NOTE: Enjoy these journal entries from this year's marches at Disney Hollywood Studios, during Star Wars Week-ends, along with video of the parades! Each week-end will contain another journal entry, along with pictures, of my marches with the 501st Legion. Click on all pictures for a larger view.
Disney security arrived, the same two people as last year. One was a tall, thin, craggy-faced young man in his mid to late twenties with close cropped hair, wearing sport sunglasses, the other was an attractive woman about the same age, also wearing sunglasses, with light brown hair and a round, cherubic face. It was hard to imagine her as being a security officer, but they had been present last year, and were very personable, knowing several 501st members personally. They were both wearing blue military jumpsuits, combat boots, badges and shoulder patches which said DISNEY SECURITY on them. In one of their yellow and white cars was the bomb sniffing German Shepard that would inspect our bins and bags before we would be allowed backstage.
More cars were pulling up beside the tent with members unloading their bins, and soon the area around the tent was teeming with activity. Old friends were exchanging hugs, swapping stories and talking about modifications to their costumes. Small shade tents were being set up, people were drinking lots of water and Gatorade to stay hydrated, although it was not nearly as hot today as it was last year, because of the rain.
This was my favorite part of Star Wars Weekends, meeting old friends, making new ones, meeting other members I have not seen in a long time, members from the Everglades, Makaze, and Peraji Squads and Squad Seven. There was a lot of positive, happy energy in the air as we mingled. Some members were selling other members 501st memorabilia such as pins, patches and tee shirts.
Left: Mama Marie with Brian, one of our Vaders, and a good friend I have trooped with many times before. Brian has over five costumes. Today he would march in his Tusken Raider costume.
Right: Selling 501st memorabilia; patches, pins and commemorative badges
"Marie!" I exclaimed, and hugged Mama Marie, whom I had not seen since last year. Marie was a woman in her late fifties, early sixties who was affectionately called Mama Marie by everyone. She was like a mother figure to us, and last year at Star Wars Weekends (or SWW, as they are called on-line) she had bought cases of Gatorade to help keep everyone hydrated. "How are things up in Tennessee?"
"Busy." she answered with a sigh. "I'm very busy at work, and my mother has health issues that I'm dealing with. But I wanted to be here this year; this is my escape from reality for awhile."
"Well we all need it. Hey, if you want one, I made Trooping For The Troops patches, and you were at the first event. Want one?"
"Absolutely," she answered promptly. As I was showing the patch to her a man and woman drifted over to see it. He asked what the patch was. "It's the official Trooping For The Troops patch, for the troops where we go to VA hospitals and thank our veterans and their families for their service. I organized the events last year, and they've become an annual event. In fact, the events were even written up in Star Wars Insider magazine, which is very cool. So I decided an official patch is in order."
"That is very cool!" the man exclaimed. He was about my height, slightly thicker, in his forties, with a goatee. "I want to know when you do another one, because I want to be on it. I'm former military myself. Army Ranger. Jumping out of helecopters for no logical reason."
"Army Ranger, very impressive! I'm a vet too; field artillary. I'm planning the next troop at the Bay Pines VA for later this year, probably in October. They're going to have a family barbecue event then, and we would be the big attraction."
"Well this is my first big troop. I'm a new member, so I'm really looking forward to going on troops."
"You're going to love it. This is a really decent, good group of people, and we have so much fun, we should need a license."
Presently we were asked to clear the staging area so the Disney bomb-sniffing dog could walk through and sniff each member's bin to make sure there were no firearms or explosive deivices. As the male security officer escorted the dog through, announcements were made by the command staff; pick up your trash, be on your best behavior backstage, do not point, gesture or interact with the crowds during the march, and maintain proper posture. Afterward, we collected our Disney badges that allowed us to go into the backstage area.
The fence to the backstage area was now open, and there were several blue-shirted Disney security officers milling around making sure that only badge-wearing people passed. I had to use the restroom, so I headed to the Disney employee building, an interesting building few park visitors ever see.
The three story warehouse building just on the other side of the fence was filled with parade floats, surrounded by racks holding equipment and supplies. There was a toy-like X-Wing fighter float that would be used during the parade. The road into the backstage area split into a T-intersection. Around the corner to the right was the Disney employee building, with a couple of extended-length golf carts parked in front of the entrance. Standing in front was a young female Disney cast member wearing a Princess Padme costume, cloak, headgear and all. Beside her was her Disney handler, both waiting for the Star Wars parade to begin assembling.
