Pilgrimages to a Galaxy Far, Far Away: Celebration Orlando

As I crossed the grass lawn of the Orange County Convention center I looked up and saw enormous banners adorning its entrance. Everyone’s favorites from across the Star Wars saga were there. Luke, Leia, Rey, Vader, Poe, and Obi-Wan all hung there and beckoned me in, but as I excitedly ploughed my way through the grass, I quickly realized the first lesson of Star Wars Celebration: You don’t simply walk into Celebration. You wait in line, and depending on what your plans are for the day, you wait in line, so you can get in another line. If that sounds like a precursor to another wait in line at a therapist’s office, take heart. Despite the obscene amount of waiting in lines, Star Wars Celebration is worth it because whether you love the actors, merchandise, costumes, literature, or your friends in the fandom, you will find reasons to celebrate.

After entering the convention center each morning, I found myself in an unannounced footrace with many of the other fans. Our feet neared blurring speed as we rushed to the queuing area to see which “big” panels we could still attend while simultaneously being careful to not break into a trot and draw the ire of the various convention center employees. At the end of the race was a monitor that listed all the panels on the biggest stages and whether there were still wristbands available. These wristbands were required for many of the most popular panels. I would do a quick survey of the board, hoping that the panel I had hoped to see still had seats. If it did, I would rush through the metal stanchions for that panel and wait to be given a wristband. In some ways it reminded me of a cattle run; if that cattle run ended with a very polite farmer tagging you with a wristband and telling you, “I hope you have a fun time!”

One panel that required this planning was the “Heroines of Star Wars” panel. I originally decided to go to this panel because the description listed Dave Filoni, Tiya Sircar, and Ashley Eckstein of Star Wars: Rebels fame as being guests. It was also led by Amy Ratcliffe, so I was really able to double down on hearing a bunch of women I admired (and Filoni)! It ended up being one of the most emotional panels of the convention for me though. When Ms. Sircar described how her mother would not let her play with Barbies when she was younger because of how they perpetuate unattainable body images but exclaimed that she thought that her mom would have let her play with the new Star Wars: Forces of Destiny doll line, I was moved. When Ms. Eckstein described the now mythic ridicule to role model journey of fan-favorite Ahsoka Tano, my eyes started getting misty. It’s wasn’t until Dave Filoni spoke that I lost it though. He ended the panel by saying:

“If you’re going to write a female character, [and] if you’re a guy like me, the first thing you have to do is listen. Stop talking and listen to what these women have to say. And I’ll be honest, it’s harder than you think because you’re not wired that way when you’re a little boy. You’re told to go after it and do things that you want, but it’s more the way of the Jedi, to be honest. We should learn to listen to other people and be patient and open-minded, and that’s what I try to put into these stories.”

When Filoni said that, I was choking down a huge lump in my throat and blinking back tears because he was describing my own journey with the heroines of Star Wars. I had been told to “go after it” as a boy, and it wasn’t until I grew a little older and wiser that I realized that I would gain so much more by just listening to the lessons women can teach me. In the end, not even the surprise appearance of Daisy Ridley could upstage the real star of the panel for me: the wisdom of the shared experiences of the women and men onstage.

Another of my favorite panels was the “Rebel Reunion” panel on Sunday. For a long time, this panel was listed but didn’t have a description from Celebration website. As Celebration got closer, rumors began  that it was going to be a reunion of various actors who played important Rebels. That may not have been enough to convince me to wake up early to queue by itself, but Denis Lawson, the actor who played Wedge Antilles, was supposed to appear. Wedge is easily in my top five characters in the saga, and Mr. Lawson had been famously reluctant to be associated with Star Wars in recent years, so I knew I had to make it to this panel. Who knew if he’d show up again? It turns out that I needn’t have worried because Mr. Lawson was so touched by the generosity and love fans showed him that he vowed he’d be back. All the actors shared humorous anecdotes about their experiences working with George Lucas, including his stress-inducing belief that they could learn all their lines and repeat them verbatim and without any prompting from other actors. There were many stories of puppeteering and Mark Hamill, but I mostly had ears for Red 2. I’ll never forget Denis Lawson’s account of waiting out a whiteout while filming the scenes on Hoth by dancing away the nights at a discotheque beneath the ski lodge that the actors were staying at; after all, it gave me the delicious head canon of disco Wedge Antilles, the scourge of the Rebel dance floor!

Then I taught Luke the Tauntaun Two-Step!

One of the strengths of this Celebration’s panel line-up was its variety. There were panels looking back at the history of the franchise and ones looking towards the future. Whatever your passion in Star Wars is, there was a panel that celebrated it. Since I teach Creative Writing at the high school I work at, I tried to attend some of the writing workshops. One of these workshops I was lucky enough to attend was with Chuck Wendig, the author of the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy of books. As I entered the room I flashed back to my years in college because these panels were run in a room that looked like a lecture hall. I sat down and took out my laptop and prepared to take notes like a good college student would. Then Chuck Wendig entered the room and sucked out any feelings of formality or academia. He told us about how you have to give your characters problems to motivate them and allow their struggles to drive the plot. There were running jokes about unmarked graves in Mexico and insights into Mr. Wendig’s own creative process with characters like Sinjir and Mr. Bones. It was informative, and it was hilarious. One of my regrets after Celebration was over was that I didn’t get to attend some of the other classes taught by Delilah Dawson and Christie Golden. I’m sure they would have been just as amazing as Chuck Wendig’s panel was.

My wife and daughter are at the center of my Star Wars fandom, so it’s great that Celebration also had family-friendly panels, too. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed sketching along with the amazing Katie Cook at her panel. I watched as her little blonde head bobbed furiously - up as she watched Mrs. Cook draw a character suggested by one of the other children and then down to try to mimic the drawing. After the panel, Mrs. Cook stayed behind and passed out the sketches she had drawn to the children, and when those ran out, she drew more for the kids who hadn’t received one.

