This is Part 2 of a two-part blog post about my June 2022 vacation. To read Part 1, which focuses on my HBS reunion, go here.
Thanks to some pretty severe delays, Alisha and I didn’t make it to Orlando until after 1 AM, which meant that we couldn’t get to sleep until nearly 2 AM. After a too-short night of sleep and a quick breakfast, I started cramming.
Perhaps I should explain.
The Galactic Starcruiser is the latest and greatest creation of Disney’s Imagineers. They had already outdone themselves with the Galaxy’s Edge area of Disney World and Disneyland (which everyone pretty much just calls “Star Wars Land”. We had been to Galaxy’s Edge last year, and marveled at being able to see a full-sized Millenium Falcon, along with an X-Wing, and A-Wing, and assorted First Order hardware.
To top themselves, the Imagineers decided to create an even more immersive experience: The Galactic Starcruiser.
I first started reading about the project a couple of years ago, back when it was still just a rumor. The basic concept is that guests stay at a hotel that simulates a Star Wars spaceship, so that they can literally live in the Star Wars universe. As soon as I told Alisha about it, she said, “We have to go!” Like many our age, we are big Star Wars fans (even though when my parents took me to see Star Wars as a toddler, I fell asleep during the C3PO and R2D2’s interminable wandering in the desert). We even saw all of prequel and sequel movies in the theaters (and weren’t too happy about many of them). In our previous visit to Galaxy’s Edge, we had been thwarted in our attempt to ride the Rise of the Resistance ride, so we had some unfinished business.
I kept tracking the project, and when it was finally unveiled, a number of our friends also wanted to go and bring their kids. I decided that if we could make the timing work with my HBS reunion, it would be a fun splurge. After all, I reasoned, we were certainly under our usual travel and vacation budget over the previous few years, due to the pandemic. Admittedly, this reasoning was easier to swallow when we made the commitment to go, back when the NASDAQ was at $16,000, than at today’s sub-$11,000 levels!
But a commitment is a commitment, and (spoiler alert) we didn’t regret going. Back to Monday morning in Orlando….
Those who know me well know that I’m a big believer in research and planning. Every time we have a family vacation, I put together a single document that outlines the trip, includes key information like times and locations, as well as any tips or hacks I’ve been able to uncover. For example, when we went to the EPCOT food festival last year, I had already researched all the dishes and highlighted the ones which had received the best reviews.
But for the Starcruiser trip, I had been too busy to do much, which is why, with two hours to go before we left for the Starcruiser, I was frantically Googling the Disney Food Blog (an awesome resource by the way) and the Wookiepedia so I could understand the Starcruiser’s lore and operations.
(Funny side note: After I started visiting the Wookiepedia to do some early research, I started getting ads for Star Wars-themed burlesque shows in my Facebook feed. Apparently there are people willing to pay money to see sexy stormtroopers dance.)
Not everyone follows or even wants to follow my approach. Doing research often means exposing yourself to spoilers (for example, I always read movie reviews before I see a movie, which means that I usually go into the show with a general idea of the plot outline). Others object to what they label a lack of spontaneity. My reply is that I prefer making informed choices to random guessing. But for this post, I’ll avoid spoilers–if you want to know more, reach out privately.
What I learned was that (in-universe) the Halcyon was 275 years old, and had participated in all the different eras of the Star Wars universe, from being part of the High Republic, the Clone Wars (Anakin Skywalker fought a lightsaber duel on the ship), and even the original trilogy (Han and Leia honeymooned aboard the ship). I used this knowledge to craft a careful backstory for the trip. My general approach to this sort of thing is to adopt an identity that is as close as possible to my own, so I was Chris, a scholar and writer from the Outer Rim who was interested in studying the strategies of the Resistance, the First Order, and any other galactic power players. I used precisely 0% of my backstory during the trip.
My research also turned out three key MacGuffins, and three clues about how to interact with certain characters, which for spoiler reasons, I’ll avoid mentioning here.
My plan was to keep my trusty iPad Mini with me, open to my Google Doc of research and notes, so that I could know the schedule and key things to do. I used the iPad extensively the first day on the Starcruiser, but I left it in my cabin the second day–by then I was so immersed in the story, I didn’t feel like I needed it (though it turns out this led me to forget to ask a question of a particular character–not a big deal in the end).
