I had her at "Chewbacca."
Before I get to the Wookiee, I want to rewind a fortnight to the start of the 20th Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. It was Thursday, May 19, the first full night of Fringe performances. I reviewed the opening night of Chase Padgett's superb Superman Drinks, and stopped by the outdoor stage to watch Rob "Pepe" Ward kibitz with gothed-out cast members from the Tod Kimbro-penned musical Suckers. But just as the beer-tent festivities began to rev up, I was racing away on I-4. Sorry, Fringe, but I had a Starspeeder to catch.
That brings us back to my May 12 column, in which I discussed my ambivalence toward George Lucas' interstellar saga. In recounting my experience at A Comic Shop'smarathon screening of the classic sci-fi trilogy, I expressed my increasing Force-related fatigue, fostered by three-plus decades of overexposure to my generation's foundational pop-culture text. In the past two years I've commented on Star Wars more than a dozen times, placing it second only to Harry Potter for coverage in my column.
But face facts: once a Jedi junkie, always a Jedi junkie. No matter how often Lucas remasters his masterpieces (still refusing to release the original cuts on the upcoming Blu-rays) I return for more, like an abused Twi'lek slave dancer clinging to Jabba's drool-spattered throne. So ever since Disney shuttered its original Star Tours simulator ride last year, my theme park and sci-fi obsessions have been on overdrive, seeking any details about the attraction's long- overdue overhaul.
My search was finally rewarded when Walt Disney World announced an exclusive midnight preview of the refreshed ride on the eve of its grand reopening. Alerted by the Twitterverse, I emailed my RSVP request to the Mouse within 15 minutes of the event's announcement, making me one of only 200 invitees to make the guest list.
That left me with only one dilemma: who to take as my guest? Most of my usual plus-ones for geek events were tied up at Fringe, and the last thing my wife would want is to stay up late and get sick on some motion simulator. At least that's what I assumed, until I mentioned the meetup. Her only question: "Will Chewbacca be there?" Friends, forget about celebrity guest stars and multimillion-dollar special effects. The key to the critical "wife acceptance factor" is a walking shag carpet.
That's how we found ourselves being bused through the back gate of Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park in the middle of the night, strolling down a red carpet past "Imperial Property - No Trespassing" signs and luminous floating planetoids, while members of the Modal Nodes (aka the Mos Eisley Cantina Band) serenaded us. The area around the Star Tours attraction was a sea of costumed characters, from an Episode III-era Anakin Skywalker with a squad of clone troopers to a platoon of pint-size Ewoks. A dessert bar kept the crowd occupied until a couple of outlandishly dressed emcees arrived (one of whom looked suspiciously like Orlando actor Tim Williams) and introduced Disney Imagineers Kathy Rogers and Steve Spiegel. In a short Q&A session, the designers shared secrets from the ride's long redevelopment, which began in 1999. For instance: A visit to volcanic Mustafar was considered but rejected as not sufficiently "scenic," and Yoda's voice is provided by Miss Piggy himself, Frank Oz.
Finally it was time for our intergalactic flight. Winding past the arboreal Endor village into the queue, you'll find the attraction interior much the same, but since this is a "prequel" to the original experience, set shortly before Episode IV: A New Hope, the animatronic C-3P0 and R2-D2 droids look spiffed up instead of battle-scarred. After passing through a TSA-skewering security checkpoint (check out the baggage scanner for hidden in-jokes), you'll grab a pair of 3-D "flight glasses" and board your simulator. Unfortunately, you probably won't witness a standoff between Boba Fett and Greedo in the boarding area, nor ride sitting with the Rodian bounty hunter, like we did.
I don't want to spoil all the surprises, but suffice it to say that the rehab has returned the aging Star Tours to must-see status.Your four-and-a-half-minute voyage features rapid-fire cameos from many favorite Star Wars heroes and villains depicted in the sharpest 3-D I've ever experienced. Thanks to randomized programming, there are 54 possible adventures (generated from 11 unique ride elements) to experience: In one trip you might encounter Darth Vader and Princess Leia while exploring Hoth and Naboo; the next time you could see Han Solo and Admiral Ackbar on a flight to Tatooine and Coruscant. Best of all, the new ride is far less jerky and nauseating than before - sit in the center of row 3 for the smoothest ride, or in the back corner if you like it rough.
As for Chewie, we finally found him at about 2 a.m. Even though his photo-op wrangler was calling it quits, when the Wookiee spotted my wife in her vintage Chewbacca T-shirt, he made a break for her, delivering a sweat-soaked bear hug. Maybe we didn't bump into George Lucas that night - he was there for the next morning's media event - but meeting that famous fuzzball made me a hero of the rebellion in my wife's eyes. May the Force be with you, too.