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'Star Wars' fans show up in droves as Disney opens its redesigned Star Tours ride

LAKE BUENA VISTA

Star Wars fans showed up early and stayed late for Friday's relaunch of Disney's Star Tours ride, which hasn't had a tech upgrade or script change since it opened at Disneyland 24 years ago and at Disney's Hollywood Studios park 22 years ago.

The wait for a ride was close to three hours. And FastPasses for a scheduled ride as late as midnight were gone in 30 minutes.

"It's an awesome improvement over the old ride," said Gregg Bernard, a vacationing Web video executive from New York.

Didn't get enough on your first voyage on the new and improved simulator ride? Get back in line and take another spin. Designers dubbed it "the adventures continue" because they packed in 54 combinations of spine-tingling space chase scenes, cobbled together in remarkable 3-D detail from the six-film Star Wars saga.

"It's like opening more than 50 different attractions the same day," said Tom Fitzgerald, executive producer.

Each trip is a wild ride of a few selected scenes with flighty Star Wars droid C-3PO driving careening routes to six planets and the Death Star. Along the way riders endure pod races, attacks from undersea creatures, Jar Jar Binks and a stern Darth Vader, who stops and turns their spacecraft around to hunt for a rebel spy. They also encounter some new droids, newly minted Star Wars toys in the gift shop and two-hour-or-more lines that officials expect to last all summer.

Disney staged its usual over-the-top fireworks/character parade extravaganza for the relaunch. Walt Disney Co. chief executive Robert Iger ended a menacing Darth Vader's threat to destroy Star Tours by introducing him to Star Wars creator George Lucas.

"Mr. Vader, you are about to meet your maker," Iger said.

Outfitted in jeans and plaid shirt, Lucas said: "This attraction is absolutely way beyond anything I imagined. Amazing."

Indeed, Lucasfilm oversaw authenticity to the point of pulling Darth Vader's original robe out of mothballs for filming.

"Star Wars geeks, and I am one myself, would call us out if we didn't get everything down to the wookie belt right," said Bill George, Lucasfilm visual effects supervisor.

The ride remains a simulator attraction fashioned from a 747 jet simulator with seating for 50. But Disney has redone the preshow wait area into a futuristic airport departure lounge. That's where snarky droid robots create the mixup that puts C-3PO in the pilot's cabin. A not-to-be-missed treat is the flat-screen videos in the pre-boarding area. They show Three Stooges-like droids accidently driving themselves off balconies, smacking each other in the head and crashing luggage while loading the spacecraft baggage compartment.

What took Disney so long to update the ride? Lucas kept making more prequel episodes, so that killed a 1998 rewrite. This one is set between Star Wars episodes three and four, while the previous version came after Return of the Jedi, released to theaters in 1983.

Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner refused to green-light any more simulator rides until they gave fewer people motion sickness. Eisner is gone, but this version adds 3-D. The digital picture is far more detailed and designed in a way that makes it easier to focus on only one moving object rather than trying to follow several at the same time.

Disney tracked how many people suffered motion sickness in the first week of practice runs and found "very few," show producer Kathy Rogers said. Illness lifts when riders close their eyes.

But some Star Wars fans were busy hunting for the many obscure details Lucas hid in iconic chases, like the sight of a distant Han Solo as the Millennium Falcon pulls away.

"I didn't want to miss anything, so I squinted to narrow my view and got sick anyway," said Victor Gorys, a Toronto auditor who took his Star Wars-obsessed kids out of school for the trip.

Fans descended on Disney for the attraction launch Friday, the first of four Star Wars Weekends ending June 12. The line started at 3 a.m. Thursday for a chance to get the autograph of Anthony Daniels, the 65-year-old Brit who played C-3PO in all six films.

"What they've done with this attraction has just blown me away," said Steve Sansweet of Sonoma, Calif., who claims to own the world's largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia, with 150,000 items.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

'Star Wars' fans show up in droves as Disney opens its redesigned Star Tours ride 05/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 4:43pm]
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