Category Archives: Events

No Photos, Please (one for The Vault)

The cliché is true: you don’t truly appreciate something until you don’t have it.

As a photographer, I’ve always known the value of my camera equipment – both monetary and sentimental. It is, after all, how I make my living and how I’ve spent almost half my life. There have been times when I have not been allowed to use it (not everyone is a willing subject), and a couple times when I’ve just not had it with me when I wished I did. The missed opportunities never amounted to much in the way of regret – until yesterday.

During an assignment at the Hard Rock administration offices, I was offered an opportunity – nay, THEE opportunity – that anyone who has ever listened to music with any passing interest would jump at.

The assignment was a simple portrait of one of the marketing executives (who shall remain nameless). Seemingly uneventful, until his admission that he originally wanted to have the shoot in… The Vault.

The Vault is where the local Hard Rock offices keep, well, everything. Guitars, albums, photographs, costumes… and the ever-glamorous “etcetera”.

The idea was squashed by the arch enemy of all fun ideas, The Legal Department. It seems that Hard Rock is merely the curator of the items, with the former owners retaining the rights to any use. Much like taping a Sunday afternoon game, any unauthorized use is prohibited.

After the shoot, which took place in a lounge outside The Vault, I was asked if I had a few minutes to spare. This was followed by the question, “are you a music fan?”

He didn’t know me – obviously – so I resisted the urge to “DUH?!” and simply said, “oh hell yeah.”

My photo subject then offered me a walk through music history.

“You wanna see The Vault?”

… cue another silent “DUH?!”

Of course, the obvious and most-painful catch was made evident as he pointed to my camera bag and uttered the words I knew were coming but hated to hear – “you have to leave that here.”

Letting go of my bag-o-gear was never so difficult, but sometimes you have to make choices. I chose to see the stuff.

A quick stroll down the office hall; past some cubicles, a signed Doors poster, some office folk, and through the obligatory non-descript-wooden-door that usually precedes the finest of discoveries, and I was in.

A wall of guitars hanging on metal racks – about five or six guitars high and several hundred guitars wide – met my eyes like a trimmed tree on Christmas morning. Stratocasters, Les Pauls and acoustics, Oh My! And they were ALL SIGNED!

Little did I know, there was another catch or two: The autographs were less than legible and I could not handle any of them for a closer look. Nothing was labeled and my guide – the aforementioned nameless exec – could offer no information on which instrument belonged to which artist. He wasn’t part of the curating staff, none of whom were making the rounds with us on the impromptu tour.

I walked by the wall, v e r y  s l o w l y. My eyes scanned every surface and soaked in every inked line. And my mind raced.

“Does that say Richards? I think that says Richards! Does that say Dyan? I think that says Dylan! That one says Slash! LENNON?! NO! No, wait that’s not an L. What the hell is that? Where’s Sting? Wait, where are the basses? Tom Petty?! Holy Shit, What Does That One Say?!”

… and so on.

I avoided passing out. I avoided pleading for someone with a working knowledge of the archives to join us immediately. I simply strolled.

Across from the guitar wall were rows and rows and rows and rows… of shelves. My guide went on to tell me about the photos, books, artwork and record albums that filled each one. All were wrapped and protected and sealed and… not for my grubby little fingers.

There was a second level with racks of clothing. Dare I ask to venture up there? No. There was only time to admire from afar. Both my guide and I were on a schedule, and you can’t have “impromptu” without “prompt”.

I walked by the guitar wall one last time. “Somewhere on that wall is an Eric Clapton,” I thought. And I tried to linger in that idea, and in that room, as long as I could.

On the way to the door I had a brief-but-biting feeling of irony. This was an amazing opportunity, and I was happy to have it. But not knowing exactly what it was I had seen was a bit of a frustration. History is still history without the name tag. It’s just a little harder to recognize.

I briefly mused about some of the autographs I had accumulated over the years. Honestly, if I hadn’t watched as they were signed, I wouldn’t know who they were by reading the scribbled names.

As I took one last look back before the exit, I saw a shelf to my right. Not as crammed as those across from the guitar wall, I was able to make out one or two items. Those items I cannot recall now because of the impact of the last item I saw.

A drum skin. Sitting atop the shelf. All by itself. With an autograph signed in black, felt tip ink. Written clear as day.