The building had a short, linolium-floored hallway that went the width of the building, opening out onto the parking lot on the other side. To the right was the uniform storage office, a huge rooom that resembled a very big dry-cleaner, with department store counters in front. Hundreds of park uniforms, for each area of the park, were suspended on hanging racks that rotated along their tracks, so that employees running the office could select the right uniform. Employees would arrive, tell the clerk which park uniform they needed, and the uniform would be swiped at a scanner. Each uniform was strictly accounted for, to prevent someone from wearing it off-property, and thus be out of Disney's control.
The rest of the building consisted of rows of tall metal lockers, each with a Mickey Mouse ventilation shape on the front. There were male and female locker rooms; half devoted to showers with Mickey Mouse-themed shower curtains, the other half a large bathroom area. Employees in colorful striped uniforms were arriving, picking up their paychecks and either dropping off or picking up their uniform. Beside the entrance was a promotional poster for SWW to promote the events among Disney employees. Not meant to be shared with the public, these images were whimsical and eye catching. (Click this link to see them all)
I stopped to talk to Princess Padme (the character pictured below) briefly before heading back to the staging area. Now members were beginning to put their costumes on, adjusting armor, tightening straps, pulling on boots. There was an air of bustle and preparation. I put on my officer's uniform, asking Kristine, another officer to help me adjust it. She was shorter than myself, with a perpetual smile on her face, and dark brown hair. Ricky Torres, the Florida Garrison commanding officer came up to me and asked if I would be carrying one of the banners at the head of the parade this year, like I did last year. Since Doug and I were the two tallest Imperial Officers, it would make sense for us to hold the banners, and we discussed the best way to carry them so that the wind wouldn't make them spin or fall.
Star Wars characters began to materialize from the big armor bins. Stormtroopers, Clone Troopers, Tusken Raiders, Imperial Officers, Jedi, all began milling around waiting for line-up back stage. Doug and I, carrying the banners, walked backstage and were followed by the other officers. TIE fighter pilots followed us next, then Stormtroopers, Clone Troopers and the other costumes. We were lined up in two columns, waiting for Doug, our Disney parade handler (Disney Doug), to let us know when to move through the backstage area.
While we waited we heard very loud bangs and cracks from the rear of the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, sitting at the head of the T-intersection, hidden by a large, manufactured sand dune and trimmed with this foliage, all to keep visitors from seeing the backstage area. Doug, the officer next to me, works at Disney as an electrical and mechanical technician, and told me last year that the Indiana show is the long running show on property. Disney employees walking through this part of backstage stopped to look at us; we made a very long and impressive column, an invading Imperial force, lined up as if ready for battle.
Disney Doug, holding a radio, signaled it was time to head toward the rear of the doors which opened up onto the park. We started walking through the park, past the explosions coming from the Indiana show behind the trees, past the employee building, along a narrow two-lane road that curved around to a busier area with more buildings. As we walked, a large High School Musical float cruised by on its way back to a storage building after it's run through the park. The cast members who sang and danced on it were climbing into extended golf carts, hot and sweaty after their show.
A small employee changing building, like a mobile home, divided this backstage area into a wide lane on the left and a narrower walkway on the right, where we went. On the other side of the changing building, there was a large building ahead of us where Disney cast members assembled before a parade. It had a broad covered entrance way, from which hung large fans. Across the open courtyard were other buildings, the backs of restaurants and shops. A big digital clock on the side of the building kept precise time, down to the second, as a guide to cast members and employees. We halted, leaning against the tall green fence that separated the walkway from the sidewalk that led to the entrance of the park. Here we would wait until the parade was ready to commence. At the head of the procession, I could see the wide open courtyard surrounded by the backs of the buildings.
A long golf cart pulled up with Darth Goofy, Jedi Mickey, Leia Minnie, and Chewbacca. They hopped off and headed over to the staff building, milling around with Disney Stormtroopers and other Star Wars characters. R2-D2 rolled over to join them, soon followed by Darth Vader and the short, toy-like X-Wing float. Pontiac convertibles, in which Star Wars actors would ride, pulled up before us. Disney employees waved at us as they crossed the open area. We were an impressive sight, a long column of costumes trailing around the corner of the changing building. Members were holding their helmets until it was time to put them on.
