The view from the bridge as we jump into hyperspace aboard the Halcyon; photo by the author

The Experience Design of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser — Immersive and Interactive, Personalized and Communal

It’s Not A Hotel, It’s Immersive Theatre Like You’ve Never Seen Before


(The following contains some structural and design information, but no plot details.)

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is a THEA Award-winning multi-day immersive and interactive storytelling experience at Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida. Over the course of two days and two nights, a few hundred passengers — per voyage — get to live out their own Star Wars story aboard a luxury space ship called the Halcyon. (That’s right, I said “per voyage.”)

The experience is structured like a cruise with a set itinerary, per-cabin pricing, and a schedule of sailings. This means your immersive experience has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It’s not designed to be something you can drop in on or pop out of. And it’s way more than just a “hotel” with a room to sleep in (but we’ll get to that in a moment).

With only 100 rooms, Starcruiser is also a premium immersive experience with a limited capacity. And, yes, it is pricey. Our group of five adults cost a little under $8,000 for a late June weekend voyage including lodging, AYCE food, AYCD non-alcoholic beverages, entertainment, a VIP excursion to Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios, taxes, and travel insurance. There’s also fairly high cast member and actor to guest ratio, from what I observed, which means you are very well taken care of while on board.

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is a dizzying blend of immersive theatre with interactive media/games and live action role playing elements, created at an extremely ambitious size and scale — while also telling an original story — which happens to leverage an IP that is near and dear to many people’s hearts. And it has garnered the “highest guest satisfaction ratings in the history of Walt Disney World.”

To be honest, I don’t know of anything else like it.

Sure, there are other experiences that have components of the Galactic Starcruiser experience but I’m not aware of anything else that has the whole package: professional actors focused on building deep guest-to-character relationships in a condensed timeline; story integration into a themed land including top tier attractions; in-world dining, merchandise, entertainment, activities, lodging, and support staff; a ship-wide narrative which culminates in a stunt finale with special effects and actors playing recognizable named characters; plus, the wish fulfillment of living inside an IP many people grew up dreaming about.

And after Starcruiser closes at the end of September 2023, I’m not sure when we’ll see another project of this scope again, though its teachings will surely stand the test of time.

Now for some (mostly?) spoiler-free observations about Galactic Starcruiser from a design perspective.

(If you want ALL the spoilers about our time aboard the Halcyon, check out this No Proscenium podcast episode with one of the former creatives on the project, Mikhael Tara Garver, acting as guest host and interviewing myself and my cabinmates.)

A passenger shows off his tattoo to the droid SK-62O; photograph by the author

The attention to detail is absolutely next level.

From the moment you board until the moment you disembark, you are in the Star Wars universe, continuously. If you’re a big Star Wars fan like me, it’s your wildest dream come true.

Every detail you see helps reinforce that you’re inside of the Star Wars universe (and living in the brief moment between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, to be precise). Imagine being on a giant movie set or walking around a 3D game environment, but everything functions for real, as opposed to just being a facade or a just-for-show prop!

The “launch pod” from the terminal has windows that show your vessel docking with (and later leaving) the Halcyon in space. Every window on the ship looks out into space — including the one in your cabin — and they’re all synced to reflect where the ship is on her journey. If the ship jumps into hyperspace, you can see it jump from multiple places on board. What planet is that outside our window? Better check the map!

You mingle with aliens and droids while aboard; these characters might respond in Binary (droidspeak) or Huttese when you speak to them. When you take your transport to Batuu, there’s an in-world radio station playing. Signs (non-essential ones) are often written solely in Aurebesh.

The milk is green and blue, the bread is purple, the chicken nuggets are perfect cube shapes, and even the cocktails are whimsically presented (and it all tastes great, too). Your room has a video screen with a droid inside of it (D3-O9) who gets tangled up on the story. All the staff introduce themselves by name and home planet. The local customs are also different onboard. If you say “thank you,” they respond “my honor.”

It all works extraordinarily well together, so it feels like you’ve been dropped into a living, breathing world.

Space breakfast!; photo by the author

It’s a communal experience — you’re going through this with other people.

Because it’s set up as a cruise, everybody boards and attends muster together, everybody goes to Batuu together, and everybody experiences the major story moments together. It’s a shared narrative experience and you are living through a Star Wars story in real time, reacting in real time with the other passengers and the characters on board.

No two voyages are going to be exactly alike and no two people’s experiences will be exactly the same.

Overall structure of the experience (Source)

I found that everyone who is aboard the Halcyon really wants to be there — they’re living their Star Wars fantasies, too — and so it feels like a cohesive community, especially as you keep running into the same passengers over and over.

Maybe you conspire with them to complete tasks for a character. Maybe you’re actually at odds with one another. And maybe there’s something top secret happening during what looks like an ordinary cruise activity like “Bridge Ops Training” or dinner. And now you’re “in” on the secret with others you’ve met on the voyage.

