By Peyton Liebler
R2—lightspeed to Endor! As Captain RX-24’s immortal words from his original takeoff sequence rang through the audience at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim’s Galaxy Stage on May 27, anyone in attendance could feel the wonder and excitement Star Wars fans experienced during the original Star Tours flight from 1987. That same thrill echoed through the entire panel, as D23 connected generations of Star Tours travelers to the expansive stories told during the 35 years since the groundbreaking attraction first opened.
Hosted by the iconic Ashley Eckstein (a Star Tours superfan), the panel included many of the Imagineers, VFX specialists, and storytellers who have brought Star Tours to life and have continued to adapt it for new stories and new audiences.
After a warm welcome from Michael Vargo, the head of D23: the Official Disney Fan Club, the first part of the panel focused on the beginning of Star Tours, the first Star Wars Attraction in Disney Parks. Panelists included galactic heroes Tony Baxter and Chris Runco from Walt Disney Imagineering and Dennis Muren from Industrial Light & Magic, all of whom played a part in the attraction’s 1987 incarnation. Once the original pre-flight safety brief was finished, Eckstein led the panelists back to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” where they relived the creative phases that made Star Tours a reality.
Baxter talked about the initial pitch for Star Tours, and how the idea for a Star Wars attraction evolved into the simulator system it remains today. The challenge was to connect the story of the attraction to the most memorable moments from the films, as Muren recounted toying with recreating specific moments. Muren discussed the technical aspects that allow Star Tours to operate as one continuous experience, using scale modeling and large-scale story structuring techniques to build the galaxy around the attraction. And with the journey created, who would be piloting guests through hyperspace? Details on the meetings and concepts that led to the creation of RX-24—or Captain Rex, as he’s affectionately known as—were shared by Chris Runco. Runco had discussions with George Lucas himself, inventing an eager and eclectic droid who was having quite an interesting first flight—and now is regarded as one of the most loveable original characters from Disney Parks. To this day Rex’s legacy lives on, with RX droids seen in the Star Wars universe onscreen in the Book of Boba Fett. The panelists even shared the stage with some surprise RX droid guests!
After chatting with the distinguished panelists, Ashley introduced the original onboard footage seen in Star Tours from 1987. The audience zipped through falling comets, evaded star destroyer tractor beams, and blew up the Death Star with the rebels. When the lights came up, it was time to talk about Star Tours today, and the new adventures it has brought to Disney Parks.
Ashley welcomed a new set of panelists, also known throughout the galaxy. Meghan Short from Walt Disney Imagineering and Bill George from Industrial Light & Magic talked about Star Tours: The Adventures Continue—the current iteration found in Disney Parks around the world! The new story took inspiration from decades of Star Wars films, and having been created shortly after the release of the prequel trilogy, there was a plethora of new locations and characters to play with.
George discussed the inclusion of familiar characters to help ground the story, using C-3PO as the accidental pilot and tying in characters from across the galaxy through onscreen appearances and holographic messages. This discussion was accompanied by a look behind the scenes, in video clips featuring the creation of the Princess Leia hologram and even the live-action tests to create the viewport Wookiee “splat” on Kashyyk. This was also a great opportunity to discuss the new features brought to the attraction, specifically the inclusion of 3D elements to create some very special sequences. George discussed how the separate sequences of the attraction, randomly combined for each journey, allowed for more range to be showcased in the simulator.
When the sequel trilogy debuted, that opened the door for even more planets and stories to be featured. Short talked about the process of creating the sequel trilogy sequences, including filming with the stars and creating some story sequences on Jakuu and Crait. She recalled the process of creating the Maz Kanata sequence with Lupita Nyong’o, and the audience even got to watch the hilarious reference footage shot to choreograph the animation of Maz in her 3D hologram appearance.
Also shared were some fun details about the strong connections that Star Tours has to the rich land of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the planet of Batuu—most famously, the land features Captain Rex in his new residence as the DJ inside of Oga’s Cantina. These “connections” included adding a Batuu landing sequence to the attraction. With a huge overlap of Imagineers working on Star Tours and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the creative team was able to see a CG preview of Galaxy’s Edge and used it to create the landing sequence in Batuu. Later, this same CG model was used in the digital representations of Black Spire Outpost inside of the land’s flagship attractions, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
Star Wars Celebration guests had a splendid time reliving the last 35 years of Star Tours. From the bustling skyways of Coruscant, to the edge of the galaxy on Batuu, to the trenches of the Death Star, this attraction has made one of the most beloved universes a tangible thing for generations. It has made “a galaxy far, far away” feel just a bit more in reach for everyone. We hope all in attendance had a great Star Wars Celebration Anaheim experience, and we thank everyone for bearing with us, as we’re still just getting used to our programming!