“Peace. Love. Ringo.”

So ended my visit to The Vault.

(Insert big, goofy, smiley face here.)


Exit History, Enter Legend

History changes hands in downtown Orlando on Friday, 10.1.10, with the opening of the Amway Center; The multimillion dollar event venue that boasts state-of-the-art, hi-tech, and every other flattering catch phrase that Webster’s can dish out. It even has it its own flattering catch phrase for the grand opening ad campaign – Enter Legend. How do you not look forward to that?

Amid the pomp, circumstance and ribbon-cutting there is another, quieter side to the opening of the new venue. The closing of the old one.

As the new rings in, the old is wrung out. Despite the problems, out-dated amenities and dated appearance of Amway Arena, there is still a value that cannot be glossed over. Especially for those of us who spent many a night in the belly of the beast.

Former colleague and forever friend Jim Abbott, music writer for the Orlando Sentinel, spent much of his career covering concerts at the O-Rena (a vintage moniker that just stuck with the old building despite the name changes). As a burgeoning event photographer in my days at The Sentinel, I covered everything from minor league hockey to big league basketball to, yes, concerts.

I remember watching the Solar Bears – Orlando’s International Hockey League team – both as a fan and as a pass holding member of the media. I covered them for The Sentinel during their 2001 season when they became the last team to with the Turner Cup before the league folded.

I watched from the stands as Shaquille O’Neal played as a rookie in the Orlando Magic lineup, only to find myself – a mere seven years later – at court side, photographing the team in action.

I was there when RUSH took the stage at the grand old venue during their Roll The Bones Tour of 1992. And I photographed the concert event of a lifetime when REM teamed up with Bruce Springsteen , John Fogerty and Tracy Chapman during the Vote For Change Tour of 2004.

They will remain some of the best times I have spent in Orlando, and some of the best assignments I’ve had the pleasure of carrying out.

As those doors close, new ones will open. I have watched the Amway Center slowly emerge through each phase of construction (I pass the site every day on my way to work) and have toured the facility three times as it took shape. It lives up to every boast, and will help make many more fantastic memories.

I will enjoy the new, but I will always cherish the old. Here are just a few of those most cherished.

The 2001 Orlando Solar Bears... VICTORIOUS!

Penny Hardaway... 'member him? Yeah, me neither.

Steven Tyler belts it out at Amway in 2002. One of my favorite concert pics.

Tracy, Michael and Bruce tried to make a Vote For Change in '04. It eventually happened.

Britney in 2004 - pre K Fed. The good 'ol days.

Billie Jo and Green Day rocked the arena in '05. Another favorite.

Neil. 2005. 'Nuff said.

Star Wars In Concert: my last show at the O-Rena. A fitting end.

For The Troops: A Family Affair


Conventions mean something different to everyone in attendance. Collectors, costumers, journalists, and geeks out for a good time: we all have our own agenda.  Star Wars Celebration V had its variety of personalities, and offerings to satisfy every one of them. But beneath all the eye candy, collectibles and panels, there are people. Masses brought together by the common denominator of the Star Wars Saga and the need to celebrate all that it is… with each other.

When it’s all said and done, we are one big family.

Prep Time

Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars without The Empire. And a Star Wars party wouldn’t be much more than a bunch of geeks in t-shirts without the 501st Legion.

The 501st wants YOU.

For more than a decade, the “bad guys who do good” have been at the forefront of Star Wars costuming while throwing their support to charities as goodwill ambassadors of the Star Wars Universe. With over five thousand members from all over the world, the 501st is a testament to the inspiration of the Star Wars saga and the lasting dedication of the fans.

I’ve had the pleasure of photographing the Florida Garrison at several events, including Disney’s Star Wars Weekends and Star Wars Celebration 3. I was lucky enough to be chosen as the official photographer for their legion photo at Star Wars Celebration 5. With garrisons across the globe, the 501st rarely gets the opportunity to show off it’s true numbers at one event. There were hopes of a record breaking attendance at C5, which lead to the obvious concerns of where the photo would be taken. In the weeks before C5, a suitable location was agreed upon by Scott Will and Matt Paisley (both of the Florida Garrison),Dean Plantamura and 501st founder Albin Johnson (both of the Carolina Garrison). The group would meet in the convention center entry, near the main C5 exhibit hall. The immense space could be photographed from the 2nd or 3rd levels with a perfect view of the entire floor. Every trooper would be in plain sight. The photo was then scheduled for the third day of the convention, Saturday, August 14th, at 4pm.

