There’s just something special about seeing Darth Vader in person.
For most of the people who grew up in my generation, the Dark Lord of the Sith established our expectations of what a villain could be. With that incredible black armor, an amazing, menacing voice and ruthless demeanor, Vader walked the line between terrifying and cool for an entire generation. He’s probably one of the most imitated characters in fiction, with so many franchises trying(and often failing) to match his iconic presence. Not even the much loathed prequel trilogy could change how most children of the 80s feel about him.
Having attended San Diego Comic Con for years, I’d seen some pretty impressive Darth Vader costumes, often in the company of 501st Legion Storm Troopers(as well as a few interesting alternate takes on the costume as well). But as great as that cosplay was, it’s not quite the same as seeing him in person in the parks. Maybe it’s the sets, maybe the music or there are just certain details of that costume that only Lucasfilm and Disney can get quite right, but his appearance just captures your attention and imagination.
Strangely enough, even though we’d never been devout fans to that point, the weeks leading up to our wedding, and even the day of, were influenced by that story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and that day in Hollywood Studios felt like a very appropriate way to celebrate.
History of a Long Time Ago
Some of my earliest memories are intertwined with Star Wars. I have very vague memories of seeing The Empire Strikes Back at a very young age, with the visual of Darth Vader leaping out of the carbon freezing chamber very vivid in my mind. Like so many other kids, we had a big collection of Star Wars action figures, and I can remember carrying a lot of them around in a bag. We once had a motor home, and during a trip to the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge it died on us. While my father went for help, we played with that big collection of figures.
Return of the Jedi in particular had a major impact on us. In several of our Walt Disney World photos all three of us are wearing shirts from that movie, and we were even treated to a private showing of the film at one point. I devoured everything I could about the movie, and just about wore our our VHS tape of a behind the scenes special. Believe it or not, I can still quote large sections from that special.
In spite of all this, Christie and I weren’t huge Star Wars fans when we met. Sure, we both loved the films and were curious about the upcoming prequels, but our interests lay more with Transformers and Japanese animation at that point. In fact, when we would both work together at a small theater in Orange County when Episode I came out, which gave extra reason to dislike the film. We never saw the second in theaters, and while we enjoyed the third prequel for what it was, we never quite jumped fully onboard.
That all changed with the release of Star Wars Rebels. The positive early word of mouth led to us checking the series out, and we were quickly hooked. About the same time we had already gotten into the Disney Infinity games in a big way. In recent years we’d not played as many games together, but we had a blast playing Infinity, collecting the figures and trying out the various games people have designed1.
Disney Infinity 3.0 would include the characters from Star Wars Rebels among other characters from the franchise, and in a somewhat frustrating move, the figures were released as exclusives to different stores. Ezra would be at Toys R Us, Kanan Jarrus at Walmart, Sabine Wren at Target and Zeb at Gamestop. The release date of this new wave would be August 30th. As it happens, we had another minor little commitment that day, specifically our wedding ceremony. Even though it was a very small affair, it was still our wedding.
So, yes, naturally we ran across town both before and after the ceremony, because priorities. We were even wearing our wedding clothes when we got Ezra from Toys R Us. The only one we missed out on was Zeb, who we decided we’d get later.
So it made sense that we were both looking forward to the Hollywood Studios trip in large part due to Star Tours. That attraction took on legendary status for me as a kid, and it was a thrill when we finally got to ride it at Disneyland when we visited with my brother. Of course, this would be the new Star Tours, the one with multiple possible story lines, so we were really looking forward to it.
And really, not much else. Even though this was before the most recent swath of closures, the Star Wars and Toy Story expansions had already been announced at D23, and closures had already started to filter down. One of the most heartbreaking losses was the closure of The Magic of Disney Animation, which closed less than two months before our arrival. We’d talked excitedly about it, and my artist wife was really looking forward to taking it in.
