Last week, Imagineers debuted three new free-roaming two-legged droids in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and the robot research team showcased their bipedal technology at a tech conference. Now, executives from the company are reviewing the results and evaluating the next steps. This post covers the quick progression of the playtest, and why these are the droids you’re looking for, Disney!
For starters, these are BD-1 droids that were characters created for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, a highly regarded video game series (I’ve never played it–this is all from Wookieepedia). BD-1 has since been sold at Droid Depot in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. In the game, BD-1 was equipped with various tools, and acted as an assistant to Cal Kestis. BD-1 had a variety of upgrades and abilities, could hack droids, and had a motor up zip-lines.
All of those features seem relevant here, as the ability to hack and do other things could, in theory at least, be integrated with the in-land interactivity. Regardless, Imagineering tested a trio of BD-1 droids at Disneyland, with Cast Members referring to them by colors (orange, blue & green). Seems like a missed opportunity to dub them Huey, Dewey and Louie Duckling Droids!
In addition to that appearance in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, the Disney Research Team officially unveiled the ‘Duckling Droid’ robot prototype during the keynote presentation at the 2023 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.
According to Imagineering, the robot is capable of an enormous amount of expression in its child-size body, with a highly-expressive head, two wiggly antennae, and little legs. What sets this bipedal robot apart from others that simple look like it is how it walks. The BD-1 is full of personality, emoting as it moves in a way that makes it look alive and teeming with personality. This isn’t the first time Imagineering has showcased a robot with child-like emotion; we saw something similar with the Judy Hopps Bunny Robot.
Here’s a peek at the robot in Imagineering’s labs and out in the wild (literally):
Here’s the description of the robot offered by Imagineering: “Designing a bipedal robotic character with impeccable balance is impressive, but simply isn’t enough when you consider Disney characters strut, prance, sneak, tromp, shuffle, hustle, saunter or meander. Disney Research recently unveiled a new robotic character prototype that combines procedural animation, modular hardware, and reinforcement learning to be able to design and program a walking character capable of these unique gaits and traits.”
“Even more impressive? They can do this within months, not years! The ability to have a new robot design learn to imitate artistic motion in a simulation environment before it’s being built advances Imagineering’s innovation pipeline … and we can’t wait to see what more can be done with this exploration!”
Here’s a video of the same robot skinned as a BD-1 droid in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge:
The latest update comes via the WDI Instagram account. Following the playtest and conference appearance, Disney CEO Bob Iger, Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro, and Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Imagineering Bruce Vaughn met to take a look at the BD-1 droid.
According to the Instagram caption, R&D Imagineers shared key learnings and discussed next steps with the executives. Imagineering also indicated that they’re excited about the variety of ways they’re bringing new and innovative characters to life using sophisticated technology hidden in little droids like these!
Adding free-roaming Duckling Droids would bring Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge closer to its original vision. Back when the land was first announced, concept art featured a variety of alien life forms (no, not that ALF), droids, and original characters. Over time, new concept art was released reducing the number of droids (etc.), but anyone who has the The Art of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge book knows what could have been.
Many excuses have been offered over the years for why cuts were made to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. One is that the land had already gone over budget, and cuts are an ordinary part of the development and refinement of any project. Imagineering coffee table books are a veritable graveyard of abandoned ideas.
Another is that Disney feared that the land would be too crowded upon opening, and that droids would simply get in the way, be trampled, or otherwise cause issues. Obviously, this did not turn out to be the case. The first few months were really slow on both coasts. But hindsight is 20/20.
Yet another explanation is that a lot of entertainment planned for Galaxy’s Edge was pulled and put behind the paywall of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. A variation of this is that Bob Chapek, a notorious cost-cutter, didn’t feel droids and other entertainment were “necessary” for the success of the land.
Not that it really matters now, but our view is that there’s likely degrees of truth to all of these. We saw testing of droids a few times in Tomorrowland and again post-Galaxy’s Edge. From that alone, I wasn’t the least bit surprised that droids didn’t appear in Galaxy’s Edge regularly (awesome as they were). Guests abused the droids and they were major impediments to crowd-flow.
Nevertheless, I’d love to see Imagineering and Operations find a way to make more entertainment and droids “work” in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The land is at its best with characters; without them it can feel soulless, impersonal, and lifeless at times and in spots. So if Disney is simply waiting on the seal of approval from some random blogger before moving from the playtesting phase to everyday use, the’ve got the thumbs up from me—these BD-1 Duckling Droids are a perfect and much-needed addition!
