LARPing Goes to Disney World

After the larp, Hart explained that Sinking Ship normally provides more spaceship ambience: dim blue lights, a speaker that mimics the sound of pressurized air. Such elements bolster what Nordic Larpers call “alibi,” an excuse to act in character without feeling self-conscious. I told him the game was still pretty sad. A lot of customers…

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After the larp, Hart explained that Sinking Ship normally provides more spaceship ambience: dim blue lights, a speaker that mimics the sound of pressurized air. Such elements bolster what Nordic Larpers call “alibi,” an excuse to act in character without feeling self-conscious. I told him the game was still pretty sad. A lot of customers seek out larps that make them cry, he said. “That’s all they want from me. I’m, like, I could do a lot of shit. I can do comedy. I can do romance, action, thriller. All of those are much harder than crying.”

Tears are a metric for Disney attractions, too. “I know we’ve been successful in some of these things when I see people cry,” Trowbridge told an interviewer last year. “We’re not always aiming to hit that mark, but I think that’s got to be in the mix—to have those emotionally resonant important experiences.”

In the “Star Wars” films from the seventies and eighties, the outgunned Rebels destroy the Empire. In a trilogy of sequels that Disney produced more recently, the First Order emerges from the ashes of the Empire and the Resistance rises to defend the freedom of the galaxy. The Starcruiser story is set amid the sequels. Just before the action began on the ship, the passengers gathered in the atrium. Two Stormtroopers, led by Lieutenant Croy, a First Order officer with a sneering British accent, walked out onto the second-floor balcony overlooking the space and told us that we were all under investigation for Resistance activity. We also met the cruise director and the captain, and the onboard entertainment, two humanoid aliens, one with green skin and one with purple skin. A mechanic in a blue jumpsuit, named Sammie, darted nervously through the crowd. Each character guided smaller groups down different story tracks as passengers decided what kind of role they wanted to assume. Resistance fighters trailed after Sammie, the captain, or the cruise director. First Order sympathizers did the bidding of Croy.

The afternoon progressed quickly: in the engineering room, a dark cavern full of pipes and machines, Sammie and a group of children in white and brown robes studied the schematics of the ship. Upstairs, on the bridge, a ninety-foot screen acted as a window onto space. Players stood in groups of four or five, twisting knobs and pressing buttons at control stations. Suddenly, tumbling rocks filled the screen and Wagnerian music began to play as we heard the dull crash of an asteroid glancing off the hull. I was already sweating when, as in the Monitor Celestra, a smaller spacecraft appeared. The Resistance fighter Chewbacca roared at us. By directing drones depicted through the window, we got Chewbacca onto our ship. (Another echo of Celestra: the Galactic Starcruiser is set in a less familiar part of the “Star Wars” universe, giving the Imagineers more room to make things up and putting less pressure on guests to do homework.)

A few hours before dinner, I started to get messages from Croy on my datapad—an iPhone installed with a Disney app. He wanted a favor: Would I walk to a touch screen by the turbolift and download data from the ship’s computer systems? If I helped Croy, I might be welcomed to a clandestine meeting with him. It seemed less like a video game than like scrolling through texts on a Friday afternoon and angling for invites to the right parties.

I felt more at ease in the Sublight Lounge, a plush cocktail bar, playing a card game called Sabacc. Sabacc blends poker with blackjack and provides something essential in a larp: a reason to do nothing. Sara Thacher, a senior Imagineer, attended the College of Wizardry in Poland twice, and realized that “alibi” could encourage rest. “A big ‘Aha!’ moment for me there was just being in a castle, in a wizard robe, having a cup of tea, and having this alibi, this reason to be there,” she said. Sabacc, like the cup of tea, permits passengers to take a break from the action without breaking the fiction.

Under the dim maroon lights of the Sublight Lounge, Ivy, Tim, and I tried to hold a conversation with a musician, Ouannii, a green-skinned alien with a white faux-hawk and a mouth shaped like a Minivac. She didn’t speak Galactic Basic (English), but she did understand that Ivy wanted to pose with her for a photograph. At dinner, Stormtroopers paraded Chewbacca into the dining hall and arrested him. “Lock him up!” Tim yelled. Croy rushed over to Tim and shook his hand.

These encounters were fun, but Koljonen, the larp designer, had told me that she would not judge the Starcruiser to be successful unless guests were “ ‘Star Wars’-ing at each other.” At one point in the evening, we carried red cocktails into the Climate Simulator (a walled rock garden open to the sky), where we found two passengers who seemed ready to role-play. One, dressed like Han Solo, said that his name was Lynx. The other had long silver hair, face tattoos, and vampire teeth. Her name was Kes, and we learned that she had two hearts. We discussed the persistence of slavery on Tatooine. Lynx told me that their home planet, Iridonia, a rocky wasteland roiling with lava, had a good social safety net.

