The unmissable addition to Disneyland's Star Tours ride? Space whales

Disneyland’s Star Tours: The Adventures Continue has proved to be one of the theme park’s most versatile attractions.

Though perhaps no longer the groundbreaking technological marvel that it was when it debuted in 1987, the flight simulator ride has shifted with the franchise, withstanding cultural trends and aligning with whichever version of “Star Wars” is popular at the moment — or in need of a marketing boost.

The latest update to Star Tours brings the ride into the Disney+ era, with nods to series such as “The Mandalorian,” “Ahsoka” and “Andor.” More noteworthy, at least for Disneyland guests, is that the centerpiece of the latest upgrades is a scene that provides a slight tonal shift for the attraction, one focused, albeit briefly, on slowing down and giving so-called starspeeder riders a look at one of “Star Wars’” more majestic creatures. Star Tours will now rocket guests straight to a moment that boasts a close-up with the purrgil, essentially large, mysterious space whales that move with a galactic grace.

For the 3-D attraction, its a moment that provides a breather. The motion simulator lingers for a few seconds, and our makeshift animatronic captain, the golden droid C-3PO, turns to face riders. C-3PO shifts into tour guide mode, appearing in awe of the purrgil and commenting on how serene the animals are.

“This will be different from other sequences, to have a moment,” said Tom Fitzgerald, a senior creative executive with Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s secretive arm devoted to theme park attractions, when asked about taking a patient approach to the scene. “You don’t get many moments. It’s so compact. But it’s a moment to let people look at the beauty of this, and the 3-D gives you the scale of those creatures.”

The additions to Star Tours are arguably the centerpiece of Disneyland’s all-things-”Star Wars” promotion Season of the Force, which debuted this past weekend and runs through June 2. The “Star Wars” festival also sees new droids making their way to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge through the duration of the event, as well as the return of Space Mountain overlay Hyperspace Mountain and a new free scavenger hunt that aims to get players to pay close attention to the minute details of Galaxy’s Edge.

Fitzgerald has been with Star Tours since the ride’s beginning, and oversaw the latest Star Tours additions, which further deviate the attraction from any strict “Star Wars” timeline and instead focus it on being a sort of “greatest hits” for the brand. The purrgil scene also features Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka Tano and the character’s svelte, fast-rotating starship above the planet of Seatos. Tano’s ship inspired Imagineers to see if they could add some new tricks to the attraction, mainly in the way the simulator can move. When Tano’s vessel twists and spins, for instance, the starspeeder attempts to mimic it, endeavoring to create the feeling of a 360-barrel roll. At other times, the starspeeder glides among the purrgil.

Key to Star Tours’ longevity, and what makes it the rare motion simulator that doesn’t feel rooted in the 1980s, is its ability to create new sensations via its movements. The ride now has more than 250 storyline variations, and when adding to the attraction, Imagineers are looking for ways to heighten the contrast among its various scenes, both tonally and in its maneuvers. Though Star Tours is typically randomized — for the foreseeable future, and definitely throughout Disneyland’s spring Season of the Force promotion — all riders are guaranteed to visit the new location and receive an early-flight transmission from one of the recently added characters.

“How do we make each of the places we go have a different color palette?” says Fitzgerald, who then recalls different “Star Wars” planets that can be featured in the attraction’s random programming. “Mustafar is all lava. Kashyyyk is all green jungle. So they feel very different when you get the combos. And then motion-based. Could we do a barrel roll? That’s the fun of doing it, and programming it and trying it. And we needed something else. What have we not done? So with the purrgils, what if we do skiing through the tentacles? We had never done that. So those are the two big motion changes.”

The attraction is also livened up by appearances from Dawnson’s Tano, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor and a masked Din Djarin from “The Mandalorian.” While the latter is played and portrayed by Pedro Pascal on the Disney+ series, many have noted that the Djarin on “Star Tours” features a slightly different vocal cadence than Pascal, and an Imagineering spokesperson says the company is not revealing its voice actors for the attraction. Nevertheless, “The Mandalorian” moment features some comic relief — and clever 3-D usage — courtesy of Grogu, colloquially refered to as “baby Yoda,” and his penchant to use Force powers to toy with and eat frogs.

The three appear as transmissions that help define the suddenly urgent narrative of Star Tours. “Each one is different,” Fitzgerald says. “Mando and Grogu we played for comedy. And Andor is mysterious. You don’t see his face. You see this thing coming toward you. Is that a friend or foe? And then he pulls his hood and the music changes.” Tano, meanwhile, arrives like an old friend who knows C-3PO and fellow droid R2D2. Riders are advised to pay close attention to the opening cinematic in a ship’s hangar, as there is a new randomized opening that features Tano in a lightsaber battle with Stormtroopers.

As for why the new additions perhaps lean a bit more heavily on “Ahsoka,” as it is that series that features the planet of Seatos and the purrgil, Fitzgerald had a simple answer: yes, it’s the space whales.

With access to early scripts from Lucasfilm, Fitzgerald says he singled out the purrgil scenes. “Reading about that, not knowing what they looked like initially, I was going, that’s going to be really cool.” And, at least for a few seconds, relatively calming.

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