Polygon was invited to visit Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, Disney World Resorts’ new high-concept hotel experience in Florida, during a press preview event last week. One of the bullet points that really sold fans on the facility in 2019 was a lightsaber training experience, one that promised to evoke the earliest scenes of Luke Skywalker swinging a laser sword way back in 1977. During my visit, I gave it a try and found it to be, technologically speaking, kind of tame. But, like much of the fun to be had aboard the Halcyon, it’s more about the vibe than anything else.
One of the first major demonstrations of the lightsaber training experience showed up on YouTube just three months ago. In it, you can clearly see how the system works. Participants stick a special lightsaber into a beam of light and, if they time it correctly, the lights flash and the saber vibrates. Shields also play a role in the experience, adding more tactile participation while helping to keep fingers and hands from getting whacked on the backswing.
Honestly, it really doesn’t look anything all that much like it does in the movies. It doesn’t even look much like the early concept art. The reason for that, I hope, is fairly self-explanatory.
Laser swords aren’t real, and even if they were, there’s not an insurer in the world that would let guests wield a weapon that could cut through metal. Also, while laser weapons are real, their beams don’t form coherent bolts of light that zip through the air like tracer rounds. Basically, the laws of physics take a lot of the fun out of the lightsaber training experience, making it feel a lot like reverse Laser Tag. But according to Disney’s creative director, Sara Thacher, this was still a major step forward for the tech.
“This is the maximum, epic challenge,” Thacher told Polygon. “When we started the project, [we noted] there are many, many amazing VR lightsaber experiences. Those are great, but they are very hard to share with the people that you care about — to be there together, to be experiencing the same thing together.”
As Thacher describes it, the lightsaber training experience that was finally implemented on board the Galactic Starcruiser is a bit of a compromise. It focuses on safety, by having everyone face forward and by not having participants spar against one another. The technology works; I can personally attest to that, and she said that’s in no small part thanks to the legendary Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot who protoyped the concept nearly a decade ago — before the Galactic Starcruiser was even on the drawing board. But it’s more of a team-building experience than a whizz-bang special effects extravaganza.
Your guide during the lightsaber training is a Saja, an actor portraying one of the descendents of the Guardians of the Whills introduced in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. They are essentially Force-sensitive refugees who have found a home on board the Halcyon. Their message during the lightsaber training experience is simple, but impactful: It’s our duty to protect each other, and we are stronger together than we are alone. The Saja give the experience its heart — and they help to tie it into the larger storyline of the two-day immersive experience as a whole.
“The actors are so essential,” Thacher said. “From early, early playtests forward they have all been with an actor. We’ve been continually working on that, because what you notice and how you feel doing it is as much about what the what the technology of the room is telling you, and the game part of the room is telling you, [and] it’s about what that person is telling you and how they guide your focus changes your experience. So that script, and how they interact with you, is so integral. We found we could not play test them separately.”
Viewed in that way, the lightsaber training is just one part of the whole. The Saja guiding you in that room feels as real as any other passenger on the ship. They’re someone that you can talk to and role-play with all throughout your stay. While those actors are off-stage, the Play Disney Parks app takes over, allowing guests to use the Data Pad to reinforce the lessons learned during training. The app can even help guests to unlock unique narrative experiences, including additional training in the Force and even a visit with Jedi master Yoda himself.
Still, for Star Wars fans burnt out on an uneven prequel trilogy or jaded by the prospect that they might never be able to afford the hotel’s roughly $5,000 price tag, this can feel like another disappointment.
Polygon’s preview trip and accommodations were paid for by Walt Disney World, but this did not influence our editorial content. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.