As we had our usual breakfast in the Floatworks that morning, our plan was pretty simple. Star Tours, Toy Story Midway Mania and the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular were all on our list. We’d originally planned a later lunch at the Sci-Fi Dine In Theater, but after our first day we opted to cut things short in the Studios and head back to Downtown Disney. We were able to get a reservation at the 50s Prime Time Cafe, after which we’d hop buses back to Downtown Disney and spend a little time there, including at the soon to be closed DisneyQuest2.
With breakfast finished, we made our way to the buses, and on to a park in the midst of transition.
Arrival and Star Tours
The first picture I took of Hollywood Studios was of the Earffel Tower, a landmark that was just removed from the park(and sadly I forgot to switch camera settings after the fireworks cruise, so it didn’t even turn out very good). It was seen by some people as the icon of the Studios3, though others would point to the late, somewhat lamented Sorcerer Mickey hat, while others point to the replica of the Chinese Theater that hosts the Great American Movie Ride. Strangely enough, that confusion is actually a pretty good symbol for Hollywood Studios. Originally conceived as both a theme park and functional production studio, not unlike Universal’s nearby park, most productions have left. The park has been through one change, from Disney MGM Studios to Disney Hollywood Studios, with a third name rumored to be on the way.
The reveal of the Chinese Theater isn’t unlike that of Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom, with a recreation of Hollywood Boulevard taking the place of Main Street USA. Much like Main Street, the themed buildings play host to a variety of gift shops, though it doesn’t feel quite as immersive as the impressive “first act” of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom.
Of course, the Chinese Theater is a fun place to visit for the history, and seeing where various celebrities have placed their hands in the cement and signed their names. Having been tipped off via a podcast about the park, I tried to find one step of prints in particular. Within minutes, we found them, a pair of footprints, with two scorch marks just behind. The Rocketeer was one of our favorite films, and I wanted to find as many nods to the film as we could before they were taken away4.
From there, we walked past the Streets of America in search of our day’s first FastPass, Star Tours. Thankfully it didn’t take long to find it, courtesy of the giant AT-AT walker stationed out front, and the bunker set that would be used for the Jedi Training Academy. You can’t help but just walk around the exterior and take in the atmosphere. A speeder bike rests a short distance away for photo ops, and an Ewok village is visible behind the walker. But perhaps the biggest surprise was how slow Star Tours was that day, with a wait time of only ten minutes posted.
We stepped inside into the beautiful queue, which was far more impressive than the version we’d seen in Disneyland. Seeing R2-D2 and C-3PO up close was a real delight, as well as a cameo from the original Star Tours pilot, RX-24. The queue itself is wonderful, with some great laughs and one of the best designed environments in any Disney attraction. Even the safety and instruction video that plays before you board are fun, with various Star Wars aliens shown on board the Star Speeder.
I’d only heard a few details of the new Star Tours before riding, so I actually didn’t know that C-3P0 was actually the new pilot, which is a fun touch. I also didn’t know about the plot line going in, in which one passenger is randomly selected to be the Rebel spy that Darth Vader stops the ship in search of. While neither of us were picked, we still had a fun journey as we departed for Hoth, then received a holographic message from Admiral Ackbar that took us to Coruscant. The new 3-D effects, combined with the more intricate story line, made for one of our favorite ride experiences. As we stepped outside, Christie looked at me, then back to the exit doors.
“Want to go again?”
Thanks to the low traffic day, the posted ten minute wait was more like a walk on, and the cast members who welcomed us back were almost as delighted as we were. This time, after another confrontation with Vader, we were directed to Kashyyyk, home planet of the Wookies(C-3PO’s piloting skills assured we wouldn’t be welcomed back) From there we were directed by Princess Leia to Naboo, where we had a thrilling landing that damaged the star speeder5. After browsing around the impressive Star Wars themed gift shop, we were off to the Animation Courtyard and Pixar Place, for the next step of our journey.
Along the way, we stopped by what was once the entry queue to the Studio Backlot Tour. There we saw two old friends, both of whom we were surprised to see. First was the figurehead of the Black Pearl from the Pirates of the Caribbean films. We’d been lucky enough to schedule our one trip to Disneyland while props from the film were on display, including the figurehead. I originally assumed they were the same prop, but comparing photos from the original Disnyeland trip to the one from Walt Disney World, I believe they’re actually two different ones(maybe the second was for the sequels, after Jack had regained control of the Pearl?).
