Disney’s Plan To Fly X-Wings Over Star Wars Park Speaks To Perception Manipulation Tactics

It looks like Boeing and Disney’s Imagineers have joined forces to make flyable X-Wings and it should remind us that seeing shouldn’t mean believing.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


Seven years ago, Disney made the fantasy of a flying dragon come true and I wrote an article about how their accomplishment has big strategic and tactical takeaways. Now the House Of Mouse's Imagineers are about to pull off a similar feat by flying X-Wings over Star Wars Galaxy's Edge, the company's newest land at both their Anaheim and Orlando theme park properties. It also turns out that a major aerospace firm and defense contractor may have helped make this out of this world experience a reality. So, I think it is time to revisit that post, which is far more relevant today, in a new age of perception warfare and a time where UFOs are a hot topic, and talk a bit about how Disney is getting a pair of X-Wings to actually fly above thousands of Star Wars fans.  

Disney is planning a huge celebration for its Rise Of The Resistance ride—the centerpiece dark ride experience at Galaxy's Edge—which will be by far the most incredible theme park attraction ever created. It is also one that incorporates a number of new mind-bending and perception-altering effects, such as blaster bolts that virtually fire across the room like they do in the movies. Be sure to learn all about Rise Of The Resistance

by clicking here and clicking here. A ton is riding on the opening of this ride as Galaxy's Edge has reportedly underperformed a bit since its own opening. Suffice it to say, Disney is executing a huge kickoff, and this is where the X-Wings come in. 

Blogmickey.com has been on top of this story, posting shots of the X-Wing aircraft themselves, which are roughly 2/3rds the size of the ones used as props in the movies X-Wing. No need for going full scale if the night sky is your performance medium. Once again, Imagineers wield their forced-perspective wands to get away with far more by actually using less. 

The X-Wings appear to be multi-rotor drones, similar to what we see with futuristic air mobility and cargo-carrying concepts, in particular, Boeing's Cargo Air Vehicle initiative. That may not be by chance, Boeing seems to actually have a hand in this project. Check out the video below for photos of the X-Wings and some cryptic evidence that Imagineers may have teamed with Boeing to make them a reality. 

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As you can see, the design is pretty genius, utilizing a tubular frame with translucent skins with textures printed on them, so when they are back-lit from the inside they appear extremely vibrant and solid. The multi-rotor design gives the "X-Wings" extreme reliability and maneuverability. Boeing's NeXt initiative-based Cargo Air Vehicle, which looks exactly like what is being used as the platform for the X-Wings, is capable of carrying 500 pounds, which should be plenty for this relatively genius design concept.

Beyond the possibility that Boeing, which is also one of the world's biggest defense contractors, is melding minds with Disney's Imagineer team, the idea that they can make the impossible, possible, at least from the bystander's perspective, is telling, just as the flying dragon that emerged over the Magic Kingdom the better part of a decade ago was. That was before the great drone revolution. It used a lowly manned paraglider to pull off its seemingly magical effect. 

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Disney's dragon in daylight. Amazing what they pulled off with so little!, Aviationintel.com

The art of illusion can be just as important in warfare as direct combat. Today, as electronic warfare becomes increasingly dynamic and mixes with unmanned capabilities—make sure to read about the cutting edge of these capabilities in this past feature of ours—as well as how information can spread like wildfire via the internet, guile and misdirection will have an even greater impact on the modern battlefield than ever before. I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the topic of UFOs, as well. Even the sharpest perceptions can be skewed when tactics are employed that are specifically designed to do so. 

It's also worth remembering that Disney's projects, and especially their flying ones, are absolutely minuscule in terms of resources compared to those of the U.S. military and its peer state competitors. With all this in mind, I want to share portions of the takeaways I wrote after Disney's flying dragon appeared years ago as they are more relevant today than ever: 

Although Disney, a company more known for its animated characters and well-themed rides, not visionary aerospace design, pulling off such a lifelike flying dragon is worth a post in itself, there are some lessons to be learned here when it comes to combat aviation and geopolitics, as well (do not laugh just yet!). The ability to fly an incredibly lifelike dragon over a crowd of tens of thousands of people, and still have the average grownup amazed is an accomplishment that those in the aerospace defense world, especially many often wrong, but highly published journalists, should take note of. Once again, Disney is not an aviation company, but their Imagineering team is known to be able to do amazing things with relatively small amounts of money. They know exactly what they can get away with and what they cannot when it comes to tricking a person’s senses and perceptions. 

As masters of using techniques like creative lighting and forced perspective, they can literally make something mundane appear grand, and even menacing, without actually paying for what it would cost to build the subject in full. In fact, during interviews, WED designers have often said that being tied to tough budgets, often too small to conventionally achieve the objective at hand, usually ends up in a better product, both fiscally and visually. But who cares about all this in the military aviation world? Well we all should and here is why:

A.) Because oftentimes what we see is not exactly as it may appear. A large part of warfare and strategy is making your potential enemies think you have something that you actually do not. Although we already know for certain that dragons are fictional creatures, the dragon displayed over the Magic Kingdom does appear real, especially under the controlled setting of the event. We only see and hear the parts of it that the designers and producers of the display intended us to consume—the detailed areas lit up by the spotlight below, its articulating appendages, and the sound effects and music track masking any prop sound from above... At the same time, lets say for hypothetical reasons a real dragon does exist and this fake was modeled upon its rumored appearance. Now that a man-made explanation has been put forth for sightings of such a beast, would a real live dragon sighting get the interest and investigation it clearly warrants? Probably not. Magic is an interesting thing because it is totally synthetic in nature and its greatest trick may be its ability to desensitize its viewers to events that are actually authentic in nature, although they may border on the unbelievable or unexpected.

