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June 12, 2015

Feelin’ the Force: A Review of the Star Wars Weekends Feel the Force Premium Package at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

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By Alice McNutt Miller

I made plans for a quick Miller family visit to Walt Disney World over Memorial Day weekend months ago. My older daughter would be home from her second year of college, and it seemed like a good time to squeeze more out of our annual passes. When it was time to make our FastPass+ reservations, 60 days out from our arrival date, and I dug into the daily planning, I realized -- with some surprise, and a bit of consternation -- that the visit also coincided with one of the Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Argghh. That meant that an already crowded holiday weekend would be even MORE crowded. At first I thought we might want to avoid the Studios altogether, but then I decided to embrace the Force, and go all in.

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We are a family of mildly enthusiastic Star Wars fans. The first Star Wars movie -- then referred to just as “Star Wars” and now more appropriately “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope” -- came out when I was in junior high school. My dad and I stood in line for hours at the old Wilma Theater in downtown Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to get in to see the movie on opening weekend. I had on a really cool t-shirt that I had bought at J.C. Penney with my hard-earned babysitting money, for what I am sure I thought was an exorbitant sum. It had a picture of Luke Skywalker on it. He was dreamy.

So how does the mildly enthusiastic Star Wars fan navigate the complications of character meet and greets, talk show FastPasses, good viewing spots for the Motorcade, how to buy the coveted Boba Fett merchandise? I did some reading up on past events, and plans for the current one, and frankly, felt a bit overwhelmed. I decided to do what I am sure many befuddled first timers would do -- splurge on a Feel the Force Premium Package! There are three levels of “experiences” offered under the various premium packages. For $69 a pop ($39 for kids aged 3-9) guests receive: access to a special viewing area for the Legends of the Force: Star Wars Celebrity Motorcade (including soft drinks); reserved seating for one of the celebrity talk shows; and A reserved viewing location for the nightly Symphony in the Stars fireworks show, paired with a Star Wars-themed dessert party with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. For an additional $30/person, you can upgrade to the Deluxe Feel the Force Premium Package, which includes everything in the regular package, plus the ability to follow behind the Legends of the Force: Star Wars Celebrity Motorcade down Hollywood Boulevard, provides reserved seating for all of the celebrity talk shows that day in the and offers priority access to Darth's Mall throughout the day of the package. Oh, and they will throw in “a commemorative lanyard and credential to honor your most impressive day.” Since, as I mentioned before, the Miller family is only mildly enthusiastic about Star Wars, I figured that we did not need to pay an extra $30 to see celebrities we didn’t know anything about and to have the opportunity to spend even more money on souvenirs, I decided to forgo the deluxe and stick with the regular. (And I didn’t even think about spending $499 per person for the VIP Experience. Yikes!)

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Picking up the credentials.
According to my reservation information, we could pick up our credentials for the day starting at 10 a.m. at a kiosk near Min and Bill’s Dockside Diner. However, while we were hanging out in the Streets of America watching Mulch, Sweat n’ Shears at about 9:30 a.m., I saw a few people with what looked like the Premium Package credentials hanging around their necks. I left my family to rock out and hoofed it over to Echo Lake to see if the kiosk was open. Sure enough, I was able to collect our lanyards and choose our Celebrity Talk Show passes. My family really wanted to see Warwick Davis (Wicket the Ewok from The Empire Strikes Back, Willow and various characters in the Harry Potter movies), mostly because he was the only one of the celebrities who we really knew anything about, and I was afraid that the passes would already be gone. I was lucky enough to be able to get passes for that show, and I was also given packs of autographed photos of the celebrities in attendance that weekend. Unfortunately, by the time I returned to my family, Mulch, Sweat n’ Shears was just wrapping up.

Celebrity Motorcade.
As part of the Premium Package, we got access to a reserved viewing area to watch the Legends of the Force Celebrity Motorcade. We arrived a bit after access to the area was opened (we had FastPasses for Toy Story!), but about 20 minutes before the motorcade actually started. Our reservation said that water and soft drinks would be provided, and I was happy to see that full size bottles of water and Coke products were being handed out. As a special surprise, there were also Mickey Ice Cream bars, frozen strawberry bars and boxes of popcorn available, as well! We enjoyed those as we waited for the festivities to start.

