A guest blog by Erik Tyler
Once a year for 4 weeks Disney lets the Empire take over Hollywood Studios for its annual Star Wars Weekends. This year with Disney in full control there were some great changes in store" to start they extended the experience another weekend for a 5th weekend. It's just simply an amazing time"
For the past 8 years I have been visiting Orlando to celebrate Star Wars Weekends at Disney's Hollywood Studios" you would think I was crazy how much I look forward to this trip all year long. What started out as trip for my obsession to the films has turned into a yearly reunion of great friends who share 2 of the same passions". Disney and Star Wars" Unfortunately since I travel from NY I only have the fortune of going for 1 of the weekends so each year is a gamble as to who I will be able to get to meet. My buddy and I try to maximize our time as well as plan smart. We buy an annual pass 1 year and choose either of the last 2 weekends so that we have the choice of the 1st 2 weekends the following year, so this year we chose weekend 1.
As with every year the goal is to obtain the coveted fast pass for the celebrities of the weekend. Disney only allows one fast pass per guest per day, so here is your 1st obstacle. Since there are normally 3- 5 guests per weekend you really need to plan out and prioritize whom you want/need to meet. My goal for the weekend was to get a fast pass for Ahmed Best (he played Jar Jar Binks), one for Vanessa Marshall (who will be voicing Hera Syndulla in the new Star Wars Rebels coming out this November on Disney XD) and if possible one for Peter Mayhew (who played Chewbacca).
The other 2 celebrities for the 1st weekend were the host of SWW himself - James Arnold Taylor (the voice of Obiwan Kenobi from the Clone Wars) and Ashley Eckstein (the voice of Ahsoka Tano from the Clone Wars and creator of the Her Universe clothing line) both I was fortunate to meet in years past. Since these fast passes are given out before the park opens and are limited you need to get to the park prior to opening.
Now depending on the celebrity and on the demand he or she pulls will dictate the time you need to be on line. For example, this was Ahmed Best's 1st appearance at Star Wars weekends so his demand is going to be higher than some of the other celebs who have been there in years past, so my guess/estimate was to get there about 2:00am to get on his line. The lines for the autograph fast passes form off to the right of the ticket booths and are normally labeled by a sign that has the actors name on it.
There is also a line for those who would like to wait for access to Darth's Maul to get 1st access to the limited weekend merchandise. Well upon arrival about 1:50 am we were about 50th in line for Ahmed standing around the security checkpoint. Ahmed's line was at this point the longest of 6 lines. Peter's line was not too far behind in length, with the merchandise line catching up as well - as the night went on the line for Ahmed grew almost to the boat docks - Peter's line and the merchandise line went well past the security checkpoint. People did get in line for Vanessa, James and Ashley but they were not nearly as long.
Celebrity autographs are broken into different time slots throughout the day depending on the schedule of that celebrity. So depending on where you are in line will depend on what time slot you get a past pass for. We were lucky enough to score the 1st session for Ahmed Best at 10:30 - 10:45. It sounds like a long time to wait for the fast passes but over the years you see a lot of familiar faces and become friends with those passionate enough to wait online with you.
Time actually flies talking and catching up with all your line mates, friends and fellow fans. There is such a great familiarity with everyone on line - it's great to be among those of your peers who have the same love as you do!
In order for your fast pass to be valid you need 2 things, you need a wristband and the physical fast pass in order to meet the celebrity. The wristbands are normally handed out around 6:00am and the fast passes about an hour later. If you do not have a wristband you do not get a fast pass. The same goes if you find or have a fast pass but do not have a wristband they will not let you get an autograph. You need both!!!
The park opens at 8:00am this year but they actually let you into the park at 7:30-7:45 to see the opening show by the rope near Sunset Blvd. Stormtroopers come out on what looks like moving watchtowers, they interact with the crowd and joke about so many people being held back by a teeny tiny little rope. It is quite comical. At just about 8:00 they drop the rope and open the park to everyone. Now here is when you need to utilize your time. Hopefully you have already taken the time when planning your trip and set up fast passes for the rides and shows and made your dining reservations.
One of the changes this year came with the rollout of the fast pass + and the magic bands, so if you are staying on Disney property you get 2 months to schedule your fast passes for the rides at the park, if you are staying off property then you only get 30 days - one of the things I noticed was how they tiered the fast passes for the rides at Hollywood Studios so you had to choose 1 attraction from tier 1 and 2 attractions from tier 2.