While we waited an actor from one of the Star Wars films came over to greet us. Jay Laga'aia, who played Captain Typho in Star Wars Episode II had a big smile on his face. He shook my hand, and Doug's. "Hey guys! You look great! It's great to see you. Thanks for coming out today!"
He wandered down the long column on 501st members, shaking hands and saying hello. "He's an actual 501st member." Doug told me, leaning against his banner. "Not just an honorary member, but an actual trooping member. He has a full TK and everything." By TK he meant an Imperial Stormtrooper costume.
Darth Vader came striding through the courtyard toward the large cast building beside us, and across the courtyard were a large number of children holding plastic light sabers, standing in a walkway between two buildings. They were in a Padewan learners program that gave them Jedi training and allowed them to march in the parades. They cheered and called out as Vader walked by.
An executive from Lucasfilm, with his young son came over to thank us for what we did, or keeping the franachise and fan base going. After he passsed Kristine turned to the other officers, the big sunny smile on her face. "Okay, we have to keep our eyes open for the stalker. Does everyone know about Linda?"
One of the officers said he hadn't, and Kristine cheerfully told him about Linda, who changed her last name to Skywalker. Linda was present at every Star Wars Week-ends parade, and was so persistent George Lucas had a restraining order against her. Her devotion soared freely beyond the line of fandom, plunging deeply into unhealthy obsession. "She has bright red hair, she almost always wears black, and she's usually at the area right in front of the gates, when they open."
After a brief rain shower that lasted about ten minutes, the Padewan learners followed Jedi Mickey, Darth Goofy, Princess Minnie and Donald Duck stormtrooper around the corner of the cast building, through the open gates, where Star Wars music was blaring. Disney Doug motioned for us to advance around the corner to the backside of the gates to the park.
"Buckets on!!" several people called out, and helmets were put on, final costume checks and adjustments were made. The march was now minutes away.
Doug and I, the first two at the head of the procession, held the banners in the correct position. I gave my hat and uniform a quick adjustment. Besides us, Disney employees were watching us, standing around the large dumpsters and propane tanks. Two employees slowly pulled the gates toward them, revealling the hundreds of people waiting for us to emerge.
Star Wars music filled the air, and people were aiming cameras and camcorders at us as Doug and I began to march slowly into the park. The first time I marched last year, this moment had given me a huge rush; my whole body had been tingling. People were shouting, waving, clapping. A small group of people began chanting, "501! 501! 501!"
Every inch of sidewalk space in the park was filled with people, a human wall of tourists. Disney employees kept the street clear as we rounded the first turn and I saw the long lane stretching ahead of us, lined with people, the enormous blue wizard cap towering over the park. Because we were not allowed to interact with the crowd, I kept my head facing ahead, stern expression in place, sneaking glances at the tourists watching and filming us. Disney Doug walked beside Doug and I, setting the proper pace.
The announcer filled the air with sound. "They're here to maintain law and order in our galaxy. They're over four thousand members strong and have units stationed around the planet. Please welcome the largest Imperial presence here, at Walt Disney's Hollywood Studios, the 501st Legion!" The crowd cheered and clapped wildly.
Below: video of this march as we emerge from the backstage area. ; I am the officer closest to the camera
Here's a longer video from the other end of the park, including announcements by the celebrities on stage:
We wound our way through the park lined with people, toward the huge AT-AT towering over the walkway, and past a pair of costumed announcers who described the parade as if it was the Rose Bowl. It was then through another pair of gates, back into the back stage area, lined with storage buildings and sheds to protect floats and other specialty vehicles. A couple of golf carts zoomed by importantly. Waiting for us was Denise, one of the command staff, watching as we emerged from the park; if there were people who fell out because of the heat, this is where it usually happened.
Once around the corner and out orf sight of the tourists we relaxed and walked up the lane back toward the cast building, passing other costumed cast members and the huge, round boulder from the Indiana Jones show, sitting in a cradle under a tent. It was back to the staging area, where members immeadiately began shedding their costumes. The pungent aroma of perspiration was present as sweat-drenched under-armor and t-shirts were removed and stowed away.
Members lingered briefly, talking about the march, turning in their badges to receive their two free Disney passes. Some members were going to hit one of the theme parks, others their hotels, and others, like me, were heading home. I had a cartooning class to teach the next day, but I would be marching again on Sunday.