139. 20 Things That I Hope Disney Is Aware Of When Creating Their New Star Wars Hotel

Some months ago, Disney announced that it would open a Star Wars themed hotel. According to Bob Chapek from Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, it’s going to be pretty wild. “Disney’s most experiential concept ever”, “100% immersive” and “… will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”

When I read that, I – like many other larp designers – thought to myself:

I also thought a few other things. Some of these were more in the worry category. Some were in the dream category, and some I think I could just label “random thoughts”.

That would be a fair question. Here’s why I’m particularly interested in the Star Wars Hotel.

  • I believe that it will be an amazing leap forward for larp and larplike experiences id this takes off (spaceship pun intended).
  • As someone who designs and runs themed hotel experiences (College of Wizardry, Fairweather Manor, etc) I’m curious as hell.
  • With the projects we’re currently doing, the chances of us being asked to do something similar for someone else’s IP is reasonable.
  • I think it sounds absurdly cool and I can’t wait to go, for both research and pleasure! ;-)

So with that intro in place, I’d like to share 20 Things That I Hope Disney Is Aware Of When Creating Their Star Wars Hotel

  1. I’m just guessing wildly in the dark. Since the project is heavily NDA’ed, all I know about the project is what I’ve been able to glean online. This means that I have no idea whether my points are even valid or are completely off the mark. So while this is a fun exercise for me in analysis and creative thinking, at the end of the day, it’s exactly that and no more. The reason I write this is to forestall unnecessary comments. Though I’d love to be part of this, I’m not. And even if I was, I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it. So read the list with that in mind. ;-)
  2. If you want to deliver the unique, scripts suck. Disney is famous for delivering unforgettable, high-quality experiences to mass audiences. The Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland is wild and crazy, but even though there are two tracks, it’s still pretty much the same for everyone. If two people watch Frozen, they both see the same movie, even though the total movie experience also depends on other factors. If you want to deliver the truly unique, that way of thinking needs to go.
  3. Untrained guests poke at the boundaries. Ask anyone who owns an escape room and they’ll tell you crazy stories of shit their guests try to do. For someone who hasn’t had a proper onboarding to an experience, there’s a tendency to try to poke at the edges and see what happens. At a Disneyland ride, it means sticking your hands into the water at “It’s a small world”, even though it’s forbidden. At something like this, it will mean a lot wilder stuff if not designed properly.
  4. Luckily, visitors can be trained. At our big international larps, we have new people coming in all the time, who have no larp experience and still have to fit in. Onboarding them happens reasonably smoothly, but part of that is because we have a solid core of experienced larpers who show the way. For something like College of Wizardry, I’d say that it gets dicey if we get more than 75% first timers. We haven’t been that high yet, so the theory hasn’t been tested in earnest. But it’s definitely going to require manpower to provide enough herd competence that people learn how to behave fast.
  5. It’s easy to think in activity instead of agency. Learn how to fly a spaceship. Duel with lightsabers. Meet characters from the movies. That sounds cool and exhilarating, but where the real magic happens is when you get to make meaningful choices that matter in the context you’re in. I’d have loved to be in the Mos Eisley cantina and watched Obi-Wan cut off that alien’s arm, but it would be a hundred times more impactul if I had been playing Obi-Wan and had made the decision to do so myself. Again, scripts and planned activities make for low agency, even though they can be a lot of fun.
  6. Economies of scale work in reverse. If you go to Comic Con, you might spend 100$ on standing in line for half an hour to get your moment (and autograph!) with Mark Hamill. That’s great. But everyone who’s there knows that to Mark – nice as he probably is – it’s basically a copy-paste experience with little variation. Being trained by Luke Skywalker at a secret Jedi base, and having a one-to-one scene with him, where he asks for advice on how to deal with the young Kylo Ren – and then does it? Now, THAT is something completely different. If you want people to feel unique, you have to make them actually have unique stories.