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Because we arrived a bit late, our view was not so great once the motorcade and show started (guests in front of us were about four deep, and of course the tall guys in the front, who had been sitting earlier, stood and pretty much blocked the view of the motorcade and the stage from my short self). We did have a better view than many regular guests, however, and the Mickey bars and bottles of water were very welcome. We enjoyed watching the Disney characters in Star Wars garb, and that weekend’s celebrities (James Arnold Taylor, Ashley Eckstein, Warwick Davis, Silas Carson, and Vanessa Marshall) arrive, and the kick off show on the stage. The Motorcade and show were a lot of fun, and we were happy to have the drinks, treats, and reserved place to watch from.

After the motorcade, we decided to skedaddle, and head back to our hotel for lunch and a rest. The park was very crowded, and we felt like we needed a break before the evening activities that were included in the package.

Celebrity Talk Show. Our favorite part of the day was probably Warwick Davis’s show, “An Ewok’s Tale.” Our credentials advised us to show up at the Theatre of the Stars between 15 and 30 minutes prior to the start of the show. We arrived about 20 minutes early, and waited with other Premium and Deluxe Premium Package holders who had tickets for the show. There was a stand-by line for folks who did not have packages, and from my observation, it looked like there were still a few empty seats, so (at least for that show) anyone who wanted to see it, was able to get in. Our reserved seats were about 7 rows back from the stage, so we had a great view. The show was very interactive, and for anyone who has never seen Davis, I would highly recommend it, if he returns for future Star Wars Weekends.

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If you've never seen Warwick's An Ewok's Tale, here is a video from a previous Star Wars Weekend:

After the Talk Show, we decided to head over to the merchandise area, Darth’s Mall, to see what was on offer. Earlier in the day, the lines had been crazy long, but at this point -- about 6:30 p.m., an hour before the was to close for the day -- we did not wait at all to go into X-Wing Collectibles (art, pins, other collectibles), and waited only about 5 minutes to get into Watto’s Grotto (t-shirts, mugs, build-your-own lightsabers).

Dessert party and fireworks.
Following a lovely dinner at the Hollywood Brown Derby, we headed back to the same area in front of the Event Stage for our dessert party. There were separate areas reserved for folks with the regular and Deluxe packages. Not sure if the Deluxe folks got any different dessert offerings than we did, but there was a separate area for them. We showed our credentials and found a stand up table. Soft drinks and water were again offered, as were two alcoholic drinks. My husband and I tried both of them, but weren’t really thrilled. They were colorful, but pretty gooey sweet. I would have preferred plain wine and beer. Desserts included themed cupcakes, and some sort of weird blue mousse. They were all cute and fun. The Symphony in the Stars Fireworks were amazing. The reserved viewing area was perfect.

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All in all, we really enjoyed the Feel the Force Premium Package during our recent Star Wars Weekends visit to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. While we are not over the top Star Wars fans, we found the special events and character photo opportunities to be lots of fun. We also appreciated the fact that the package made our day almost completely hassle free. We did not have to stand in line or fight crowds to the see the Motorcade or get into our preferred talk show. I was also impressed by the quality of drinks, snacks and desserts on offer. With the package, we were able to maximize our time in the crowded park, and really enjoy the events. I often think that the prices charged by Disney for some of these events are excessive, but in this case, I felt like we got good value for the price paid. Until next year, may the Force be with you!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Alice McNutt Miller is a lifelong Disney fan whose fondest childhood memories include "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights and her first trip to Disneyland when she was 10 years old. Alice and her family are Disney Vacation Club members, and have visited every one of the Disney parks throughout the world (until the Shanghai Disney Resort opens!). They live in Alexandria, Virginia.

May 25, 2014

Disney and Star Wars could things get any better than that?

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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!!!

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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.

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!!

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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

May 24, 2014

Star Wars Weekends for a non-Star Wars fan

by Guest Blogger Phillip Creglow

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I am not a fan of Star Wars.

Wait...what? Not a fan of Star Wars?!?

Yes, it's true. While I have seen each of the movies once, recognize most of the popular characters, and hum along to the theme music, my interest in the franchise is casual at best. Sort of like someone who only follows college basketball during March Madness, fills out a bracket for the office pool because everyone else is doing it, yet has no emotional investment in a team before the big event.

In this case, the big event is Star Wars Weekends at Disney's Hollywood Studios. I had a general understanding of this annual event based on conversations with running friends. Now that I live in Orlando and could easily commit to finding out for myself what Star Wars Weekends had to offer, I planned my first visit for opening day, Friday, May 16.

