A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … No, wait, it was last weekend in a storefront at Disney Springs, but it most certainly felt like Star Wars. Yes, really.
There’s a new experience at Disney Springs called Star Wars Secrets of the Empire, located in the Marketplace section, between the entrance to Once Upon a Toy and the new location of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. The storefront is unassuming, you might pass by if you weren’t looking for it. There’s not any overt Star Wars theming on the building exterior, just stylized sign reading “The Void” (the experience parent company). I arrived during the late afternoon with my 18-year-old twin daughters Josie and Louisa and their friend Emily. We didn’t know much about what to expect, other than it was something different to do at Walt Disney World.
As it turns out, walking up to the storefront at 4:30 p.m. was not the way to go; we were immediately turned away because the experience was fully booked. If there is availability, walkups are accepted, but this primarily happens in the morning on weekdays. The friendly staff on site recommended that we make a reservation for a time to come back during an open slot. We did this via the website thevoid.com and found an opening a few hours later. I did this on my phone and a couple of clicks later we had a reservation. After some shopping and a yummy Art Smith’s Homecomin’ chicken dinner, we were back and ready to represent the rebellion.
Arriving again, we were asked for the QR code on our reservation confirmation email. I pulled this up on my phone and was directed to hold it near a scanner at the back of an iPad-like touchscreen device in the lobby. A few seconds later, each member of our party had to use the touchscreen to input basic info (name, age, email address) and “sign” a waiver. When this was all completed, an attached printer spit out custom QR code wristbands for each member of our group.
We were then led into a pre-show holding area where a video loop gave brief instructions on how to put on your VR gear. The video is moderately helpful, but you can also get plenty of assistance from staff if you need help suiting up or adjusting your gear. One thing to note from the video is that your helmet has a volume control, to help you best hear your companions, my kids missed this and were somewhat confused at the beginning.
When it’s your turn, you are then led into mission instruction room, where you are divided into your play teams. As it turns out, we were lucky that we were a party of four. Games are typically played in groups of four, with two groups playing concurrently, but not together. If you’re a party of two, you’ll be matched with another party of two. Threes might be sent out on their own if it’s not busy. Singles will be slotted in as they would with the single rider lines in the theme parks. There’s a fair amount of communication necessary during the game – strategizing who does which task in a few areas. This might be awkward if you don’t know your teammates. If you’re a party of two it might be worth striking up conversations with some of the other folks in the waiting area to see if any of them feel like a particularly good fit for your style. For example, my daughters were initially a little nervous and intimidated by the experience. The party in front of us was a bunch of boisterous, game-savvy older men (old, you know, like 30). My guess is that the girls would have taken a secondary play role if they had been matched with these guys, but they were happy to take the lead since we were on our own, which ended up being part of the fun for them. Look for someone your own speed.
In the instruction room, each player stands before another touchpad and scans his or her wristband QR code. You can then give your avatar a bit of customization, primarily choosing a color for your character’s shoulder pad and wristband. In-game, this color is the only way to visually distinguish players from each other. We made the mistake of having two of our team members select the same color, which made it difficult to understand who was where. Choosing four different colors is particularly important if you’re playing on a team with strangers. There were a few points during the game where we instinctively grabbed each other (stop, don’t move forward, danger ahead), which you might feel uncomfortable doing with non-family. With avatars generated, we received our mission via a video message from Cassian Andor, whom I thought was just some random rebel-looking guy.
I’m extremely well versed in Star Wars IV-VI (I saw New Hope 13 consecutive Saturdays in a row during the summer it was first released) and moderately conversant in I-III and VII and VIII, but I hadn’t ever seen Rogue One, the semi-prequel to New Hope which functions as a sort of III.5. I later learned Cassian Andor is a key player in Rogue One. My cluelessness didn’t hurt my understanding or enjoyment of the game; however, I think that had I known this in advance I would have been even more immersed in the story. It’s not even a 100% imperative to have any understanding of the Star Wars universe to play the game, but having a rudimentary knowledge of some of the series’ key antagonists will help your appreciation.
In his directive, Cassian told us that we were Rebel spies, disguised as Stormtroopers. Our mission is to recover the contents of a cargo capsule and return it to the leaders of the rebellion. No problem.
Mission in hand, we entered the gear area where there are two sets four vests and helmets. You are here instructed to leave your personal belonging on a shelf. You could certainly keep your cell phone and wallet in your pocket, but you can’t carry any bags or other items with you into the game rooms. The shelf is not locked, but there’s not a lot of traffic coming through, so it seemed pretty safe; however, if you have a lot of expensive camera equipment or other large valuables, you might want to leave them back at your hotel.
