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Disney's Galactic Starcruiser Isn't a Star Wars Hotel. It's Like Living Inside a Video Game

I stayed inside the pricey two-day experience, and it's more involved than I could imagine.

Disney Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel
The atrium of the Halcyon. This is where all the big action takes place on the Starcruiser.
Bridget Carey/CNET

It's 10 p.m. on Day 1 of my Galactic Starcruiser voyage and I'm sitting in my room absolutely wiped, but I can't stop yet. My datapad is telling me I need to hack into a terminal to protect an astromech from the First Order. I also need to touch base with D3-09 in my room's video-intercom system to make sure she's doing OK (the droid seemed stressed out the last time we talked). And I have to be ready by 8 a.m. to get a strange-looking breakfast before helping our captain score some coaxium with a smuggler on the planet Batuu, also known as the Galaxy's Edge park.

The Halcyon, where most of the action takes place in Disney's Galactic Starcruiser experience, isn't just an expensive Star Wars hotel with cool cocktails. I'm in a living video game with multiple story paths. Improv actors are buzzing about in makeup, getting stage direction from earpieces and remembering little details about what I've been up to. Actors reveal a piece of themselves with every conversation, some scripted and others improvised. 

This is a new kind of entertainment, and one that feels personal. It's not just watching theater unfold around the ship. Instead, you spend two days with characters that connect with you. They know your name, look you in the eye, touch your shoulder, sit with you at dinner and walk up to you, asking for favors. The energy here makes it more real than any theme park attraction.

A massive computer system is coordinating our activities on the back end, weaving layers of story together in real time, nudging guests in the right direction through a themed app with alerts on your phone -- called a datapad in this universe. A list of tasks and itinerary shows you where to go next, and your narrative changes based on the choices you make in the app. I'm reminded of the video game Mass Effect and feeling some FOMO wondering about the paths I'm not taking. Everyone is on a different track, and you can't see every small storyline. (Trust me, I tried.)

This immersive theater sleepover officially opens today, and it costs way more than any typical vacation. It starts at roughly $5,000 for a two-night stay in one cabin, but prices change depending on the season and the number of people in your party. 

Disney invited me to check it out early, and I've had some time to let this experience sink in (and also time to sleep, because you don't do much resting on this voyage). People have, understandably, scoffed at the high price -- dropping this kind of money can get you a two-week vacation, while this place doesn't even have a spa or pool. But it was immediately clear to me that you're not paying for a room. You're paying to live in a high-tech, constantly changing, personalized immersive theater production with access to a few no-wait theme park rides and wild-looking food. 

This is a luxury vacation that doesn't come with Champagne and slippers in your stateroom. The luxury here is the high-tech live-action role play, and being able to play as a VIP in an ultimate geeky playground. If you love Star Wars and role playing and the energy of live theater, this is an entertaining and moving experience. I let myself fall into this world Disney created, and it was a lot of fun.

Technology plays a major part in making you believe you're in a Star Wars story set in the outer rim of space, rather than a nondescript gray and white building in Florida outside the Hollywood Studios theme park. There are no real windows to see into the parking that surrounds the building, just screens into space. You don't even get windows in the truck, uh, I mean transport shuttle, that takes you to the secret back entrance of the Star Wars-themed land.

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Your room has a button to video call the ship's droid, D3-O9. The program uses voice recognition technology that lets you have conversations with the character on the screen. What you say will affect what she says next. 

Bridget Carey/CNET

There are special effects everywhere. You can swing lightsabers and feel them vibrate. There are also holograms -- if you can find them. Droids respond to your voice and hold long conversations. Sparks fly in the finale, and crowds cheer with the joy you only find at a Star Wars movie on opening night. I won't spoil it all for you in this article, but the finale feels like a satisfying movie ending. There's a celebration and the Star Wars fanfare plays. The lights come up. The characters we connected with are gone and we wake from our collective dream. 

Disney Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel

Keep your eyes open and talk to characters and you may stumble on a quest to help a hero that snuck aboard the ship.

Bridget Carey/CNET

This whole mission kept me busier than I expected. You have to be active to get the full worth of this experience. I was determined to see everything and hack this story, or I wouldn't be happy. I couldn't sleep knowing a quest wasn't completed. If you work hard enough, you may even uncover love stories! But if you don't talk to the actors, if you don't do side quests, if you don't stay attached to your phone to catch all the messages, you won't be invited to unique story moments, such as getting to fire weapons on the bridge to save the ship, or being called to help a hero sneak on board. (And there were times in the hot Florida sun where I didn't really want to do any more code-scanning missions in the park, and I just wanted a dip in a bacta tank.)

You don't have to do everything to enjoy it. Everyone sees the same general storyline unfold at the end. But it you don't participate to some degree, you will be wasting your money -- the fun is in uncovering story gems along the way. And I'm left in awe at how these actors aren't exhausted every night as they stay "on" for the whole time, never breaking character even when they need some water.