As with most plans, it did not go off without a hitch. But that’s part of the fun.

Hitch I: That’s no moon.

The giant inflatable Death Star that the convention staff decided to hang in the entrance. It made a great impression, no doubt. You walk into a building and see the Death Star hanging over your head, you know you’re in for a good time. It did, however, pose a problem for the photograph.

As it hung directly over the center of the floor, so did it partially block the proposed view of the floor from the upper levels. In order to get everyone in the photo, I’d have to be on the stairway, facing the entrance to the hall. This posed a different problem. From a higher level, I’d be looking straight down at the group. On the gradual incline of the stairs, I’d be looking toward the group. Even at the top of the stairs, whomever was at the back of the crowd would be pretty far away.

Now that's a centerpiece.

The problem was already noted by the time I met up with Dean on the first day of the convention. But with no alternative location spacious enough to hold the legion, a shot from the stairs was the only option.

This, however, was Thursday. The photo was scheduled for Saturday. There was nothing anyone could do right now. It was going to be a big deal, yes, but it would be fun. Also …there was a friggin STAR WARS convention going on! There were two days of partying to be done in the interim, and I had my long time friend and co-conspirator John Booth to hang out with during all the geekery!

Me and John and Wampa.

... and speaking of parties. The 501st threw a pretty good one on Friday night.

During walks to-and-from panels, and back-and-forth from the main exhibit hall, I’d sometimes stop at the stairs. I’d walk up and down, look out over the crowded floor. I’d step back in awe of the space and of the masses milling about, and I’d wonder, “how the hell is this gonna happen?”

Time passed, as it tends to do. Saturday came – and it was busy. The 501st shoot was not until 4pm, and a morning meet-up with my friend and former Orlando Sentinel college Tanya Hanson, was a great start to the day at the convention. This was also the day of the Main Event: The event of all scheduled C5 events, the John Stewart interview with George Lucas.

This was something John and I had elected to stay FAR away from for several reasons, the top reason being that it was ONE SHOW ONLY. The prospect of spending the night on the sidewalk, waiting in line for the wristband that either granted access to the 2,600 seat theater, or the more likely prospect of seeing the simulcast on one of 6 other rooms, was not how we wanted to spend our time.

Besides, the 501st threw a hell of a party the night the lines began (didja see the photo?!) and the exhibitor floor was comfortably navigable as the masses converged for the show itself. For us, it proved to be the right decision. To each, his own.

In addition to meeting up with Tanya, I had the Slave Leia shoot to tend to (check out that story here – yeah, like you’re not just going to look at the photos). In fact, the 501st shoot was only one of three photo shoots I had scheduled that day; The third being the First Imperial Storm Trooper Detachment (FISD). Some FISD members are also part of the 501st, but they wanted their own group shoot. FISD member Steve Carter got my information from the 501st, made the request, and I was happy to oblige.

The Leia shoot took quite a while thanks to understandably huge crowds. Seriously, you try getting over fifty hot women together in a small space without attracting some interested parties.

… now put them in metal bikinis and imagine the crowd. Fewer males between the ages of 18 and 25 voted in the last primary.

The best excuse for gridlock, EVER.

Not long after I got Leia’d (yeah, I’m ashamed of that one) I started feeling anxious about the 501st shoot. As I went off to find Dean and Scott and Albin, Tanya and John rushed off to get in line for that afternoon’s Robot Chicken panel. Luckily I’d made a point of going the previous day.

This was as close as I got... still a good time, though.

I arrived at the 501st exhibit room at about 3:10 and was luck enough to find 2 members of the Belgian Garrison (I told you they had members all over the globe) who were also looking for Albin, and knew where he was. We found him judging a costume contest on the 4th floor and, upon realizing I was the official photographer, he made a special request. I was now to be the photographer for the Galactic Academy: a younger version of the 501st.

The Academy shoot, scheduled for 3:30, was to be a much lighter version of the Legion shoot. Kids were gathered on the stairs with their official banner, parents gathered to take photo of their own, cuteness and Star Wars love all around. It was pretty cool, and some of the costumes were very well done.

