Jun 13, 2011

Star Wars Weekends Special Event

May 20th, 2011

If you are looking for the post "Found Slides, a Life Remembered", click on the title below

Part 1 - Before Dawn
image credit:roadsidescholar.com
The world can seem very big and scary at 2:30 in the morning when you're one of the few cars on the road.

The travel mug of coffee wasn't doing much to mitigate the roughly two hours of sleep I had managed to get the night before. With the exception of another car on Interstate 4, it felt like I was the only person left in the world.

I was halfway to Orlando, to join the 501st Legion in a special event taking place at Disney's Hollywood Studios. We would be doing some kind of activity in the park to help Disney commemorate the grand re-opening of Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed ride, and it was very hush hush; no one knew exactly what we would be doing once in the park and in costume.

Call time back stage was 4 AM.

I pulled into the cast parking lot at 3:30; there were already a large number of members milling around in the dark beside the tall building which defined the back lot, drinking Gatorade or coffee, standing by their armor bins. Two huge satellite trucks were idling beside the staging area in the parking lot, and a couple of small tents were set up. The event was going to be televised on TV and on the Internet. After unloading and parking, I mingled with other people in the Legion, some of whom I hadn't seen all year.

It was the first day of Star Wars Weekends 2011.

At 4 AM, Disney security brought the bomb sniffing dogs through the area to inspect our gear, as is the routine, and after signing in, receiving our back stage credentials, and another security check, we were allowed past the gates to the back stage area.

Members dragged their big, rolling bins through the darkened back lot, between tall buildings where the park vehicles and floats were stored, and smaller admin buildings, being guided by Disney staff members to the cast entrance of the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular arena. We filed past the enormous vehicle that moved part of the stage back and forth, with its four foot tall tires, wires, pipes and gauges that the audience doesn't see. The Nazi plane was tucked away in the corner, the stunt truck sat off to the side, ready for another day's series of shows. The huge stage was empty and dark except for several spotlights overhead. Members went up into the bleachers and put their bins away, while several Disney employees waited for all of us to assemble.

The show director, a tall, dignified looking gentleman wearing slacks and an opened neck dress shirt introduced himself and thanked the 501st Legion for coming so early and participating in the event. Disney was excited to have us here, he said, and added that we would be a very important part of today's festivities. He estimated that forty thousand people would be in the park today, eliciting noises of astonishment from members of the 501st and Rebel Legion. At last we would find out what it is Disney wanted us to do in the park.

For the re-opening of Star Tours, a huge stage had been set up in front of the Mickey Mouse wizard hat, and Darth Vader was determined to shut down the grand re-opening. Two Jedi would be arriving to stop him, battling Imperial Stormtroopers through the park toward the hat, where they would emerge on stage. When they threw their cloaks back it would be revealed that the two Jedi were none other than Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, and, as the show director put it, "a certain man named Lucas."

A huge cheer went up from the members in the bleachers.

We were separated into two groups; 501st Legion, or the bad guys, into one group, and the Rebel Legion, or the good guys, into another group. We followed one of the show director assistants up the steps of the Indiana Jones arena and out through the darkened entrance of the pavilion, the fake artifacts lurking in the darkness, and into the park itself.

Dawn had not yet encroached into the night sky at 4:30 AM, yet the park was not deserted.

Disney employees were here and there, attending to various tasks, a couple of golf carts drove around importantly, and a row of small, white tents had been put up around the central lagoon of the park, where radio stations would broadcast, and autographs would later be given by visiting celebrities. Inside each tent were a couple of people checking equipment, going over checklists, sipping coffee.

There were no visitors, no camera-carrying tourists, and the shops, restaurants and attractions were all closed. The moon hung like a big silver coin in the deep indigo night sky, competing with the yellowish sodium vapor lights of the park.
image credit: MoreThanMommy
We headed over the the America Idol theater, dropped our bins and bags, and continued on to the wizard hat. A huge stage sat in front of it, with enormous speakers and lights attached to overhead girders; two block-like laser cannons flanked the stage on scissor lifts, the big gun barrels pointed skyward. A massive computer screen hung at the back of the stage, angled down toward the front of the viewing area.