My day at Hollywood Studios started at 10:30 AM and upon entering the park I picked up a Star Wars Weekends park guide.

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Since I had done very little planning, the guide was the perfect reference point in deciding how to manage my time. The park was already busy and people were lining up all along Hollywood Boulevard in preparation for the 11:30 AM "Legends of the Force" Motorcade and Celebrity Welcome. I immediately walked toward the event stage at the base of The Sorcerer's Hat. Cast members were recommending viewing locations so I found a spot near the American Idol Experience. This location provided an acceptable view of the motorcade characters, most notably the large assembly of Clone Troopers and Stormtroopers.

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Sadly, this viewing location did not provide a close look at the classic Disney characters dressed as Star Wars Pals or the Star Wars celebrity guests, as they were dropped off at the event stage for the post-motorcade show. Later on I was able to get a closer look as the Disney characters and celebrity guests make their way back down Hollywood Boulevard following the post-motorcade show. Clearly it pays off to arrive early and get a spot on Hollywood Boulevard. Lesson learned.

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After the "Legends of the Force" motorcade, I made a quick exit to get in line for a look at the merchandise featured at Darth's Mall. The line had queued up well outside the main entrance and I shouldn't have been surprised given the number of people carrying multiple large shopping bags while exiting. My total wait time was close to 40 minutes, which actually offered a nice break from the sun. The downtime was fortuitous because once inside, it was a madhouse!

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Much like a runDisney expo, the merchandise space was crowded and people were filling shopping baskets to the brim. Toys, apparel, art work, glassware in addition to separate lines for character greetings, snacks and collectibles. I picked up a Star Wars Weekends coffee mug and quickly found the checkout line. Little did I know, that same mug along with other event merchandise could be found at multiple locations throughout the park. Lesson learned.

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Given the crowded scene at Darth's Mall, I decided to skip the afternoon events at the Premier Theater and focus instead on the character greetings in the park. With multiple characters roaming select areas of the park, the atmosphere is best described in one word: energized. While I enjoy visits to Hollywood Studios, the park can often feel empty and subdued outside of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. This is not the case during Star Wars weekends.

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With character greetings taking place near Streets of America, Commissary Lane, and Star Tours, there was a noticeable energy and excitement from guests unlike anything I had ever witnessed outside of Magic Kingdom. Even if I didn't recognize certain characters, other guests were there to help. Notable character experiences included a Stormtrooper demanding, "Let me see your identification!" and a sizeable crowd - mostly adults - letting out an audible "Auuguuguuurrrggghhhh!" as Chewbacca held court outside of Star Tours - The Adventures Continue.

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I closed out my day on Star Tours - The Adventures Continue, which had a surprisingly short 30-minute wait. Another surprise was the small number of guests dressed in Star Wars costumes. Honestly, I can't blame anyone for choosing comfort over a costume given the warm weather. Additionally, I was surprised how often I found myself looking up information about Star Wars characters on my iPhone. Still a non-Star Wars fan, you ask? For now, let's just say I am more intrigued and plan to learn more about the franchise.

Overall, I enjoyed my Star Wars Weekends experience and I am planning to return in the near future.

Here are a few helpful tips that I will utilize during my next Star Wars Weekends visit and may be helpful to you as well:

- Arrive early for the "Legends of the Force" Motorcade! I should have grabbed a spot on Hollywood Boulevard when I arrived at the park an hour before the start of the motorcade. Since I was there by myself, I could have found a better viewing spot up to 30 minutes prior, but more time is required if you are visiting as part of a larger group. Next time I will try and get closer to the event stage but still maintain a position on Hollywood Boulevard.

- If you want Star Wars Weekends commemorative merchandise, you might consider skipping Darth's Mall and dedicate that time to an attraction or show at the Premier Theater. Most of the commemorative items (including my coffee mug) were available at other merchandise locations throughout Hollywood Studios. For my next visit, I am also planning to use a FastPass+ reservation for a show at the Premier Theater instead of a regular attraction.

- Stay for the fireworks! Sadly, a prior commitment kept me from staying into the evening for the Symphony in the Stars fireworks show. Just following the commentary on Twitter, I regretted not being able to stay into the evening. Plus, fireworks shows are rare at Hollywood Studios so why not take advantage of a special occasion? Scheduling, scheduling, scheduling.

