Theme Park Time Travel: The Freedom and Pitfalls of Building a Themed Land Frozen in Time

“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”

These thirteen words have set the stage of the fantastical achievement that is Disneyland since the very first day of operation in 1955. It has established that during one’s journey through the highly immersive land, they will be not only transported to fantastical worlds, but they will be part of history, whether at the turn of the century, sometime in the future, or moments that are frozen in time within their favorite movies. But what happens when a theme park land is so frozen in time that it is specifically positioned in a single moment in time in an already expanded timeline of events? This is the case at the latest Disney themed land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which, while a brilliant new accomplishment for the company, raises some interesting questions about the abilities to tell a story frozen in time in an immersive land. 

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the fourteen-acre wide themed land located at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida. This land takes guests on an intergalactic visit to the planet of Batuu, an all-new environment imagined by Disney’s in-house theme park designers, the Walt Disney Imagineers. The story of the events on Batuu is situated between the two most recent ‘Skywalker Saga’ Star Wars films, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, released in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Even further, everything that happens in Batuu happens in a single day in the Star Wars timeline. As Matt Martin, a creative executive for Lucasfilm explained; everything that happens at Galaxy’s Edge is “kind of like Groundhog Day”, the 1993 Bill Murray comedy in which the same day keeps repeating itself for eternity. To iterate, a guest visiting Batuu on Monday, and then again on Tuesday, is visiting the exact same land at the exact same time they had visited yesterday. When the sun sets on Batuu and all the ‘visitors’ go home, Batuu is reset and the day is born again, continuing an endless cycle in the Star Wars universe that will never progress and will always be home to the same circumstances of events.

Anyone who has been to a theme park knows that obviously the events of a theme park land are going to be the same – Imagineers aren’t going to build a new attraction every day of the year! However, many of those places happen in an unspecified time; Tomorrowland is a vague series of moments in the future, Main Street is a throwback to a general era in time, and even Cars Land is a race day – but a race day can plausibly occur multiple times and is not tied to a particular time in the Cars universe.  Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the first themed land to be so tightly tied within such a short and specific time frame, and that presents many challenges from a complex storytelling perspective. 

Perhaps the primary challenge that comes from such a structure is in the concern of how this themed land can evolve over time. With The Rise of Skywalker now released to the world close to a year ago, it seems difficult to upkeep a canon that exists between two films that audiences already know the conclusion to. Considering that we won’t know what the legacy to this trilogy will be in say, thirty years,  one question to ponder is whether we will still be explaining that this whole Star Wars land finds its place in a vast universe of characters and stories between two very specific films released between 2017 and 2019? When Galaxy’s Edge opened before The Rise of Skywalker, there was a sense of mystery and adventure that no guests were aware of where their story could take them, but as the story concluded on-screen shortly after, that sense of mystery evaporated. By freezing a moment in the Star Wars canon, no longer are we experiencing the themed lands as we experience the stories on the big screen, but we are now something of a time traveler, moving backward in the Star Wars lore. We’ll encounter characters who, according to the movies we experienced, are now dead, but here in this moment in time, they are safely alive and well, due to our ability to travel back to a simpler time in the universe. 

Normally, this wouldn’t even be a storytelling concern, because theme park adaptations typically exist outside of the traditional linear canon of a film franchise (it’s why Forky and Bonnie’s toys are in Toy Story Land, even though the land takes place when the toys still belonged to Andy). However, with this new Star Wars land, great efforts were made to differentiate it from any other previous park land to ensure that it has a place in the evolving canon of the franchise. Characters in TV shows, books, and comics have visited Batuu, and it has become a central point of Star Wars mythology. It even creates a weird predicament for in-land storytelling – if a guest meets Rey in the land, and then visits again the next day, it could not narratively be possible for Rey to remember that guest, as both times would be the first time they have encountered each other! Problems like this do not typically put a halt to a themed experience, and by all means, Rey could easily remember a previous guest, and nothing of the experience will be lost upon anyone, but it does make for fun analysis when deconstructing these uncharted story territories. 

Theme parks are built to expand and evolve, and it’s very possible that the story behind this land will change in the coming years, possibly depending on what the legacy of these three sequel films will be. Galaxy’s Edge is a phenomenal feat, filled with great attractions, design, and architecture, but it is certainly an interesting step forward for what a theme park land could be capable of. Will Disney build another attraction or land so distinctly tied to a specific moment in time ever again? Will we even remember The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker in the year 2045 (or think fondly of it in retrospect)? Will future movies take place on Batuu so that there are new ways that attractions can be relevant if they were ever to omit the “sequel trilogy”? There’s so much that remains in question about this land, and it will be a fascinating case study to watch as we look ahead to the future of Star Wars storytelling in the park, and the freedom and pitfalls of writing a land cemented into a particular moment in time. 

2 thoughts on “Theme Park Time Travel: The Freedom and Pitfalls of Building a Themed Land Frozen in Time

  1. What I like to know is what is the future for “Star Tours” as it is still at the other end of the park in Tomorrowland. Any chance of migrating it to “Edge”?

    1. Who knows! I’d bet that Star Tours doesn’t have a very long life ahead of it though; I can see it closing in favor of something else in that space eventually.

Comments are closed.