Turning to commentary, I have to start by warning you that I’m underslept, over-caffeinated, and fully stocked up on tin foil. I don’t believe that this was simply a single day test. I believe it’s the early stages of building excitement for something bigger. Allow me to explain.
Imagineering has done other playtesting recently, and this is not how they normally go about it. With other recent robotics, it has happened quietly, with guests plucked at random and chosen to participate at indoor venues without the prying eyes (and cameras) of bloggers and vloggers. If the goal is gaining usable data or learning, that’s the way to go. Other times, experimental tech has appeared out of nowhere, tucked away in quiet corners and quickly removed once word got out.
In this case, the playtesting occurred on one of the busiest days of the busiest month of the year in the busiest area of Disneyland. Now, let’s throw out the ‘busiest area’ part of that, as everywhere is fairly busy right now and it’s logical to playtest in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. (Even though it has been done in Tomorrowland before.) The rest of those points stand, though. Imagineering could’ve done this testing 3 or 4 weeks ago with a fraction of the crowds if they wanted to ease into things.
Not only that, but it’s probably no coincidence that several high-profile influencers, vlogs, and blogs were on hand right as the droids appeared. While it’s true that Disneyland is under constant fan-site surveillance, this seems like more than that–I’m betting some of them were tipped off.
In short, it all seems very purposeful that these Duckling Droids got so much attention. Imagineering itself circulating videos and photos from the test in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge suggests that the goal is drawing fan awareness to this. Again, that’s at-odds with many past playtests, as drawing attention to something that regular guests won’t experience is typically a bad look.
To be clear, I’m not complaining about any of this. What I have been complaining about for a while is that Imagineering spends boatloads of money on robotics R&D, gets a puff piece published in TechCrunch or shows off a video from testing, but then average guests never sees the fruits of those investments.
This is the opposite of that. These droids are very clearly park-ready and all of this functions as unofficial marketing. Now, you could argue that it’s a bit deceitful. WDI is showing off videos of a single-day test, knowing full well that these are going to go viral on social media and the average guest isn’t going to understand that these droids aren’t appearing regularly. (I’m guessing ‘when do the droids appear?’ is already a common question in SWGE.)
I think that’s a fair point. But I also think tests like this force Disney’s hand. If the guest response to anything becomes so strong, things happen. For ‘evidence’ of this, look no further than the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World. Florida management routinely resists marketing budgets to add characters to the parks, but after the overwhelmingly positive reception to Mando and Grogu at Disneyland, resistance was futile. Of course, this assumes that you think Disney’s hand needs to be forced with these Duckling Droids, and I do not.
Perhaps this is a matter of confirmation bias, as I was already “connecting the droids” when Huey, Dewey and Louie appeared and disappeared, but my first thought when seeing Imagineering’s photo of Bob Iger inspecting the droids was: “this seems below his pay grade.” Now in fairness to Iger, one of the things for which he’s known–and a distinction between him and his Other Bob successor/predecessor–is his curiosity with Imagineering, and popping in to see what they’re up to.
But right now the big boss probably doesn’t have a lot of free time for playing with robots. Bob Iger has a laundry list of items on his plate, from figuring out what to do with ESPN and Hulu to helping resolve the actors’ strike to deescalating another proxy fight to cutting costs and making streaming profitable. Despite all of those much more urgent and time-consuming issues, he has made Walt Disney World and Disneyland a priority. That’s because they’re one of the company’s few bright spots and potential growth engines. (Related: Disney Plans to Double Investment to $60 Billion in Disney World, Disneyland & Beyond.)
Point being, I don’t think Bob Iger would be reviewing the results–much less having a photo of him doing so–of a single droid playtest unless it were more than just that. That is, unless the goal were generating false hope among fans…but the thing about false hope is that it offers no tangible benefit, and is detrimental once sentiment sours.
The way Imagineering has conducted and showcased this Duckling Droid test suggests that there’s more than meets the eye, and something bigger is planned. That, or Imagineering has gone rogue and is trying to force the company’s hand into giving Galaxy’s Edge droids. Knowing the amount of coordination and layers of approval through which every little post on social media must go, I highly doubt that’s the case. (Part of me hopes it is, though. WDI Gone Rogue could yield fun results and would make a great Disney+ series!)
Instead, my sneaking suspicion is that these droids are part of a bigger picture plan to do a soft reboot and relaunch of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. There are a number of reasons for this, from Galactic Starcruiser closing to the strengths of Avengers Campus being evident to Disney not having much in the near-term and needing stop-gap ways to keep guests coming to the parks.