When I completed my research, Alisha and I hailed a ride to the Starcruiser, on which she declined my offer of a complete briefing in favor of taking a nap. I was too excited to sleep.
We arrived at the starport at about 12:15, about 45 minutes before we were scheduled to check-in. The instant we arrived, Disney’s cast members sprang into action with remarkable efficiency. We were immediately offered ice cold bottled water (as usual, it was 90 degrees and humid in Orlando) and a cast member walked us through the use of the Datapad (a smartphone app). Because I had some trouble getting the most up to date version of the app on my older phone, Disney staff immediately got me a loaner phone to use while I was staying at the Starcruiser. It was an iPhone 12 with a battery case for all-day power, and a charger, with the specific app pre-installed. “Fuel rods” (AKA portable power packs) were also available for checkout. Our bags were also whisked away to be pre-delivered to our room. Then we settled into wait. I spent the time observing my fellow passengers. Many people were, like us, just dressed in civilian gear, but many others were in full costume already as they waited in line. Kids were dressed as rebel pilots, Jedi, and stormtroopers, and some adults were in full desert scavenger steampunk. On particularly dedicated young man had an outfit that included a pipe that seemed to go from his shoulder paldron and plug into a port on his neck. At another point, a tall striking woman showed up in full royal regalia…I mentally dubbed her “The Queen,” an impression reinforced by her husband/cameraman who followed her everywhere capturing content on a high-end DSLR with a Rode shotgun microphone. I would get to know them better later on; figuring that they were Disney influencers, I helped alert the husband to a couple of great content opportunities such as when secret characters were on their way. It turns out that Rae (AKA “The Queen”) and June (AKA “The Cameraman”) are Disney influencers, and run both a YouTube channel and Instagram account called DisLyfeOfOurs where they post their Disney content, host livestreams, and more.
Soon enough (though not soon enough for me), we were led to a shuttle for the flight up to the Starcruiser.
A key design principle that the Imagineers seemed to follow is making sure they maintained the suspension of disbelief. Sure, it would be easier to simply allow guests to have their Lyfts drop them off in front of a hotel, then walk in to a registration desk. But this would juxtapose the “real world” with the Galactic Starcruiser experience.
Instead, guests are dropped off at the Starcruiser terminal, and after handing their bags over to the staff, walk through a set of long concrete corridors before coming to a hatch where they can board a shuttlecraft. The shuttle might be a bus, but I had no way of knowing. Guests come into a sealed compartment with “windows” that are viewscreens of the outside. We went through a launch sequence, with sounds synchronized with what we saw in the “windows” and “flew” for a minute or two–including some turbulence along the way–before smoothly docking with the Starcruiser (the image of which we saw growing in the “windows” as we neared the end of our journey).
All of this experience design requires lots of work and money, and is a lot harder to maintain. But it maximizes the immersive quality of the experience. And it’s pretty damn magical when the hatch opens, and you see the Atrium of the Halcyon.
From there, a helpful castmember led us to our cabin. This is worth some discussion.
Much of the narrative around the Galactic Starcruiser has been negative. I think it’s driven in large part by the price, which is hefty even by Disney standards. $5,000 for two nights is a lot of money. “Star Wars cosplay for One Percenters” doesn’t sound like something that would be broadly popular with folks who can’t afford the indulgence.
And the Galactic Starcruiser doesn’t include many of the traditional amenities of a luxury cruise. There is no gym. There is no pool. There are no windows. And the only outdoor space is the “climate simulator” which is a small area about 20′ x 40′ with a rock garden and some vegetation.
Meanwhile, the cabins are beautifully designed, but aren’t very large, and don’t offer absurd levels of luxury. They don’t even have desks (though you can bet I figured out a way to improvise one).
And yet, the various takedown pieces, which are all written by people who hadn’t actually taken a Halcyon cruise, miss the point. Yes, the Galactic Starcruiser is expensive, and the cabins are relatively small, and you have no windows or gym. But what you are getting is a unique, high-quality experience. It is the experience that matters, not the amenities.
The fact is, we didn’t spend enough time in our cabin to worry about its size. We never thought, “Gee, I wish I could look out an actual window and see Central Florida.” I didn’t have time to go to a gym.
