BY JON SOLOMON & MAGGIE SOLOMON-SCHELLER Rushing straight from the airport into McCormick Place with my 10 year-old daughter for our weekend in Chicago at Star Wars Celebration, it was hard not to channel True Hero of the Rebellion Wedge Antilles in the cockpit of his X-Wing, gazing upon the Death Star for the first time:?? “Look at the size of that thing.”
Tens of thousands of Star Wars fans from all over the planet gathered at the nation’s largest convention center from April 11th through the 15th for the 20th annual edition of this enormous event, a potentially overwhelming mixture of panels, screenings, exhibits, exclusive merchandise, reveals, demonstrations and special events.
She and I [pictured, above] had been planning this trip for nearly a year.
Having lived in Chicago for the majority of the 1990s, this was the best/worst location for the first Celebration since 2017 in Orlando to be held. We had numerous options of friends to stay with and a long list of favorite places to eat. ??How could the two of us not go together to Celebration for the first time?
Besides the scope, the thing that struck me about Star Wars Celebration was the positivity and inclusivity of it all. With the recent talk of “toxic fandom” the past year plus, everyone we encountered – with the odd outlier of a trio of sheepish kids wearing homemade “red circle with a line through a picture of The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson” pins – was warm, friendly and willing to share their love of Star Wars happily with us.
Seeing Kelly Marie Tran, who had been pushed off the Internet following the release of The Last Jedi due to bullying get two different extended standing ovations as people chanted her name was especially beautiful to witness.
Daily panels such as Creating a Space for Queer Fandom and Navigating Gender, Crossplay, and Trans Costuming in a Galaxy Far Far Away made everyone feel welcomed, not just dudes in their 40s like me.
Our first Celebration experience was a success in retrospect for two reasons: Advance planning and an understanding that we would never be able to see or do everything. ??Once the schedule was announced, we put all the events we wanted to attend into a color-coded spreadsheet and then tried to focus on the top six things we hoped to be present for: The Episode IX panel on Friday, the Star Wars Rebels Remembered panel and the cosplay competition on Saturday, then The Mandalorian panel, a taping of the podcast Star Wars Minute and The Clone Wars panel come Sunday.
To be in the basketball arena where the Episode IX and Mandalorian panels were taking place, you had to win a lottery.
In a hilarious twist, my daughter won entry for IX while I did not.
“We’ll figure it out,” I told her.
Getting up in New Jersey at 4:00 am ET on Friday to head to the airport was less than ideal, and we landed with under two hours until the Episode IX panel’s start time. Missing our first train out of O’Hare when the door shut in my daughter’s face was an inauspicious development, but one “L” Blue Line ride and an improvised switch to an Uber later we were at Celebration with only 20 minutes to go.
Her badge is picked up at will call and now we’re running up the street to the arena with our luggage in tow, me in a This Is Not A Ric Olie T-Shirt t-shirt, her in the same vintage yellow Return of the Jedi tee I once wore when I was her age.
Reaching security, I pull up the QR code she needs to gain access.
Security doesn’t even scan it and we both rush in the door. ??I’m historically more of a Han Solo luck-believer, but let’s be honest – the Force is with us.
We find our seats with three minutes to spare.
The lights go down.
A video of outtakes and rare footage from throughout the 40+ years of Star Wars starts playing.
My daughter grabs my hand and I immediately begin crying.
I’ve never seen her clap, woooooooooooooooooooo and give as many standing ovations as she does over the next hour and throughout the subsequent three days.
Following the first trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, we stow our bags and jackets in the media room and hit the floor.
Name a Star Wars character and someone’s dressed as it, from Muftaks to Zabraks.
There are seemingly more Ahsoka Tanos than Han Solos.
Multiple people are attired like deep cut characters from 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special, which only aired once.
Ask anyone for a photo and they’re happy to oblige. Some have complimentary trading cards and pins to offer in exchange.
The best costumes are mash-ups combining other elements of popular culture – a blue, mustachioed “Thrawn Swanson,” and a boombox-wielding, gold chain-wearing Run DMC stormtrooper trio for example – or those that swap familiar conventions – like a female Kylo Ren strolling hand-in-hand with a bearded Rey by their side.
Former WWE champion CM Punk walks the floor without even being recognized.
It wasn’t all perfect.
A few attractions and the official Star Wars Celebration store had absurdly long lines, though those seemed to dissipate as the weekend went on. By Sunday we didn’t have to wait the countless hours people reported losing earlier in the week.
Additionally, the Star Wars Celebration app that was supposed to help you virtually queue for specific panels and scheduled events did not work for most attendees until midday Saturday and only stopped being fully wonky come Sunday. ??The app functioned as intended during 45 magical seconds on Saturday, where we were able to move up to the fifth row of the cosplay competition because preferred registration was briefly online.