More importantly for us, however, was the Big Mouse himself, wearing his familiar Sorcerer Mickey garb. In one of his excellent autobiographies, pro wrestler Mick Foley admitted even he got a little nervous when he found Mickey in the parks, and as we decided to step in line and get a picture, I felt those nerves fluttering just a bit. They were allayed to some degree when he hugged us both, then immediately took issue with my wife wearing a Big Hero 6 shirt, instead of one with him.
I sent a photo to my dad a little while later(My Disney Experience is an amazing thing, my friends), saying we’d run into an old friend of his. He told us later he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen us quite that happy before.
One Man’s Dream and Midway Mania
Of all the things that will be lost in the transformation of Hollywood Studios, I don’t know that anything will be quite as missed as Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream. To see the entire history of Walt Disney and the company he created laid out in such loving detail is incredible, but what really makes it truly special are all the authentic mementos and artifacts from Disney history. While Walt Disney’s desk had been moved by the time we got there, there was still plenty to see.
I could go on at great length over all the things we saw, and I honestly wish we’d not had a Fast Pass approaching, so I could have taken even more time to stop and look at all the details. The exhibits honoring the innovations of Disney animation were fascinating. One highlight for me was “Project Little Man”, the nine inch moving and talking prototype of Audio-Animatronics created by Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers, in addition to many of the other Audio-Animatronics on display. Realizing that Disney pioneered this techonlogy in the 1960s, without the benefit of modern computing technology, is utterly staggering.
The section of One Man’s Dream dedicated to the parks was another that just blew me away, especially with our Epcot trip looming just one day ahead of us. I was amazed by the park model, but seeing the case with artifacts from Epcot was like a sucker punch straight to my nostalgia. Seeing a model of the Dream Machine and an original Figment(strangely holding part of Dreamfinder’s face like an opera mask) made me look forward even more to my return to that park the next day.
The wonders kept coming, from pops from Rocketeer and Tron to the models of the other Disney parks, including the absolutely stunning Tokyo DisneySea. From there we moved on to the theater and watched the film narrated by Julie Andrews. As much as we’d loved everything to this point, I think it was sitting in that theater, hearing the history of Walt Disney and the struggles he endured to create the park, that I fell completed under the Disney spell. My wife and I talked excited about it all for a few minutes, before we moved on to Pixar Place and one of the most popular attractions in any of the parks.
Something about the entrance to Toy Story Midway Mania just blew me away, to the point I never even took our my camera to snap off any photos. You’re transported into Andy’s room, complete with toys, board games and blocks building up the queue you weave through to reach the attraction. While we barely caught a glimpse of him, there’s a Mr. Potato Head that talks to you as you wait to enter.
The centerpiece is, of course, the new Midway Games Play Set that the toys have set up, and they invite you to compete. You step into a vehicle with four seats, two on either side, each with a cannon resting in front. The track isn’t anything too complex, with simple turns and a spinning vehicle, but what makes this stand out are the impressive “4-D” effects and interactive shooting gallery. You might find, for example, that the balloons you’re shooting at are filled with water, and you might get a little wet.
It started innocently enough, with Christie and I having fun and laughing as we threw eggs at barnyard animals. As Rex and Trixie6 encouraged us to shoot darts, the competition grew more intense. By the time Buzz Lightyear cheered us on during the ring toss, we both remembered our “first married game” of skee ball in Oklahoma. With the pressure on as we spun our way into the Woody hosted shooting gallery, I did the most Oklahoma thing imaginable. I choked7. By the time we rolled out, Christie had evened the “Honeymoon Series” at 1-1, with a pretty impressive stomping.
Of course, the kids on the other side of the car scored more than us anyway, so it was kind of a moot point.