The Galactic Starcruiser experience is just that–an experience–and a busy one at that. Don’t board the Halcyon expecting a lazy, relaxing time. Your schedule is packed, and time flies.
In the end, the takedowns of the Starcruiser are classic sour grapes; if I can’t have it, it must not be worth the money. Understandable, but inaccurate.
On with the show!
The other notable features of the cabin included an ingenious pull-out table right below the main “window”, with trapezoidal ottomans/chairs that fit neatly into the void beneath the table, and a Siri/Alexa-like robot voice character that you could summon with the touch of a button. While impressive, I didn’t really get too much out of these interactions, though it was cool to use voice commands.
The first thing Alisha and I did after visiting our cabin was to head to the Crown of Corellia dining hall for lunch. The Galactic Starcruiser is modeled on a traditional cruise ship, and one of the calling cards of cruises is the plentiful amounts of food.
Each full day, the Halcyon offers a breakfast buffet from 7-11 am, a lunch buffet from 1-4 PM, and two sit-down dinners (since all passengers are likely to attend the dinners, which feature the most over-the-top food, entertainment, and story progression, the dining hall is not large enough to accommodate all of the passengers at once). The dinner seatings are from 5:30-7pm and 8-9:30pm. We were always in the late seating, which I think is preferable given the relatively late lunch buffet hours.
The food was generally very good to excellent, and of course it was “Star Wars-ified”. Beef becomes “Bantha meat” while Chicken becomes “Tip Yip”. Tomato becomes “redberry” and avocado becomes “green peaberry.”
And yes, there is unlimited blue and green milk served at every meal.
For me, the most consistently good dishes were the various flatbreads and pizzas. The Halcyon has a wood-fired oven, and the kitchen made a wide variety of pizzas, ranging from breakfast pizzas to curry pizzas.
I also thought the breakfast foods were very well done, with creamy frittatas and woven mesh bacon (regular bacon woven together to form delicious crispy rectangles).
The various articles I read had warned me about the blue shrimp cocktail, which was indeed quite blue. The shrimp were huge and perfectly cooked, but I’m just not a big shrimp cocktail fan.
In addition to the food being space-ified, the serving items were as well. Paper menu sheets, when presented, have their corners cut off, in the universal symbol for space paper. The buffet trays have “winglets” (which I used to hold beverage cups) surrounding a set of three rectangular areas, each of which can fit either two square serving dishes or one rectangular one. This was actually a very effective way to collect and eat food–the serving dishes fit neatly into the serving tray and thus do not slide, and when you finish one serving dish, it is easy to reconfigure your tray to move the now-empty serving dishes away from you so you can eat from the dish in front of you (a more interesting mechanism than simply rotating a round plate).
The cups provided were stainless steel, insulated tumblers, making them ideal for both cold and hot beverages (Alisha and I intend to buy some for our own home). And even the knives, forks, and spoons looked “futuristic”. Again, I was impressed by the Imagineers’ attention to detail.
After lunch, we attended the “Ship Muster,” which gathered all the passengers together in the Atrium (where much of the action takes place). This is the first chance time that all the passengers are in one place, and there is a wide range of attire, from standard family vacation wear to full cosplay. I opted for long flowing black robes, while Alisha had a Rebel-style white shirt with tan highlights.
As befits our different personalities, we took different approaches to our experience, and that was reflected in our costumes. The idea of a 48-hour improv performance filled me with giddy anticipation, and her with some trepidation…in large part due to the likelihood that she’d be subjected to my performances. She dressed in classic Rebel/Resistance colors, and would clearly be helping the Resistance and the forces of light. I, of course, was also planning to help the Resistance and jedi, but by going undercover and cozying up to the First Order and the scoundrels of the ship. If anyone asked about my robes (which no one did) I was planning to say, “Black is just so practical. It doesn’t show bloodstains.
Here’s some visual evidence of my strategem working:
The Ship Muster introduces the passengers to the key cast members for the voyage. These include Captain Keevan who commands the vessel, Lenka Mok, the cruise director, Lieutenant Kroy, the First Order officer who boards the Halcyon to ferret out Resistance plots, galactic superstar singer Gaya of Ryloth, and her manager, the handsome rogue Raithe Kole.
