There’s nothing like a Star Wars Celebration.
This is coming from a guy who has been to a lot of different kinds of pop culture driven conventions. I’ve been to big shows and small ones; I’ve walked the halls of shows devoted to video games, anime, consumer eletronics, toys, and more comic-cons than you can shake a lightsaber at, including the biggie in San Diego; I’ve even been to shows that focus on specific icons in pop culture: The X-Files, Star Trek, and even the many works of Joss Whedon. And as fun as they all are, none of them match the spectacle of a Celebration.
Of course, others may feel differently, but when it comes to my first love of Star Wars, as good as the others are, they just can’t compare. I mean, it’s all in the name. The rest are merely “conventions”, where people convene. Star Wars Celebration is all about celebrating our favorite galaxy far, far away, the characters that inhabit it, the stories that are born from it, and the community of fans that have grown up with it (especially those who will never outgrow it, like me). No matter what era you were introduced to Star Wars, there’s something about it that brings you joy and comfort, peace in camaraderie and a passion to revel in more adventures just a hyperspace jump away.
Sure, I’m a bit biased. And while I’ve written the book on how to survive San Diego Comic-Con, there’s almost no way to adequately prepare yourself for everything a Star Wars Celebration can throw at you. I’ve been going to every U.S. Celebration since 1999 in Denver. I had never traveled to go to a convention before, but I knew I had to be part of a gathering of Star Wars fans. I had no idea what I was in for, but I didn’t care. It’s what I needed. Part of the struggle of nailing down what to expect from Star Wars Celebration is the fact that it often changes cities within the states. Denver, Indianapolis for 2 years, Los Angeles, Orlando for 2 years, Anaheim, and then back to Orlando this year. I dreamed of joining the foreign ones, but at the time, they were too rich for my blood. Also, I didn’t have a passport.
This year, with a return to Florida, where I had lived in the past (unfortunately long before the Celebrations were held there), I got to have yet another homecoming of sorts. And this time I was joined by people who had never been to a Celebration before and some I had not seen more than 5 Celebrations before it. Thanks to social media, we’ve kept in touch and worked out a game plan. It was still more than we could have ever expected.
I arrived a few days early so that I could take in the local theme parks (Universal Studios and, of course, Disney World). Thankfully, they didn’t wear me out too much to prevent me from getting in line Wednesday afternoon for the Opening Ceremonies held on Thursday morning. Equipped with a backpack full of overnight supplies, a comfy collapsible chair, and my pal Sheryl (always use the buddy system), we made our way into the convention center holding area where we got to make a bunch of new friends, meet some of the people behind the Star Wars movies and TV series (including The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and Ashley Eckstein aka Ahsoka Tano, just to name two), and catch maybe an hour or so of sleep before the big show began. Many hours later, wristbands secured to our arms, we were among the first to make it into the surprisingly small main Galaxy stage, where the 40th Anniversary Celebration panel would be held.
Fan favorite star Warwick Davis (Wicket the Ewok and many other characters in the Saga) presided over the ceremony, where he would go on to introduce guardian of the Saga, Kathleen Kennedy, and the Maker himself, George Lucas along with Clone Wars and Rebels director Dave Filoni. Then came Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine) and Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker). And Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca). Then, as if that weren’t enough, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo) took the stage. That still left a big hole in the group. The late Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and, of course, iconic Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia). Her daughter Billie stepped onto the stage to pay tribute to her mother before they played a tribute video to Our Princess. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Writing this a week later and I’m still getting a little misty-eyed.
But as if that wasn’t enough to stir our hearts, what came next was something none of us were prepared for. The final piece of what makes Star Wars what it is fell into place when the curtains parted to reveal an orchestra conducted by maestro John Williams. As they tore through a collection of classic Star Wars themes, including Leia’s theme, which brought the tears flooding back again, I glanced over to my left to see Hayden nodding along to the music just a few feet away, drinking it in alongside thousands of other fans in that room and in rooms scattered throughout the convention center via closed circuit screens broadcasting everything we were witnessing firsthand, including on the exhibition hall stage, in the shadow of a life-sized TIE Fighter. Williams finished to a standing ovation (well, we stood through the whole thing, heads spinning with astonishment) and we were all ushered out of the hall to receive tribute posters featuring Carrie Frances Fisher as Leia 1956 -- 2016.
And that was just the first hour or so of the event.
The next day would bring many more panels and events, but none bigger than The Last Jedi panel. Director Rian Johnson joined the cast of the Last Jedi on stage to introduce new cast member Kelly Marie Tran (a rebel named Rose Tico) and of course, the new trailer, which was met with screams of joy and excited fear as Luke spoke the words “It’s time for the Jedi… to end.” Ominus stuff. But December can’t get here soon enough!
Between sneak peeks at what’s to come with Star Wars land at the Disney World and Disneyland, the Battlefront II game, and an endless list of panels featuring collectibles, cosplay, droid building, and so much more, no other panel beyond the two big ones I already mentioned knocked people for a loop more than the Star Wars Rebeles animated series panel, where series director Dave Filoni announced that the upcoming 4th season would be the series’ last. All while wearing a “Ahsoka Lives?” t-shirt. Honestly, I don’t care if he wore a shirt that said, “No, really, Ahsoka is dead. Seriously.” I wouldn’t believe it. She’ll be back.
On top of the usual shenanigans in the Orange County Convention Center, Disney hosted a special Galactic Nights event in their Hollywood Studios park on Friday night, featuring re-themed rides and specialty foods, a parade featuring the stars of Star Wars in cars, and exclusive collectible lanyard scavenger hunt and poster (among other items you could buy just that night, of course). Sheryl and I rode the rides, took lots of pics, and stayed for the epic Star Wars fireworks show at the end of the night. Galactic Nights was the icing on an already filling Star Wars cake we had been chowing down on all week. And we still had two days to go!
I could go on for a few thousand more words describing every detail that I loved about this Celebration. Obviously, I love going to conventions of every type all around the world, but no matter where there is a Star Wars Celebration, I’m home. By the way, that’s one thing they failed to mention -- where will the next one be? Hopefully, we will find out soon.
As I was saying at the beginning, at any other convention you can obviously find creative cosplay, informative panels, exclusive collectibles, iconic props, celebrity autographs, and rabid fans packed in wall to wall, but when it comes to celebrating something like Star Wars, the focus isn’t just focused on what’s been created and the creators we adore, it’s about the community. A community that spans all ages, all races, all nations, all genders, all kinds of people who have come together to celebrate something they unabashedly love -- Star Wars and every amazing thing I listed here, its history and continuing legacy, that makes it truly great.
But don’t take my word for it, here’s the official Star Wars Celebration Orlando 2017 recap video to show you how it’s done.
I can’t wait for the next Star Wars Celebration, most likely in 2019 in some as yet unnamed city! May the Force be with you until then!