Kid Power!

All in all, more proof that Star Wars fans kick ass at all age levels.

After the Academy left the floor, it was time for the non 501st people to clear the floor. This was no small task.

Hitch II: The Hazards of Space.

Massive floor space mans massive crowds moving freely about. Luckily the 501st is a well oiled machine and very used to handling large crowds. I met up with Dean, and also Kathy Johnson. Kathy, wife of Albin and a 501st member herself, was going to organize the legion in a format similar to the group photo they shot at C4, three years earlier.

Kathy rallies the troops.

As she went to organize the legion members who had already began grouping around the perimeter of the main floor, I got to witness some crowd control. Dean had enlisted some fellow troops to move the convention crowds off to the sides of the main floor to make room for the group shot.

Dean Plantamura: Crowd Control

I, myself, went around asking people to move to one side and sought help from 501st members in keeping people away from the floor and away from the spot I needed on the stairs. I was soon steered toward some members who were on hand for security. They actually bowed out of the main photo to lend a hand in keeping order in the crowd.

How. Cool. Is. That.

I don’t know how long it took – I honestly didn’t have time to glance at my watch – but amid military style organization and several voices of authority, the floor soon was cleared. Completely cleared.

As Kathy began lining up the troops, I took some photos of the set up; Groups of Storm Troopers, Biker Scouts and Darth Vaders moving into position.

One Sith, Two Sith, Black Sith... Black Sith.

Now, how often do you see more than one Vader at a time? There were, like, five or six just hanging out together in one corner. Like some kinda basketball team from hell. Awesome.

I eventually noticed that the stairs were beginning to fill up. There was only so much security and, with such a massive effort on the floor, spectators showed up in droves.

The crowd was kept back and I had to stake out my spot on the stairs for fear of losing it.

I watched the precision and speed at which the troops fell into line. What was a shapeless, moving mass of people had turned into an empty floor. Then turned into an organized pattern of uniforms and armor.

I was told there would be two photos needed, one with the helmets (known as buckets) on, and one with them off, so everyone’s face could be seen. There were also some honorary members who were supposed to be in that particular photo.

The troops settled down at Kathy’s command. Camera flashes had been going off, and would continue to fire, all about the crowds that lined every floor and every step, but everyone on the floor faced me. I took a second and thought back to the times I passed by and stood at this very spot and wondered how it would all come together. I looked out at the formation of the group… and just marveled.

Almost there...

I have never – in the twenty years I’ve been shooting for whatever purpose, or employer, or event – never been more humbled at the sheer size of what I was documenting.

Hitch III: Jammed communications.

The honorary members were actually supposed to be in attendance for the “buckets on” photo. Weather I was confused – which happens enough – or the original request was just wrong, the outcome was simple and predictable. I shot the “buckets on” photo and shouted, “OK, now buckets off!”

This was met with some delay and shouting and quizzical looks by many of us. Dean maneuvered his way up the crowded stairs to inform me that the honorary members were on their way and the first photo would need to be re-shot. No biggie. It’s not like anyone broke rank or left the floor.

Within a few seconds a flutter of maroon fabric glided over from the edge of the floor and settled, front and center of the group. Adrianne Curry, still in her Slave Leia outfit from the earlier shoot was to be part of the 501st group. This was as good a reason as any for a re-shoot. Right behind her was Steve Sansweet – an integral member of the legion – along with Star Wars artists Terri and Tom Hodges.

Then cheers rose up from the crowd. For a second I thought The Maker himself had decided to join the fun but, instead, an equally important figure approached the group. Albin Johnson.

For whatever reason, he hadn’t been there and I felt quite embarrassed for not noticing. Within seconds, the OK was given and “buckets on” was an official go.

I shot three separate photos, just to be safe. Each one, counting down from three. Kathy counted down out loud, with me, holding up fingers to show the countdown.

I later realized, it’s pretty hard to see through tinted lenses. And even harder to hear through helmets. These guys – and girls – are good.

Within a few seconds, “buckets on” was done.


Then Clone Wars director Dave Filoni ran up to the crowd. Dave – between his appearances and interviews – was as busy as anyone could be, but made time to be at the photo. I saw Steve Sansweet bending Dave’s ear a bit as the troops were removing their helmets. I used my lens to zoom in and get a better look, then I saw Dave remove his trademark hat.

