Behind the Scenes with the 501st at Star Wars Weekends

501st Legion marches from the gate. \ Image: Gordon Tarpley

501st Legion marches from the gate. \\ Image: Gordon Tarpley

For the past 10 years, the 501st and Rebel Legion costuming groups have brought their costuming expertise to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida for Star Wars Weekends. I’m proud to say I’ve participated in the past three years of the event and I’m excited to share with you a little behind-the-scenes knowledge of what it takes to march and what we go through to make it happen.

Since this is not just any event, both costuming groups have strict requirements for participation. Even though the event doesn’t start until May, troopers start preparing months in advance, getting costumes ready for the big event.

After all the formalities are out of the way, such as meeting the two troop minimum requirement since June 20 of 2012 and submitting pictures of your costume…it’s time to get ready to march!

Every year, Disney plans out the parade schedule and informs us what time we are expected to be there and what time we will be marching. They also inform us which characters they will be providing, so we don’t have any duplicates in the park (Vader, Captain Rex, Asoka, Chewbacca, Boba and Jango Fett to name a few).

Armor bins ready to go! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

This year, we have about two hours in between the time we are expected to arrive and what time we step off to march. The time in between is used for the morning meeting, Disney security inspection of our gear and getting suited up. It’s also a great time to catch up with friends we don’t get to see all the time.

It’s common for us to have troopers from other states and other countries. Some of them have been making the trip every year to participate in at least one of the four weekends. Puerto Rico and Australia are two countries we’ve had visiting troopers from in previous years. This can make for some interesting cultural experiences in food (Vegemite was popular one year) as well as a chance to make some good coin and patch trades.

To keep us on our tight schedule, we have around five command staff members that don’t suit up for the parade. With over 100 troopers on an average Saturday, they have their hands full keeping us in line. They’re also there to make sure we hydrate and are keeping cool as possible. It can get over 100 degrees some weekends, so hydration is key to making it through the march.

Many troopers bring food and drinks to share so that no one marches on an empty stomach or goes down from dehydration. We take the heat seriously and everyone watches out for their fellow troopers.

The Bounty Hunters rocked it! \ Image: Seann Finnegan

The Bounty Hunters rocked it! \\ Image: Seann Finnegan

This year, I wore my Cad Bane mask for the first time for the march. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of air flow in there and to top it off, I didn’t hydrate enough. Thankfully, several troopers were on hand to help me get out of my gear and alert the proper command staff to my condition. It was a scary experience and I’ll remember it the next time I turn down water before the march.

Since the parade is at 11:00 a.m. this year, that means we will be fully suited up as early as 10:15 a.m. to head to the gates, backstage at Disney. It’s a healthy walk, but this is when my adrenaline starts pumping.

While we wait for the “buckets on” (a.k.a. helmets on) call, we have one last chance to hydrate and talk.

The Jedi training academy lines up across the way from us and it’s cute to see them checking us out. It’s also nice when the stars come out to climb into their motorcade cars. Some of them will walk the line of troopers and say hi and chat with us for a few minutes. These brief conversations are a neat part of the experience.

When our Disney coordinator tells us we are at the five-minute mark, that’s our queue to grab one last drink of water and put on our buckets.

We start the lineup and as we move closer to the gate, we can hear the crowd on the other side cheering and waiting for our arrival. The gates open and the announcer gives us a grand entrance into the park.

As we march out, we have some loyal fans cheering us on “501st! 501st!” and they can’t see it, but we’re smiling under our buckets and masks. I wish we could wave at them, but we are instructed to be a military unit and are not allowed to make contact with the guests.

Our fans are awesome and know how to get us pumped up! \ Image: Savanna Kiefer

Our fans are awesome and know how to get us pumped up! \\ Image: Savanna Kiefer

My son likes to cheer me on from the sidelines yelling “Mommy!!” Of course, the kids see me as an animated clone, so they have no clue who he’s yelling at. Even with our helmets on, he knows who everyone is and cheers them on by name.

The parade starts at the main entrance of the park and ends at Star Tours. The march itself lasts about 15 minutes, but it’s the best 15 minutes of the day.

At Sorcerer Mickey’s hat, the hosts of Star Wars Weekends narrate our walk down Hollywood Blvd and sometimes make some cheesy, but welcoming jokes. They also give shout outs to the out of town troopers and special costumes marching that day.

As we reach Star Tours, the gate is open and welcoming. A little ways past the gate, command staff is waiting to help anyone who needs it and to give troopers water. We take off our buckets and walk back to our gear for rest and hydration.

I sneaked a pedometer into my armor on the first day and after the march it gave me some interesting stats. From the time I left my gear to the time I got back, I took over 1,550 steps and walked .72 miles. My total time in costume was 1 hour. Wow!

Backstage, the space is buzzing with everyone packing up and loading up their cars. We are on a tight schedule to get out so cast members can use the space to park and security can lock up.

The march may be over, but the fun doesn’t stop. Since Disney is nice enough to give us a one-day park ticket for marching, many troopers head back into the park to play after they get a chance to cool off. My favorite thing to do is to go to the ABC Commissary for some chicken curry and then hit up the Star Wars Weekends exclusives.

Time to party in the park! \ Image: Savanna Kiefer

Time to party in the park! \\ Image: Savanna Kiefer

As the day winds down and we all head back home or to our hotels, we smile and look back at another parade complete and start counting down until we can do it again.

Dakster Sullivan is a core contributor on GeekMom as well as an avid Star Wars costumer. She loves reading comics and serving proudly as the only female to wear an animated clone trooper in the Florida Garrison. Check her out on Twitter @Dak903.

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