Then it’s time to suit up. The uniform consists of a vest that looks like a less-puffy floatation device, with four clip-style fasteners in the front which can be tightened or loosened for fit. The vest can be further adjusted by pulling on some straps to make it tighter around your torso or to make it hang higher on your body. The tighter you make the adjustments, the more you’ll feel some of the haptic feedback during the game. One of my daughters was worried that making the vest tight would cause something to hurt during game play. This fear was unfounded. While you will sense some firm feedback, it’s far less severe than the poking experienced during the It’s Tough to Be a Bug attraction at the Animal Kingdom.
The trickier part of the uniform is the VR helmet which has three points of adjustment: a knob at the top of the head, a knob at neck, and a chin strap. Ask for help and take your time getting the helmet set up properly. You don’t want any extraneous movement. If the helmet slips during play, your vision may be impaired. If you wear glasses, you’re permitted to keep them on during the experience, but you should make extra sure that your helmet is fitted properly.
With gear on, we were led into the game anteroom and asked to flip down the visor portion of our helmets, effectively putting us actively in the game.
All I can say is that first moment using the visor was one of the coolest freaking experiences of my life. One second I was in a room with three teenage girls in tee shirts, and the next second I was in a room with three totally badass STORMTROOPERS. It didn’t feel like we were observing the Star Wars environment. We were absolutely inside the Star Wars environment.
Cassian’s slightly abrasive droid sidekick K-2SO (again from the Rogue One film) ushered us into a shuttle seat for transport to our mission. The seat was designed to simulate movement. A few moments later we left the transport via what I would absolutely swear was a narrow plank, but was just regular floor virtually engineered to seem like a narrow plank. Again, the overwhelming sense was the realness of situation. We entered a space that included heat and we felt and smelled heat. We got into a bit of gun-battle with some bad guys and we could (lightly) feel the bullets. (Don’t worry, no one “dies” in the game. In this virtual world, all wounds are flesh wounds.)
To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into the details of the game play. Suffice it to say that my most nervous daughter immediately started screaming, “AWESOME.” as soon as it was done. As we were leaving we asked a staff member if he would take our photo while we were wearing our gear. He happily did so.
Two days later we were back at Disney Springs and decided to try the game again, to see if it was just as fabulous the second time around. Even on second play, the game still held up, mostly because there was still a fair amount of novelty and because we opted to divide some of the tasks in the game slightly differently. However, I’m not sure it would be worth more than a second or third pass through. The game itself does not change substantially with different users or between games. There are no alternate endings or different bad guys to encounter. And again, because no one dies, there are no real repercussions from messing up.
While the game didn’t change in the two days between plays, the exit procedure did. In between our first and second plays, they had installed a automated photo station at the end to take photos of players in their VR gear. Not surprisingly, they are selling the photos for $15. Ask nicely if they’ll take your photo with your phone or camera, but don’t be surprised if they point you the for-purchase version.
How much does this cost?
The price is $29.95 per person, plus tax.
Is there an age requirement?
All participants must be at least 10 years old. Guests under age 16 must have a parent or guardian present to approve the activity waiver.
What about a height requirement?
There is a 48″ height requirement. #arentyoualittleshortforastormtrooper
Can I make a reservation?
You can, and you should. Use the website thevoid.com and choose the Orlando location.
How long does the experience last?
Assuming there’s not much of a line in front of you, the entire experience takes about 30-40 minutes. Both times I played it took about half an hour, but I’ve had friends encounter backups making it take well over an hour. I was so immersed in the game, that I don’t really have an accurate sense of how long the actual play took, but if I had to guess I’d say it was somewhere in the 7-10 minute range.
Is this activity wheelchair accessible?
Wheelchairs are allowed. Guests using EVCs will have to transfer to a wheelchair. Some portions of the activity will be unavailable to guests without full mobility.
Is the gear heavy?
The vest and helmet together weigh about 10 pounds. I had no problems with this, nor did my petite 5’2″ daughter. However, if you have back or neck problems, work with the game staff to ensure that everything is fitted properly and won’t exacerbate issues.
What happens if I, you know, freak out and panic during the game.
No worries. Staff members are monitoring every session. If you’re out of your element, just raise your hand and they’ll pull you out.
Oh my gosh, I LOVED it! Is there anything else like this?
Well, the same Star Wars game is at Disneyland in California. There’s a Ghostbusters version available in New York, Toronto, and a few other locations. I live in the New York area and am planning to check out that version next time I’m in the City.