When Star Tours opened at Disneyland Park in California in 1987, it was one of the first theme park attractions to use a motion simulator. Inspired by the Star Wars films, the ride turned guests into space tourists, aboard a spaceship headed to the moon of Endor. But the pilot, a nervous droid named Rex on his first flight, took a wrong turn, steering passengers instead into a comet cluster, an encounter with a warship Star Destroyer, and a battle with the Death Star—depicted onscreen in a film synchronized to the simulator action—before returning home.

Having opened at Walt Disney World two years later, both attractions closed in 2010 for a major renovation, resuming flight last spring. Now called Star Tours—The Adventures Continue, this new version features an expanded itinerary and storylines, 3D technology, special effects, guest interaction, and a greater menu of simulated movements. It recently won a THEA Award from the Themed Entertainment Association for Outstanding Achievement – Attraction Refresh, bestowed at a ceremony on March 17.

Previously, riders took the same journey with every boarding. This time around, there are 54 possible story combinations in the four-and-a-half-minute ride, chosen randomly by computer from a roster of two launch segments, three destinations, three emergency messages delivered by holographic figures, and three final destinations, interspersed with “lightspeed” transition scenes. “In our world, things have changed,” explains Tom Fitzgerald, executive vice president and senior creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI). “With Fast Pass and a huge Annual Passholder base, people come to see us all the time. It’s important that they not have a locked show, that they have different experiences. It’s how we keep it fresh. The world is so big; one story is not enough. We said, ‘Why does it have to be one adventure? Why couldn’t it be multiple?’”

Like the three Star Wars films released after the first trilogy, this Star Tours is a prequel, its timeline based between the two cinematic trilogies to be able to use characters from all six films. New characters in the recent films include Jar Jar Binks and a childhood Boba Fett, while old favorites include R2-D2, C-3PO—now the pilot—Princess Leia, Yoda, and Darth Vader. There are also characters created especially for the attraction, such as a spokesbot in the loading area pre-show named Aly San San. Planetary destination experiences include pod racing on Tatooine, an underwater plummet on Naboo, sliding across ice during a battle on Hoth, careening through Coruscant during another battle, and speeding through a forest on Kashyyyk; there’s also an encounter with a Death Star under construction.

It was the Tatooine pod race sequence from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace that inspired the Star Tours revamp, suggested by none other than Star Wars creator George Lucas. In 1997, working on the scenes during post-production, Lucas asked Fitzgerald to his Skywalker Ranch in Northern California to view footage for what Lucas termed, “the perfect sequence” for an update. Ultimately, WDI decided to wait until all the prequel films were released before moving forward. When Fitzgerald, who had worked on the original Star Tours, pitched Lucas the idea of multiple branching storylines, “he blessed it,” Fitzgerald says.

Lucas was more involved than he had been for the first incarnation, meeting with the Imagineers about every three weeks; he encouraged the use of humor, Fitzgerald says, such as Star Wars sight gags in the pre-show, and conceived the idea that the storyline have an interactive element, a hunt for a rebel spy who turns out to be one of the riders. “It was a master class with George Lucas, to watch him and hear what he would say,” Fitzgerald enthuses. Such storytelling has always driven the technology at Disney, not the other way around, and the new Star Tours is no exception. Indeed, says the attraction’s senior show producer Kathy Rogers, “We didn’t change the technology. The simulator was always capable of what it’s doing now, but we’ve learned a lot about programming, about, for instance, moving audio around [interior] spaces.” The simulator was programmed by the same Imagineer who had worked on Tokyo DisneySea’s StormRider, a simulator with special effects inside the cabin. “We had to seamlessly fly from one [story element] to the next,” Rogers adds. “There was a lot of work on the transitions; it had to be a natural move. Our ride programmer spent two years understanding where those transitions were.”

Lucasfilm Ltd. and Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic produced the new ride video footage, and much of that for the pre-show, as well as the sound effects. Composer John Williams, who won an Academy Award for the first installment of Star Wars, selected musical passages from the films for use in the video, while another Oscar winner, Michael Giacchino (Up), contributed arrangements for the pre-show. For the 3D, Imagineers turned to the Dolby 3D System , customizing it for their use. “3D isn’t the star of the show,” Fitzgerald notes. “We use it as a tool, to make the experience more believable.” He cites the Naboo sequence, where the cabin windshield suddenly smashes. “We take advantage of the fact that something’s coming in your face. You’ve been lulled into a sense that it’s not 3D, and at the end—whoa—it grabs your attention.” Dolby’s 3D glasses, Rogers adds, “enhance the blacks of space. They really pop.” Despite the attraction’s complexity, synchronizing all the elements was not particularly challenging, Rogers says. “It was making sure that everything tracked against the timecode. It did take some work through software adjustments and hardware interfaces.”

There were some design changes along the way; because this is a prequel, the original Starspeeder 3000 spacecraft became the Starspeeder 1000. To emphasize the difference, the 1000 model utilizes a warm color palette, rather than former blues, accented with a new, gold-flecked paint. The entrance marquee at Disneyland sports LED lighting that can be seen throughout most of the day, despite the sun, and in the extended queue area, there is a black-light and white-light image of all the planets in the Star Wars galaxy. In bringing together such creative powerhouses as Disney and Lucas, Fitzgerald says, “The results are exponential. It’s not two plus two equals four; it equals 22.” “No,” corrects Rogers, thinking of Star Tours’ multiple storylines, “It equals 54!”

Libby Slate is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who regularly covers the craft and art of live performing and other entertainment. Her other credits include the Los Angeles Times, Performances, and Emmy Magazine.