Buckets were indeed off!

Hey Dave, buckets off.

Thanks, man.

“Ready, three shots again,” I hollered. And with each countdown, the group photo came closer to history.

Finally, it was done.

“That’s it! THANK YOU!” I shouted. A resounding cheer rose up, from the troops, the spectators, and the photographer.

I spent the next few  minutes on the main floor shooting photos of the troops as they gathered for photo ops with the fans, and each other. I heard Steve Sansweet tell Kathy Johnson, “I told Dave he should take off his hat. It’s buckets off!”

Steve’s the man.

I saw Dean and went over to say hi. No sooner did I reach him than he turned to me and said, “Do you have a few extra minutes?”

As it turned out, there was to be an engagement.

A fan had approached Steve with the news that he had intended to propose to his girlfriend after the 501st photo. The plan was to bring her over to meet Steve, then pop the question. Dean wanted to know if I had time for a few photos — like I’m gonna turn THAT down!

The groom-to-be made his way to Steve as Dean and I tried to remain inconspicuous. I shot casual.

The happy couple.

He introduced his fiance (or so he hoped she would be). The din of the crowd was way over any conversation that was happening in front of me so I could only watch for the right moment.

He reached into his pocket.

He took her hand.

He got down on one knee.

… ok, screw casual, she knows what’s going on now.


I kept shooting but also tried to absorb the vibe. This was an unbelievably special moment in their lives. And it was happening at a STAR WARS CONVENTION!

Fuckin’ A!

... until Death Star do you part.

After the engagement I had a brief moment of panic. The FISD shoot was happening. Without me.

The plan was to have the shoot in the Star Wars Laser Tag room right after the 501st shoot. So off I went.

Did you ever start doing something only to realize you had forgotten something very important? Well, unfortunately, I realized I forgot where the laser tag area was, yet I was already running feverishly toward it. I found myself near a guest services desk and took the opportunity to right my wrong and ask directions. As it turned out, the laser tag area was around the corner from that very guest services desk.

I burst in the room just as the group was assembling. Fortunately, it was nowhere near the 501st group size – or even the Slave Leia group size. I even had a chair to stand on: this was just getting easier and easier.

Neat, organized and efficient. Another success… and in much better time.

Another happy family.

After the shoot I went to meet John and realized the Robot Chicken panel was not yet over. Had it only been an hour and a half since I stared off for the 501st shoot? Could all that have happened in such a short time? It was as if time stood still. For once.

I’d meet John in line for the Gary Kurtz panel – something which both of us really needed to see. I tried to explain everything that had happened at the shoot but was still dazed and unable to put it all into words. Not tired, not worn out. Actually, euphoric.

This is the first time I’ve really reflected on all of it since that day.

John and I have both agreed that C5 was probably one of the best convention experiences either of us has ever had. Everything from the panels we attended, to the crowd control, to the exhibits. Not to mention an impromptu meeting with ILM model maker Jon Berg in the Ralph McQuarrie gallery – a brief conversation that ended with us thanking him for helping create our childhood and him giving both of us a big bear hug. A true family moment.

John’s thoughts can be appreciated here.

Looking back, it was everything any of us could have hoped for, and then some. But the time that best encapsulated the spirit of the Celebration, was the afternoon I spent documenting the spectacle of fans united. Helping legions of devoted and giving people document their own events. Watching the crowds part as one family merged in gargantuan celebration, and as another family took it’s first step toward a future.

All, in the heart of the Empire.

The Shoot

Photography is the act of capturing life. From the delicate, fleeting moments that otherwise could be lost in the bustle of the everyday to history changing events that, through the skilled eye of the photojournalist, hold an awe-inspiring aesthetic of the human condition.

This is neither.

I was lucky – and when I say lucky, I mean lotto-style lucky – enough to have the chance to record for posterity, the largest gathering of Slave Leia costumes in the history of the metal bikini.

During my weeks of feverish preparation for Star Wars Celebration 5, I was asked to be the official photographer for the 501st Legion. I have had the pleasure of working with the Orlando chapter of the internationally renown Star Wars costume group on several occasions and was honored to oblige the request to be the photographer for the gathering of the entire legion at the latest Star Wars Celebration. Not long after the 501st request, I was contacted by members of the FISD (First Imperial Storm Trooper Detatchment) – another costuming group specializing in the famous white Imperial armor – for some help with their group photo… and naturally accepted.

