Inside Disney's Star Tours, workers are prepping walls, high-definition screens and assorted droids for the attraction's grand reopening next Friday at Hollywood Studios.
Outside Star Tours, anticipation is building among Star Wars and Disney enthusiasts, so much so that a few fans wait at the attraction's entrance every day, in case there's an unannounced preview of the simulator thrill ride.
The revamping of Star Tour represents the highest-profile addition to the Disney World parks in 2011. A version will open at Disneyland in California on June 3.
Disney has been selective in what details it reveals, including the price tag for the renovation that took nine months to complete. The floor plan of Star Tours remains the same as when it opened in 1989, but its story and emphasis have changed.
The new Star Tours is designed to immerse guests in the Star Wars universe, said Kathy Rogers, senior show producer for Walt Disney Imagineering. That feeling should be present "as soon as you come in the door," she said during the Orlando Sentinel's exclusive guided tour this week.
The ride's 3-D film is divided into several segments featuring different planets and will be shown in 54 combinations. Once inside that door, visitors have a chance to see:
•A flood of fresh — and familiar — faces from Star Wars lore. The attraction is populated with characters throughout. "You've got Darth Vader, you've got Princess Leia, you've got R2-D2, C-3PO, Boba Fett, Yoda, Admiral Ackbar," said Tom Fitzgerald, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering. "Jar Jar Binks makes an appearance."
The idea is to set Star Tours in a definite galaxy far, far away. The new safety video shows only intergalactic beings filing into seats; no one who looks like a tourist, as in the previous version. A window to another concourse shows shadowy outlines of other recognizable characters, royal and interplanetary. There are cameos during the ride.
•A crisp look that reflects a time shift. The new version is set years earlier than the old ride, and familiar objects look newer. "It feels like a brand-new airport," Rogers said.
In the first room of the queue, a copper-and-white StarSpeeder 1000 vessel sits where the blue StarSpeeder 3000 used to be. R2-D2 and C-3PO are there again, along with a small IC-360 scouting droid. Overhead is a new high-definition board listing spaceport departures and a galactic Weather Channel.
•A clear vision. Once the ride begins, the adventures are presented in 3-D digital projections, as opposed to 70 mm film. The imagery was again produced by Industrial Light & Magic under the guidance of "Star Wars" mastermind George Lucas. (The 3-D "flight glasses" are sleek, shiny and black.)
•Nods to Star Tours past. In the second room of the queue, which is the scanning area of the spaceport, boxed-up droids are ready for shipping. Rex, the hapless pilot from the original Star Tours, is marked "defective" and spews snippets of old dialogue.
The additions have fans curious about the "new" Star Tours. Scarlett Litton of Davenport is part of a group that waits near the attraction, hoping for an early opening. Members post updates on StarTours2Live.com.
"If they were to have a soft opening today, I want to be able to tell people so they can go on it … although I do actually kind of want to be the first in line," said Litton, 26. She works for TouringPlans.com, which has developed a mobile application specifically for Star Tours. Among its features will be an alert when the attraction opens.
In the meantime, she and Orlando's Darcie Vance, 33, watch for clues during daylong shifts. They've seen exterior lighting go up, new uniforms for cast members, fresh arrivals to the gift shop and other details that are newsy to big fans.
"So far, no opening," Litton said.
Increasing the number of Star Tours characters is a good thing, said Tom Corless, founder of the WDW News Today website and host of its podcast.
"I think everyone's excited that Darth Vader's in it. I know they wanted Darth Vader in the original one, but it never happened," said Corless, 22, who lives in Bronx, N.Y., but will be in Florida for the opening.
Corless also likes the idea of the multiple story-line combinations. Going in, passengers won't be sure which planets they'll be traveling to and which characters they'll be encountering. Fitzgerald, the Imagineering executive, describes it as a slot machine with four wheels representing the scene choices.
On the ride, guests may see a 3-D Darth Vader, experience pod races on the planet Tatooine and dodge the tongue of a mammoth underwater creature of Naboo. Odds are the next ride will have a completely different lineup. In the old version, it was always a botched trip to the planet Endor.
"It's essentially going into the same building and getting a different ride nearly every time you step into it," Corless said. "I've never seen anything like it before."