With several years of owning Lucasfilm and Star Wars under their belts, Disney is beginning to take full advantage of the virtually unlimited possibilities for Star Wars Weekends. Although many traditional elements of the showcase remain in place – the celebrity motorcade and stage appearances, special merchandise, extra sessions of Jedi Training Academy, nightly fireworks – this year brought several significant changes that give the experience an increasing prominence throughout Hollywood Studios. Like the franchise itself, Star Wars Weekends seem to be headed in bigger and better directions in the years ahead.
The celebrity stage shows have been upgraded to the larger, more visible Theater of the Stars. In previous years, programs with movie actors in Stars of the Saga, voice actors from The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and celebrity features like Obi-Wan & Beyond or An Ewok’s Tale had been hosted in the Premiere Theater, a venue at the far edge of the park without a natural queue location or built-in FastPass+ entry. Beginning after Star Wars Weekends last summer, the Frozen Sing-Along moved into the space, and remains there (including a full slate of sing-alongs during Star Wars Weekends) pending a rumored expansion into the now-vacated American Idol Experience stage. To accommodate the increased interest in Star Wars, the Beauty and the Beast show currently housed at Theater of the Stars has shifted to three morning performances, leaving the afternoon open for all of the Star Wars Weekends programming to run after lunch and into the evening. The queues for FastPass+ and standby entry ran very smoothly the first weekend, just as they do for the regular Beauty show.
And there was no lack of interest from the fans: the Rebels show filled the theater to capacity, and Stars of the Saga had to turn people away. On Friday afternoon, host James Arnold Taylor asked for a show of hands, and a substantial percentage of the audience indicated they were enjoying their first Star Wars Weekends. With four weekends still remaining, all of the FastPass+ allocation for the primary stage shows has been claimed. By next summer, six months into the fandom surge no doubt coming after The Force Awakens, the demand for seating will probably be even higher.
One fun new feature of the new theater space is the interactive polls on the two large screens to either side of the stage. Fans can vote by text message or Twitter on such questions as their favorite bounty hunter, Imperial starship, or Star Wars sidekick. Equally as fun as participating in the polls is listening to the audience reaction as the results adjust in real time on the screens. On Saturday afternoon, Chewbacca and R2-D2 went neck and neck for favorite sidekick, exchanging the lead back and forth for several minutes, to much cheering from the crowd.
The other prominent change at Hollywood Studios is the expansion of Darth’s Mall. Now in its third location in three years, the store has been moved into space in the former Backlot Tour area adjacent to the “Lights, Motor, Action!” car stunt show. Even better, Darth’s Mall has been separated into three separate stores: Watto’s Grotto for regular Star Wars Weekends merchandise, X-Wing Collectibles for exclusives and other limited-edition items, and Prop Shop for action figures, Legos, and related toys. This change dramatically reduced the wait times from previous years. Even on the first weekend, which previous would involve a multi-hour wait simply to get into the stores, we were able to enter X-Wing Collectibles in less than twenty minutes and Watto’s Grotto multiple times with brief waits. The checkout lines also were almost non-existent, a tremendous improvement from prior years, as well. Particularly compared to the complete disaster at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim, where fans had to commit literally half a day to the Celebration Store and simply hope that desired merchandise would be available by the time they got inside, Darth’s Mall could not have run more smoothly this year. Hopefully Disney Parks are keeping a keen eye on this success, and can sustain it in the years ahead.
Star Wars merchandise isn’t limited to the mall area, though. In addition to the usual Tatooine Traders outside Star Tours, other retail outlets also added Star Wars for the occasion. Mickey & Co. near the park entrance has an entire section of the store dedicated to Star Wars – replacing the Frozen items found there since last summer – that allows fans to buy t-shirts, hats, mugs, and other souvenirs without needing to visit one of the busier Star Wars venues. Across all of the retail shops, Darth’s Mall included, an increasingly broad range of Star Wars products for women and girls are now available. This builds upon a gradual trend over the past few years; also notable is that the scripts used for various stage events also continue to make conspicuous and repeated references to female fans, sometimes even using the word “fangirls.”
Another fun change for this year’s Star Wars Weekends is the increased roll-out of special Star Wars-themed food and beverages. Various locations around Hollywood Studios now offer three varieties of cupcakes, featuring Darth Vader, Yoda, and Jabba the Hutt. The specialty alcohol drinks also have expanded, with multiple temporary bar-stands offering four flavors – The Mustafar, The Tatooine, The Endor, and The Alderaan – served with either a Death Star or Millennium Falcon glow cube. In addition, a section of the Backlot Express restaurant next to Star Tour and Jedi Training Academy has been converted into the Rebel Hangar for evening hours. This table-service restaurant features an array of offerings with Star Wars names – favorites include Lightsaber Bites, The Dark Fried, Thermal Detonators, Blue Milk, and Yoda Key Lime Cake – along with five additional specialty drinks and X-wing glow cubes. The decorations highlight the Rebel Alliance and Star Wars Rebels, and aliens from Bith and Rodians to Jawas roam among the patrons. Reservations for the Rebel Hangar filled up fast online, but drop-in seating was available with a reasonable wait during the first weekend.
With most of the promotional push for The Force Awakens yet to come, only a few hints of the upcoming movie are included in this year’s Star Wars Weekends. During the always-amusing stormtrooper pre-show for Stars of the Saga, the troopers joked not only about single and double bladed lightsabers, but even a triple bladed saber. A running riff also emphasized the name Han Solo, with troopers disputing the pronunciation of H-Ahn, H-Anne, or Hans. (Remarkably, the Imperial soldiers somehow did not include any reference to the villainous Hans from Frozen when hating on the notorious smuggler and Rebel.) The Symphony in the Stars fireworks show also included the brief line of dialogue from the teaser – “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” – followed by an appearance of First Order stormtroopers on the central stage. Interestingly, the Star Wars saga recap included as part of the fireworks pre-show referred to Princess Leia as “the leader of the Rebel Alliance,” an interesting turn of phrase in explaining the basic story to the typically more casual-fan audience in attendance at the park.
For many more pictures from week one of Star Wars Weekends, check out the album at Fangirl Zone on Facebook. We’ll have coverage from other weekends in upcoming weeks, as well.
Tricia Barr is one of four authors of Ultimate Star Wars from DK Publishing and has written several feature articles for Star Wars Insider magazine. Her FANgirl opinions can be heard on the podcasts Hyperspace Theories and RebelForce Radio Presents Fangirls Going Rogue.
Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.