In fact, Josh D’Amaro has hinted in recent interviews that he wants to bring back atmospheric entertainment Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, but hasn’t committed to anything. Performers from Starcruiser are one way to accomplish this; droids are another. Those two relatively simple things would both breathe new life into the land and bring it more closely in-line with its original vision, before elements were cut due to concerns about crowds and/or a desire to put them behind the Starcruiser paywall.
Speaking of Starcruiser, there are no immediate plans to do anything with the building. It’s our understanding that it’ll essentially be mothballed for the near term. They’re not going to demolish it, but Imagineering also is not going to get in there and immediately start construction on something new. (Related: Why Walt Disney World Will NOT Reimagine Starcruiser Into a Star Wars Hotel.)
However, there have been more and more rumblings revolving around a future dinner show. All of the recent chatter we’ve heard suggests that Walt Disney World is actively exploring ideas for a Star Wars dinner show (and maybe more). Again, this would be something that was originally intended for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. The space was set aside for it.
With the benefit of zero inside knowledge, our bet is a dinner show held inside Starcruiser that ‘departs’ from Galaxy’s Edge is launched at some point in 2024 at Walt Disney World. Should that go well, we’d expect construction to begin on a proper venue inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge for a dinner show to open in 2025 or 2026 at both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where an announcement is made sometime next year about a soft reboot of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to launch the land to exciting new time periods and places–breaking the sacred timeline (but tastefully!) and using the setting of the land as a jumping off point for new adventures. (I know this is controversial with fans and I’m not looking to relitigate that argument. See Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Needs to Break the Rules for my take on all of that. Spoiler: my opinion is right there in the title!)
It may seem like an eternity ago at this point, but there were credible rumors of this back in late 2019 and early 2020. (We are not referring to the so-called “rumor” that the land would be transformed into Agrabah or whatever. That was most definitely bogus.) At the time, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was underperforming expectations and there was already a desire to “fix” it to better comport with guest expectations and generate new interest.
Worth noting is that some of that started to trickle out before Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance opened on either coast. While we’ll never know the full trajectory of Galaxy’s Edge in 2020 after the land’s flagship attraction opened, its popularity alone might’ve put those plans on ice. Based on everything we saw, the opening of Rise of the Resistance “fixed” Galaxy’s Edge.
In any case, it’s been a few years since then. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is no longer the hot new land, and after Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, there’s nothing major in the pipeline. As we’ve previously pointed out, Disney construction timelines being what they are, the company will necessarily have to rely on entertainment, overlays or reimaginings as the tentpoles for their big marketing pushes in 2025 and probably 2026.
A reboot of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge could offer exactly that. In addition to these Duckling Droids and performers, there’s also tangible technology that was produced via Imagineering R&D that Walt Disney World and Disneyland might want to reuse in the land. Things like that fancy lightsaber, the Yoda effect, and other showpieces.
There’s a strong chance of those being added to new entertainment along the catwalks in the land, Savi’s Workshop, Oga’s Cantina, and elsewhere. Add to that a land that feels more lived-in thanks to droids, more performers, and timeline tweaks…and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge could be reinvented. (Heck, I wouldn’t even be surprised if its given a new name–everyone calls it “Star Wars Land” anyway, so it’s not like the “Galaxy’s Edge” subtitle is a strong brand.)
Ultimately, there’s a decent chance I’m trying to connect dots that aren’t there and this test is really just that, a test. The normal kind that Imagineering does all the time that amounts to absolutely nothing. Maybe we won’t hear about these Duckling Droids for another year, at which point they’ll be totally forgotten until photos pop-up on social media of them randomly appearing in Tomorrowland at Hong Kong Disneyland. (You laugh, but it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened!)
I don’t think that’s the case, though. Imagineering got a lot right with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and the canvas of the land is exquisite (minus the lack of shade and water fixtures). Meanwhile, Avengers Campus as a themed environment is hot garbage and yet it punches far above its weight because of the way that land is alive with superheroes and is always evolving.
It shouldn’t be too difficult for Imagineering to take the lessons learned from both lands–especially since this is what they originally conceived of for Galaxy’s Edge–and convince company leadership to invest more into Star Wars Land. It’d be worth the investment as a marketable addition that generates new interest. It’s also simply the smart move–Imagineering had this mostly right from the beginning, and guests would love that version of the land even more.
What do you think of the Huey, Dewey and Louie BD-1 Duckling Droids? Think that Bob Iger and Josh D’Amaro will sign off on a soft reboot of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, or is this another playtest that’ll go nowhere? Should more be added to the land, or is it time to move on to other projects? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!