First and Last Tours to Endor

The Twitterverse and blogosphere were particularly aflutter this weekend with reports from Disney's Hollywood Studios and the Last Tour to Endor promotion being held in conjunction with the Star Wars convention Celebration V. In the next few weeks, guests at DHS will have the last chance to ride Star Tours in its current iteration. The famous Star Wars-themed ride will shutter its blast doors for a major refurbishment, updating both the ride systems and presentation, and the storyline of the ride, which will purportedly take place now in the time between the prequel and original trilogies. (The flagship Disneyland version of the ride already closed in July.) Star Wars is still very popular right now and both Disney and Lucasfilm are only looking to enhance the ride in an attempt to bring it up to today's standards and in line with the much larger universe of Star Wars shorelines. Sadly I will miss taking my last trip on Star Tours by less than a month and hardly realized that the last time I rode it would be the last time I was riding that version.

Photo courtesy of Christian and Amy, my friends on location at DHS right now!

It's hard to view Star Tours' cultural relevance through modern day lenses given everything that has happened in both the real world and the world of Star Wars fandom since the ride first opened in 1987 (and 1989 in Walt Disney World). After Return of the Jedi came and went, Star Wars largely retreated from the forefront of entertainment. At the same time, a generation of kids who grew up with the trilogy had become more interested in up-and-coming franchises like G.I. Joe and the Transformers, whose onslaught of toys filled the shelves that Star Wars left behind. Don't be mistaken, the love for Star Wars never died, especially with the arrival of the age of home video. But like anything else, it eventually had to go into hypersleep after so many years at the top.

In the real world, the '90s would bring about both the advent of the Internet and an ever-increasing video game industry. It also brought about a very reverent nostalgia for the 1980s. Eventually Star Wars regained a foothold in the modern era as its fandom found an online community in a vast number of websites. Fans also found excitement in a new generation of CD-ROM video games and an expanded universe popularized by Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy of books. Of course, they could also fly to Anaheim or Orlando and experience an exciting new theme park technology putting them right in the Death Star trenches.

That's where I came in. In our first trip to Disney-MGM Studios in 1991, it had then been 8 long years since I had anything new to experience with the Star Wars saga. Even though I was 17 at the time, I was still very much younger at heart. Disney-MGM was also still fairly new and this was our first visit, and when my family got there, there wasn't much doubt which ride we were headed to first.

I remember coming around the bend and seeing the giant AT-AT staring down at me amidst the Ewok village. My four previous visits to Walt Disney World certainly readied me for the type of imagineering the Star Wars universe would get and I wasn't disappointed. The relationship between Disney and Lucas was a match made in heaven, or on Hoth. The genius architectural minds of Disney playing in George Lucas' sandbox (long before Anakin sadly revealed to us his distaste for sand). The tour itself was nostalgic, humorous and downright thrilling. It was the first time I had ever been on a motion-simulator ride and it was an exciting journey. I can't tell you how many times we got off that ride and got right back on. To this day, I still think this it was epitomized the Disney experience to me as a kid and will always stand tall amongst my favorite Star Wars-related memories.

Exiting the ride into a gift shop full of Star Wars merchandise. Everything you could imagine! In fact, one of the things i did pick up on the way out was Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn's first Star Wars book. I came to Orlando that year with only with a few boxes full of nostalgia in my attic but I left with all these new stories and limitless horizons for Star Wars to fill all over again. (How many of you talked with friends or family about how cool it would be if they ever went to Hoth?)

You know what happened from there. By the time I took my third trip to Disney-MGM in 1994, we already knew they were planning prequels. From there, classic toy lines filled shelves again (intriguing us now in a collector's capacity), more and more books were released, and greater video games filled our disc trays and cartridge slots. When The Phantom Menace was released, Star Wars was once again very much at the forefront of entertainment and was reaching even more of its fans on every level imaginable. A year after the movie was released, I returned to Walt Disney World for the first time in six years and we got to enjoy Star Wars Weekends and all the sideshow stops and character presence that adjoined good ol' Star Tours. It worked for me and my friends because we were still very much in the throes of prequel-related hype.

Since the new millennium started, the rest of the prequel trilogy was filled out, next generation consoles and improved computer technology upped the ante with covering the vastness of Star Wars' ever-expanding universe. A number of animation television shows centered around The Clone Wars, with a much ballyhooed (though barely detailed) live-action TV show still in the works. Yet, Star Tours still took the same failed mission to Endor year after year.

Star Tours very quickly lost the distinction of being the best flight-simulator ride experience in Florida as it was quickly supplanted by Back to the Future: The Ride and The Amazing Spider-Man Ride. What was once a thrilling out-of-this-world experience started becoming a standard, herky-jerky nostalgia trip. And when guests left the ride, they were entering back into a world where Star Wars dominated the pop cultural horizon as far as the binoculars could see. Star Tours was no longer a tent-pole representation of the best Star Wars had to offer; it was in fact one of its oldest modern experiences badly in need of a tune up.

So they're giving the starspeeder a new shine, gussying up Star Tours with a better ride system, a new storyline and new places to visit, and breaking into the third-dimension. No word yet on exactly which famous Star Wars locales will be visited though Coruscant and Tatooine have been confirmed. I also don't believe that we've heard if the outside of the attraction will be retooled to match the inside storyline or not. The attraction will re-open in the Spring of 2011 so there isn't long to wait. There have also been wild (and certainly unconfirmed) rumors that Disney's Hollywood Studios would expand upon Star Tours (and its neighbor Jedi Training Academy) into a full-fledged Star Wars-land, as a way to compete with Universal Studio's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Unfortunately, I don't know that the new Star Tours will ever have the significance that it had when it first opened because of the world we now live in. Photos, trip reports and shaky ride-through videos will give fans from afar an instant experience. And ultimately, Star Wars means something different these days, for better or for worse. The franchise has steadily flooded many markets now for over a decade with no sign of slowing down. As such, there isn't that same yearning we had back in the late 80s and early 90s. It's still a fun experience and my generation has taken to living vicariously throughout the astonishment on their own children's faces just like they once had.

I just know that it will never be the same as it was for a kid who was 5-years-old seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the local movie-theatre and then growing up to experience a theme park ride that made it seem like we were actually in space. When I was young, we used our imagination to help turn a doghouse into the Millennium Falcon and we used the piles of snow at our local schoolyard to create Hoth. Because that's all we had, until Star Tours came along.