us), you saw that the Death Star was basically finished exploding before our own ship jumped away. A tiny detail, of course, and it never interfered with my enjoyment of the ride. It was just what my eye was drawn to each time.
With this long and rich history with the ride, you can understand that I wanted to see it go, and send it off properly. I wanted to be there when it left because I was there when it began (well, yes, I know I’m mixing up Anaheim and Orlando here, but it’s emotionally the same thing to me – or at least I tell myself that since I can’t just fly around the country whenever I want to!)
The Final Flight party was only for 240-some-odd D23 members – all that would fit on the six Starspeeders running simultaneously. The event may have cost $5 per person to get a ticket, but it’s guaranteed Disney lost money on this one. They must have had 40-60 people working once you factor in the security, main gate folks, attractions and merch, custodial, and even food operations (not that people were buying much). I can’t imagine any other outcome than Disney lost several thousand dollars more than it made on this event – that bespeaks dedication to the fans which did not go unnoticed.
Not a sight you can see all the time.
At the event sign in, we were handed FastPasses for the night, which humorously noted “Your next FastPass will become available in 2011.” I collect FastPasses, so I kind of liked this cheap and simple souvenir. The other ticket we got was a boarding pass sized paper with the date/time of our event. It turns out this is a duplicate of what was given to 1987 Disneyland Cast Members for their Cast premiere (a few days before even my 60 hour party). The Cast premiere was spread out over several days, and each day had its own color ticket. Friday’s ticket was blue, and so was our D23 Final Flight ticket. That was a nice touch to go back into the archives and reproduce something from the ride’s history for this equally historical event.
Even the passes were well-themed.
I had had history on my mind too. Back in 1987, we’d gotten a rather cheap plastic wristwatch themed to Star Tours (and with January 1987 written on it) as a giveaway upon entering the gate. Geek that I am, I took this watch with me to the D23 party, in an attempt to bring the attraction full circle.
The watch from 1987.
Upon our exit from the Final Ride, we were handed a patch commemorating the event. It made for a nice compliment to my 1987 watch – the two giveaways that formed the bookend for this attraction’s lifespan (in the United States, anyway).
The 2010 patch.
The Final Flight itself was actually a somewhat subdued affair. We were accompanied by Stormtroopers in costume (each Starspeeder had one), and they kept things funny (cheering silently for the Empire, for instance), but by and large folks were surprisingly silent on that final ride.
This contrasted with much more raucous final rides during the “regular” park hours on the final day, and with the exuberant riders at the Celebration V “Last Tour” event. I still don’t have a full explanation for the difference, but if I had to guess, I’d say that the fans at D23 had a different relationship with the ride. They weren’t “celebrating” its departure so much as honoring its lifespan. The final flight was a chance to soak in the details one last time. People were no doubt misty with emotion at what the ride meant to them, and saying goodbye in personal, even private ways.
I know I was. Go well, Star Tours. I will welcome you back with open arms in 2011 for the new Adventures and destinations, but the original ride that helped kick-start me into hopeless (and delightful!) fandom now lies in the past. “My” Star Tours is gone, and I’m glad I got a chance to say farewell properly. It will make it all the more rewarding to welcome the new one when it comes!
Short or not, these stormtroopers insisted that we “move along” after that last ride.