Once assembled the show director explained what he had in mind; his job was to create and choreograph our movements for today's activities. The area would be roped off for us, and the public would be waiting behind the ropes, surrounding the stage. When the Star Wars Imperial March began (our theme music, click HERE to listen to it) we were to rush the stage as if preventing anyone from leaving, providing an intimidating, sinister presence for the crowd. A line of white armored stormtroopers (or TKs, as they're known as in the Legion) would rush the front of the stage and face the crowd; the rest would fill in the side to completely block any escape, and to secure the area for Lord Vader. Once George Lucas and Robert Iger appeared on stage and went through their skit, we would quickly fall back, forming two columns away from the hat, creating a path between which they and members of the press and public would pass on their way to Star Tours.
Photo credit: thedisneyblog.com
As the first light of dawn began to show itself above the American Idol theater, gradually pushing back the night sky, we lined up beside the theater and practiced running toward the stage when the music began playing. None of us were in costume at this point. After two times, the show director was happy with what he was seeing. We then rehearsed falling back into the two columns, moving an arm's length apart, the show director assistants walking up and down the lane, looking at our spacing, having us move back or forth until we were even. It was not long before the Disney show staff were satisfied we knew what to do.

We then grabbed our bins and bags from the entrance steps of the American Idol theater and brought them into the huge theater itself, which of course was empty. Bins were brought up to the back, and in between the rows, and before long it looked like the theater had been invaded by an occupying force.

There was a deep, empty quiet typical of unoccupied theaters. On the large stage, a motorized scissor lift was parked, and crew members were testing stage lights and the rotating American Idol globes that flanked the stage. Two technicians in the control booth overhead turned off some spotlights, turned on others. Members talked in low tones, most of us operating on only a couple of hours of sleep.

We had three hours until show time.

There was a brief meeting with one of the show director assistants once members had assembled, after which everyone began to relax, chat among themselves, some settling down to grab a power nap, others adjusting their costumes, or chatting quietly. Although we had tried to get to bed early the night before, all of us were operating on a serious sleep deficit. 

And then something unexpected happened.

Part 2 - The Park Opens

The theater was quiet with members killing time before getting into their armor and costumes. Randy, the Florida Garrison commanding officer, was up front conferring with one of the Disney employees. Randy was the point person for all interactions between the 501st and Rebel Legion and Disney; he was in charge.

After the Disney show director assistant stepped away, Randy called out, "Listen up! A little birdie told me that there's a fifteen minute wait time for Star Tours. You're on your own."

Wait, what...? We were allowed to go into the park and ride the newly re-opened Star Tours?

A lot of us got up and quickly made for the exit of the theater. This was an opportunity of a lifetime; the chance to ride a newly re-opened attraction on the very first day.

The park by now was open, and lightly populated with early guests. The brilliant blue sky was cloudless, and the new sun had not yet made its appearance over the colorful buildings in the park, which had opened at six am for this special day. My friends and I walked quickly through the park and through people that were beginning to eddy around the entrance to Star Tours, beneath the giant AT-AT which stood frozen, looking down at the activity. Excited and giddy, we went quickly through the entrance, marveling at the changes and improvements, until we were in the ride. It was filled almost entirely with 501st and Rebel Legion members, hooping and hollering with excitement as the ride began. There are over 50 different combinations on the ride, so visitors will not get the same experience twice.

The ride was a huge improvement over the replaced version, which over the years had begun to get dated as newer technology passed it by. When we exited the ride, we were like kids on the first day of summer vacation after school let out. One thing about members of the Legion; they'll have to drag us into maturity kicking and screaming because we won't go willingly.

The park was becoming more crowded now, and after milling around the park I headed back to the American Idol theater. In the roped off area beside the hat and stage, I chatted with a couple of other members about our movements and where we might stop once we rushed the stage, while the growing crowd behind the ropes watched us, waiting for the show to begin. Being able to be part of a Disney production was a rare treat that not a lot of people got a chance to experience.