Indiana Jones, Lunch and More Star Wars
Before we moved on to lunch and our final FastPass at the Indiana Jones Stunt Show, I decided to stop by a “hidden gem” I’d heard about via podcasts, the Writer’s Stop, next to the Sci Fi Dine In Theater. It was the sort of place that, had we lived in the area and had annual passes, I would have spent a lot of time in. The cast members were fantastic, asking us details about our honeymoon and what we’d done so far, and it was a strangely quiet little escape from the park. It was also home to the Carrot Cake Cookie, which might have been one of the most impressive treats in all of Disney. With the menu reportedly changing there, it’s one thing I hope finds a new home.
From there, we moved on to the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. While it’s one of the older attractions in the park, it’s still worth your time. The set transitions alone are amazing, and it blew me away how you could feel the heat from the explosions that were the centerpiece of the different acts. Seeing those iconic Indiana Jones scenes play out in front of you is a lot of fun, and I’ll keep going on every visit, as long as it remains open. Behind the theater are a collection of vehicles from the Indiana Jones films, most notably a tank from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
With that done, we made our way to the 50s Prime Time Cafe. While there are plenty of great restaurants on Disney property, few of them have as great a unified theme or the level of memorable cast member interactions that you can find here. Once you walk inside you’re not going out to eat, you’re visiting family for an at home meal, and you’re treated just as you’d expect by the servers, who tell you to set the table and caution you against putting your elbows on the table. It’s a wonderfully fun experience, and the cast members really get into it, introducing “cousins” to one another and asking why the guests “haven’t written home” in so long. It’s hard not to laugh, and amazingly the cast members stay in character much of the time.
The menu matches the theme, with fountain soda and milkshakes to drink, and a collection of home style recipes for you to select from. My wife picked Grandma’s Chicken Pot Pie, while I went with Cousin Ann’s Traditional Meatloaf. The pot pie isn’t quite what you might suspect, as the veggies and chicken are served on the plate, with the pastry setting on top. Both items were fantastic, and your humble author walked away with a “I Cleaned My Plate” sticker.
We timed our exit almost perfectly, as the Jedi Training Academy was just starting as we approached, with a huge group of children taking part. I’d heard a little bit about the show, so I thought I was ready for what would happen toward the end of the show. We watched as the kids learned their moves, and then the Imperial March started to play as Storm Troopers ran out onto the stage.
Vader’s entrance was suitably epic, with the theme playing and smoke billowing from the doorway as he stepped out, placed his hands on his hips and offered each of the “younglings” the chance to join with him. Of course, the Jedi Master refused, and then came another moment when my decision to not delve too far into the details paid off with a nice surprise. “Duel of the Fates” from Episode I started to play, and out came Darth Maul to join forces with the Dark Lord of the Sith.
There were moments during our Disney trip when I thought about how much fun it would have been to experience those moments as a child, but nothing compared to that moment. I could only imagine being a kid and seeing those two villains step out onto the stage, and being able to challenge them. As it was, I fired off picture after picture, wanting to capture the moment.
One thing that I loved is that we had a unique vantage point, away from the rest of the crowd. Darth Maul was incredible, pacing in front of the assembled crowd, stopping in front of a few people and glaring at them. His moves were impressive too, as he showed off a little before he challenged the children. But we were able to also see him as he finished each sparring match with the kids, which he consistently lost. Turned away from almost everyone else, we saw him flash a broad smile, clearly enjoying every second of this.
Even notorious villains have fun at Walt Disney World.
As the crowds thinned, we looked back at the entrance to Star Tours. A wait of twenty minutes was posted. Our eyes met, and we both smiled.
“I think we should.”
And so we finished our day in Hollywood Studios the same way it began, with C-3PO piloting our ship to Hoth, and this time Yoda telling us we needed to save the Rebel spy. And in a fitting grand finale, we found ourselves in front of the still under construction Death Star, and facing off against the notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett. We of course emerged victorious, and made our way out of the Studios, and catching a series of buses to Downtown Disney.
Downtown Disney and DisneyQuest
Our main interest in Downtown Disney this time was DisneyQuest, the five story interactive “theme park in a building” concept that Disney experimented with. It was also on the opposite side of the shopping center from the bus stop, which meant we got a nice view of both the complex and the multiple construction walls that were up at the time. I’d hoped against hope we might be there for a soft opening of Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, a new Indiana Jones themed lounge, but no such luck.
