During the clammy weekends of June, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) puts on a show. Mind you, it’s not just any old show, but a “Star Wars” show: virtual catnip to families and nerdly shut-ins everywhere. It beams out like a siren song across the world, calling the Lucas-faithful to Orlando to partake in 12 days of the most Jedi-approved merriment a mere human can handle.
These are the “Star Wars Weekends.”
An intergalactic party in constant development and mutation since 1997, the “Star Wars Weekends” have become a must-see event for the die-hard fans of the franchise. It’s a chance to walk in the footsteps of beloved characters, embrace geekdom in a loving environment, and purchase useless collectibles for exorbitant prices. It’s a celebration on a grand scale, transforming the Hollywood Studios into a massive circus of droids, aliens, and profoundly sweaty tourists.
This was my first encounter with the “Weekends,” and I was tickled to finally nab a chance to rub shoulders with fellow “Star Wars” dorks. I’m not a superfan by any means, but like many bearded, pudgy men, the George Lucas blockbusters fueled many a daydream, and the sandbox is still outrageously fun to play in now and again. And yes, I even enjoyed the prequels. Gasp! I know. What can I say; I’m sucker for massive, widescreen space operas, even with cringing dialogue and purposefully static performances. I could think of worst offenses.
The “Weekends” are a celebration of the franchise, peppering the park with autograph booths, photo opportunities, parades, trivia contests, stores, interviews, dance parties, and a Jedi training school for the wee ones. It’s not quite as overwhelming as it sounds, instead spreading out the love to the four corners of the property to help contain all the geek enthusiasm. The event has become a raging success over the last 10 years, with Disney putting in more effort than usual to make it all come alive.
By now, the “Weekends” are a well-oiled machine, and I felt more comfort than expected stomping around the park trying to ingest all the minutiae. The Hollywood Studios is not the most expansive Disney property around, but the Lucasfilm folk do a bang-up job working the odd corners to their advantage, giving the dedicated a more immersive environment, while still allowing Disney to remain Disney for the few hopeless souls who arrive at the park knowing nothing about “Star Wars.” These people are easy enough to spot: they’re the ones with scrunched-up faces of befuddlement upon spying a 45-year-old man wearing full Sith regalia in the 1000% Floridian humidity.
Arriving at the park’s opening, I was greeted with the sounds of various John Williams score selections: a perfect christening to a day of perpetual goosebumps and smiles. To experience the “Weekends,” it’s really a pick-n-grab situation. The park maps try to hammer out a schedule to easily follow, but there’s no straight line here. This isn’t a one-day affair, but a weekend-long adventure that involves crack timing, an outstanding sense of Disney direction, and a grand display of patience that would break the average sightseer. The “Weekends” are crowded and, in the satanic glow of the summer heat, are quite punishing. The maps only provide a basic game plan. To drink triumphantly from the “I has seen it all” goblet of tourism, it takes one crafty individual to snake around the park, soaking up every bit of “Star Wars” they possibly can.
In a daze of confusion and delight, I stumbled around the area hoping to spy everything that was offered. Right away it’s clear the character spots for pictures and autographs are everywhere. Lightly themed to a “Star Wars” planetary location, the spots are the best place to view awkward conversations between the actors portraying the iconic characters and the average visitor, who’s looking for their next Facebook front page pic, or the younger ones, pushed into interaction by gleeful parents who can’t wait to use little Bobby’s snapshot with Kit Fisto to augment a potentially drab holiday card.
For all the bells and whistles the “Weekends” hold, the character spots are the finest helpings of entertainment value around. There’s no greater joy than seeing an eight-year-old boy reveal his crush to Queen Amidala, or watching a young couple bicker while attempting to choreograph the perfect shot with Chewbacca.
Speaking of Chewbacca, who has the sorry job of working in that costume on a smoldering June weekend? Poor guy. Not only do you have to glad hand pushy strangers for hours on end while remaining firmly in character, but your entire body is encased in a tight coffin of rubber and fur. I imagine the smell is a cross between a marathon-training Ron Jeremy and fresh carpeting.
Chewie, I salute you!
While the costumed characters offer cartoony autographs and poses, the real appeal of the “Weekends” for some are the opportunities to interact with actual members of the “Star Wars” universe. I know what you must be thinking: Mark Hamill? Carrie Fisher? Maybe even Harrison Ford?
Yeah, not at all. But I can offer you the kid who played young Boba Fett in “Attack of the Clones!” Or perhaps the old guy who “played” Boba Fett in “Empire Strikes Back.” Surely the blinding glow of superstardom is too powerful to confront here. Actually, while disappointingly fringe players, the actors still lend a palpable sense of enthusiasm to the event, beaming as they greet their adoring, autograph-desperate public. It looked as though Old Boba was having the time of his life.
The master of ceremonies is actor Warwick Davis, who played Wicket the Ewok in “Return of the Jedi,” along with various prequel appearances. Davis remains in Orlando for the entire run of “Star Wars Weekends,” hosting a stage show where audiences can grill the visiting celebrities and get a sneak peek of the upcoming “Clone Wars” animated film and series. As a steadfast “Willow” fan, it’s a treat to see the diminutive actor in motion, greeting his fans with a generous spirit.
The “Jedi Training Academy” is perhaps the centerpiece of the whole shebang. Sure, you can head into the “Tatooine Traders” store and build your own lightsaber, spend endless hours in a brutally slow line just to get inside the collectible area (yep, a line to spend money), or enjoy a wonderful parade that showcases the collective heavy breathing of civilians who devote their lives to the art of fan costuming. However, all that pales to the wonders of watching overwhelmed little kids scrap with Darth Vader.
The “Training Academy” is located right next to the sorely neglected “Star Tours” attraction, breathing needed energy into the area. The premise is simple: kids selected from the audience are brought onstage (themed as a bunker from “Jedi”), handed plastic lightsabers and a Jedi teacher, and shown basic attack and defense moves. They practice for a few minutes to get the hang of things, then whammo, out strolls Darth Vader, and he’s looking for a fight. One by one the younglings approach Vader, count off their moves, and hope to not be incinerated by the Dark Lord.
It’s. Just. Hilarious.
I spied the Disneyland version last year, and simply couldn’t get enough of it. Thank heavens there’s an Orlando version to embrace. Watching the kids cautiously approach Vader, feel reluctant to whack him with their plastic weapon, then start to grow more confident when the enemy doesn’t exactly lunge back (it’s a one-sided fight, let’s be honest) is a thrill, and the reactions vary from delight to utter panic. While not exclusive to “Star Wars Weekends,” the “Training Academy” just feels more electric during the event; the kids are more immersed in the fantasy of Jedi education, while a horde of costumed onlookers cheer them on.
The bottom line is this: why isn’t there an entire “Star Wars” theme park? That’s a question for Lucasfilm licensing and the accountants, but it’s pretty clear to me the appetite for the franchise is monstrous, with the “Weekends” barely able to keep up with demand.
While I wouldn’t dare recommend visiting an Orlando theme park in June, “Star Wars Weekends” makes the trouble worthwhile; presenting a golden opportunity for total geek immersion on a scale pleasing and, at times, breathtaking. It’s a treat that only lasts a few fleeting weeks, and I heartily recommend the experience to all. Doubly so if your fandom runs so deep you own matching stormtrooper outfits with your significant other and your first born is named Anakin.
For the full rundown of pictures and commentary, please click on Jar Jar...