Next time I will be better prepared, more knowledgeable of the characters, and be sure to experience the evening entertainment.

"You will find only what you bring in," said Master Yoda.

Lesson learned.

Phillip Creglow rediscovered Disney two years ago following a twelve year hiatus. After relocating to Orlando in 2014, he is on a mission to make up for lost time by making frequent visits to the Disney parks, participating in runDisney events, and sampling the best food and beverages available at Walt Disney World.

May 26, 2012

Be aware of changes at Disney's Hollywood Studios during Star Wars Weekends

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So, you're planning a visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios during the month that includes Star Wars Weekends (through June 10 this year) and you have your entire day planned out, based on past experiences. Be aware that there are some minor changes within the park that might influence how you experience the day.

First, the Disney Channel Rocks! street show is set up a little differently. The float that normally rolls down Hollywood Boulevard with the performers is absent because there is not room for it to turn and park in front of the temporary Sorcerer Hat Stage. Performers instead enter from the side and use the stage. This really doesn't significantly alter the quality of the experience.

What it does affect, however, is your ability to get a good seat, and this format cuts down on confusion. Guests can stake out their spots on the concrete on any of the three sides whenever it's convenient for them. When the float is in the picture, guests who want to sit in the center section must line up on the right-hand side until it passes.

As you would expect, some of the other changes occur back in the area around the Star Tours -- The Adventures Continue attraction because that's where many of the Star Wars events are located. This section of Hollywood Studios is obviously more crowded, and there are a lot of roped off lanes to direct moving traffic away from guests waiting for the ride, character meet-and-greets and the Jedi Training Academy. (Too bad the smoking section hasn't been moved away from the crowds at this event!) Cast members enforce a one-way traffic pattern for guests exiting Tatooine Traders by directing them down the ramp toward the Streets of America. From there, guests can continue to the back of the park or circle around past the ABC Commissary to head toward the front. Give yourself some extra time to move through this section if you're trying to catch the end of a FastPass window or get to a show.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the stand-by wait for Star Tours to be less than an hour most of the day last Saturday, the first of the Star Wars Weekends. This is good news for guests who want to ride more than once and are juggling show schedules and FastPass tickets. When Star Tours reopened in 2011, it wasn't uncommon to see two-hour waits -- or longer -- and the queue was roped off all the way down the Streets of America.

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The nearby Jedi Training Academy is available year-round and is always popular, but never more so than during Star Wars Weekends. If your child has his or her heart set on battling Darth Vader, be sure to sign up in front of Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! when you first enter the park. Even with extra show times added each day during Star Wars Weekends, the slots fill up quickly in the morning.

Finally, don't underestimate the popularity of Star Wars Weekends and the effect the crowds will have on your ability to enter Hollywood Studios. By noon last Saturday, the parking lot was completely full. Cast members were directing guests to park at Epcot for free and use a special ticket to board a bus back to the Studios. This process could add hours to the start and end of your day, so plan accordingly.

For additional information about Star Wars Weekends, see my post about fun things for kids to do HERE and tips for securing celebrity autographs HERE.

May 24, 2012

Tips for securing celebrity autographs at Disney's Star Wars Weekends

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Last weekend's crowds again proved the popularity of Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World. And one of the biggest draws for park guests is the opportunity to meet Star Wars celebrities and get photos and autographs.

At many fan conventions, those privileges don't come cheap, let alone free. Consequently, guests line up early for the limited slots to meet their favorite Star Wars actors and personalities at Disney's Hollywood Studios. And when I say early, I mean before dawn.

Years ago, my young son wanted to meet Jake Lloyd (young Anakin Skywalker), so my husband and I tried to make it happen. We arrived at Disney's Hollywood Studios about 30 minutes before it opened. While Stormtroopers stood guard from atop the entrance, a small crowd waited for the turnstiles to open. When they did, guests raced back to Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! to get FastPasses and ensure a spot to meet a celebrity.

The stampede among guests was so out of character for an event at Disney World, where organized queues are the company's specialty. Since that day, we've been to plenty of crowded passholder events through the years - including concerts featuring Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus - and none surprised us more than that experience.

Disney clearly has learned from those days and has implemented a FastPass system that doesn't involve putting on your track shoes. Guests are asked to line up along the right side of the main entrance to Hollywood Studios and the tickets are distributed to the queue. There is no need to rush past your neighbors when you get inside because you must have one of the tickets to receive a celebrity FastPass.