While we really enjoyed our time in Downtown Disney, the simple reality is that it’s mostly a series of stores. They’re really impressive, unique stores, with everything from art prints to Christmas ornaments, and it also boasts the massive World of Disney, which I’d mentioned before. There’s one exception, which I’ll get to shortly, but while we spent a pretty good amount of time walking through them, there’s not a whole lot to say.
DisneyQuest itself is kind of life a Disney version of Dave and Busters or Chuck E. Cheese, but turned up to 11. It also boasts some pretty unique areas, from virtual takes on famous Disney attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise to a floor filled with arcade games, including a Fix It Felix Jr. game, which we tried and I was terrible at. Perhaps our favorite thing there was the Animation Academy, during which a Disney artist taught guests how to draw different characters. It was fun to see how the technology worked with the tablets, but let’s just say that we only bought a print of my wife’s version of Pluto, which looked pretty good. I can neither confirm nor deny that mine made a young child cry.
We originally planned to try CyberSpace Mountain, a “build your own coaster” attraction, but ultimately passed and instead tried Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold, a fun VR ride where I was gunner while my wife piloted the boat. We didn’t do terribly well, as it’s designed for up to five people, but it was still a fun ride. We debated sticking around to try a few other games, but we’d started to wear down, and still needed to find dinner and get back to the resort.
As we made our way back, we decided to look in the Star Wars Galactic Outpost store, as Episode VII merchandise had started to appear in the park and there were some interesting pieces in the window. As we moved to the register, we were surprised to see Disney Infinity figures, and even more surprised to see Zeb on sale there. We instantly decided to buy him, a perfect memento to wrap up a very Star Wars-centric day in Walt Disney World.
Ultimately, we decided to just head back to French Quarter and get a pizza from the Floatworks and relax in anticipation of our next day in the park. Tomorrow we would enter the one Disney park we’d not yet visited, and the one with perhaps the most nostalgia and memories from our 1984 family trip: Epcot. It would turn out to be one of the most memorable days on our trip.
Fun side note – This was completely unplanned, but as fate would have it this particular Disneymoon post went up on Star Wars Day, May the 4th. I actually didn’t plan it this way at all, and it’s just a wild coincidence. It’s the second time I’ve had weirdly coincidental timing with a blog post here. Can fate tip its hand this way when I’m buying a lottery ticket?
Not So Hidden Mickeys(AKA Footnotes)
1 – This was also technically our first introduction to Gravity Falls, which is easily one of the best animated series in the last ten years or so… and, come to think of it, one that really belonged in my Top Ten from this week’s Monday Morning Imagineer. I still blame Mortal Kombat Annihilation.
2 – At this point, the closure of DisneyQuest was said to be “imminent,” with an NBA themed venue supposedly taking over. As of this writing, DisneyQuest is still open, with the NBA project apparently no more.
3 – The park icons are the structures that are most commonly associated with it, and they’re easy to peg down for the other parks in Walt Disney World: Cinderella Castle for the Magic Kingdom, Spaceship Earth for Epcot and the Tree of Life for Animal Kingdom.
4 – There was a planned scene that would actually take place at the Chinese Theater as well, but it didn’t make the final cut of the film. So we almost sort of stood in a place where it was shot.
5 – Just before landing, our ship crashed headlong into Jar Jar Binks, so I’d have to call that one a win.
6 – Trixie is voiced by Kristen Schaal, who also provided the voice of Mabel in Gravity Falls, and I couldn’t help but point it out to my wife, who was wearing a Dipper hat that day. Even this didn’t really distract her from the game.
7 – Sorry about that one, I couldn’t resist. If it’s any consolation, the Sooners and Thunder are my favorite sports teams, along with the Arizona Cardinals. And yes, for your sports fans playing along at home, that means three of my teams(OU football and basketball and the Cards) were blown out in the playoff semi-finals. I’m sort of like a walking sports jinx, which makes me worry about this Thunder-Spurs series.