By the time we were seated it had stopped working again.
Towards the end of the first day, we’re heading back from some cosplay booths, when we approach the Star Wars Show stage in the center of the floor – the hub of the event where guests are brought out for live interviews broadcast over the Internet. Each time we’ve passed it a small crowd has surrounded the stage, but this time the actor who played Enfys Nest in Solo: A Star Wars Story is talking to one of the hosts. My daughter, who went as Enfys Nest for Halloween last year, gets super excited. I’m 6’3” and she’s still under five feet tall, so once she dashes into the crowd to get a better look I can’t see her.
Which is fine, because I’ll just find her after this segment wraps. Right?
Then they bring out the bold-faced names.
John Boyega, followed by Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, JJ Abrams and Oscar Isaac. The crowd swells around the stage. My daughter is gone. It is cool at first. I know she’s likely having the time of her life. ??But after 45 minutes of pacing and searching I realize I’m both embarrassed and getting increasingly anxious. ??After an hour, I understand I have to report this to security.
So I do. Sheepishly. ??I wait at Fan Services as staff with walkie-talkies confer based on the description I’ve given them.
Following another 30 minutes of looking around, my phone finally rings. A very nice man from security on an entirely different floor of McCormick Place has my daughter with him.
So glad we reviewed what my cell number was several times on the plane.??The way she tells it, she realized after watching a few interviews from the spot she’d squeezed into in the very front row that she didn’t know where I was.
When she needed to find me, she couldn’t, so she went back to the best people she thought could, a group of Mandalorian bounty hunters who were accepting “bounties” for charity, promising they could locate anyone on the convention floor. After talking to them (“you’re looking for a tall guy in a blue hoodie”) even they realized this was something security had to handle.
Reunited, I discovered that the best possible thing that could happen when you’re 10 was getting lost at Star Wars Celebration. Security had rewarded her with all sorts of limited edition pins and hard-to-find exclusives while I was fretting.
We stopped in to say hello to author Jason Fry leading a storytime for younger kids and wearily stumbled off to dine on well-earned Costa Rican burritos and oatmeal shakes.
After a nice breakfast, day two is spent mainly at panels. Rebels Remembered rolls right into the queue for the cosplay competition, won by a guy wearing a remarkable yellow loader droid MC-219 apparatus (think Ripley at the end of Aliens) so large he can’t actually walk up onto the stage, but so realistic he could have come straight from a film set.
These panels are a great way to rest our legs succeeding so much frantic walking the day prior.
I’m psyched to spot a Bor Gullet/Bodhi Rook duo [pictured, below] and ask to take their picture. Afterwards the woman dressed as the tentacled Mairan requests to see my phone, telling me she is “still working on her pose.”
On an unexpectedly snowy Sunday (it snowed for nine straight hours!), we wrapped up our first Celebration with a meet-up for Star Wars Minute listeners at a restaurant downtown. This is the show that cemented our family’s shared fandom of Star Wars, forming the foundation of countless in-jokes as the hosts examine each film in the series minute-by-minute.
My daughter holds her own among the stories and quips, though she later tells me it was strange to meet the show’s Alex Robinson and Pete The Retailer [pictured, below] in person because “I sometimes forgot I was talking to them and not listening to a podcast.”
Of course they have a free replacement for the long-out of print SWM shirt she outgrew to give her, because it is that sort of weekend.
While our first Star Wars Celebration was equal parts incredible and daunting, I appreciated the choose-your-own-adventure nature of it all.
It was difficult for two people to have the exact same experience.
We spoke with families on the “L” who went to a whole different list of panels and events than us, with almost no crossover.
You could attend a specific batch of scheduled experiences just as easily as you could spend your entire Celebration walking around, or perhaps focusing on autographs and photographs with assorted guests.
I saw so many snapshots of booths, costumes and rooms that we never came across in our exploration. Even on our final day at Celebration, where we spent the most time on the floor.
But that was easy to come to terms with, given we ended going an astounding six-for-six with our top priorities.
Although we arrived overwrought, we left less than 72 hours later feeling like seasoned, welcomed veterans, already making plans to craft costumes for 2020 and reconvene with new friends for next year.
While as Yoda once said, “always in motion is the future,” I’d be surprised if we didn’t find ourselves in Anaheim twelve months from now for our second Star Wars Celebration.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Jon Solomon is an award-winning DJ at 103.3 fm WPRB, where he has hosted a Xmas marathon broadcast the past 30 years. He also runs the record label Comedy Minus One and drinks a lot of seltzer. His favorite Star Wars character is Nien Nunb.Beyond absorbing all things Star Wars, his daughter Maggie loves to ride her bike, play piano and do ballet. She wants you to know her favorite two books are currently “Property of the Rebel Librarian” and “Lost Stars.” They live in central New Jersey with their wife/mom Nicole.