The published rules on the Star Wars Weekends map state that each guest may receive one FastPass -- and you have to be present to receive the special ticket. In other words, one person cannot get celebrity autograph FastPasses for everyone in his or her group. After all the FastPasses are distributed for the day, a limited number of stand-by tickets will be issued. These tickets do not guarantee autographs, but they are offered in case a celebrity has time after the FastPass holders have had their turns.

So, how early do you have to hit the concrete for the golden tickets? Several cast members I spoke with advised guests to be in line between 5 and 6 a.m. for the park opening at 8 a.m. Earlier is better, they emphasized. They recalled one guest who camped out 44 hours before the first day of Star Wars Weekends. That certainly guaranteed the guest a FastPass, but it's not necessary, they said.

Ray Park, who plays Darth Maul, was the most popular ticket for the first Star Wars Weekend this year, the cast members said. He was very personable and chatty, though, and only got to a few guests with stand-by tickets before he had to get to his presentation in the park.

If you've joined the fans waiting for celebrity autographs, we want to hear about your experience in the comments.


May 21, 2012

Disney's Star Wars Weekends offer galaxy of fun for kids

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Star Wars fans will, of course, be in their element at Disney's Hollywood Studios during Star Wars Weekends. But even if your kids cannot tell Luke Skywalker from Anakin Skywalker, they still can have a great time celebrating The Force.

First, get in a Star Wars mindset by riding Star Tours -- The Adventures Continue. The re-imagined ride opened last year with a 3D experience that takes riders through one of 54 sequences -- and you never know which journey you'll get.

The Star Tours ride empties into the Tatooine Traders gift shop and it's impossible to miss the roped off line for the latest Star Wars toys. New this year is the Droid Factory in the center of the store. There, the young and the young-at-heart can build their own droids with multiple color combinations, in R2-D2's likeness, and topped with Disney Parks' signature mouse ears hat.

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A complete droid consists of a body, a dome, a left leg, a middle leg, a right leg and a novelty hat. Single droids cost $11.95 plus tax and a double package is $18.95 plus tax. (Walt Disney World passholder discounts are honored at Tatooine Traders.) The packaging includes a sticker sheet of letters and symbols so guests can name their creations.

When I checked at various times on Saturday, the line for the Droid Factory remained steady at 30 minutes. That didn't deter my kids or seem to bother them much when we waited. The Droid Factory debuted this past weekend, the first of four Star Wars Weekends, and there is only the one location at Disney World.

Several cast members said that the standard R2-D2 look was the most popular for those making droids. A close second during the opening weekend were the clear domes with red and purple trim. Coming in August: different color body parts and Indiana Jones fedoras, a cast member said.

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If your child enjoyed the concept of putting together a toy, the store also offers guests the opportunity to build their own ultimate lightsabers. And kids ages 4 to 12 can test their lightsaber skills next door at the Jedi Training Academy.

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Jedi hopefuls have the opportunity to do battle against The Empire after a bit of training from a master Jedi. The young rebels are provided with brown robes and lightsabers for the show, and they set out to learn some signature moves before Darth Vader appears. (Read more about the story behind the show on Jack Spence's blog.)

Jedi Training Academy started out as an event offered only during Star Wars Weekends, but it was so popular that Disney built a permanent stage so young guests could do battle every day. There are limited spots each day, so registering first thing when you arrive at the Studios is necessary. Even with 16 shows each day, the slots fill up quickly. Sign-ups are in front of Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!

(Years ago, when my nephew was really into Star Wars, children were chosen to participate in the Jedi Training Academy from the audience. That meant camping out by the stage for parents of kids whose top priority was the interactive Star Wars experience. This registration format certainly is a welcome change.)

Young guests won't want to miss the Star Wars Celebrity Motorcade that travels down Hollywood Boulevard and concludes with a short show at the Sorcerer Hat stage. In addition to the weekend's famous actors and personalities, the parade includes Jedi Mickey and many, many characters from the George Lucas films. The parade route is packed, so find a spot early if you want to take photos or have a decent vantage point. If you're a casual observer, grab a seat in front of the American Idol Experience and you'll see most of the characters go by, though not the celebrities.

Want more time with the characters? Photo opportunities with Disney characters dressed in their Star Wars costumes can be a fun experience. Look for Jedi Mickey, Stormtrooper Donald, R2-MK and Darth Goofy near the ABC Commissary. Star Wars characters from the movies and other Star Wars spinoffs also are stationed around Hollywood Studios for meet-and-greets.