The core game mechanic of the Galactic Starcruiser is that there are different factions, each with their own goals and plans. I won’t spoil the nature of these factions or their plans, but they interact throughout the voyage, both in real life, and in the datapad messages that help advance the story. The datapad maintains a complete set of messages, as well as tracking your “Associates” among the cast. For each cast member, you see two values, Familiarity and Trust.
By the end of the voyage, Alisha was high in familiarity and trust with Captain Keevan, Lenka Mok, and the Saja (the jedi trainers). I was high in familiarity and trust with Lieutenant Kroy, Raithe Kole, and the Saja. I think that with a little more time (more on this later) I probably could have gotten there with Lenka Mok and Captain Keevan as well, which would have been quite an accomplishment.
But even if I had been able to manage that, I couldn’t have seen all the story points of the cruise. Some story points take place in different places at the same time; there is no way to see it all. This works on multiple levels. Weaving a dense mesh of stories means that all the passengers can have an action-packed adventure, AND it encourages folks to come back again, to see what they missed the first time.
After the Ship Muster, Alisha and I went through Lightsaber Training. Passengers get a chance to use lightsabers to block blaster bolts. On the one hand, there are limitations to what special effects can do in real time, so it’s not quite like actually deflecting blaster fire. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun, especially if you do what I did and try to twirl your lightsaber as dramatically as possible between bolts.
The lightsaber training is also a chance to connect with the Saja, or instructor. Our trainer was Saja Milum, and we would interact with her many more times during the trip.
In some ways, the Galactic Starcruiser game mechanics resemble an HBS classroom. Each time you interact with one of the principal cast members, they’ll ask, “What’s your name?” It is obvious that they enter in some kind of basic information about these interactions as soon as each activity ends, which triggers additional datapad messages to advance the story.
The main way I built up my relationships with the cast members was with the “sidle” technique. I would sidle up to a cast member while they were talking with someone else and look for my chance to make a strong impression and make sure they knew my name.
During Lightsaber Training, one of the ways I tried to get the Saja’s attention was by taking the training seriously, and chanting, “I am one with the Force; the Force is with me” as a focus phrase while deflecting blaster bolts. (Alisha took all the activities very seriously too; I think we were some of the only folks who may have blocked all the blaster bolts directed at them. This was a precursor of things to come.)
After our training session, Alisha and I felt a bit peckish, so we had some snacks at the Sublight Lounge, which was the Halcyon’s bar. The snacks were excellent, especially the pepperoni pizza (there’s that wood-fired oven again) and the freeze-dried peas. The lounge is also where you could learn to play Sabacc (the game Han played to win the Millenium Falcon from Lando). Alas, it was always too busy for us to learn how to play.
In between these various events, our datapads sent us on various secret missions around the ship, including hacking into computer stations. These stations are located conveniently near the Atrium, and we actually stopped on our way from the cabin to the dining hall so I could complete a mission. This led to a fascinating exchange; as soon as I finished the mission, Lieutenant Kroy popped out of a nearby door and engaged me in conversation. Alisha and I both thought that it was entirely possible that cast members might be running through secret backstage tunnels to pop out and engage passengers after they completed their missions.
From there, it was time for a sit-down dinner at the Crown of Corellia. The dinner featured the usual space-ified food, as well as a Gaya singing performance. All of the various cast members popped up at various points in time of the dinner, including Lieutenant Kroy, who sat down at one lucky family’s table to take in the performance. Dinner is a chance for passengers to relax and enjoy their food and drink, but it also relays a lot of lore and clues to the upcoming action. I wasn’t able to follow up on all of them, missing out on most of one of the main storylines, but they were definitely there.
Dinner was followed by the Cruise Director’s Evening Toast in the Atrium. It was another chance for the passengers to gather, but it was also the last opportunity to progress the storylines before the end of the night.
It was at this event that it became apparent to me that the Atrium was designed as both a meeting point and as a stage, complete with special effects built into the set itself. I won’t say too much about the story lines, other than to say that they are well integrated with the layout of the Atrium itself.
The next day began with another hearty breakfast buffet. We ate as early as we could so that we could catch an early transport shuttle down to Batuu.
Here I’ll apologize for breaking kayfabe, and comment on our plans.
