Star Wars Celebration Chicago: A Retroactive Diary

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As I mentioned last week, this year’s event was not just my first Star Wars Celebration but my first major convention of any kind—after living in Pittsburgh for nineteen years I’ve only even been to our own Steel City Con once, and suffice it to say I wasn’t missing much. There was never much to draw me there content-wise, and the rest was just aisle after aisle of the type of knickknacks I could always find at my local comic shop if I cared to. I left behind most of my interest in merchandise years ago and I never had much interest in meeting celebrities, so what was left to get me there? Well, Pittsburgh-wise, very little. But thanks to this site, and the hundreds of people I’ve gotten to know online because of it, Celebration is able to offer not just an incomparable slate of programming but the opportunity to spend time with literally dozens of people I’ve come to think of as friends but never actually met.

Mind you, four days in California or Florida is generally out of my price range. I always told myself, though, that if they ever came to the northeastern United States I would make it happen. So when they announced Chicago as the next Celebration locale roughly a year ago, it was time to put up or shut up.

What follows is the full, unvarnished1 story of my experience—both the headaches and the thrills. While I definitely had my share of the former, allow me to be very clear: I had a fantastic time, met lots of cool people, and have essentially no regrets. There were some huge unknowns that made my pre-show experience pretty stressful, but for the most part they were particular to me and my own choices and while I want to relate them authentically, they should not be taken as a warning. If you haven’t attended a Celebration before, I hope you find the below enlightening—but know that nothing can compare to doing it for yourself, an experience I strongly recommend.

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April 11, 2019: Day One

The drive to Chicago is uneventful. I get there around 6:15 and after dropping my things off at the AirBnB I ditch my car in the nearest free spot and bike over to McCormick Place to pick up my media badge—the next morning is Episode IX and I don’t have any idea how long this will take so better to handle it now. After waiting briefly in the normal-people line like a sucker it’s pointed out to me that media have their own check-in desk, so I head over there. I give the nice woman my name and she hands me a badge. No photo ID necessary. No QR code scanned. Months of fretting and second-guessing ends with about as much fanfare as picking up a Starbucks order.

From there I head across the street to meet some people at the Marriott bar, including ETE staffer Jay Shah.2 We play a very loose Star Wars Fantasy Flight game—my second ever—with Tosche Station‘s Brian Larsen as our DM. A few tables away we notice the gang from the Star Wars Show, and a few tables in another direction is a group of actors from The Clone Wars. I’ve only been in town two or three hours. As befitting something labeled as “Preview Day”, it’s a breezy, relaxed start to my adventure.

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Eleven Months Earlier: Bargaining

May 16, 2018: Celebration Chicago is announced. I double-check the driving distance on Google, then quickly tweet the above before I can talk myself out of it. I recently brought home a decent chunk of videography (read: discretionary) income and despite having a move coming up in July, I’m optimistic about getting my security deposit back—between that and my eventual tax refund it seems like I should be in good enough financial shape the following spring to afford both the pass itself and a hotel. Take out another hundred bucks or so for gas and I should still have enough to enjoy myself and not eat ramen noodles and granola bars the whole time.

A couple weeks later: With passes going on sale in scant days, my car fails its inspection. My mechanic tells me the necessary repairs will be something like nine hundred dollars. Fuck.

June 5: Celebration passes go on sale. My mechanic was generous enough to let me take my car back without paying for anything, but once my move is out of the way I’m going to have to buckle down and get those repairs—certainly before I go on any road trips. That being the case, if there’s any chance whatsoever I can get a media pass and attend Celebration for free I simply can’t justify spending two hundred dollars right now. So despite technically having the money, I do nothing and watch five-day passes quickly sell out. This ends up being a prudent decision but I won’t know that for sure for another nine months.

July / August: My move goes well. I’m between leases for a month and staying with a friend while my stuff sits in storage, but not having to pay my normal rent and utilities more than covers storage and my assorted other moving expenses. I get my security deposit back, thank god—I guess I successfully covered up that bleach stain on the carpet.

August 16: With the last moving expenses behind me, I celebrate my birthday by finishing my car inspection. It ends up being a couple hundred less than originally estimated, so things are looking better than they were two months ago—but it’s far too late for a five-day pass and at this point I’m feeling pretty good about a media approval so I cross my fingers and watch the Thursday and Friday passes sell out over the next couple months.

December 4: According to the FAQ on the Celebration website, media registration opens December 5th. As I write this, post-convention, it still says so.

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This is apparently not the case. I reach out to Jay Shah to compare notes and make sure our applications aren’t stepping on each other’s toes, and he informs me that he submitted his back in November, as a representative of Kanjikast, the Asian-perspective podcast he’s been doing over at Tosche Station. So the good news is I won’t be competing with any other ETE staff for a limited number of badges, but the bad news is, they’ve got a month’s worth of applications already in. I scramble to compile our traffic and demographic information and submit my application late that night. The wait begins.

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April 12, 2019: Day Two

After once again waking up earlier than necessary (though out of excitement this time) I head directly to the Wintrust Arena. Having been out all Thursday evening, I have yet to meet my AirBnB host. Despite getting downtown two hours early I’m afraid to stop for coffee and get straight into the already-ginormous entry line. I’m soon joined by Eric Geller, who’s not really important, and inside we meet up with Jay and Dunc from Club Jade. Not a bad crew for the big opening event.