I did cry, but not at the grand finale. It was when I was on the "shuttle" to leave the building. Looking up at the window as we flew through space to return to our planet, I just started sobbing. Most people won't get to experience this delightful immersive art form because of the aggressive paywall to enter, and it doesn't feel fair. Our main Star Wars heroes are a poor farm boy, a child slave and a hungry scavenger. Star Wars is a tale of how anyone can rise up to be a hero -- but not everyone can afford this experience. 

I'd love to see more immersive entertainment like this in the world. And I'm not sure when I can see it again.

I documented my time in the video embedded above as a way to give you a sense of what it's like without giving away all the secret storylines. There's also a photo gallery embedded here with nuggets of design detail, including some Easter eggs.

I've been following the development of this experience ever since Disney first announced the plans for it in 2017. Even so, I underestimated how involved it is until I went through it. I had many questions going in, and I hope my video above along with some more specific questions answered below can help you better understand this entertainment and help you decide if this is worth the major investment for you and your family.

How much Star Wars do I really need to know to enjoy this?

This story takes place during the new trilogy, after the events of The Last Jedi. This is about Kylo Ren, not Darth Vader. 

You don't need to have seen every single show or cartoon series, but you should enjoy the Star Wars universe enough that you've seen the movies and you will get a kick about learning different planet cultures and customs. If you're going to roll your eyes when you're told the dinner is inspired by the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk, then you may be annoyed at this event. Playing along is part of the fun and you don't need to know everything. 

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You never know who will ask to meet you for a secret mission on the bridge.

Bridget Carey/CNET

Are there 'kids-only' experiences on the Starcruiser?

Kids can have all sorts of fun on the Starcruiser, usually trying to help characters sneak around the ship. In one story I saw, a kid was trapped in the brig with Chewbacca, and it took teamwork to get him out. The staff makes sure kids feel like they're part of the action.

Some activities, like the high-tech lightsaber training, aren't possible for younglings under the age of 7: The saber may be too heavy to wield safely and targets too high for little ones to succeed. So if you have someone in your party that's younger, you'll be directed down a path to do a lightsaber activity aimed for younger kids. 

Parents with kids may also be directed in their app to help with kid-friendly missions, like driving around toy droids to distract a troublesome First Order lieutenant. 

The entire engineering room is a giant playground of puzzles and buttons that kids always kept coming back to. I didn't even discover it until later in my trip. 

All that said, I wouldn't recommend bringing young kids, like toddlers, on this trip. I have 2- and 5-year-olds that adore all things Star Wars, and I want to take them some day to this experience. But my youngest wouldn't make the cost worth it right now -- not all kids may have the stamina to stay up for the late shows or be able to jump to an activity at an exact time (some story moments are only 15 minutes long and happen just once), and you wouldn't want to feel like you missed out because of a meltdown. 

Also, make sure your kid won't get too scared if things get heated during the finale show. A kid may cry if they don't realize that it's just a show and the friends they made for the past two days are going to be OK.

How many people can you comfortably fit in a cabin room?

There's one large bed and two bunk beds, and some cabins have another bed that pulls down from the wall in a standard cabin -- so you could fit up to five adult guests. I wouldn't want to pack more than four adults in one room, if only because there's not a lot of space for everyone to get ready. (There is room under the bed for luggage.) But if you want to split the cost with one more friend and don't mind the cramped space, go for it.

How many people are on a voyage?

I was told the crowds we experienced during my trip were close to those on a typical voyage, so you can see in my video above how it can get crowded in the atrium during a big show moment. There are 100 guest rooms, and with the capacity of most standard cabins being four or five guests, it certainly could fit more guests than what I experienced. The app directs people in different directions to space out activities between guests.

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Captian Keevan has a word with Sammy. There's always some drama going down on this space cruise. 

Bridget Carey/CNET

Can you play both sides and help both the Resistance and the First Order?

Yes, I found myself going down this path. Both the Resistance and First Order found me very trustworthy and both gave me missions, and that was a rush. I didn't think I'd go bad, but once you meet Lt. Croy of the First Order, he's quite the charming baddie (and the most entertaining part of this show for my voyage). 

Can you leave the Starcruiser if something happens?

Yes, and you can do it at any time. You'll just go back through the elevator doors to the "shuttle" and you'll need the valet to get your car, or call for a pickup. The story will continue without you while you step out, but you are not stuck.

Also if you're on your excursion to the Star Wars-themed land, there's nothing stopping you from walking to other parts of the Hollywood Studios theme park. I had two hours to kill between my rides and a reservation at Oga's Cantina, where I had a mission to talk to the bartender. So I thought maybe I could sneak in another Disney ride. But it didn't work out. All stand-by lines for the good rides were over 2 hours long. (Yikes.) So instead I got some soft-serve ice cream. Because sadly, there is no ice cream in Star Wars. 

