While the upcoming Galactic Starcruiser hotel at Disney World might be advertising an out-of-this-world vacation, Disneyland‘s Star Tours has been offering tourism-themed Star Wars experiences for 35 years. The attraction was met with a passionate enthusiasm from the shaded Venn diagram of theme park fans and George Lucas devotees when it opened on Jan. 9, 1987.
Speaking with ET in December at the Make-A-Wish’s Galaxy of Wishes event at Disneyland, Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, shared his initial reaction to the groundbreaking ride. The actor recalled putting to Lucas if he could ever have imagined one of his movies “inspiring a ride at Disneyland” and told the iconic director, “‘We’ll never top this, George.’”
True to the reputation of Disney Imagineers, the actor’s expectations were later blown away by the fantastical, immersive park regions now at Disneyland Park and Disney World’s Hollywood Studios that go far beyond motion simulator experiences. Nevertheless, Star Tours is still a hallmark attraction at Disney parks around the world, also boasting locations at Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disney.
Let’s take a look at the audacious beginnings of Star Tours and how its imaginative conception built the foundation of an enduring Disney Parks legacy.
“Lightspeed to Endor!”
A LONG, LONG TIME AGO, IN ANAHEIM…
Following a slump in Disney’s Imagineering efforts in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, renewed interest in the department picked up when Michael Eisner was installed as CEO of the House of Mouse in 1984. The executive, who remained at the helm until Bob Iger took the reins in 2005, is often credited with igniting new vigor into the legendary team of creatives.
Speaking with ET in 1985, Eisner teased the upcoming ride as one “several exciting things” in the works for Disney parks. Along with the now defunct 3-D space musical Captain EO starring the late Michael Jackson, and also produced by Lucas, Star Tours was selected to be one of the first projects to benefit from this renaissance. For Lucas, who can boast he walked through Disneyland’s gates on its second day of operation in July of 1955, he counted both the park and Walt Disney’s animated classics as some of his earliest creative influences.
With the filmmaker lending his world of lightsabers and Wookies to the parks, Star Tours became the first attraction adapted from non-Disney IP. In promotional materials at the time, Lucas explained in an interview, “I wanted to have an involvement in Tomorrowland. I thought that was a portion of the park that had been a little less than what it could have been, so they’ve given me the opportunity to include my characters into that part of the park and try to come up with some new ideas.”
As Lucas and Imagineers set out to adapt Star Wars for Disneyland, the collaborators wished to expedite the traditional five-year development process. In this pursuit, they turned to advanced military flight simulator technology that had never been applied to theme park attractions before (an image from one of the original simulation sequences is on the left). The ride’s designers, including legendary Imagineers Tony Baxter and Tom Fitzgerald, recognized the potential for the system’s hydraulic lifts to create a hyper realistic Star Wars adventure.
For the location, Star Tours took over the show building for Adventure Thru Inner Space (ending its run after 18 years of operation) near the Tomorrowland entrance. With the hardware on standby, stakeholders turned to their biggest challenge: making another Star Wars movie.
The idea: guests enter Star Tours, an interstellar travel agency promising voyages to multiple deep space locales following the climatic events of Return of the Jedi. Forty “tourists” at a time board their space vessel, the Starspeeder 3000, and sit facing what looks like the craft’s front window. But with a first-time pilot at the helm, a droid named RX-24 — nicknamed “Rex” (voiced by Paul Reubens) — complications ensue, as they historically do in Star Wars tales.
Designers at Industrial, Light and Magic spent a year and a half working on Star Tours’ four-minute special effects extravaganza (with the added difficulty of creating a movie without noticeable editing cuts). While passengers are scheduled for a flight to the Moon of Endor, Rex’s maiden voyage quickly involves unplanned near-collisions with icy comets and evasive maneuvers against Imperial fighters. Riders drop, rise and tilt — meticulously in sync with the viewscreen images — as their rookie pilot narrowly manages to secure everyone’s safe return.
Over 65 years after its debut, there’s not many exciting “firsts” or “records” which aren’t routinely broken year after year at Disneyland. But the exception which proves this rule lies with the opening of Star Tours in 1987. For the first, and presumably final time, the park remained open for 60 hours straight to celebrate the attraction’s highly anticipated debut.
The state-of-the-art motion simulator experience was a hit with parkgoers. ET went on the $35 million ride later that year with Facts of Life star Mackenzie Astin. “It was very bouncy. You shake around a whole lot,” he remarked after exiting Star Tours. “But I loved every minute of it.”
The ride’s inaugural guests were treated to a commonplace experience today at most theme parks, but was revolutionary at the time: an entertaining queue. As people waited in line, they wound through a spaceport where a big-screen played vacation promotional reels for Star Wars destinations (like Hoth, promoted as “the galaxy’s greatest ice planet”). Plus, awaiting passengers walked by a full-size Starspeeder 3000 being repaired by none other than familiar droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who didn’t hold back their trademark bickering as guests inched closer to the boarding zone.