  7. Branching storylines can only do so much. The larp Monitor Celestra had (if I remember correctly) four roughly defined possible endings, based on player choices. However, it still had a crew of veteran Game Masters, who could improvise on the spot if the unexpected happened. If the Star Wars Hotel wants to deliver on their promise of truly unique, then I hope they also find a couple of these, to step in and take charge when things go down an unforeseen path. Or in the words of Mike Tyson: “You have a plan, and then you get punched in the face.” Then it’s good to have someone who’ll roll with the punches and steer the experience.
  8. Story matters a lot for true fans. When we design larps, we have a much tougher job than people who create movies or books. When reading Harry Potter, it can be tempting to think “This whole wizarding world that’s secret and hundreds of yeara old is organsied along modern nation state country lines. That makes no sense whatsoever!” or “Why is it that modern technology isn’t used at Hogwarts, but vintage looking cameras work just fine?”. But ultimately, Harry himself doesn’t ask those questions, and the books flow nicely. Here, guests will question every decision – especially the ones where the fiction is involved.
  9. Deep lore is problematic for free-flowing experiences. If you met someone at a bar on Coruscant, they’d know that the Emperor’s name is Palpatine and what year they were in, according to the Imperial Calendar. A random guest at the Star Wars Hotel might not know this, or be able to describe what a gundark looks like. And if you want true immersion, you also want it to happen between participants, and not just when interacting with the trained staff (who also might not know!). The rich, detailed Star Wars world is lovely, but it gets tricky when people start scratching the surface.
  10. Having many heroes simultaneously is hard. Han Solo saves Luke during the attack on the first Death Star, gets tortured by the most iconic villain and gets the princess at the end. Awesome experience. But if you want 500 people to have that during a two-day stay at the hotel, you’re going to need a lot of princesses and torture chambers! The thing is that while Star Wars is interesting for the main characters, it’s dead ass boring for most of the Stormtroopers. If you want to be able to scale an immersive experience that’s truly interactive, you need to crack that nut and make it interesting to be a Stormtrooper (or the equivelant “faceless supporting cast member”).
  11. You can solve this through smart design. College of Wizardry was never about Harry, Hermione or Dumbledore. Instead, it was a way of living the stories and lives of all those faceless supporting cast – the students and unnamed teachers. If I was to create the setting for the. Star Wars Hotel, I’d make sure it was clearly Star Wars in theme, but not centered around main canon storylines. Interactive stories happen best at the fringes, where there’s enough recognition that it feels well-known and enough blank canvas that it feels like your own.
  12. Designing for adults and kids together is HARD. It’s reasonably easy making a roller coaster that suits both 11 year olds and 43 year olds. Designing a restaurant experience that appeals equally to these two groups is (I contest) much harder. And a free-flowing immersive experience? Now we’re talking master class design challenge. One of the reasons is that if you’re going to put yourself into the fiction (donning a costume and “playing along”), it’s hard enough on its own. If you’re doing it in front of your nine year old daughter who thinks you’re ridiculous because you just want to be an Ewok, it gets harder. Add to that, that many adults have a complete disrespect for the play of children, and don’t understand instinctively when it’s ok to break the fiction and when it’s NOT well-received.
  13. Being immersed this way is a skill most aren’t trained in. We know how to watch movies, play computer games and read books. But for many, doing something like a larp (and let’s face it, what Disney is trying to do is very larplike) is completely new territory. And what’s worse, many people aren’t aware of it, making it even harder. The fear we most often encounter from first timers is “I’m afraid of doing it wrong” and the difference between someone with zero larp experience and someone with one of our events under their belt is enormous. My hope is that they’ll have some seriously well-designed and well-run mini-larps that train you for the two days at the beginning of it. Something to introduce the form, and then a chance to ask questions before jumping into the big thing.
  14. It’s not about details, it’s about interactions. Disney (with Disneyland as my example here) is pretty awesome at details. There’s a lot of effort put into getting the right feel, and some of the detail work at the rides is simply stunning. For this sort of thing, it’s easy to think that they just need more of that. But that’s missing the mark. When people go to College of Wizardry, they don’t complain that the toilets don’t scream wizard school. They talk about how the wizards scream wizard school. Sure, having themed toilets would be nice, but it’s not the core of the experience. And if I put on my worry hat, I see a possible Star Wars Hotel where millions have been spent on getting physical details JUST RIGHT, while underspending on the interaction design. The Jedi Training at Disneyland falls into this trap. It looks amazing, and has skilled actors running the show, but the actual experience the kids have is – to me as an old larp hound – seriously unimpressive.