For many larpers, the most valuable thing about role-play is the change of perspective. Chaos League, the Italian collective, created a larp about water shortages in the developing world, in which players received only half a litre of water per day. (The group did a poor job of communicating that they wouldn’t let players die of thirst, Giovannucci told me.) The collective has since received grants from the European Union to make larps about climate change. Betsy Isaacson, a larper who used to work with Sinking Ship, offered a simpler explanation of larping’s virtues. Sure, it can be used as an empathy machine. “But also I like frivolity,” she said. “I am pro-escapism.” During the pandemic, Isaacson organized larps with incarcerated men. She would write them as the editor of a nineteenth-century Arizona newspaper, and the inmates would send back dispatches from the American frontier. “People are, like, ‘Escapism is bad,’ ” she said. “And I’m, like, ‘Are you a jailer?’ ”

Disney has learned not to discomfit its visitors. On the second day of our cruise, I had a breakfast of whipped eggs in a “Batuu-spiced” white sauce with Ivy and Tim. The well-appointed interiors of the Starcruiser are not a typical setting for a “Star Wars” story; the films don’t usually align themselves with the upper classes. One of the sequels features a resort town called Canto Bight, whose patrician guests are scoffed at by the downtrodden protagonists. But the Imagineers felt that luxury would better fit a resort experience. “We wanted people to have impeccable service, so you can relax and enjoy your story,” Wendy Anderson, the former Imagineer, told me.

After breakfast, Ivy, Tim, and I boarded a custom-built truck standing in for a spacecraft. We were headed for Black Spire Outpost, the rugged market town. Imagineers hoped that the tension between the comforts of our voyage and the grunginess of our port of call would enhance the exotic appeal of Batuu. “When that transport door opens,” Anderson said, “it really feels like you’ve gone to another world.” She was right. As we waited outside Savi’s Workshop, a black-market lightsabre dealer—for two hundred and twenty dollars, guests can assemble their own lightsabres—cast members stood under worn brown canopies that shaded them from the hot suns (Batuu has three). They told me that they had commuted from nearby slums on dilapidated shuttles. “They’re like your transports, but junk,” one of them said.

A forty-five-hour larp is exhausting. Back on the Starcruiser, I lay in bed and looked out the porthole. We kept jumping to light speed and landing in asteroid fields. Suddenly, I heard shouts through the door. First Order spacecraft filled the window. I went out to the atrium and ran into Kes, the silver-haired larper I’d met in the Climate Simulator. “We’re being blockaded, which usually means conscriptions,” she explained. The First Order had hung crimson flags in the atrium, making it clear that we were under martial law.

Tim later approached me, during a musical performance meant to act as cover for subversive activities in the atrium. He told me he thought that Kes might be a cast member. He’d seen her being chummy with Croy in the engineering room.

I used the Internet for the first time in twenty-four hours to Google the name of the larper Disney had just hired. I edged around the crowd. “Caro?” I whispered to Kes.

“Yes!” Murphy said, grinning.

I asked if we could finally talk about the Starcruiser, perhaps over dinner. They checked with a publicist. “We can go to dinner,” they said. “But I have to stay in character.”

We met Ivy, Tim, and Lynx—the Han Solo from the Climate Simulator—in the dining hall. We marvelled at how many children seemed to have aligned themselves with the First Order. “A lot of tattletales on the ship,” Lynx said. Later, Croy would boast that he had turned sons against fathers.

A red light began to flash. All the passengers filed back to the atrium, where the larp came to its climax with a lightsabre duel on the balcony overhead. Croy told the Stormtroopers to wipe us out, and I found myself shrinking in fear. When a happier outcome was revealed, most passengers cheered, some started crying, and others slipped off to the Sublight Lounge for a few more hands of Sabacc.

I spotted Scott Trowbridge and Ann Morrow Johnson standing together in the atrium.

“Sorry for the disturbances,” Trowbridge said, smiling.

“Yes,” Johnson told me. “I know it wasn’t how you’d want a cruise to go.”

I retreated to a hotel room in Kissimmee, with a lightsabre I had assembled on Batuu. I clicked it on and off. A real window looked out onto a parking lot where a circle of teens stood kicking at the ground. I turned on the television and learned that Russia had invaded Ukraine.

Larpers talk about a concept called “bleed,” the sensation that occurs when the emotions you imagine your character having mix with your own. Now the “Star Wars” fantasy of asymmetric warfare had bled into real life. On one of the Starcruiser Facebook groups, a poster complained that the “Star Wars” costume she had ordered on Etsy had been stalled because the seamstress lived in Ukraine. “We are a nation of craftspeople,” a Ukrainian larper named Ilya Kuchinsky told me from his apartment in Kyiv. Kuchinsky makes detailed plastic armor for fantasy battles that rage across the world. On Telegram, he had been joking with his larping buddies who were fighting on the front. “We talk with a lot of fantasy idioms,” he said. “We call the Russians Orcs.

“We used to be one big larp family,” he went on. But, in recent years, he couldn’t help seeing Russians as the enemy, citizens of an empire that viewed Ukraine as a colony. Still, he said, “not speaking as a Ukrainian but as a larper, it’s bad for larp, because the Russian larpers—they’re a great community.”

Kuchinsky felt that larping had made it easier to stay calm even as the war became more brutal. “We change realities so many times that the situation now is not so hard for us,” he said. “Except when we lose our friends or members of our family. You can’t be prepared for that.” Recently, he had driven a hundred miles to evacuate two families from Chernigov, a heavily bombarded city near the Russian border. “When I was driving through enemy territory,” he said, “I thought through different situations: What if I need petrol? What if I see tanks? What will I do? It was a kind of larp adventure, but with more emotional depth.”

A few weeks later, I listened to an interview with a Lucasfilm executive who had worked on the Galactic Starcruiser. The Resistance always prevails, he confirmed, but the story leaves room for players who fantasize about martial law and First Order uniforms. Or, as some larpers put it, if you play to lose, you’ll get a better story. It reminded me of advice Kuchinsky had for the Russian forces and their expansionist aims. “Please don’t try to win,” he said. “Just enjoy where you are.” ♦

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