Star Tours made its way to Florida a few years later when it premiered at Disney/MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios). Following its well-documented popularity in Anaheim, Imagineers chose to provide this location with six Starspeeder cars, as opposed to the four at Disneyland. In addition, the ride exterior was fleshed out with an Endor forest and a 35-foot AT-AT walker looming over the entrance, much like the ones seen today while riding Rise of the Resistance.
The “Endor Express” became a staple attraction at Disney parks over the next decade, often spoken in the same breath as Matterhorn and Spaceship Earth. In the early ’90s, Star Tours gained extra significance when Lucas began teasing his long-awaited prequel trilogy. As fans waited for these new films, they could at least stop by Tomorrowland for an interactive Star Wars experience to hold them over.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary in 1997, Disneyland invited Carrie Fisher to re-dedicate the attraction. In a ceremony pointedly reminiscent of the end of A New Hope, Fisher was presented with a “Disneyland Medal of Honor,” seemingly the only person to ever been given such an award.
In promotional materials at the time, Fisher referenced daughter Billie Lourd as the reason why she loved going to the park. “The easiest mothering thing I have to do is bring my kid to Disneyland, so I can’t tell you how many times we’ve come here. This represents my best maternal zone, [because] I never grew up to the extent that I grew past the ability to enjoy a great amusement park. And this is the best,” Fisher explained.
THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES
In 2011, a new version of the ride opened in Florida and California titled Star Tours: The Adventure Continues. This iteration, which is the standing version at the parks today, features different variations of opening sequences, primary destinations, holographic messages and finale set pieces. All to say, the random shuffle of scenes ensures no rider will have the same Star Tours experience twice in their lifetime.
The updated ride system features a high-definition 3-D experience (requiring guests to wear “flight goggles”), several new special effects and most crucial: a new position on the Star Wars timeline. Star Tours now existed in the prequel era, leading to several changes to retrofit the attraction from its post-Episode VI origin date (the Starspeeder 3000 was now the Starspeeder 1000, etc). But one of the most evident was Rex’s demotion from captain to unproven droid placed in the ride queue in order to keep up with this new continuity (but more on Rex later).
Following the sale of Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company in 2012 and the ensuing sequel trilogy, the franchise’s latest heroes and villains were integrated into the ride’s experience. During this era, Star Tours also became a go-to place of celebration as new Star Wars movies and TV shows rolled out. To hype the premiere of The Last Jedi, Hamill stopped by Tomorrowland (see below) and to blow the minds of some passengers who can now say they jumped to lightspeed with a Jedi legend.
Of course, its present-day version fudges the ride’s temporal landscape a bit. Guests might run into any characters and locations depicted across Episodes I-XI, be it jumping into a podrace from The Phantom Menace or exploring the Death Star ruins on Kef Bir as seen in The Rise of Skywalker (and who’s to say riders might eventually see TV characters such as The Mandalorian on the Starpeeder viewscreen at some point, let’s be realistic).
“STAR TOURS ON STEROIDS”
In 2015, Imagineers announced it would fulfill the ultimate dream of Star Wars fans by creating an entire land within the parks dedicated to Lucas’ space opera. This vision included two new attractions, eateries, character interactions, gift shops and even droid footprints embedded in the cement walkways. As the initial concept art proved, not since the debut of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure had there been such an ambitious execution of placemaking in theme parks.
When Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disneyland in 2019, the impact of Star Tours could be seen in both a physical and spiritual sense throughout the 14-acre region. At the opening ceremony, this connection was given the ultimate confirmation when Lucas referred to Black Spire Outpost as “Star Tours on steroids.”
But the most tangible of these influences was the resurrection of Rex. As fans now know, Rex’s tenure as a Star Tours pilot came to an end after crash landing on Batuu, where he took up a new vocation as Oga Cantina’s DJ (taking on the aptly named title “DJ Rex”). The retired pilot spins records as guests sip libations with names like “Coruscant Cooler” and “Gold Squadron Lager.” Following Rex’s cameo in the first season for Star Wars: Rebels, a couple of his RX-series peers have also been spotted in The Book of Boba Fett.
Another sign of Star Tours’ enduring legacy is the sense of longing it inspired among theme park fans amid the coronavirus pandemic. Avid Disneyland-goers Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker have made up for plenty of lost time in the park after it reopened in April of 2021. But staying away from Harbor Boulevard stung for the drummer and his band, Blink 182. The proof is in a catchy chorus from their song, “Quarantine,” released in August of 2020.
“Quarantine, f**k this disease / I’d rather be on Star Tours or stuck at the DMV…”
But maybe the DMV can learn from Star Tours — or get a permanent music residency — as a spectacular line queue experience can go a long, long way.