When people ask me what Star Wars Weekends is like, the best way I can describe is it like being the new kid in high school at the start of the new semester; Lots of weird people you've never met before trying to find where they need to go and no one really sure of what's to come quite yet. Having completed the first weekend of Star Wars Weekends, I've talked with a lot of people about their thoughts on the event as well as made my own conclusions on this year's edition. Each year, we look at the good and bad of this intergalactic meeting of geekyness and try to figure out what worked and what didn't work.
I was glad to see Disney making an effort to keep things a little fresh for this year's event. We had some new characters join the fray, including R2-MK, who seemed to be a big hit with those who spotted him (or is it her?). Nearly everyone who found R2-MK that I talked to would bring it up in conversation and how cool they thought it was. Kudos to the creative department at Disney for that creation. In addition, over at the Jedi Training Academy, Darth Vader was joined by Asajj Ventress, replacing Darth Maul, and it was a nice change of pace. Obviously since the event is for young kids, they likely watch the Clone Wars television show and I think would find it far more entertaining than Darth Maul.
Speaking of new faces, Disney offered the most celebrities ever on a single weekend, with three celebs and two hosts and all five did autograph signing. The extra options helped keep lines a little more manageable than in previous years and I think it was generally warmly received by those in attendance. Ashley Eckstein, one of the hosts, did a great job with her hosting duties and seems to be a hit with the fans. Jeremy Bulloch is the other host and did a good job as well. There were some less than flattering reports I heard of his hosting at the Stars of the Saga show, but I think overall fans were pleased with how he did and his years of attendance has made him a fan favorite.
The other big change this year was the merchandise and overall, I don't think things were as warmly received by guests. The last few years saw merchandise being sold primarily in Soundstage One, a large vacant building between the Backlot Tour and Toy Story Midway Mania. Well, turns out that the building was being used by Imagineers this year so Disney needed a new spot for merchandise and split it between the AFI Showcase shop and the Prop Shop. In addition, art merchandise was sold at the Animation Gallery. This spreading of the merchandise didn't really sit well with many I talked to. Adding to guests disappointment was a clear cut in the amount of special Star Wars Weekend merchandise being sold this year compared the previous years. Overall, guests were not happy with how merchandise was handled this year. One Studios Central reader, Chris, shared some of his thoughts in an email he sent to me.
There is a long lineup area outside, then a line that works it's way through the inside area before emptying into the surprisingly small shop area. At the head of the line, a cast member lets people into the shop area "nightclub style" meaning they wait until people have exited and they feel there is sufficient room to let in more shoppers. Inside the small shop area, you have to get on a short line to see and select the "Limited Merchandise" while the General Merchandise is spread out on the store floor, and the Passholder Merchandise is again at the registers (of which there are six).
Obviously, them using a smaller area and less registers is already going to cause a backup, but it gets worse because only two people are manning the Limited Merchandise area, making for slow going. On top of that, many people waiting on line might have no interest in the Limited Edition items, but they still end up waiting on this line, just to be able to go grab General Merchandise or go to the registers to get Passholder Merchandise.
Looking to 2011 and beyond, the merchandise situation definitely needs some attention. Given that Soundstage One is not available, Disney needs to find a better way of having their merchandise in one location and expediting the purchasing process to help with some of the problems experienced this year.
As for the selection of merchandise, I spoke with some Cast Members and got the message that the reason the amount of merchandise is less than in previous years is because when Disney offered a wider selection of stuff to buy, often there was lots of merchandise that went unsold and subsequently, that's a loss for Disney. By reducing the amount of merchandise being offered, Disney feels there will be less loss. I certainly can understand their desire to not have unsold goods, but on the other side of the argument, perhaps it behooves them to sell more merchandise that has a greater appeal and/or more reasonable prices. I remember at Star Wars Weekends 2009, the Storm Trooper jacket that was close to $200 or the R2-D2 tv projector that cost $3000. There needs to be a happy medium somewhere in the middle.
With regard to the events being held, they were as popular as ever. Nearly every show I attended was packed and guests were certainly interested in attending these. I do think one show, the Hyperspace Hoopla, needs some attention. I think the Hyperspace Hoopla is a fantastic show and it's really a highlight of Star Wars Weekends, but the venue has been outgrown at this point. For each of the Hyperspace Hoopla shows, crowds extended from the Jedi Training Academy stage where it was held, out to the entrance to the Backlot Express restaurant and to the Star Tours FASTPASS area. It was so bad that the characters that exit the stage had to literally shove through the crowd to get out of the area after their set. I think it's time they moved this fantastic event to perhaps the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular stage or the Premier Theater. Lots of guests want to see it, so why not expand the audience potential?
Overall, Star Wars Weekends has been a great success in the initial kick start weekend. Hot, but beautiful weather helped make things easy (nothing Disney has control over anyway) and the experience as a whole was a success, in my estimation. Disney added lots more Cast Members that roamed the park to answer questions as well as signs throughout the park with directions to assist guests in figuring out where the location they were looking for was actually located. Kudos to Disney for another great year and I'm looking forward to the next three weekends!