What I am getting at here is that disinformation and illusion can be just as effective of a deterrent as actually possessing the real McCoy itself, all at a fraction of the cost of pursuing the authentic alternative.


In the still dawning age of the internet, the ability to fortify a technological or operational ruse on a large-scale is only fortified by viral “marketing” techniques and elaborate “alternate reality games,” where false information of a detailed and mysterious nature, such as found footage and forged documents, are inserted into the global flow of digital information. At this time, the use of such cutting edge marketing techniques has mainly been the territory of Hollywood mega-blockbusters, J.J. Abrams’ “Cloverfield” being one of the most engrossing “ARG” campaigns as of yet, although there is no doubt that militaries and intelligence services worldwide are taking notice and are planning on using such subversive “marketing” to their own disinformation advantage in the future. 

For instance, China could “unveil” a new aircraft that does not exist in reality at all, a cutting-edge stealth long-range bomber for instance. Seeing as it is a secretive technology to begin with and its operations will be shrouded in darkness long after its public unveiling, seeing is literally believing as no other corroborating information will be available to assess its true authenticity. If such a disinformation event was also backed by a viral campaign of “leaked footage” and “secret documents,” declaring the authenticity of such a claimed machine becomes much more complex and murky. Even Disney attached a viral marketing campaign to its never-seen-before dragon, complete with “witness footage” and grainy photographs leading up to its unveiling. Simply put, the impact of something that may be of total fiction can be largely intensified by using modern viral marketing techniques.


B.) Because it shows that an incredibly creative small group of individuals can build something unprecedented, even with limited funds and a relatively minuscule knowledge base. Disney’s Dragon is obviously not a 100% solution as it most likely relies on commercially available off the shelf technology. In other words, very simple forms of propulsion and lift. But it really does not have to be any more complex than that does it? When paired with cheap supplementary atmospherics, such as sound effects and projected lighting, the impact to the viewer is greater than the sum of its parts. 

With all this in mind, I think that many in the aerospace industry and especially the US Department of Defense greatly underestimate their competition and potential foes’ ability to innovate and make do without the vast resources of the US Government or the know-how of legendary design houses like Lockheed’s Skunk Works. Maybe their way of addressing a certain mission or concept is not the same as ours, and their final product is not as potent, but that does not mean it is in any way irrelevant or couldn't potentially offer greater “total force” capability if fielded in larger numbers or by being developed for much less money than its US counterpart. By doing so, precious resources could be used in other areas or not spent at all. 


Some of the most innovative capabilities do not have to be realized via cutting-edge technological trends at all. By thinking outside the box, an asymmetric view of warfare can be highly effective against a technological and economically superior enemy. Just take North Korea and Iran for instance. North Korea knows it cannot compete in the technological realm with South Korea, so it has built up its low-tech capabilities to a point that they are simply daunting. Instead of developing a stealthy aircraft or cruise missile to penetrate the South’s defenses, it is rumored that the North has stockpiled a large force on cloth winged AN-2 biplanes. During the opening salvos of a total conflict with the South, these aircraft will fly low to the ground at night, packed with North Korean special forces on a one-way trip to drop them deep behind enemy lines to cause total chaos. The AN-2s flying low are hard to detect due to their largely fabric and wood structure, and they are cheap and totally expendable. [Read all about this in a post I wrote some years later linked here] Iran also knows full well that our Navy’s ability to project power decreases with proximity, therefore they have built a large force of fast attack boats used to swarm US surface combatants in the tight spaces of the Persian Gulf, a technique the Navy is just beginning to get a grasp on countering.

There are countless examples of asymmetric warfare throughout history, starting with David and Goliath, but still, as a technologically obsessed society, we must begin to come to terms with that fact that more complex and more capable is not always better, especially if such assets are only procured in small numbers. In some ways, I would love to see what the USAF’s “flying dragon” would have looked like and cost compared to Disney’s if both teams were given the same goal: Make a 40′ dragon appear real as it flies through the air at night at a few hundred feet above the ground. I predict the USAF’s dragon would have cost tens of millions of dollars and would not have been ready for Disney’s big unveiling, although it would have been needlessly powered by a jet engine, been unmanned, cruised a 25,000ft, and had the ability for the remote operator to control a swarm of other dragons although none exist and such a capability was never asked for in the original goals. In the end, I believe this old saying rings true: 

Beware the man with a limited budget and an unlimited imagination.

As technology advances, so does the ability to create grand illusions and distribute disinformation on a massive scale on ever-smaller budgets. The Disney Imagineers have reminded us once again that we cannot trust our own eyes—seeing and believing doesn't equate to truth. Even technology that is far less than exquisite can be paired with great creativity and successfully deceive us. In a theme park where you pay hundreds of dollars to be as deceived as much as possible, that's an awesome thing. But in the real world, it is anything but, and in a military setting, it can mean the difference in winning or losing battles even before they ever begin.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com