Here is where your next obstacle comes into play. if you are as neurotic as my buddy Jack and I are then 2 months ago you made your fast pass times for what attractions you wanted to go on and then 10 days before weekend 1 everything is thrown up in the air when Disney adds the shows to the fast pass + and makes them all Tier 1 so now you need to cancel your plans you made 2 months ago and start over. Stars of the Saga was our 1st choice for Friday but the other 2 shows (Behind the Force: Star Wars Rebels and Obi-wan and Beyond) had to be made for Saturday and Sunday if we wanted to have fast passes for them otherwise we had to wait in front of the theater for Standby access or do without seeing them. So hopefully you all were fast to the trigger and were on top of your fast pass+ because most of the shows for almost all the weekends have "sold out" for all 5 weekends.
If you are planning to come to Hollywood Studios to experience Star Wars weekends with younglings head over to the entrance to the ABC Sound Studio and sign them up for Jedi Training Academy. Space is limited even with the additional time slots that were added. It's great fun for them to practice their Lightsaber skills and battle Darth Vader and Darth Maul. My kids have done this in years past and loved the interaction with the characters.
Our weekends always start with a ride on Star Tours - The Adventure Continues. It is a must do for me at least once or twice a day while at Star Wars Weekends. I have been trying for the past 2 years to finally get to be the Rebel Spy. This year was finally my turn. My first ride of the year, first ride of the day and weekend and it was ME, it was finally ME!!!! I WAS THE REBEL SPY!!! I screamed out when my picture popped up - can this day get any better I thought... Well little did I know...
Next up was making sure we got over to Echo Lake to where they have the tents set up for the autograph sessions and scope out where Ahmed's tent would be and get ready to use our fast passes. In years past this always seemed to take forever. Not sure what the difference was between years past and now but it seemed to go by much quicker. As time drew closer and the cast member called for 10:30 fast passes my buddy Jack and I go over to get in line, I pull out my back pack to get out my box (the one we are all too familiar with when you order Star Wars photos from Official Pix) and I get out my Clone Wars photo of Jar Jar and Jack's Phantom Menace photo of Jar Jar to get ready for our meet and greet with Ahmed.
When it was our turn the cast member takes my bag and my phone to snap my picture with Ahmed. He couldn't have been nicer. We spoke about meeting once before at the Big Apple Comic Con in NY and I thanked him for coming out to weekends and posed for my pic, Ahmed was great he even personalized the photo for me, which is always a staple for me. Jack was up next and Ahmed was just as pleasant to him as he was to me. Disney is great they always have a 5x7 head shot of the celebrity for those who may not have something to get signed so even if SWW wasn't something you planned and you happen to stumble upon it you have something to walk away with.
After meeting Ahmed it was great knowing I had 1 down and 2 to go with my goal of the 3 celebrities I wanted to meet this weekend. It was getting close to 11:00 so we made our way over to Hollywood Blvd to see if we could catch "Legends of the Force" Motorcade and Celebrity Welcome. It was great to see the some of the friends we've made over the years that are part of the 501st marching along with the celebrities for the weekend and the Disney characters done up in Star Wars attire.
You get to see Jedi Mickey, Minnie as Leia, Darth Goofy, Chip and Dale Ewoks and Donald as a Stormtrooper" along with many of the characters from the Original Trilogy, the prequel, The Clone Wars and the New Star Wars Rebels show. It just amazes me how Star Wars is just as relevant now as it was when I fell in love with it 30 years ago. Before the motorcade began I was able to stop for one of the Darth Vader popcorn buckets that were New this year as well as one of the signature Darkside Drinks that came in a Stormtrooper cup.
When the motorcade was finished we headed over to lunch at the Sci-Fi Diner (A new option this year for SWW was character dining although I didn't get a chance to take part in it I have heard great things" - be sure to check out Jedi Mickey's Star Wars Dine at Hollywood & Vine and/or the Star Wars Dine in Galactic Breakfast at the Sci-Fi Diner) we meet up with a good friend for lunch and got to relax. It's been a long day so far and there was a lot more to do.
After lunch I got the call from our resort that a package I was waiting for was delivered (I was waiting for the Hera Syndulla photos I had shipped overnight from Official Pix) so Jack and I took a moment to walk back to our resort (we were staying right next door at Disney's Boardwalk Villas) to pick up the package.
Another sign this was turning out to be a great day - when we got back to the Studios we headed over to the Premiere Theater to get inline for our fast pass to see Star of the Saga". The show was great! The opening skit with the Stormtroopers is hilarious, it's a must do every year. This is a Star Wars themed talk show, James Arnold Taylor interviews the weekend celebrities to go over their lives and experience in making the films. I found it extremely interesting when he spoke with Peter about his surgery and getting back in shape to play Chewbacca again in Episode VII next year. They went over the 1st cast read through and how the original cast worked with the new cast; for a fan this was just pure Disney Magic.
As the show came to an end James Arnold Taylor told everyone in the audience to hash tag any photos they took throughout the day on Twitter or Instagram with #SWWFINALE and we could have the chance of seeing our photos up on Star Wars Weekends stage screen before the nights new Symphony in the Stars Fireworks!
