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Disney's Star Wars Land joins trend of theme parks putting you 'in the movie'

In Star Wars Land, you'll be able to fly Han Solo's Millennium Falcon. You can drop by the Cantina for a drink with a droid. The attraction, coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando in 2019, is being designed to take you out of the theme park and into the Star Wars universe.

And you can thank Harry Potter for that.

Thanks to the success of Universal Orlando's worlds inspired by J.K. Rowling's books, park visitors are now beyond whirling Dumbo rides or flying over Neverland with animatronic characters below, said theme park expert Dennis L. Speigel, president of the analysis firm International Theme Park Services. Parkgoers are now getting entire fantasy lands.

"We are in the middle of greatest armaments war of attractions we've ever seen," Speigel said. "It's just amazing that today it's nothing to spend $500 million and up on a new themed area."

That immersion into a movie world is coming this summer to Pandora at Disney's Animal Kingdom, based on the world of James Cameron's mega hit Avatar. You'll be able to walk beneath Pandora's floating mountains, see exotic glowing plants and animals and take a ride on the back of a flying banshee in the Valley of Mo'ara. The glowing land of the blue Na'vi people has been under construction since 2014 and is set to open Memorial Day weekend at a cost of $500 million, theme park experts estimate.

Universal Orlando created a sensation in 2010 when it opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Islands of Adventure, a land designed to shut out the rest of the park as you step into Hogwarts. Attention to detail was immediately praised, including workers who spoke in British accents and the absence of Muggle products like Diet Coke.

Universal was rewarded with record crowds, a 36 percent jump in attendance. Merchandise flew off the shelves while parkgoers waited in long lines to buy more than 1 million cups of Butterbeer that first year. A second land, Diagon Alley, opened in 2014 at Universal Studios. The park saw a jump in two-park ticket sales.

It's not just rides that attract crowds. Themed food and merchandise drive up purchases inside the park.

"You are immersed in an area that is spending-driven," Speigel said.

And Star Wars fans are among the most likely to beg Disney to take their money. A survey going out to Disney fans in recent months, the WDW News Today website reported, asked if fans would spend $900 or more for a weekend for a Star Wars hotel and role-playing experience. There are no official announcements of such a place yet, but with potential robot butlers and lightsaber training and room windows with screens designed to look like you're staying on an alien planet, Speigel has no doubt there's a market for it regardless of the price.

"There will be people who will scratch and save and cash in their pop bottles to do this."

Details released last week on the 14-acre Star Wars Land coming to Disney World promise that in addition to familiar stories and characters, the land is based on a never-before-seen planet located in the Outer Rim. The remote village is a port for smugglers, adventurers and those wishing to avoid the eyes of the First Order.

You'll enter the land through a tunnel, where designers are taking care to shut out the outside world with a surrounding berm before plunging into the Star Wars outpost.

Exit the tunnel and you enter a marketplace "filled with stalls where you can buy fragrances and spices and clothes and toys and equipment from all across the galaxy, sometimes from the black market, but don't ask too many questions," Scott Trowbridge, leader of the Star Wars Land creative team, told the crowd at April's Star Wars Celebration in Orlando.

It may be a made-up planet, but it will still be familiar-looking, like many of the movies' desert outposts, marked by low, circular buildings. Unusual characters including a fish-headed creature will walk around the Cantina, and there will be droids, both new and familiar.

Beyond the bazaar, the attraction will feature a First Order spaceport and an ancient forest compound where members of the Resistance can be found.

Dave Filoni, an executive producer on all seasons of Star Wars Rebels who is advising the theme park designers, said this is for Star Wars fans who have always thought, " 'Wouldn't it be great to walk into the Cantina or to sit on the Millennium Falcon?' Now this generation of kids are going to get to have it."

The words "immersion" and "you are in the movie" come up often.

"Our goal … was being able to see it in person and touch it and to smell it and taste it and kind of live that amazing Star Wars experience for themselves," Trowbridge said.

Doug Chiang, who worked as a design director on The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones and was a concept artist for The Force Awakens and production designer on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, also spoke of his enthusiasm in bringing the worlds he's helped design for film into real life.

"It's all the things you always wanted to do but never had the chance to do," Chiang said. "They will feel as if they are truly visiting Star Wars."

Chris Beatty, executive creative director for Walt Disney Imagineering, said the team partnered with LucasFilm — much like Universal partnered with J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter lands — "to create a place that is so authentic, so real, that when our guests step inside, they are there. They are in the movie."

Beatty said this project is on a scale "unprecedented" for Disney Imagineering. Speigel estimates that between the California and Florida Star Wars lands, Disney is spending more than $1 billion.

There will be two featured rides, one in which visitors can pilot the Millennium Falcon. The attraction can be different each time you ride it, depending on how well you maneuver off those rock faces.

The other ride will put visitors in the middle of the action between the Resistance and the First Order. They haven't released details yet, but Disney executives said rooftops and ladders will make you feel like you're in the thick of it.

A big part of that ride will be the presence of life-sized AT-AT walkers — the same kind that first appeared in the battle on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

For longtime theme park fans, fantasy lands have been a revelation.

"It's one of those things that no one knew we wanted it until we saw it," said Robert Niles, 49, who started the Theme Park Insider blog more than a decade ago. "With Harry Potter, the entire thing was integrated and the place was the attraction, not just the rides.

"Once you went into that, you're like, 'Where have you been all my life?' "

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

Disney's Star Wars Land joins trend of theme parks putting you 'in the movie' 04/24/17 [Last modified: Monday, April 24, 2017 9:19pm]
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