Just out of curiosity, I asked my contact at the 501st if he knew of any Slave Leia groups who needed a photographer. The request was half-joking (maybe less than half) but he responded with the email address of the head of

“No shit?” I thought.

I sent an email with my offer to take a group photo. As if they had any problem finding a photographer. And as it turns out, they did, in fact, need a photographer.

“No shit,” was my unspoken reaction.

After forwarding some examples of my work, I received an enthusiastic acceptance and was set as the official photographer for

“No Shit!” — I actually yelled that out loud. Lucky I was home alone at the time.

In my career I’ve covered college football, hockey, basketball, concerts, fires and a political rally. This was not the largest crowd of onlookers I had to deal with, but it was the tightest. I don’t know how many people were crammed around the Gentile Giant booth on the C5 exhibitor floor, watching the ladies line up around a full-size Jabba The Hutt statue, but claustrophobia couldn’t have been an issue for any of them. Unfortunately, deodorant was an issue for some of them.

But the scenery was worth it.

All geeky, awe-struck, hormonal spazing aside, these women are very cool. They took so much time out of their days to pose with fans all over the convention center. Model/reality TV star/big time Star Wars fan Adrianne Curry was also part of the group and was constantly honoring autograph and photo requests wherever she was. It takes guts to put on the bikini but it takes heart to take that kind of time out for the fans. I thank every one of them for their patience.

That said: ladies and gentleman (ok, gentleman) …the Leias.




That's Ken the Elvis Trooper. He's awesome too, but in a different way.



Even just walkin around, they're awesome.

Yep, that's awesome too.


Star Wars Celebration V is in the books. On the blogs. And in the Tweets. The orgyastic four-day festival of all things Star Wars (but mostly The Empire Strikes Back) was another affirmation of the enduring appeal of the saga, and the strength of the bonds of fandom.

In short, geeks rule!

I’m still regaining my strength and senses. Also getting used to the emptiness of my home which, until this afternoon, was bustling with the activity of fans in convention mode. My extended family – The Booths of Ohio – have since landed safely and settled back home. They are no doubt going through the same emotional re-adjustments that I am, as are several thousand others who just finished up a fantastic fan gathering.

You can’t help but feel bummed in the hours and days after such a great time has ended. Especially when you know it will be at least another 3 years until it happens again (Celebration IV would celebrate the 30th anniversary of Return of the Jedi, which will be in 2013). Sifting through your memories – which, in my case, means editing photos – helps the decompression process and allows you to relive the happenings, revisit the people and hold on to everything that was.

I plan to put it all into words before too long. Some things – like Adrianne Curry and about 30 other women dressed in the Slave Leia metal bikini, and hanging out with ILM model maker Jon Berg – will be tough to put into words. For now, pictures will tell some of the story.

Hands down, most amazing costume of the con... and the best I've seen ANYWHERE so far.

Yup, that's John Stewart. And I didn't have to wait 12 hours in line for a wristband to see him!

I don't know and I don't care. Great Fett!

He had to take a Sith.

A great piece from the custom skate deck gallery.

In my day we had to use all different colors to make our LEGO figures! Get off my lawn.

Star Wars meets The Exorcist.

The 501st party. Yes, those are guys in Leia dresses. Be thankful they're not wearing the metal bikini.

Even Elvis is a Star Wars fan!

Anyone who thinks all Star Wars girls are weird-looking is a moron.

Chuck Silver of the band Sci Fried.

If Bow-Flex put this in their ad I might buy one.

Slave Leias Rule!

... and Adrianne Curry ROCKS!

The 501st Legion. Best costume club EVER (Adrianne is part of them too so the bikini is represented along with the armor)

That's a lotta troops.

The guy on the right is Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm director of fan relations. The other two just got engaged after the big 501st group photo... not to Steve, to each other.