As I rushed off to my Chuck Wendig panel, my wife watched as a group of Mandalorian Mercs (a fan organization specializing in the creation of Mandalorian armor) came into the Family Room and led the children in the creation of paper Mandalorian armor. When I returned, my daughter was beaming because she was so proud of her own personal set of Sabine armor. On the way to dinner, she told me what each of the designs on the chestplate and kneepads meant. It was like having a mini-Sabine explain her newest artistic creation. I loved it.

That armor sure is cute, but I don't think it's going to protect you against any Jedi!

One of the biggest issues I heard about Star Wars Celebration 2017 Orlando was in regards to the lines for the most anticipated panels. The “40 Years of Star Wars” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” panels were the blockbuster panels of the weekend, and it was expected that you had to line up the night before if you wanted to have any chance of being in attendance. Past Celebrations have had similar situations before, but I heard more complaints about how the lines were managed for these panels than at those previous events. Some people waited overnight only to have large groups of people join other people already in line. While this may be allowed logistically (and I’m not even sure if that’s true), it meant that some people waited in line all night and had been told they’d be guaranteed entrance only to be left without. Without being on site to confirm issues with line cutting, I can only report what I heard. If this is the case though, I hope that similar instances of this rude offense are eliminated in the future.

While I didn’t have to deal with huge panel lines, I constantly combated exclusive merchandise lines which were worse this year than I ever saw them. The Celebration Store routinely had a line with an estimated wait of three hours. This was a problem two years ago at Celebration Anaheim, and it continued to be a problem here. You might wait three hours to get into the store just to find out that they don’t have the shirt you wanted in your size. They did post a sign listing the merchandise and crossed out items that were no longer available. On Sunday, I got to the convention center early because my wife really wanted to go to the store because that was where Ashley Eckstein’s Her Universe store was. I quickly booked it over there to see if I could get one of the “Fast Passes” to return during a designated shopping hour, only to have people run past me like they were giving out cold water on Mustafar. Disappointedly, my wife tried to check out the Celebration Store a half-hour before closing time on Sunday only to be told by one of its employees that they were already closed because they were told that they had to be gone by five. If the convention doesn’t close until five, the store shouldn’t close until five. I would have been fired if I had pulled that when I worked retail, and it shouldn’t have happened here. The extremely long wait is also especially difficult for families with children because I can guarantee that no small child is going to be okay with waiting three hours in a line for anything.

My wife and I also had another merchandise problem with Del Rey’s booth. Her Holy Grail, most sought after item of the convention was the convention exclusive copy of Timothy Zahn’s new novel Thrawn. Despite my insistence that it was really the same book with a new dust jacket, she really wanted it. What can I say? She’s a Thrawn groupie. I tried to pick it up for her when the convention floor opened on Friday only to be told within fifteen minutes of them opening that Del Rey’s booth had already sold out. I tried again on Saturday when Del Rey made some adjustments where they decided that they would hand out tickets to people at three and then select seventy-five people at random who would be allowed to purchase the novel. With wife in tow, we braved the crowds around two and were told that no lines could be formed and no tickets were being given out until three. Taking them at their word, we wandered the convention floor for forty-five minutes then thought that we should make our way back. The only problem was that we couldn’t really make our way back. In lieu of a line, fervor for the novel had incited a loitering mob that blocked the surrounding walkways around Del Rey’s booth. Clearly Del Rey’s new plan to hold a raffle with little real organization didn’t work very well, and my wife was, once again, disappointed.

While I paint a very bleak picture of the merchandise side of Celebration, I realize that there’s a lesson to be had. If getting the convention exclusive merchandise is a huge draw for you, make that your first stop first thing on the first day of the convention and be prepared to sacrifice a great amount of your time. If you don’t, you significantly reduce your odds of getting that treasure you desire because of greater crowds, poorly managed lines, and simple lack of inventory.

It would be easy to be discouraged by the constant lines upon lines of Celebration or overwhelmed by the insistent march of time that keeps you from seeing every panel that you wanted to see, but my experience at Celebration Orlando proved some advice I’d heard from friends on social media to be true: the best part of Celebration is the people. It’s true. All of it. My absolute favorite part of Celebration was meeting up with members of my Far Far Away Radio family that I’d communicated with hundreds of times on social media but had never met in real life. These small moments made my Celebration. Sharing jellybeans with Danny as a bunch of us watched the livestream of the “40 Years of Star Wars” panel from one of our hotel rooms, joking back and forth about Harrison Ford and George Lucas’s old man moments from that same panel with Heath, having Saf take a picture of my wife and I as a large group of us ate at a nearby pub, talking with Mallory about Avatar: The Last Airbender as we waited in line for the exhibit hall to open, talking with Amy and her husband as we waited in yet another line for the “Making of Rogue One” panel, meeting the illusive Austin Blankenship and watching The Last Jedi trailer with him, watching Jonathan surprise the Rogue Podron crew by dressing as characters from X-Wing: Wraith Squadron, discussing books with Jason at the Del Rey panel, and watching my daughter play with Mediocre Jedi’s family as we talked were the treasures of Celebration. I may not have bought an exclusive copy of Thrawn, but I got some one-of-a-kind memories. Those moments made the lines worth it. They made the mundane fun. They made Celebration celebratory.

An awesome Far Far Away Family photo taken by the gracious Brian from Tosche Station and edited by Saf, who is also in the photo. "Superwoman is that you?"

Did you attend SWCO? If so, share your favorite moment with us! If not, what would be your dream activity at a Star Wars Celebration? Share with us using the #SWCOfaves at @mapplebee7567 and @farfarawayradio!