Star Wars Weekends are back, and the event feels much like it always does. There has been no major shake-up to the roster of panels, meets, shows, parades, and merchandise tents. For indeed, nothing is broken, so why bother? But as always, things shift subtly from year to year. This year, I was amazed to find myself most impressed with the merchandise (that doesn’t happen often). And I was sad to discover that one of my all-time favorites, the Hyperspace Hoopla, was disappointing. I finally realized that it had been edging away from its greatness for a little while, and something about this year’s performance made me stop and examine it in detail.
First, let’s look at the merch. Darth’s Mall was again behind Tower of Terror, and again it was a tent crammed full of merch. A highly air-conditioned tent, actually. You pass by the vents on your walk in, and it’s blissfully cold compared to the humid, 90-degree temperature outside. One guard quipped as we gratefully soaked up the cold air that it cost 45 cents a minute to provide that much air-conditioning, which seemed oddly specific if he was making the statistic up.
This year’s tent seemed to have all the old favorites back: build a droid, build a light saber, Her Universe clothing, photo opportunities with a realistic prop (this year, the Rancor), an art gallery, and tons of boxed merch on the racks. The D-Tech Me (is this a pun for “detect me”? Never noticed it before) booth has added a Stormtooper option as well as frozen in carbonite; they seemed pretty neat toys. The popular nametags were back, this time in a new green color and a passholder-exclusve black color. We saw so many being worn on the weekend that I have to believe this is coming back every year to infinity (and probably with new colors each year).
One new thing was a LEGO wall, where you can assemble a few bricks and then watch your square get hammered into a wall, where a larger mosaic picture would take shape over the coming days and weeks. They do this sort of thing at Downtown Disney for the festival events, but I don’t recall it being at Star Wars Weekends previously.
There seemed to be a lot of inventive merch this year. We saw a “lightsaber umbrella” – a functional bit of rain gear that had a lightsaber as the central shaft. Pretty ingenious. I was sorely tempted by the $35 latex Salacious Crumb, who was life-sized and pretty realistically designed. Latex, though, wilts and dies in heat like Florida’s, but I was still tempted.
There were new T-shirts – many sporting the name Star Wars Weekends – and new pins and coins. But what really caught my eye were the crossover products. They’ve been doing that sort of thing for years now, but the new action figures just have really been well thought out and implemented this time. We found the Ewok Bean Bunny and Camilla Stormtrooper (helmet) to be too cute to pass up. We sprang for the jedi starfighter that came with a Jedi Mickey and an R2MK that would fit inside. And my wife positively cooed with joy at all the new crossover toy cars. Disney has previously sold Matchbox-sized cars with a Star Wars theme, but those were ugly, grotesque things. This year, someone had the bright idea to cross Star Wars with Disney’s actual line of Cars cars, and the result was merchandise nirvana. They are a bit pricey, though, at $13 each.
Giddy with our newly-purchased goods, I was excited for the Hyperspace Hoopla. This has historically been one of our favorite things at Star Wars Weekends. But after two hours of waiting and 36 minutes of watching, I felt the experience this year was underwhelming, which left me feeling oddly hollow. After ruminating for a while, I believe the following reasons are behind my disappointment, listed in order from most-important first:
Reliance on dance/club music. If you watch older versions of the Hoopla on YouTube (or lived them as we have done), you’ll see that the Hoopla was a show with different paces, different cadences. It included fast dance numbers, but those were used sparingly, and thus that scarcity gave them great effect. They stood out against the slower numbers and the character-driven comedy. If you just use the fast music non-stop, you might think you are harvesting the best parts, but you’re actually just creating a new problem. To invoke a metaphor, imagine taking a movie with all types of scenes and transforming it into just action. Raiders of the Lost Ark stands out in memory because the action scenes are special and come on the backs on character building. The Fast and the Furious movies, by contrast, are just pure action. So are many movies these days. That makes them far less memorable, and the same is true of this show. You can’t take one element that made the Hoopla successful in its early years and just repeat it over and over again, hoping that it will work even out of context.
One-track humor. The past few years, almost all the humor has come from urbanizing the Emperor. It was funny the first time, hearing him explain why “yo” gave him street cred, but the same joke doesn’t play well to this crowd. Either you aim at first-timers or you aim at repeat visitors. In the past, this show has aimed at repeat visitors (see: jokes about Kit Fisto, your mother is here, stormtroopers clearing the stage, Vader dancing to Michael Jackson, Snig’s spittle, Figrin Dan’s lack of musical range, and a billion other inside jokes). If you’re aiming at repeat visitors, your subsequent years of jokes have BUILD on the previous years, not just repeat them.