If you want to do another experience other than the Star Wars theme park rides, plan on tacking on another park ticket and extending your vacation. Because this is designed to be all Star Wars all the time.

Disney Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel

A quiet night at the climate simulator. When you need to step outside for some fresh air, go here.

Bridget Carey/CNET

If you just need some fresh air, there's the always-open "climate simulator" which is an outdoor garden that simulates the weather on Batuu… aka Florida.

Do you feel weird being stuck indoors for all that time?

You are basically indoors in the Halcyon Starcruiser for just half of each day. Your first day doesn't even begin until 1 p.m. for check in, and the second day you spend the morning outside in the themed land of Batuu. The "climate simulator" outdoor garden is a peaceful place to dip into at any hour of the day when you need a reset.

The only odd thing to me was that you won't wake up with any natural light -- your stateroom gets very dark when you close your window to space and turn off all the lights. But sleeping on a spaceship never was supposed to feel normal, right?

What happens if there's a medical or safety emergency?

Before you board the starship, there is a video that plays that explains the difference between a real emergency, like a fire alarm, and what a fake show emergency looks like. 

The video also goes over what to do when you need help in your cabin. There's an emergency escape door that leads to a behind-the-scenes exit door for emergency personnel to come get you. You have to tell 911 the code that's on your emergency door so they know where to find you.

What was the shuttle to Batuu like?

On your second day, you get to spend some time in the Star Wars theme park (the planet of Batuu), skipping the lines of the two rides and enjoying the Cantina bar if you want. Because they don't want to show you the backstage area when they take you from the hotel to the theme park, they put you inside a box on wheels without windows. It's like a cargo truck with theming and music (I guess there are radio DJs in space?) that fits 16 people total, 12 seated and four standing.

I got a motion-sick headache on the way in because I wanted to look at the details inside the shuttle. The return voyage was easier when I just chilled out and sat still. It's best to just face forward, if you can figure out which way is forward, and hope the shuttle doesn't get stuck in traffic. On our trip there were three vehicles on the route between the Starcruiser and theme park, and if there's a backup, guests may get stuck on it for 10 minutes, even though it's less than a 5-minute ride. 

Does anybody 'break character'?

Our crew kept all conversations in theme, although some passengers did try to get folks to break character without success. Even when I had complicated questions about real-world hotel issues, staff always flourish an answer to give it a themed feel. 

For example, when the gift shop closed, I was told, "Back on your planet I believe you have a website called ShopDisney.com" where I could buy exclusive ship items for 30 days after my voyage. Also, one night I learned the captain has a very rare drink smuggled aboard that was not exactly legal -- some sort of wine from an exotic planet called Earth, which was aged for two life cycles.

How does the food work?

The price includes all your food and basic soft drinks -- and there's even blue and green milk on tap. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, and dinner is a three-course meal. Picky kids have plenty of choices for the basics like chicken fingers and pizza. Only one alcoholic drink is included -- and there are some amazing themed drinks you'll want to try. 

Lunch is even included if you travel to Batuu. You get one meal and drink at the quick-service restaurant Docking Bay 7. If you're extra hungry, you can eat a second lunch back on the Starcruiser buffet.

When the dining hall isn't open, there are spacey-looking snacks (fruit, popcorn and desserts) to munch on in the atrium. If you want something when the dining hall isn't open, crew with tablets could help bring it to you. I asked where could I get hot tea at night and they offered to bring it up to me.

You'll find every meal to have familiar tastes in wild presentations (mostly thanks to food coloring and cutting it in cool ways). It makes you feel adventurous to want to try everything. A lot of it was very tasty. Not everything was a home run (the coloring and texture differences can mess with your mind and become a turn-off) but you're never hungry with so much to sample.

Is there unique merchandise? 

Everything is themed to the ship, so you'll see lots of Chandrila Star Line logos on items. There are unique mugs and goblets and magnets, too. You'll find various robes and gowns for dressing up, along with various metal jewelry. There's droid toys and model ships. You'll definitely want to snag some fancy Sabacc playing cards.

Superfans may find themselves also wanting the customizable lightsaber, which comes with typewriter-like buttons in the Aurebesh alphabet that you can use to decorate the hilt. There's also a first in the Star Wars world: a lightsaber-style glowing shield. It's something you'll use in your lightsaber training session to deflect laser beams, and you can also buy a home version with lights and sounds.

Disney Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel

This light-up shield was invented as part of your activity in lightsaber training. They'll be selling a model version with lights and sounds in the gift shop.

Bridget Carey/CNET

Is it possible to do everything in a single trip?