Our goal in leaving early was to do what is called a “rope drop”; to enter the park as early as possible, and to ride a popular ride before the line builds up. In this case, we had been assured by many that the Rise of the Resistance ride was incredible, and that we would want to ride it more than the one time our Halcyon cruise would entitle us to do (the Starcruiser stay comes with one Lightning Lane pass for Rise of the Resistance, and one for Smuggler’s Run. We had also been told that the single rider lane for Smuggler’s Run was very quick.
Before we left the Halcyon, we were given a special pin to wear on our clothes. This identified us to cast members in Galaxy’s Edge as Starcruiser passengers, and I notice that they made a special effort to interact with us.
We left the shuttle at a brisk walk, heading to Rise of the Resistance. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that the ride was down because of technical difficulties, and they weren’t allowing folks in line.
So instead we rode the single rider lane at Smuggler’s Run, and the advice we received was sound. Our first time through, we waited less than 15 minutes for our chance to ride (albeit on separate shuttles). Then on our second time through, we waited less than 10 minutes and even got to ride on the same shuttle with a party of four. Your performance on Smuggler’s Run is heavily dependent on the skill of the pilots at the front of your ship. My first set of pilots were little kids, who weren’t very good, but I had better luck than Alisha, who flew with a party of travelers ranging from 70 to 85, most of whom could do little more than hang on for dear life during the ride. Our second time was a bit better, with two teenage boys who hadn’t ridden the ride before, but who at least had young reflexes.
Things had gone so well that we were overconfident and made a critical mistake at this point. Since we had some time before our next appointment and Rise of the Resistance was still down, Alisha suggested we hop on over to the nearby Pixar Land to ride the Toy Story Midway Mania ride. This was a blatant attempt for us to have a rematch, since we typically ride with the kids, boys versus girls, and thus we don’t get to compete head to head.
In the end, the ride was fun (especially because I won–Alisha hit more targets and was more accurate, but I earned a higher score because I would make a concerted effort to aim at higher value targets; a classic case of superior strategy defeating greater skill) but the line and ride consumed about 75 minutes of time that we could have used more effectively inside Galaxy’s Edge.
This error occurred in part because we were making decisions based on how long we thought it would take for us to complete our assigned missions. We figured we’d have plenty of time to complete our missions between our later appointments. What we didn’t realize is that each completed mission would lead to one or more follow-up missions! We ended up running out of time and not completing all the possible missions!
Back in Galaxy’s Edge, we found that Rise of the Resistance was running again, so we hustled over and used our Lightning Lane passes. It was an amazing experience that included a couple of “how did the Imagineers do that?” moments. I wish our plan had worked, because I would have loved to ride it a second time.
Next up was a Halcyon perk–a reservation at Oga’s Cantina. This was a chance for us to try a drink–we didn’t buy alcohol on the Starcruiser and didn’t miss it, but if you’re in a Star Wars cantina, you have to get a space drink, even if it is overpriced. I ended up getting a drink that incorporated an infusion of “buzz buttons” for a very unusual drinking experience.
We also completed another Starcruiser mission, which, you guessed it, unlocked even more follow-up missions. Yikes!
After leaving the cantina, we frantically completed as many missions as we could before our next appointment at the Droid Depot. This was a Starcruiser add-on; you get to assemble a droid by combining various parts in various colors. We built a very snazzy R2 Astromech droid that was black with red highlights. Our friends called it the “Sith droid” but I prefer to think of it as a Ferrari droid!
After finishing up at the Droid Depot, we frantically completed as many missions as we could before heading back to the Halcyon for a quick lunch, and then our Bridge Ops Training.
The bridge of the Halcyon is one of the most incredible achievements of imagineering. It looks like a movie set, with a giant set of screens in the front.
Bridge Ops Training involves learning how to use the various stations, from cargo loading, to gunnery, to systems, to shield operations. Each of these is a videogame that requires manipulating levers, knobs, switches, dials, joysticks, and more. Once again, Alisha and I were extremely focused, and scored top marks among our shift on every game, which earned me the position of “Shield Captain” during the climax of the training.
We had a considerable amount of time between the conclusion of our training session (4:15 PM) and dinner (8 PM). I had thought that perhaps we might use the time to rest or learn Sabacc, but almost all of that time ended up getting taken up by various hijinks and heists. Again, I won’t share spoilers, but I will say that Alisha and I ended up participating in mostly different plot activities, and that some of them were very cool. I will also note that if you are alert, and keep an eye out for the various times people duck into room or another, an observant person such as your humble correspondent was able to find his way into more activities than he’d been invited to.