After the show was over Jack and I figured we would try our luck and see if we could grab a walk up autograph for Vanessa Marshall. This is always a long shot depending on how fast the celebrities are signing and how many people make it back for their session. Well as her line dwindled down and the stars aligned, the cast member brings us over to her line (walk ups are lined up at another section and are taken first come - first serve) and again I pull out my back pack and get out my Official Pix box and I pull out the Hera Syndulla photos for us to get ready.
The cast member again takes my bag and phone and I greet Vanessa by welcoming her to the Star Wars family and tell her how I look forward to the Star Wars Rebels show. She asked where I was from and when she heard NY she got all excited and started talking about the NY Giants. We spoke about her coming up to NY Comic Con in October. She was super upper sweet, so genuinely nice and into the whole experience. She got so excited when she saw the photos from Official Pix. She even thanked both Jack and I for coming to see her and even gave us her Twitter and Instagram accounts to follow. As I was leaving I asked if I could have one of the 5x7 head shots and she was flattered and even signed that for me as well. I can not express how great and kind she was - easy to say I will always be a fan.
I have to admit the fan boy in me was on a high. I was now 2 for 3 in my weekend goal on day one. This NEVER happens!!! I said to Jack "what do you think our chances are? You think we should try for a Peter Mayhew walk up?" What did we have to loose?
So we head over to the ABC Sound Studio to get in line for Peter. (His autograph session is indoors, since he is still recovering from his knee surgeries.. he needed to be out of the heat and at a more comfortable seating). His walk up line was long so my hopes weren't too high but my gut told me to stay and wait it out. It was hot and there was no shade for this walk up line but never the less we waited. Little by little in groups of 10 the cast member would come over and take people in line over to meet with Peter. Closer and closer. OMG I was getting so excited. Finally the cast member gets to Jack and I and the group who were in line after us and takes us over. Is this really happening? Could I possible be 3 for 3 in one day.
YESSIR!! In we go, I was fumbling I was so excited trying to get out my box from Official Pix. I get up to the table that Peter was at and said hello and wished him a Happy Birthday. (He turned 70 while he was there for SWW!) I got my picture with him and got him to sign my photo. Peters a nice guy but he does not personalize his autographs, which as a fan who likes that sort a thing was a little bit of a bummer. Jack was up next and got the 5x7 head shot signed and both of us walked away 3 for 3. WOW what a day!!! Never in all my years doing SWW have I been that successful.
Well it's almost 6:00 and was time to find something to eat and then get ready for the Padawan Mind Challenge at 6:30 and the DJ Lobot Dance Party at 7:00. We grabbed a bit to eat on Sunset Blvd and headed over to watch the mind challenge. It was cute watching Ashley Eckstein quiz a family from the crowd with questions and put them up against some of the Empires guards. Needless to say Ashley choose the right family they knew their stuff. It was quite entertaining and we had a few laughs.
7:00 rolls around and out comes DJ Lobot (non other than DJ Elliot from past years SWW and Star Wars Celebrations) what a great mix he put together and a fantastic costume - by far he's the best in the business. As the night went on we made our way to the corner of Hollywood and Sunset to get in position to watch the Symphony in the Stars Fireworks. This was also NEW to SWW and was a good replacement for Hyperspace Hoopla and a proper way to end a perfect day in Disney.
At Just about 9:30 James Arnold Taylor comes out and gets the crowd amped up, he brings out all the characters from the saga across the stage and then point to the screen and shows us the pictures that were posted during the day with #SWWFINALE. I'm watching as picture, after picture flashes on the screen. All of a sudden there it was a picture of ME with Ahmed Best. I had posted that to my Instagram account earlier and hash tagged it like suggested never thinking my picture would be used - again this was just another wonder to the amazing day I was experiencing - after the photos were finished.
James kicks off the fireworks wishing the force to be with us all. I don't know how to explain how spectacular these fireworks were. Can anything be better than having fireworks done to the scores of John Williams? Ahh, I think not. LOL they were just simply AMAZING!!!
When the fireworks ended we said goodnight to some friends because it was going on a 21 hour day for Jack and I and we were exhausted. It was time to call it a night so we could do it all over again tomorrow.
We still had so much to do over the next two days - shopping at Darth's Maul, ride the attractions for the park, meet up with more and more friends.
Could day 2 and 3 get any better??? I'm up to find out. I hope you all enjoy my review of Star Wars Weekend day #1, as much as I enjoyed being there!!
In my opinion next week I think Jeremy Bullock will be the celebrity with the longest line so plan accordingly...
May the force be with you all.
Erik is a veteran Star Wars fan and has attended numerous Star Wars Weekends and Star Wars Conventions