I tried to do everything, but it was just not possible. I missed some potential cool story moments my app was directing me to because I wanted to see what was happening in person on the bridge. By talking to other guests, I realized I may have missed out on a cool moment with an old Jedi master and Rey, but I found myself hooked into a different story of action on the bridge.

And just like a real cruise ship, there are some lame things you can skip and it'll be OK. I found myself wandering into a game of space bingo. The experience is busy enough as it is; you don't need to play space bingo.

Some things I wanted to do just weren't possible. You can play Sabacc at any time on the ship, but there was no way for me to make it in time for the tournament because of my quests on Batuu. I played a few rounds and that still felt good enough, and I could buy a pack of cards to take home.

You can walk the ship at all hours, but there's not much to see when things start shutting down for the night. 

What's the situation with masking and other COVID-19 concerns? 

Disney Parks recently changed its rules around masks. If you're vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask indoors. (The exception is that you still need a mask on Disney transit.) There's no one checking your vaccinated status. Welcome to Florida. 

If you go on this voyage, you need to be OK with eating closely with others indoors -- and during dinner there are folks singing and getting up to dance -- all in a building without windows. Being unmasked indoors was strange, new territory for me, and different passengers had different comfort levels. I'd say about a fifth of the people on my voyage wore masks most of the time. 

Is there room service?

It's not advertised that you can order food to your room like a normal hotel. This isn't an experience where you can get pampered, like other luxury-priced hotels. But there is a room phone to call if you need something. Most of the staff on this voyage seemed prepared to do what it takes to help you enjoy your stay. At one point I asked for tea and they offered to bring it to me.

That said, I didn't find myself wanting to hide in my room, other than when I needed to sleep.

Is there a general store that will sell items I need, like Pampers or Pepto?

Those weird Earth items are all hidden out of sight behind the counter of the fancy gift shop. I needed bandages (new shoes, ouch) and they were complimentary when I asked. 

Do I have to go back to the Starcruiser at a specific time when at Batuu (the theme park)?

The last shuttle back to the Halcyon ship is at 4 p.m. It's just like a cruise -- you gotta get back to the ship. 

Disney Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel

When your transport drops you off into the land of Batuu, you enter the theme park through this hallway. 

Bridget Carey/CNET

What can I do on Batuu that I wouldn't normally get to do on the Halcyon?

You get to skip the long lines for two of the Star Wars-themed rides in a huge window of time during the morning of your visit. 

The app will have you do the same interactive app quests anyone can do with the Play Disney app in the theme park. But when you do it as a guest of the Halcyon, it unlocks more storylines and chitter-chatter from characters in the app.

When you leave the ship, you're given a special gold Halcyon pin to wear around the theme park so the employees know you're a guest of the Starcruiser, and they may specially greet you or direct you on where to go for your complimentary lunch. 

Will I enjoy this more if I've read Halcyon Legacy?

Disney made a comic book series that incorporates some backstory of the Halcyon, the ship you're on in the Galactic Starcruiser adventure. If you happen to read this "historical document" you'll know where to look on the ship for signs of an old lightsaber battle. The scars on the wall are still there, but filled in with gold. 

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Scars left behind from a lightsaber battle long ago, filled in with gold.

Bridget Carey/CNET

Is there music?

It's not Star Wars without music -- and there's plenty of it here. You won't hear John Williams' scores as you're walking through the halls, but there's always some background music in the atrium, perhaps from another band on another planet that you never heard of. But when there are stressful moments on the bridge, I did notice tense background music kicking in as action intensified. And if you're feeling the force during lightsaber training, you may not even realize it, but there's a soundtrack for your moment.

Music is also a big part of the dinner entertainment. The character Gaya has a powerful voice and personality -- and she sings a number of pieces during your dinner show, accompanied by other characters playing strange-looking instruments that had cool lighting effects.

There's another song from a traveling musician on board who's also a fan of Gaya. Prepare to get Oola Shuka stuck in your head if you visit. Bonus points if you memorize the lyrics to sing along. 

How much do you need to be on your phone?

Even if you don't want to be on your phone a lot, you'll need someone in your party to be the leader and someone will have to interact with the app. 

Everyone in a cabin can take their own path and help the First Order or the Resistance. Or you can even play both sides, like I did. But to play, you need to be checking your app. Just make sure you're not checking it so much that you're looking down and miss actors walking by. You can get push alerts when something big is happening that you shouldn't miss.

Disney Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel

So much of the story is directed from a themed app that sends you messages. What happens next depends on how you answer, much like a video game.

Bridget Carey/CNET

Can I watch Star Wars in this Star Wars experience?

Your room includes a Samsung Smart TV that's themed to be an animated star map. It comes with access to normal TV channels, including some kids' on-demand cartoons. But if you want to watch Star Wars inside your Star Wars room, it does not come included. You'll need a Disney Plus account. If you're logged in on your phone, you can stream Disney Plus to the TV using the included Chromecast app. 

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