It was during this period that I made my other big error of the trip. I misremembered my schedule, and thus missed out on one of the capstone hijinks, which one of my friends who had been a part of it told me was incredibly cool. Alas!
All of these hijinks build towards an eventful dinner (during which one of several special guests not listed on the ship’s manifest makes an appearance) and an even more eventful after dinner show in the Atrium. The show rivals any “stunt spectacular” from the parks, and there were a couple of moments that drew deep gasps of wonder and admiration, and several moments that drew a roar of applause, even from this jaded throat. I don’t think this constitutes a spoiler, so I will share that at one point, the so-called “real lightsaber” that actually extends from its pommel makes a dramatic appearance, and then is used in a duel. The crowd roared with sheer delight when it appeared. As the climax plays out, the performers shouted out various passengers who had played a role in the story. Our friends Lapoe and Irene’s son, Maxwell, ended up having a starring role because he so antagonized Lieutenant Kroy at every turn that Kroy called him out on stage and the two actually bickered, much to the delight of the audience, for a minute or two!
Finally, after the big climax, there is a final performance in the Crown of Corellia, along with various desserts. I took the opportunity to offer my praise a number of the principal cast members. I didn’t break the fourth wall, but I did lean on it a bit, and learned that many of the performers are experienced Disney lifers who have had roles at the other sections of the park, and who leverage the improvisational nature of the performance bring elements of their own personalities to their roles.
Of course it is a job, but I could tell that the performers both enjoyed their work and were putting in a 100% effort to be completely engaged and put on a good show.
The final morning on the Starcruiser was a classic denouement. The storylines and missions were complete. It was simply time for us to eat breakfast, pack, and take the transport shuttle back to the spaceport (and then catch a Lyft).
In this more relaxed atmosphere, I broke the fourth wall with my fellow passengers and we introduced ourselves and discussed the experience, which we all agreed was fantastic. This is when I formally met Rae and June of DisLyfeOfOurs, along with Jon and Andrew, who were brothers enjoying a vacation together (Jon is a big star in the dental anesthesia world; Andrew is a screenwriter who works on a superhero television show).
The only thing I wish had been different about the experience was that I wish I had been able to connect even more with my fellow passengers. But I’m not sure how this could be accomplished.
Talking about our real lives breaks the immersion in the Star Wars universe. And most people aren’t comfortable enough to engage with other passengers in character.
I think Disney is still trying to figure things out. Before we arrived, one of the events on our schedule was a chance to meet other passengers, but it disappeared after we checked in. When I asked a crewmember about it, she said that they stopped holding the event because not enough passengers showed up.
Perhaps the best way would be to create missions that would require different passengers to work together…something to noodle on, Imagineers!
Another minor point is that not all the passengers are experienced stage performers, and thus when they interacted with the cast members, they didn’t project so I could easily overhear them. Not sure what you can do about that!
But as you can tell, the overall experience was a triumph. Checkout was at 10 AM. I asked a crew member when they would be boarding for the next journey, and the answer was 1 PM. In other words, they are able to run the experience continuously (presumably swapping out exhausted principal cast members).
Both Alisha and I would love to return sometime, despite the price.
A few of my favorite improvised moments:
- When [REDACTED] asked about Lieutenant Kroy, I told [REDACTED], “He’s a bit of a prat!”
- When Lenka Mok asked if we had done anything exciting that day, I replied, “We escaped from that punk-ass bitch, Kylo Ren!”
- When [REDACTED] asked me how I knew Lieutenant Kroy’s plans, I replied, “It turns out that if you wear all black, everyone just assumes you’re part of the First Order.”
When we left the Halcyon, we proceeded to Disney Springs, where we had lunch with my Mental Samurai buddy Dr. Jackie, who kindly drove us to the airport for our trip home.
It was a busy week. For months, I’ve been telling people on Zoom that I’m using a walking desk to lose weight for my reunion and vacation. Now, I’m going to be telling them that I’m using a walking desk to lose the 5-10 pounds I gained by feasting every night on vacation! But in addition to all the extra pounds, I’m full of happy memories, and I hope you enjoyed them too.