Jul 3, 2008

Star Wars Weekends At Disneyworld

Star Wars Weekends 2008

I've joined the dark side, and become an Imperial officer, and my first official duties were marching every week-end in June at Disney World's Hollywood Studios in Orlando with the 501st Legion.

The 501st Legion is a global Star Wars costuming organization whose members create movie-accurate replica costumes of those seen in the Star Wars films. The 501st has all manner of Imperial officers, TIE fighter pilots, Stormtroopers, Imperial gunners, biker scouts...the list goes on. And every June, the 501st is invited by Disney to march in their Star Wars Weekends parades, the only non-Disney group allowed to do so. This is a big deal.


To see a huge gallery of photographs from the parade, visit my photo album HERE. To see a video of the parade as it emerges from the back stage area, visit this LINK.

Costumes are hand made, and no one marches at Disney without being carefully approved by the 501st. Members spend a lot of time and effort creating, maintaining, and upgrading their costumes, and it shows; 501st members literally look as if they stepped out of the movies themselves. Many members have more than one costume.

The marches at Disney begin early; 501st members begin arriving at the cast parking lot at around 8:30 to 9:00 AM, congregating at a large tent which has been set up by Disney for the 501st to use as a staging area. Last year, the group was given a large hangar in the backstage area to change in, but Disney added several large Toy Story floats (a couple of them nearly two stories tall), and had to strip nearly everything out of the hanger to make room for them. Thus, the tent.

As members arrive, they unload large bins emblazoned with Star Wars and 501st decals containing their costumes, setting them up in rows, where they will be sniffed over by the bomb-detection dogs. Portable tents go up to ward off the blazing sun, and members take cover among the shade of the trees which line the backstage wall of the park. Soon the area looks like an armed encampment preparing for a rag-tag Imperial assault on the park, with officers, troopers, biker scouts, royal guards and even X-Wing pilots milling about until assembly in preparation for the march.

After receiving a badge to be authorized backstage, everyone lines up behind the large Star Wars Weekends float on which Jedi Mickey, Leia Minnie, Darth Goofy and Stormtrooper Donald Duck will ride. Three Pontiac convertibles are idling, waiting to be driven to the parade staging area backstage, where they will ferry celebrities such as Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader) and others.The line-up of 501st is impressive; Imperial officers in front, followed by gunners, TIE fighter pilots, stormtroopers, biker scouts, and so on. During the marches there were anywhere from seventy-five to over one hundred and fifty members marching. Being an officer, I was at the very front with the other officers, usually holding the one of the banners.

Backstage we assemble behind the two large doors that separate the park from the backstage area, and the doors swing open, and the parade begins. The large Star Wars Weekend float rolls forward first, followed by the Padewan learners, a group of children randomly selected by Disney staffers in the park who get to undergo a day of Jedi training and hold toy light sabers. Then comes the 501st, Vader's Fist.

The first time I marched it was overwhelming (watch a video of it HERE!). As I walked slowly out of the backstage area into the park the first thing I saw were throngs of people cramming the sidewalks, taking up every available space, being held back from the parade route by Disney staffers. Star Wars music boomed over the speaker system, crowds were cheering, clapping, and aiming cameras at us. My entire body tingled. Slowly the parade rounded the initial corner down Main Street, leading toward the enormous Mickey Mouse wizard hat at the center of the park. Every inch of sidewalk space was occupied with guests. Cameras were flashing, people were waving and cheering, a pre-recorded announcer voice boomed, introducing the 501st:

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! They're here to maintain law and order in our galaxy. They're 4,000 members strong and have units stationed around the planet. Please welcome the largest Imperial presence here, at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The 501st Legion."

At the huge wizard hat we round the corner; the throngs of people create an impenetrable wall of enthusiasts. One little boy, who looks to be about six or seven, is holding a light saber and is wearing a Darth Vader helmet. Disney park employees carefully monitor the crowds to make sure no one drifts into the parade route; one girl darts out into the street before us to snap a quick picture before being quickly hustled back to the sidelines. I try to carry the banner in a way that lets me see where I'm going. Toward the end of the parade route, however, it starts to feel heavier and heavier.

Near the end of the parade route are two announcers on a stage that do a Rose Bowl-type routine, announcing each part of the parade. As we pass they talk about the 501st, and the charity events they do, and the members' enthusiasm for Star Wars, and then it's back stage again, and back to the tent staging area in the cast parking lot.

As soon as 501st members arrive they start stripping off costumes. In June in Orlando it is very hot, and everyone can hardly wait to get back into their shorts and T-shirts, and out of the hot, restrictive costumes. Great quantities of water and Gatorade are being consumed, props and costumes are being packed back into bins and zipped into garment bags, and cars are swooping up, bins are being loaded, and people are collecting the two free Disney passes we receive for marching. Plans for the evening are being discussed, jokes and good-natured ribbing is being exchanged, and within forty minutes, most of the members of the 501st have departed, with cooling off a huge priority.

Later that evening 50st members gather at The Ale House, an Orlando bar and restaurant that serves as the unofficial Imperial members club during Star Wars weekends. It's a chance to blow off some steam and cut loose after the heat of the day, and, as you might imagine, it isn't too long before the costumes start appearing. I put my officer's uniform on, and together with my friend Mark, in stormtrooper armor, we patrolled the Ale House, posing for pictures and making the world safe on behalf of the Empire.

As much fun as the week-ends were, everyone is glad when it's over; it's tiring, and we're all glad to have our weekends back.

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