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Exclusive: An Insider’s Look at Disney World’s New ‘Star Wars’ Experience

‘Star Wars: Path of the Jedi,’ in Disneyland’s Hollywood Studios, will connect iconic scenes from the films in new ways, following the journey of Luke Skywalker.

I was 6 years old when Yoda said it first: “Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be.” I finally got to confront him at Disney World, and I doubt I’ll be the only overgrown Star Wars fan who thinks of that line when they meet the Dark Lord of the Sith.

With the Dec. 18 release of The Force Awakens almost here, the land of Mickey and Queen Elsa put the spotlight on its $4 billion space franchise in recent days with new and revamped Star Wars attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (see our video here). They include everything from new outcomes of the Star Tours ride to encounters with Darth Vader and Chewbacca to snacks sold in packages that look like Han Solo frozen in carbonite.

For older Star Wars geeks like me—the first movie I ever saw in a theater was The Empire Strikes Back—the attractions will be as persuasive as a Jedi mind trick. How could I not nerd out at the sight of a $4,000, customizable Darth Vader replica costume or a $3,050 Boba Fett statue scanned from the original Kenner action figure I had as a kid? Even reading the informational signs next to things like model TIE fighters and Yoda’s lightsaber can get your nostalgia racing.

But for all the additions, this felt like an appetizer to a main course that’s still to come: entire Star Wars lands at Disney World and Disneyland whose opening dates have not been announced (definitely not in 2016, though). As new director J.J. Abrams’s contributions to the franchise are released, making new fans will be just as important as pleasing their parents.

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“We will definitely keep this refreshed,” Kathy Mangum, executive producer and vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, told Yahoo Travel. “Every time there’s a new movie that comes out, it will be reflected here, because we are building new fans.”

As for my long-awaited meeting with Darth Vader, it happened at Star Wars Launch Bay, which is where you’ll find most of the action. There you can walk in one of two directions: to the light side of the Force and an encounter with a real-life Chewbacca, or be seduced by the dark side and stand face-to-face for about 30 seconds with a cast member playing Vader (he does speak to you, by the way).

This is where I learned how seriously Disney takes its franchise. I wanted to confront Vader with a playful Force choke gesture and see how he would respond. But I was immediately reprimanded by a Disney employee who told me I couldn’t do that, because Vader doesn’t Force choke guests—a wise strategy at a family theme park. Unlike Luke, I converted to the dark side (red lightsabers are cooler), though I did make up for it later when I met Chewie as well.

RELATED: 13 Things We Learned About Travel by Watching Star Wars

Other characters you can find are Jawas in the Launch Bay’s Cantina area and First Order Stormtroopers patrolling the park.

I saw nods to Episode VII when I stepped in the Star Tours flight simulator—there was a chase on the desert planet of Jakku and a cameo appearance by the droid BB-8. What I’ll remember most, though, was our ship running over Jar Jar Binks (who mercifully does not appear in The Force Awakens). Disney creative director Brent Strong said the number of scenarios in Star Tours are now “too many to count.”

The top attraction for kids will be the Infinity 3.0 video game room and the revamped “Trials of the Temple,” a scripted show where 20 “younglings” at a time are invited onstage to get their shot at dueling Darth Vader or the Seventh Sister Inquisitor, a new character from the animated series Star Wars Rebels. Though I’m not the target audience for this one, I still enjoyed watching the lesson learned by a Jedi apprentice who can only defeat Darth Maul by letting go of her fear and putting down her lightsaber—the kind of universal theme where Disney is at its best.

What else do Disney and Star Wars do well? Merchandising. So it’s no surprise that the Launch Bay’s collectibles shop is my childhood dream room. I’ll gladly accept any of these as a white elephant gift this year for Life Day:

  • The aforementioned $4,000 Darth Vader costume. After being for sale a few days, a store employee told me no one had bought it yet but that one customer said, “I need to sell my mutual funds to buy this.”
  • A $9,000 First Order Stormtrooper statue (the most expensive item here).
  • A $750 Han Solo outfit with the same kind of materials used for Harrison Ford’s costume.
  • A $200 Kylo Ren lightsaber (as I said, the Sith have better ones).
  • X-Wings and TIE fighters from the new movie.
  • A $125 1/6 scale RD-D2 model.
  • A $3,000 Empire Strikes Back print signed by Hark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Peter Mayhew.
  • A Force Push play action set with a glove you can use to blow up a TIE fighter—this is one of the toys that are exclusive to Disney.

If you know Disney parks, you know they like to sneak in hidden references to attractions. Strong said you can translate the Aurebesh words written on the walls in Launch Bay to find elements from the films, and that if you look around the Cantina space for clues, you can learn how to play holochess on the board that sits there. One word of advice if you play, though: Let the Wookiee win.

—Greg Keraghosian

This article was originally published by Yahoo! Travel under the headline Exclusive: An Insider’s Look at Disney World’s New ‘Star Wars‘ Experience. It is reprinted here with permission.

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(Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Getty Images)

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