Apart from all that, the humor just used to be more wide-ranging. The characters would play dress up (C3PO with the LMFAO helmet is only one example) in a way that matched the music. Probably the biggest laughs came from musical selections that played to the actual Star Wars mythos. Luke and Leia had a dance number to “We Are Family” one year, which was hilariously staged to maximize our amusement/horror at the mock coquettishness. There was less “Star Wars” in this year’s Hoopla, and more just dance party with urban humor.
Problematic Sightlines. I’ve commented on this before, when the show moved here in front of the Sorcerer Hat, but this is a singularly bad location to hold a show. The ground slopes DOWN as you get further from the stage, which means that literally anyone not in the first row has a compromised view. That view gets worse as people hold up cameras and videocameras, as they inevitably do, which prompts parents to put kids on shoulders, which makes it all but impossible to see anything. We have tried multiple places to get a good view, leveraging our knowledge as locals to scope out promising locations. At first, it went well. Eventually, though, the ten year olds in front of us decided they had to stand on the railing (yes, the half-inch railing) to watch the show, and our view was blocked. This was happening all around us. It’s disheartening. They really, REALLY need to move the show indoors and ditch the fireworks. I suppose it will take someone getting hurt for Disney to make a change. That time is probably not far off. The kids on railings were not seen by Disney, since no one patrolled the area. If some kid slips and gets hurt doing this in the future, we may see a lawsuit. And only then will things change.
Lack of cheese. The characters would always ham it up in previous years. Anyone remember Chewie as Axl Rose? Greedo and others as the Village People? One of the selling points of the show, in my opinion, was its glorious reveling in the cheesiness. The current show aims for flash and slickness instead. There are numerous pyrotechnics now. It’s less a mockery of Axl Rose than an earnest attempt to one-up a real rock concert, and that means an altered tone. I miss the old tone. It’s definitely part of what made it fun. Since the event has gotten big, they’ve avoided the Hoopla Hustle (a cheesy dance-along). The show now takes itself so seriously that it’s hard to imagine they used to bring the Star Wars Weekends visiting stars (Ray Park, etc) onto the stage to be part of the show. Being small, nimble, and quirky meant they could just “do whatever” on stage, have fun doing it, and the fun would shine straight through to the audience. In turning to a glossier presentation, they’ve lost all of that.
Muzzling of Snig and Oopla. Part of the fun quotient was the interplay between the two hosts, who have a rare chemistry and genuinely seem to enjoy inhabiting their creations. But there has been precious little new territory for them to explore lately, and this year in particular their roles seemed relegated to the background.
Uninspired music selections. The theme this year was “music from the last thirty years,” which really meant music from the last two years with a few mostly-recent songs thrown in every so often for the sake of cadence and tempo. The show worked quite well with a theme, such as the 70s-themed songs one year, or the 80s flashback feel of the following year.
Unaccountably flat ending. I agree that the appearance of Jedi Mickey into the show (a first) ought to be a great finisher. Sorcerer Mickey still brings a deafening roar of approval from the crowd at the end of Fantasmic, so shouldn’t Jedi Mickey do the same here? But after a quick surge of excitement when Mickey comes out, the stunt sort of fizzles. Mickey dances to a snippet of song; I already forgot which song. Maybe that was part of the problem. It’s as if Mickey himself was meant to be the thing, not the song Mickey was there to dance to. People don’t just want to see Mickey as such, they want to see him succeed against some foe, or in this case maybe to see him dance to something that truly fit the moment. None of that was here this time. After his first number, Mickey was supposed to do a curtain call, and it was almost embarrassing how little the crowd hooted and rallied for his lifting arms meant to evoke big cheers.
Incomprehensible Idol interruption. For a couple of hours before showtime, DJ Elliot spun tunes and got the crowd into the mood. Then, an hour before the Hoopla, they turned off the main stage and let the area get quiet…. so that the American Idol Experience finale could be heard on the diamond-vision outside the theater. What a mistake. The vibe and mood was totally different as a result. Does the Idol theater even fill up these days? Even if it did (which I doubt), if I were them I would greatly prefer to keep the huge crowd happy near the Hoopla stage than cater to the six people watching the Idol screen. That number, by the way, was not an embellishment. There were six people watching. And for them, the much larger crowd saw its excitement drain away and watched, somewhat resignedly, the Idol screen from a bad angle. Or they just used their smartphones.
A mere five years ago, the Hoopla was so fun I made an effort to go week after week. This year, I don’t think I’d be that excited to see it again. And that makes me sad. It’s still a watchable show, and I’m sure to give it a go next year, but we’ve come a long way from the excitement of five years ago, when I could barely wait the required seven days before I could see it again.