Wild About Harry

With Star Wars Celebration 5 just a few weeks away, Orlando has already been the focus of a butt-load of attention and general geek love. Within the last month our fair city has been a stop on the Star Wars In Concert tour, enjoyed record attendance at Disney’s annual Star Wars Weekends events and will play host to our first ever Bot Con – the annual Transformers convention. It’s no secret that the theme park capital of the known universe is a mecca for events and conventions, but no recent event (with the exception of the aforementioned C5) has earned Orlando a spot on the world stage more than the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Even those unfamiliar with the adventures of Harry and his pals have been the victim of the media and marketing onslaught that Wizarding World has generated. John Williams himself sat in with the Orlando Philharmonic during a red carpet reception celebrating the opening of the park — yeah, JOHN FREAKIN’ WILLIAMS! And let me tell ya, as only a marginal follower of the mega-franchise, I was still ecstatic at the opportunity to attend the opening day. And the many, many… many thousands of people with whom I shared the experience, made it all the more memorable.

Journalists, generally speaking, are notoriously grizzled and jaded. No so much from a need to be objective, but because we see and do so much in the course of our jobs that it just takes a lot to impress us. Speaking as an easily amused individual, I rarely have that problem.

My Potter-Pallooza came courtesy of my employer, who generously gave me 2 days to experience both a media preview and the grand opening. This was the first time since I left a daily news paper (hence the blog name ExPress) that I was privy to a large scale media event. Being of a small publication, however, I was still very much a face in a crowd. The Today Show and many international press reporters were given access beyond other media folks, but let’s not split hairs: Special treatment at a special event is a pleasure no matter the extent or the reason. And, having missed the John Freakin’ Williams performance, I was out to enjoy as much as I could.

The media preview included a press conference with some of the people who helped create the park, produce the movies and the stars of the Harry Potter films including Rupert Grint, Tom Felton and Michael Gambon and Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Special? Yes! And so was finding Rupert Grint hanging out after the press conference, just chatting with the crowd, and very agreeable to the occasional photo request.

Another gift during the press conference was free Butterbeer. The drink, featured in the films, is re-invented for the park as a non alcoholic beverage. At first taste it’s like a combination of cream soda and root beer with a frothy head (added separately) that tastes mildly of pumpkin with nutmeg and other spices mixed in.

In short, it’s crack. Sweet, refreshing, mildly carbonated crack.

After 4 of them I still needed more – and I wasn’t the only one. Media, though jaded, are always up for a freebie… and this stuff was worth paying for. Empty Butterbeer cups could be found on every table and filled every trash can.

The Butterbeer buzz got us through the next part of the media day experience – a guided tour of the park. We were shown around the quaint town of Hogsmeade – painstakingly and wonderfully recreated for the park. Many of the shops are only storefronts featuring details from the films, but some were actual retail outlets such as Honeyduke’s candy shop and Zonko’s joke shop. Ollivander’s Wand Shop, however, is by far the most intriguing.

Inside, the wand maker Ollivander chooses someone from the crowd of shoppers and gives a one-on-one consultation in which he selects a want from the shop’s inventory. The recipient preforms an act of magic (with the help of some well placed animated devices such as moving books and a bell that rings). If the trick is successful, the wand has chosen it’s owner.

— Oh, you still have to pay for the wand, but you will know that your wand was meant for no one else but you.

The experience is more show than shop, with the actual store in a neighboring room. Visitors are guided into the real retail outlet after the show and, yes, only one person per group is chosen. Therefore, if you have a child who wants a wand, make sure he or she is aware that the Ollivander’s experience is a SHOW and that you will buy them a wand afterward. That way no promises – nor eardrums – risk being broken should your child not be chosen for the consultation.

Wizarding World is more than shops and shows. What theme park would be complete without rides? Dragon Challenge is actually the Dueling Dragons ride that opened in Universal’s Islands of Adventure years ago. It was a convenient addition to Wizarding World because it fit perfectly into the magical, mythical landscape. The former Flying Unicorn kiddie coaster is now Flight of the Hippogriff. The track is the same but the line cue is different with Hippogriff shaped cars added to the track.

The park’s marquee ride is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This attraction is actually two unique and awesome experiences in one. Within the amazingly detailed recreation of Hogwart’s Castle is a line cue that rivals most theme park rides. Talking portraits, ornate statues, a visit with Dumbledor and and an appearance by Harry, Ron and Hermione make every Muggle wish come true – and that’s just the start. The ride itself is an immersive experience with state of the art motion simulation and some frighteningly realistic creature effects. Not for the faint of heart, or faint of stomach, but if there was ever a good reason to risk losing a little of your breakfast, Forbidden Journey is it.

