LAKE BUENA VISTA — The ride was resistant when technical glitches held up a preview of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance for three hours on Wednesday. But once it opened, the Force was strong with this one.
More than 500 media members from around the world were gathered at Walt Disney World for the groundbreaking ride, which makes its public debut Thursday.
The marquee feature of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Hollywood Studios is one of the most important attractions to open at Disney in years. The long-awaited addition to the themed land is the finishing touch on a $1 billion expansion at the park. Rise of the Resistance will open at a nearly identical Star Wars land at Disneyland in California in January.
It is the most complex ride system Disney’s Imagineers have ever designed. A trackless vehicle moves laterally, vertically and spins smoothly around realistic animatronic characters, laser canons and life-size AT-AT walkers, the four-legged robots used in battle by the First Order.
The ride stalled for most of the morning. Even after it resumed, there were brief outages later in the afternoon.
But once the ride was running, the action was nonstop. Fans including actor Josh Gad of Frozen were gushing. Gad surprised Disney guests on Tuesday at the park’s Frozen singalong (he’s Olaf), and got to ride Rise of the Resistance that day as well.
He tweeted that it is "the most impressive ride I have ever been on."
“I do not think people are ready for the scale, the scope, the surprises & the immersiveness of this soon-to-be iconic attraction,” Gad gushed. “Folks, it’s a game changer.”
It’s the kind of buzz Disney has been looking for since it opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in California in May and in Florida in August at a cost of $1 billion each.
The 14-acre land was supposed to generate fan frenzy. In the lead-up, the park hiked admission prices and cleared space for crushing crowds that never came. Florida fared better with crowds, but Disneyland has had two quarters of attendance declines.
“Disney World, and more importantly Disneyland, needs Rise of the Resistance to be a bar-raising game changer,” said Rick Munarriz of the Motley Fool investment site.
Between the extensive queue that features multiple rooms of themed content, it can take a full 20 minutes to get to the ride vehicle, even if there is no line.
There’s a plot to the ride as well. The guests are “recruits” asked to keep secret the location of the Resistance base.
Riders enter the Ready Room and encounter BB-8 and Star Wars heroine Rey. Actor Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey in the films, recorded hologram scenes for the pre-show.
“A covert Resistance team lead by my friend Finn has infiltrated the First Order Star Destroyer that is now headed to this system,” Ridley said as Rey.
As the Ready Room doors open, the recruits find Resistance pilot Poe Dameron’s distinctive black and orange X-Wing with ball droid BB-8 behind the cockpit. Next, riders are filed into a shuttle transport, captured by the First Order. They enter the cavernous deck of a Star Destroyer. There’s a 100-foot screen showing outer space action and dozens of Stormtroopers are lined up to create a menacing presence.
And this is still the queue. There are two more scenes to march through before climbing into the trackless vehicle that is supposed to be a First Order transport shuttle.
Academy Award-winner Doug Chang, executive vice president and creative director of Lucasfilm, was along for the ride with reporters on Wednesday and he was grinning the entire time. Film sets are created with facades and use green screens for big spaceships. These theme park lands are the first time that a full-scale Millennium Falcon or a X-Wing starship has been built.
“This is the real deal,” he said, as he admired the squadron of Stormtroopers on the gleaming deck of the Star Destroyer. He said he has ridden it several times in recent days, but still gets a kick out seeing his creations come to life.
After a 20-minute queue, guests board the vehicle they are told is taking them as prisoners to meet Kylo Ren, Darth Vader’s grandson and the baddie of recent Star Wars films. Realistic animatronics show him plotting with one of his underlings before demanding the riders spill the beans on the Resistance.
The ensuing chase is loaded with movie magic, from walls that explode with the smoky pock marks of laser gun shots to Kylo Ren’s lightsaber slicing through the ceiling above the riders. The vehicles zip past huge AT-AT walkers and laser cannons, and with a literal drop, the ride turns into a simulator that takes off to flee to safety.
With thousands of Star Wars fans expected to descend on the park Thursday morning, a Disney spokesman said despite the hiccups, the ride glitches smoothed out for the rest of the day.
The operating hours for Hollywood Studios will be extended Thursday, opening at 8 a.m. and closing at 10 p.m., but in the past Disney has opened the park even earlier on opening day if there’s a huge line waiting to get in.
Admission is $109, but there are discounts for seasonal flex tickets, midday tickets and multiday passes at disneyworld.disney.go.com.
Times staff writer Daniel Figueroa IV contributed to this report.