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You also can visit Darth's Mall, the main location for event merchandise, where there is a backdrop set up for photos with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and other perennial favorites. Just as my daughter walked up to meet Princess Leia, C-3PO stepped out to join them. She was thrilled with that surprise! And afterward R2-D2 joined the party behind us.

Finally, what child can resist a special Star Wars snack container for a themed treat? Most food locations sell a kids' power pack in a plastic R2-D2 container. It includes string cheese, carrots and ranch dip, yogurt, goldfish, a cookie and a drink for $10.99. If it's time for dessert, there are Darth Vader cupcakes for $4.99 or chocolate or strawberry mousse in a smaller R2-D2 container for $8.99. And may The Force be with you after all that yummy sugar!

May 23, 2011

Star Wars Weekends: James Arnold Taylor's One Man Show

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I didn't get to see James Arnold Taylor's one man show at Star Wars Weekends but my friend J.W. did. She was kind enough to write up a review of the show. Here's what she says:

The show starts with your typical announcer voice telling you how great James Arnold Taylor is - then the curtain parts to show James Arnold Taylor doing the voice himself. That really set the tone (laugh out loud funny). There were two screen on either side of the stage in addition to the two mounted on either wall (used for intros in Stars of the Saga, etc). All four screens were used, most notably so "Obi-Wan" could make an appearance from time to time ("Between you and Anakin I don't know why I bother!")

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intro

First, he talked about his backstory, including this adorable pic of him as a kid. He also did some radio voices.

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This clip was part of his show:

Next, he talked about how his career evolved (commercials, etc) and demonstrated the life of a voice actor (you spend a lot of time in a padded room talking to yourself, etc.) Then he demonstrated the "vocal highway." This video is similar:

He ended on an inspirational message (best part of the show, if you ask me). He explained how, just when his dreams started coming together (he'd landed Obi-Wan, was working on Johnny Test, etc.), he got sick and was told his voice may never return to its full capacity. He explained how faith got him through this and urged everyone present to have faith in THEIR dreams. :)

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All in all, a GREAT show. I'd highly recommend it!

May 22, 2011

Star Wars Weekends 2011

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Star Wars Weekends (SWW) began in 1997. However, the SWW did not become a regular, annual event until 2003. Since then, each year has had exclusive merchandise and a logo, a motorcade and other events. The Weekends feature celebrity guests who are on hand to sign autographs (FastPasses are a MUST if you want an autograph... more on this later), participate in a motorcade and be part of an interview session. Since the Clone Wars series started, there is now a Behind the Force show where the voice talents of the Clone Wars discuss the show and demonstrate how the scenes are acted out.

This year for SWW, Jedi Training Academy is performed much more often during the day. Numerous shows have been added to the schedule.

SWW 2011 began on Friday, May 20. Most of my day was spent on the Star Tours events on the 20th. I caught the opening ceremony (see Deb Koma's pictures here), rode Star Tours a few times (it's just as awesome the 20th time as it is/was the first) and a few other things and then the heat ran me out of the park. The event got started much later in the day because of the opening ceremony and by the time everything was underway, I was done for the day.

On Saturday the 21st, I got to the Studios just before park opening. There is an information booth set up just inside the main gate.

Info booth

The stage was still set up for use for the Hyperspace Hoopla each evening during SWW.

Stage

There was a sign near the tip board pointing the way to the SWW store, appropriately called Jabba's Hutt.

Sign for store

To get to the store, go to the Rock 'N Roller Coaster courtyard and keep right. There is a gate open and the store is behind that gate. You'll have a fantastic view of Tower of Terror and the store is in the big white tent. It's very spacious and air conditioned. As of 8 AM Saturday, the only thing that was sold out was the opening day Star Tours pin.

Store

Artist signing
Artist Signing Station

Store

Star Tours shirts
Star Tours shirts

Luke and Leia
Luke and/or Leia meet-and-greet

Photo station
Photo station

Maquette
Maquettes

Maquette
Maquettes

Boxed pin set
Unframed, boxed pin set. This has the completer pin in it.

Pin set
Framed pin set

Jumbo pin
Jumbo pin.

