Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World

**This article originally appeared on the Yahoo Voices content network on May 8, 2014. It has been republished here due to the shutdown of Voices and YCN.**
It's almost that time again. Time for wannabe Jedis to face off with Stormtroopers before riding on a roller coaster with Aerosmith, or watching a six foot tall stick bug dance down the street. This may sound unusual to some, but it's just another tradition here in Orlando! Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studios dates back to 1997, but officially became an annual event as of 2003. This may very well be the only time you'll see throngs of people combining both Jedi robes and Mickey ears into their wardrobe, and looking perfectly normal - even cool. This year's galactic celebration kicks off May 16, and runs every Friday through Sunday until June 15. There's something a bit different to each year's event, and if you know what to expect, it can be an out of this world experience!

My son and I have declared this our own annual tradition since 2011. It seems that we're the only ones in the family devoted enough to brave the related elements to step into our science fiction fantasy world. As much as we enjoy the event, it can be a grueling day of battle, indeed! Star Wars fans are a devoted bunch, as are Disney guests - combine the two, and you have an awful lot of die-hards on a mission. Considering that Star Wars Weekends takes place over the summer, park crowds are high, and so is the temperature in Orlando. As a local, and Disney Annual Passholder, I have repeatedly tried to find a break in the heat or crowds during this event... it simply doesn't exist. These factors don't have to tank your adventure, but they're the drawbacks to prepare for.

Star Wars Weekends events and activities are included with your standard Hollywood Studios theme park admission ($94 for a one-day ticket), but you can expect to spend a few bucks once you're inside the gates. While the events themselves are free, souvenirs are not, of course. If you're truly a Star Wars fan, it will be tempting to spend a pretty penny - especially in Darth's Mall. a souvenir supercenter and event gathering place. Darth's Mall will be located between Toy Story Midway Mania and Studios Backlot Tour this year, and should be considered a necessary stop during your visit. If souvenirs you seek, find the most here you will! Limited edition merchandise, signed mementos, and event exclusives deck the walls. The items vary each year, with a handful of popular repeats. Many items are personalizable or customizable. Signature event items have included the "Carbon Freeze Me " and "D-Tech Me " , which are as much experiences as they are souvenirs. If you're going to go for the big-ticket souvenirs, plan on big-ticket price tags, as well. These items, for example, were $75-$100! Jedi robes and Wookie backpacks will carry nearly the same costs, but guests on more of a budget have options, too. T-shirts are a fantastic option for a worthwhile keepsake of your visit, and the choices you'll find at Star Wars Weekends are witty and unique. I'm particularly fond of the "Build Your Own Droid" station myself, and the price is right - $11.95 for one droid, or a dual pack for $18.95.

Even if you have the willpower to resist the force of the merchandise, Darth's Mall is worth a visit. This area is also home to a few event activities, including: interactive games and LEGO stations, an art gallery, artist meet and greets, and unique photo opportunities. Last year, we were surprised to find both the Rancor and the one and only C3PO in Darth's Mall. You truly never know who or what you'll encounter during your Star Wars Weekends visit.

This brings us to another event exclusive - characters! Oh the characters you'll meet... and I don't just mean the other guests! This is the aspect of Star Wars Weekends that consumes most of our time, but that is fully by choice. I'm the type that gets all sorts of giddy over hugging a Wookie, petting an Ewok, and having Darth Maul breathe down my neck. If you share such fantasies, you can make them reality... after standing in a rather lengthy line. This is the one time I will stand in a line for over an hour if necessary - and sometimes, it is. It has been my experience that these character greetings are a step above the usual Disney character encounters, and that may be the reason I will wait in that line. Fans will truly relish the interactions with these larger-than-life personalities. There is no doubt in my mind that Chewbacca is the real deal. I mean, what human could handle THAT costume?

Traditional Disney characters get a makeover for Star Wars Weekends as well. You'll find Jedi Mickey, Leia Minnie, Darth Goofy, Stormtrooper Donald, R2MK, and Ewok versions of Chip and Dale as you make your way through the park. Various characters representing the Jedi Alliance and the Dark Side have scheduled appearances, as do a wide array of celebrities from the entire Star Wars franchise. This year marks the very first event appearance of the original Luke Skywalker himself. Mark Hamill is scheduled to appear June 6-8 in the "Legends of the Force" parade and "Stars of the Saga" talk show. Although Hamill will not be participating in autograph sessions, many celebrity guests do. These sessions often sell out, so to speak. The celebrity sessions are free, and they run on the Disney Fastpass system that essentially reserves your spot in line. The reservations are issued on a first come, first served basis. I have not participated in the celebrity sessions, and there is a very good reason for that. I have seen local news coverage every year of people lined up before the sun rises, outside the gates of the park, hoping they will receive that golden ticket. Additionally, you get one such Fastpass reservation per day, so choose wisely. Standby line options are available, but I have heard horror stories that lead me to think it's more intelligent to just overlook that option altogether. When it comes to the characters and celebrities, it all boils down to prioritizing. If you're a local, and prone to random Disney visits, you'll have more opportunities to spread your time around the event. If you're here on vacation, with less time to devote, plan on choosing your favorites upfront. As a general idea, last year, we waited 90 minutes to meet Darth Vader. I am not saying it wasn't worth it, but I wouldn't be too pleased if I were there for one day only, and had many waits like these.

This year, a special new character experience is coming to Star Wars Weekends - character dining ! Guests can enjoy breakfast with Darth Vader and other prominent bad guys for just under $50 per adult and $30 per child. Dinner with Jedi Mickey and friends will cost you just a few dollars more. Character dining experiences at Disney offer guests individual interaction with characters directly at their table. Reservations are strongly suggested.

Beyond shopping and character/ celebrity interactions, Star Wars Weekends is full of surprises! You never know where or when you'll encounter Stormtrooper patrols or a wandering Boba Fett. Daily festivities include the Legends of the Force Celebrity Motorcade, Padawan Mind Challenge interactive games, and variety shows, as well as the nightly Symphony in the Stars fireworks finale. For more information on planning your galactic getaway to Star Wars Weekends, visit Disney's official event site


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