  15. Interlocking design is the name of the game. One way to make everyone feel like the main character in their own story is to make them different and interlocking. A rebel base under the ice that is attacked by stormtroopers is terribly cool, but expensive in terms of supporting cast. But what if those stormtroopers were also paying guests, and the attack was the culmination of their two-day experience? Suddenly you have very little supporting cast (payroll is a thing for Disney as well) and you have two distinct experiences you can have – one as a rebel and one as a stormtrooper. Now do this on a bigger scale. It’s the basic idea behind Kidzania (and many larps), just come to life here.
  16. People want different things out of experiences. A visit to Disneyland showcases this nicely. Some want to do rides all day, and spend all their time either standing in line or being whirled through one spectacle after the other. Some mainly want to walk around and grab a bite to eat here and there. Some plan their day around toilet visits. Yet others enjoy the shows, or mostly want to go shopping for gifts and snazzy merchandise. While Disneyland makes room for all of these, it’s not exactly optimal to be part of a group that’s pulling in several different directions at once. Clearly communicating what the Star Wars Hotel is will be crucial. Is it essentially a two-day larp with an amazing setting? Is it a themed hotel with opt-in activities? Is it extremely physical or not so much? Something like Disneyland has to be designed for everyone. Something like this can’t be (is my contention)
  17. Fiction sometimes gets in the way of reality. Let’s say they decide to make a Mos Eisley style cantina, where people can eat and drink. Part of what makes the “real” Mos Eisley cool is that it’s dangerous. But real world people generally don’t like it when a Greedo-looking character interrupts dinner and retroactively starts shooting. Yes. I went there. It was an attempt to be clever. I’ll let myself out now. What I’m trying to say is that food, sleep, showers and so on are much more important to real people than to fictional characters, and that when you try to create immersive experiences like this you need to design for that.
  18. Rapid Prototyping is essential at a very late stage. Whether the hotel runs with some test guests or there is some flexibility built into the original design, I’m 100% certain that this spaceship will need to get its space legs before the hyperdrive is turned on. Or in other words – the unexpected WILL pop up. Something that was completely non-obvious will materialise as an issue, and if everything is done-done, then it’s hard to fix that. That’s the beauty of working with less scripts (both storywise and physical). If a roller coaster turns out to have an issue with a too sharp turn, it’s damn hard to rebuild the turn without major expenditure of resources. If the audience happens to want Han Solo to live, it’s impossible to change the movie. But with an interactive, interaction-based experience (like I hope this will be), tweaking and changing is much easier. Essentially, I’d treat the first 3–4 groups of guests as guinea pigs, and change things according to learnings from those “early runs”.
  19. Please, make it so that everyone leaves their mark. This is something I have been dreaming of implementing at our own events, and which will start happening in 2018. The idea that everyone leaves something behind and that the “story of the place” grows piece by piece. It’s like the guest book at a traditional hotel, just much more elaborate. Whether it’s leaving behind a message, a picture, or something else, it’s a nice way to let the place get its own history. We all want to make an impression, and where better to do it than here?
  20. Remember: Everything is a designable surface. The words of Bjarke Pedersen are one of the mantras I design by, and here I hope those words are taken to heart. There’s opportunity to delight at every corner, and the better than sandbox is built and the nicer the toys in it are, the better the improvised play will be. Variety in available experiences. Interlocking design. Interaction design. Rabbit holes of lore for those who want, that don’t impact those who don’t care. All the things we dream of being able to do, are things that should be done here. Because when I think to myself “If only we were Disney, we’d do xxx and yyy.” Well, Disney is Disney. And I hope they do both xxx, yyy, zzz and things I haven’t even begun to dream of. And if they need help with figuring out how to dream in interactivity and immersion, there are plenty of us who have been doing this sort of stuff for decades. ;-)

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Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.