Scheduled events being used as cover for story events (Source)

Like many other immersive experiences, you just might end up making new friends along the way.

It’s not just for LARPers.

Starcruiser is designed for people don’t really do live action roleplaying (LARP) or don’t really know or care about LARP. You don’t need to come with a character and backstory to have fun. You can just be “someone on vacation” or “a couple celebrating an anniversary.” Boom: now you have a straightforward alibi as to why you’re on the ship when asked!

Doing too much of a backstory or lore dump in front of a character can be detrimental to the experience. There are definitely passengers who know way more about the Star Wars universe than anybody else on the ship, but you’re not really there to win a trivia contest, you’re there to play.

Wearing in-world clothing helps but some of the passengers who we met who were “playing” the hardest kept their Earth names and didn’t really share their backstories with us. That said, they were dressed as a smuggler and a “slicer” (the in-world term for hacker).

In-room instructional card; photo by Bridget Carey/CNET

You can play at whichever level you want.

Even if you never do this kind of thing normally, or anything close to it, the design is very approachable. It’s a safe, welcoming sandbox for two days and two nights, as a three act play unfolds in 360 degrees all around you. There are invitations to “play” around every corner.

Or you can just hang out and watch others play — and it’s still a blast. Travelers are even given an instruction card placed on the bed of their cabins on how best to approach the interactive experience (see above). The experience is designed to accommodate folks no matter where they are on the spectrum of players by meeting them where they are at.

Also: if you’re good at improvising, don’t be surprised if the actors pick up on that skill and use it. Because… they will.

Ouannii converses with a passenger; photo by the author

These Star Wars characters are brand new and specific to Starcruiser.

Most of the characters you meet onboard and interact with are going to be brand new to you, leaving room for immersive magic to happen. You also have the same actors in the same roles throughout your experience for continuity. That is to say: you won’t see many familiar faces from the TV shows or movies.

Imagine if it were otherwise. You might come in with preconceived notions with exactly what’s “supposed to happen” in the story and get major uncanny valley vibes because the live actors don’t “look” exactly like the movie ones. But the way the Starcruiser experience is designed, that’s not an issue.

These characters are new and the storyline is new. You can guess at the broad stokes, sure, but you won’t know the beat by beat timeline by heart.

This means there’s lots of blank space to improvise and play and live out your own adventure, as you choose your allegiances.

Comms from various characters aboard the Halcyon; photograph from Galactic Starcruiser web site

All of the quest-giving is managed by the Datapad app.

The supporting app for Galatic Starcruiser does a lot of the heavy lifting, especially when the performers are off stage; every night and every morning, practically like clockwork, I’d find messages from characters checking in with me or ship-wide reminders about appointments or events.

Moving the responsibility of managing quests and tasks to the app means all of the live actors can instead focus on observing, listening to, and being present with the passengers. And as a bonus, it reinforces each character’s face and name so you can easily identify them right from the start.

Your in-person interactions and your Datapad interactions with each character are being tracked in real time through lots of technology aboard the ship. So a conversation started in person or an action done in person can lead to a Datapad message later that night asking for a favor from a character, which you can accept or decline, and they’ll respond in the app accordingly.

A guest action — trying to open a locked door — resulting in a message from a character (Source)

Maybe you’ll be asked to hack into one of the ship’s systems or to find a local contact on Batuu or to steal information for the First Order. Accepting a secret mission is just a tap away. Following up on its completion is also located within the app so you can report back right away, without having to wait until you see the character in person again.

And if you’re on the shy side, the conversations in the app can be an icebreaker for talking to the characters later because you’ll already have something to discuss or report back on (“Hey, I did the thing we talked about!”).

At the end of the day, though, you should probably pick a side.

The app also probes you to figure out your allegiances. When the First Order officer asks you for help, how will you respond? The prompts are multiple choice and there’s really no wrong answers here; you get to choose how you respond and everyone in your cabin can give different answers.

And your decisions to help (or not help) someone has real consequences as your journey unfolds, with the backend system putting each player on different paths accordingly.

Potential narrative paths for each passenger on Galactic Starcruiser (Source)

My experience actually mixed two of the above paths, with a little bit of a third path, like making my own custom Star Wars narrative cocktail. Extremely cool.

What you choose matters.

Additional events and secret meetings in back rooms will pop up on your app dependent upon the answers you give in the app and the quests you complete. The app does a lot of heavy lifting in a way that prevents bottlenecks, so people aren’t necessarily queuing up to speak to an actor to receive a quest or to report back on its completion (an issue that other immersive makers often have to grapple with).

Example of how a guest’s itinerary will change over the course of the experience (Source)

And it also stops passers by randomly joining something in progress without context or “earning” the interaction, as some events are invite-only. That is: you have to have completed a task and be on a specific path to get invited. For the most part, you often won’t know when/where to show up unless it’s in your Datapad or an actor has verbally invited you! These meetings are often in areas considered “off limits” to passengers but a character will literally invite you in to be a part of it.