Part 3 -Showtime

It was almost showtime, and the theater was filled with members putting on their costumes.

Armor was being strapped on and adjusted by members amid the sea of empty seats. Last minute costume adjustments and repairs were being made. Slowly, an invading force was being assembled as members transformed from civilians into Imperial armed forces. At the back of the theater I changed into my Imperial officer costume and assisted other members with putting on their armor, which usually required some assistance. The fasteners and attachment systems usually required some TLC and help fitting just right. As we changed, the stage lights of the American Idol theater would periodically dim or brighten as crew members conducted their tests.

image credit: thedisneyblog.com
Near the exit of the theater members were crowded together, waiting for the signal to exit and emerge from the building to rush the stage. There was a large, down-sloped  area covered by a roof outside the exit used to corral guests waiting to enter;we slowly filed out into this area, lining up in rows.

Dozens of clean white Imperial Stormtroopers were lined up on the ramp and walkway slightly above the floor, followed by the "sandys", or the dirty, Tatooine Stormtroopers, followed by clones, TIE fighter pilots, Imperial gunners and crew, and bringing up the rear, Imperial officers.

Along the perimeter of this covered area Disney employees were looking at us; they rarely saw so many Star Wars costumes assembled in one place. We were an impressive sight. The show began to unfold on the huge stage, which we were unable to see, being below the level of the sides of the open area. Our Disney handlers waited to receive the word that it was time for us to file out and rush the stage. On the multiple screens above, we could see the show as it began, and the thunderous Star Wars music filled the air, drifting over to where we waited.

Our cue came, and the TKs began filing out of the side of the theater, hustling as quickly as they could toward the front of the stage to take up their positions. The line of 501st members began to move out, with the officers bringing up the rear. I walked briskly with the other officers to the side of the stage, where the rest of the 501st members formed an impenetrable wall.

We stood at attention while the show progressed; below is a video clip of the highlights. When the cannons fired, every speaker in the park was synchronized, so that the blast filled the park with a huge, rolling, concussive sound that made the earth and air vibrate. Simultaneously, huge explosions of flame shot up from behind the stage in an eruption of fireworks and smoke. It was a very impressive show and the crowd was enthralled.

 After the speech on stage by Bob Iger and George Lucas, a procession leading from the stage began passing between the two rows. First members of the press with their cameras, then Disney staff members, looking official with their headsets and clip boards, then R2-D2 followed by Lucas and Iger. It was the first time I had seen George Lucas in person; he was dressed in pointed toe cowboy boots, jeans and a plaid shirt, looking like he was getting ready to mount a horse and fix wire fencing on his ranch. Despite being a billionaire, he felt no need to dress in thousand dollar suits, something I respected him for.

The crowd grew thicker as they made their way toward Star Tours, with people slowing to take pictures of us, and members staring straight ahead. I kept my eyes front, sinister scowl on my face and heard a voice say, "Sooo serious!"

It was Serena and Ken, two friends of mine. Ken was a photographer and snapped some pictures as I leered at them. "Oh now he's doing his Snake Plissken expression," Serena quipped, referring to one of my other costumes.

The lane between the members was now much more crowded with guests, at which point Disney gave us the word we were clear to head back to the theater. We began moving through the crowd to the side entrance, where members promptly began de-suiting, packing up their costumes and armor and rolling their bins toward the exit, stage left. In minutes a line of members dragging rolling armor bins was proceeding through the park toward the back-stage entrance, walking back toward the cast parking lot, loading their cars and after receiving their two Disney passes, heading to hotels to catch up on much-needed sleep.

When I got to the hotel and turned on the TV, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross was on TV, with his happy little trees and his deep, stress-reducing voice.

I was asleep in minutes.

1 comment:

FloridaRobot said...

Excellent .... Thanks for documenting this experience. Wish I had a TK outfit sometimes ....

I was able to pick out the droid handler in the picture you took (Jedi) of the procession.