If you ever needed proof that there’s more to theme parks than rides, go visit Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge… assuming you can get a reservation. The newest Disneyland expansion opens today with one ride in operation, and although there’s a lot to love about Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, it’s surprisingly the least impressive part of Galaxy’s Edge.
Let’s start with the positives, though. Like the rest of Galaxy’s Edge, Smugglers Run is a beautifully designed space that feels real and lived-in. The ride’s queue and preshow, set inside a space port run by the pirate Hondo Ohnaka, effectively transports you into the world of Star Wars, with shabby but futuristic architecture and a spaceship that’s being worked on in the part of the line that winds through a garage. To enter the line you have to walk past the lifesize Millennium Falcon parked in the courtyard outside; this 100 foot long structure is a genuinely gasp-inducing centerpiece destined to be the most photographed part of Galaxy’s Edge.
The ride’s queue ends with a briefing from Ohnaka himself, in the form of the most lifelike audio-animatronic Disney has yet built. (One guest at Wednesday’s grand opening swore it was an actor in a costume, but nope, it’s an animatronic.) His little performance, complimented by a poorly behaved droid and an on-screen interjection from an old Star Wars favorite, is a great bit of showmanship, especially for a robot. He introduces the concept of the ride, explains a bit of how your performance can follow you throughout the land (more on that below), and does it all with a genuinely funny comic flair.
From there you’ll walk into the true highlight of the ride: a waiting room. It’s not just any waiting room, though, but a detailed recreation of the cargo hold of the Millennium Falcon. This is the room where Chewbacca and C-3P0 played the chess-like game dejarik in the original Star Wars movie, and the table is right there for you to sit at while you wait to board the cockpit. (Sadly no holographic chess beasts will appear.) The best part of Smugglers Run is simply getting to tour the Falcon, and this is your best opportunity to take photographs during the ride and truly feel like a part of Star Wars. The rest of Galaxy’s Edge is set in a place that the movies have never visited before, so this waiting room (and what comes after) is your only chance to visit the actual movies that have so thoroughly shaped pop culture over the last 42 years—and you will feel how much Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon means to you once you’re inside of it.
After a few minutes a Disney cast member will escort you into the cockpit, and at first it’ll be exactly as thrilling as that sounds. Some concessions to the requirements of the ride were made in the cockpit’s layout—it’s not identical to the movie, but it’s close enough to pack a potent nostalgic charge. When you sit down and strap yourself in you’ll probably feel a burst of excitement; it’s a powerful moment and you should embrace it for as long as you can. Because once the ride itself starts, it might start to slowly fade away.
Smugglers Run is like a more advanced version of the classic Star Tours motion simulator ride. As George Lucas said at the Galaxy Edge dedication ceremony on Wednesday, it’s “Star Tours on steroids at a level you can’t imagine.” A flight party of six guests will pilot the ship through a smuggling mission that uses images on the cockpit’s screen and a light range of motion (rocking back and forth, or tilting slightly up and down) to simulate actual flight. As high-tech as this motion simulator is, it still lacks the overpowering physical sensation of a ride with a fuller range of motion. Still, it feels like you’re flying, and so there’s a strong element of wish fulfillment for anybody who grew up a Star Wars fan.
It was intentionally designed with significant videogame aspects, and unfortunately those undermine the ride experience. It makes sense that Disney would take the approach they did—only two people can actually sit at the instrument panel and pilot the ship, and if Smugglers Run only let two people board per ride the wait time would be unfathomable. But without defined tasks for other guests to perform, they wouldn’t have as interactive or immersive an experience as the pilots. So they’ve added two roles in addition to pilot: gunner and engineer. The gunners sit in the second row of seats (instead of climbing down into the turrets beneath the ship’s belly, as seen in the films), the engineers in the third, and with the two pilots in the front that comes to six passengers per voyage. While the pilots actually steer the ship, pulling up and down or right and left to avoid obstacles during the ride, the gunners and engineers have to press buttons on the cockpit’s walls as they light up—the gunners to shoot down TIE fighters, the engineers to fix damage to the Falcon on the fly. At the end of each trip the ride gives you a final score, just like a videogame.
The problem is that the non-pilot roles are limited and repetitive, and yet take your attention away from the ride itself. You’ll find yourself too busy looking at the walls of the cockpit and pressing buttons to pay full attention to the screen in front of you. Instead of making you feel like a more active participant in this smuggling mission, pressing those buttons makes you miss much of the excitement happening on screen. And the score, which is measured in “Galactic credits,” doesn’t amount to much more than bragging rights (supposedly it will impact your reputation within the rest of Galaxy’s Edge, although I never saw what kind of shape that will take during my time at the park this week).
Serving as a game also limits the narrative possibilities of the ride’s story. I’m not a huge fan of Star Tours, but I’ve always liked how it encompasses a broad spectrum of Star Wars bric-a-brac, from encounters with recognizable characters to quick jaunts to familiar worlds. The film, as it is, for Smugglers Run focuses entirely on the mission at hand, which from a theme perspective is smart, but also makes it feel a little one-dimensional and overly regimented—like you’re flying through a tunnel, but one that doesn’t even have the decency to be a Death Star trench run.
The ride still packs a lot of pure thrill power into its run time. It’s one of the best motion simulator rides in any theme park in the world today, and absolutely captures that lifelong dream of flying the Millennium Falcon. After such an amazing queue and preshow, though, and when surrounded by such an elaborate, realistic and lifelike recreation of a Star Wars settlement, the actual ride of Smugglers Run feels a little disappointing. It’s both a ride and a massive arcade game, but the two don’t entirely mesh together as well as you might hope.
Of course there’s undue pressure on Smugglers Run since it’s the only ride open at the launch of Galaxy’s Edge. This was always envisioned as the less groundbreaking of two rides within the land, and the other one, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, won’t be open until later this year. I walked through part of Rise of the Resistance during a tour back in February, and even in a very unfinished state I could tell that it’s going to make people rethink what can be possible in a theme park ride. Resistance features multiple different ride systems, various setpieces on an unheard-of scale, and perhaps the most ambitious plans of any theme park ride ever designed. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, meanwhile, is essentially the land’s secondary attraction, one that exists not to wow us with its advances in technology and design, but to simply put us in control of this iconic spaceship. It pulls that off with more style and attention to detail than you might expect. It might not be the greatest ride ever built, but it’s still glorious and unforgettable.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.