Sometimes one of my cabin mates would disappear to attend something and I had no idea where they were off to, because they were on a different path! That’s awesome!

Overall structure of the experience mapped against locations for story events (Source)

There’s no way to see all the content in the experience in one visit.

Multiple things are happening at the same time in real time; there are even events that look identical on the schedule but each group might get a different version of them with different characters and different story beats. (Dinner isn’t really just “dinner,” and “Bridge Ops training” isn’t really just “training,” if you know what I mean.)

The writers and designers have also done a fantastic job in making interactions and events from the first day (Act 1) lead into missions on Batuu on the second day (Act 2), even incorporating the rides in the park into the overall narrative; both Rise of the Resistance and Smuggler’s Run both take on new meanings in the context of the Halcyon’s story. And the completion of those Batuu-based missions — which turn out to be fairly easy mini-games and QR code scanning interactions — also ties back to what happens next on the ship (Act 3).

For example, I received and completed a set of quests based upon the two primary “paths” I was on; these two paths had two more intimate “subfinale” scenes. And those subfinales also had story beats which got incorporated into the ship-wide finale that everyone got to witness as a group.

In short: there are many paths but one destination, and your perspective on the finale is dependent on upon how you got there. Plus, there were storylines I wasn’t even part of that I got to see converge at the finale. Neat!

Diagram showing multiple paths converging in a single finale (Source)

The actors are phenomenal.

The actors on Galactic Starcruiser truly make the experience. Each one goes out of their way to make every guest feel included. In conversations, they’re listening and really responding to guests, authentically and sincerely. The care with which each actor interacts with passengers cannot be overstated.

And if you do choose to drop hints about what your allegiances are or give a character information from your backstory, they will file it away, and potentially incorporate it into a later interaction — even if it’s just a passing mention.

It’s remarkable how how much they remember about each individual passenger. And these touches really make the experience feel personal. Even more impressive, this is with a few hundred people onboard to keep track of each sailing — names, home planets, allegiances, backstories, and more — over two days. (Now lather, rinse, repeat for every voyage.)

The amazing Saja Kyr, just one of the fantastic actors on board, who helped us explore the Force; photo by the author

The outside world just melts away while you’re on board.

I felt fully immersed essentially the whole time I was on the Halcyon. I didn’t want to check my email or social media at all; one of us even tried to check the news on his phone and immediately it just felt off. We also left Batuu to do another ride on Hollywood Studios because we had some free time — and that also felt weird. Me, I just really wanted to get back on the ship (and out of the Orlando summer heat).

It’s a jam-packed two days of narrative.

Do not expect to relax on this trip. You can do that later! This is time to live out your wildest dreams.

Looking back, it also is impressive just how much story unfolded over the roughly 36 hours of the Starcruiser experience and just how many characters we interacted with. Even the quieter moments where I took a step back and observed others playing were delightful, because of the design of the experience.

Overall, Galactic Starcruiser is a remarkable achievement in the field of immersive experience design.

There are a few reasons why I believe immersive and interactive experiences like Galactic Starcruiser are so powerful and so many guests come away feeling transformed for the better.

One of them is the feeling of agency: the ability to enact change, to chart your own course, to make your own decisions. For most of us, a lot of the decision-making in our everyday lives is taken out of our hands and we are beholden to work, family, school, and other responsibilities. But when onboard the Halcyon, we have the power to make our own decisions.

Another reason the Starcruiser experience can feel life-changing to so many people is that we are made to feel that our presence matters during the experience. The story couldn’t have continued without us being there. Even if the plot of the show doesn’t change from voyage to voyage, it matters that we are there, we are present in the moment with each other, being human.

And, lastly, for many guests, despite the detailed costumes/cosplaying, we are roleplaying a version of ourselves onboard the ship, albeit an idealized version. Perhaps it is a version of ourselves that we want to wish into being but have never had the chance to articulate before. And — through the Halcyon — we have a safe space to play within, to try things out, to be brave, which normally doesn’t happen.

Through play, we have the chance to be braver than we have ever been in our normal lives. And what could be better and help us understand collectively that another way of living is possible?

I’ll never forget my adventures aboard Lady H with my friends. I only wish I could send more people through it, so they could experience it for themselves; there are experience design lessons here I’ll be thinking about for years to come.

To the cast, crew, and creative team of Galactic Starcruiser: congratulations on what you’ve built. May the stars light your way. Ta’bu e tay!

Many thanks to Graham Wetterhahn of After Hours Theatre Co for helping to make this trip happen at all.



Kathryn Yu

No Proscenium’s Executive Editor covering #immersivetheatre, #VR, #escaperooms, #games, and more