It seemed strange to have only three rides in the park but there are some details to consider.

One: Wizarding World is part of Universal’s Islands of Adventure – a cluster of “lands” that are only afforded so much space. Wizarding World is not much larger than all of Disney’s Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom, so there is only room for so much.

Two: It’s a new park. Who knows what they have planned if the park should be a hit once the opening weekend frenzy wears down.

Even with a surprise preview for the public (during what was supposed to be a media-only preview), the crowds were manageable and wait times minimal. But this was only a preview. The true test was to come the following day.

The Following Day: As the media and invited guests were gathering around the entrance to Wizarding World, an unimaginable throng of Potter fans were already gathered in the Universal Studios parking area. Thousands of fans packed the walkways that extended toward the grand opening area. The heat was unbearable, even for Florida. Having already experienced the park the previous day, we the media were feeling less-than-patient when the 9am start time was pushed back. All in all, the delays were tolerable, especially when word got around about just how many people were waiting in lines since the previous evening. Smart phones provided the information and the footage but no one could believe just how big it was until we ALL were allowed in.

A dedication ceremony (only about 30 minutes late) that included the stars from the previous day’s press conference was a quick and to-the-point production that included a meet and greet with some schoolchildren who had won a contest to be the first opening day visitors to Wizarding World. After that, the crowds were allowed to enter.

Within 15 minutes I watched as empty streets reached the attendance level we had experience the day before… and then surpass it. Within 30 minutes the crowds had made for a 2 hour wait to Forbidden Journey and not long after, the line at the Butterbeer vendor (located near the front of the park) reached Space-Mountain-like wait times. Before noon the line reached more than half way through the park – Just For Butterbeer!

At 11:30 I headed back to the media center for lunch. Not far away, a thunderstorm was beginning to build. It did not take long to make it’s way to the park. When I returned at about 12:30 both Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff were closed due to lighting in the area. Rain had already moved through with more on the way and thunder could still be heard in the distance.

… but the Butterbeer line was as long as it was before the storm. Not only had people stayed in line during the bad weather, but the storm could not deter the masses as they continued to file in behind those who had been in line for hours.

Crack, I tell ya. Crack.

Second only to the Butterbeer line, was the wait for Three Broomsticks – the one and only eatery in the park which, not surprisingly, has no reservations. The Three Broomsticks line snaked in front of both Honeyduke’s and Zonko’s which made entry into some of the only real shops in Hogsmeade, a task unto themselves.

Forbidden Journey however, was operating smoothly, even when it wasn’t operating. The ride had some technical problems and shut down a few ties during the day. The line, however, kept moving. The parts of the cue where guests are treated to various Potter-esque eye candy actually act as buffers. As people take the time to watch the portraits interact and visit Dumbledor’s office and see Harry and his friends, there is space building in the line sequence. Even when the ride shuts down, there is still movement through the cue as visitors take up the space.

Having seen expressions of joy, frustration, exhaustion and more joy on the faces of the crowds, it seemed the general feeling in the crowd was the same as any other day in a theme park. The heat and lines were harrowing, but all is usually forgiven once you get on the ride, pay for your souvenirs and taste the Butterbeer (crack). There will always be nay-sayers, complainers and haters, but as long as there is a fan base (and there is most definitely a fan base), things will work out.

Hell, I’d go back – even if I wasn’t guaranteed a Butterbeer.

Mr. Daniels goes to Orlando

Flashback to the 1999 Star Wars Celebration in Colorado; Anthony Daniels hosted the opening ceremonies and some of the presentations. The man behind the golden visage of C3PO proved a charismatic presence – well worth the hours spent waiting in the rain.

Fast forward to 2010; Anthony Daniels hosts Star Wars In Concert. The two-hour celebration of the music behind the stories of a galaxy far far away is a fast for the senses and a highly recommended event for both the Geek Nation and music lovers alike. I had the honor of photographing the event, with a little help from my friends at the venue head office, and also got the chance to meet the host backstage before the afternoon performance.

… with a little help from Dustin at a review and photo gallery are now part of Star Wars history… at least on their site.