Travel poster pin set
Travel poster pin set

Star Tours opening day shirt
Star Tours opening day t-shirt

Stitch
Stitch as Yoda

Mimbots
Star Wars Mimbots

Poster card
Silver poster card

Lights Box
Olszewski Gallery of Lights Box - Star Wars Mickey and Donald

Watches
Watches

Paper art
Paper art poster

Passholder shirt
Passholder t-shirt

Since the store is called Jabba's Hutt, it is only fitting that Salacious Crumb and Boba Fett keep watch over things.

Salacious Crumb

Boba

Outside the store, this stand has been set up.

Stand

We loved this kid's costume.

Costume

Banners were set up around the Star Tours area.

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Banners

Banners

Directional signs were out around the park to show guests where they could meet their favorite characters.

Direction signs

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Sign

Queen Amidala's backdrop was lovely.

Queen Amidala

FastPasses are currently being distributed outside the main gate. When you approach the main gate, look to the right, near the big sign (it currently has the Star Tours logo on it). The queues begin in that area. All theme park tickets are being scanned prior to a FastPass being handed to the guest. They are also handing out wristbands with the FastPasses. You *cannot* receive an autograph without a wristband AND a FastPass. Each member of your party must be present to receive the wristband and FastPass.

Anthony Daniels' autograph station is inside Sounds Dangerous. Only the FastPass holder is permitted inside. The Cast Members inside will use your camera to take a photo of you and Anthony.

Anthony Daniels

Sunshades were up on Streets of America and a queue was in place for Star Tours if they needed it. The queue also extended to the San Francisco portion of the street. The sunshades were very effective. They used this queue on Friday but I don't know if they did on Saturday.

Sunshades

The rest of the autograph stations are at the Lights, Motors Action! end of Streets of America. Daniel Logan was very popular.

Daniel Logan

Daniel Logan

James Arnold Taylor is very friendly.

James Arnold Taylor

Just around the corner, near San Francisco, Anakin was greeting guests. Jedi Masters Mace Windu, Shaak Ti and Kit Fisto also greet guests at this location.

Anakin

My friends and I caught the Behind the Force show. Host James Arnold Taylor introduced Ashley Eckstein (voice of Ahsoka Tano). She spoke to Supervising Director Dave Filoni about his work on the Clone Wars. They went through how a scene is created and did a voice demonstration. They also selected someone from the audience to try it out.

Behind the Force

James Arnold Taylor

James and Ashley

Ashley and Dave

Scene

Asajj Ventress and other Clone Wars characters were greeting guests near the Premier Theater.

Ventress

The Legends of the Force Motorcade is now happening at 12:40 PM. We were able to catch it near the beginning of the parade route.

Mickey

501st stormtroopers

Rebel Legion

Chewbacca

R2-D2

Daniel Logan
Daniel Logan

Anthony Daniels
Anthony Daniels

Dave Filoni
Dave Filoni

Ahsoka

Ashley Eckstein
Ashley Eckstein

bounty hunters

James Arnold Taylor
James Arnold Taylor

Darth Vader

The motorcade stopped at the hat and the characters and celebrities took the stage.

Stage

Boba Fett was greeting guests on Pixar Place when I went by.

Boba Fett

Darth Vader was greeting guests near Studio Catering Company.

Darth Vader

The booth was set up for Dave Filoni when we went by and we noticed this sign for the Disney Racers.

Racers

We saw the Stars of the Saga show at 3:15. Note that the schedule says 3:15 but the celebrities don't take the stage until 3:30.

Stage

The stormtroopers do a 15 minute pre-show. Their dialog was updated to include Star Tours. They were amusing, as always. This trooper and his Mickey ice cream bar was a crowd favorite.

Mickey bar

Stormtrooper

The troopers had captured Chewbacca. Hopefully they know now that it's always wise to let the Wookiee win. :)

Chewie

Host James Arnold Taylor introduced and interviewed the two guests, Daniel Logan and Anthony Daniels.

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Daniel

Daniel

Anthony

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Unfortunately, the heat had gotten to me after Stars of the Saga and I didn't stay for Anthony Daniels' show or James Arnold Taylor's show. I hear that James Arnold Taylor's show is fantastic.

SWW is better than ever this year. I had a great time, especially because I was with family and friends.

May the Force be with you!

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About Star Wars Weekends

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in the Star Wars Weekends category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Princess and the Frog - Special Preview is the previous category.

Super Soap Weekend at the Disney Studios is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.