I take lots of pictures and burn through a good chunk of my data plan, but so be it. The panel concludes with one of the most distinct pleasures of my trip, because there was no way to plan or foresee it: Jay is known as big Empire buff, but more than that he’s one of the biggest Palpatine fans out there, and I got to be standing next to him for the end of that teaser trailer, and Ian McDiarmid’s surprise appearance. The room is so ignited by the reveal it feels like we barely even notice the title at first. The implications of the final shot weigh most heavily on my own mind as we slowly file out of the stadium.

From here the four of us go our separate ways. I finally cross the street to Starbucks and then head into the main convention hall for the first time. The next panel I want to do isn’t until 2:30 so I wander around for a while and soak up the insanity. When I do decide to head to the Star Wars University stage for the “Military of Star Wars” panel I quickly realize I have no damn idea how to get there—it’s downstairs from the main hall but that end of the hall doesn’t seem to have an escalator. I run down a stairwell only to find that I can’t get back into the first floor proper, so I run back up. Turns out the third floor of McCormick, in addition to holding the main hall and the Galaxy stage, functions as sort of a bridge between the two halves of the first floor, and the only way to get from one half to the other (at least that I could find) is to go up and then back down a specific set of escalators.3

I get to the SWU stage right on time! But it’s full. The staffer posted outside says the room only holds two hundred people so while it’s one of the more esoteric panels they had to cut entry off something like thirty minutes early. To dig the blade in even deeper, I had spoken with Thomas Harper, panel moderator, the night before and he’d offered to save me a seat, something I’d been quite certain would not be necessary. After an almost suspiciously smooth experience attending the Episode IX panel, this was a helpful reminder that I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

A little later I tweet an important Veers update from outside the Julian Glover queue, and having made my location public I’m quickly joined by Jim Mello, ETE guest contributor and writer of the soon-to-conclude A Star Wars Comic. This piece isn’t about exhaustively chronicling each person I did or did not hang out with but I want to take a moment to say what a positive, open-hearted dude Jim is—and he really seems to be a fan of this site so he’s got good taste as well. Go read his comic, but whatever you do don’t follow him on Twitter.

I head to the Lucasfilm Publishing panel early and recognize a bunch of people near the front of the reservation line, but whether by glitch or design, media badge holders are unable to reserve spots in panels. Let me repeat that: the fact of my attending the convention as media specifically led to my being unable to guarantee access to the things I was there to cover. Seems weird. So off I go to the ass end of the doubly-long standby line—but luckily the Twin Suns stage is much bigger than SWU and I make it inside.

As the convention schedule nears the day’s end, I attempt to track down Jason Fry, longtime subject of interview and analysis here. He’s in something called the “family area”, literally sitting in a circle on the floor reading to children. It’s devastatingly precious and pure and I’m afraid to go anywhere near it, so I table meeting Jason for now and finish my day upstairs at Covering Star Wars, which Dunc and I watch and nitpick from the back of the class like the reprobates we are. After the panel I bump into Abigail Dillon,4 from whom I’m honored to receive a hard copy of her epic “Twin Suns” Close Read, which puts me in pretty esteemed company.

I run home for a fast shower and head back out to the bar. It’s a good thing I packed a bunch of Clif Bars because I haven’t had an actual sit-down meal since I got to town. Luckily tonight’s bar has a couple little counter places where you can grab a sandwich.5

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Three Months Earlier: Denial

January / February 2019: I begin seeing a new optometrist after letting my eyes go unchecked for a while and spend twice as much as I was expecting to. Then my car battery dies in a cold snap. Then, for the first time in my adult life, I owe tax money instead of getting a refund. I’m starting to wonder whether I can afford the trip even if I do get a media badge.

February 22: After three months of vacillating between confidence in this site’s reputation and dread over that month-long delay, media registration closes. The rumor mill suggests that approvals have been going out since at least the beginning of the month.

February 28: Today is the given deadline by which media applicants are supposed to have heard back. I haven’t. I don’t want to be one of those people, so I assume they’re just behind schedule and do nothing. I know of at least one person who was denied but still received an email, so I’m not ready to assume no news is bad news.

March 5: I finally email ReedPOP’s media team to check in. No response. I start to consider that with money being tighter than I expected, maybe not getting approved wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world—I could always just go for a couple days and hang out with people outside the convention.

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April 13, 2019: Day Three

After a couple rough nights I gleefully skip the Galaxy’s Edge panel in favor of sleeping until 11:30. I sleep a little too long,  as it turns out, and wake up with a headache that never quite goes away.

I make it to the Del Rey panel just as Entertainment Weekly is breaking the news that after Rise of Skywalker the films are officially taking a hiatus. Sounds fantastic to me—let Star Wars be a television franchise for a bit. I don’t get to the Fallen Order panel but I see snippets of the trailer as we head back to the main hall. I know Cameron Monaghan from Shameless, but I don’t realize it’s him until I see his tweet about it a little later, and moments after that he appears fifty feet away from me on the Star Wars Show stage. I run back to the Twin Suns stage for the Marvel panel, and find myself spontaneously livetweeting it—this being such a rare experience for me, my guiding principle is just to be present and watch rather than relay everything on Twitter, but here and there I can’t help myself.

That said, with so much to see and do I spend very little time reading my Twitter timeline—being in the building ironically made it much harder to keep up with the news and reactions than it would have been from my living room. If I wanted to know what a specific person thought about something I could just to ask them in person, like our technologically-challenged ancestors.

Despite being a strict reader of e-books, I wanted to get a taste of the convention autograph experience—so I brought my Kindle and made rough plans to get at least a few novelists to sign it with a fancy silver gel marker. Today’s mission is John Jackson Miller and Claudia Gray. Their signings are essentially back-to-back so after forty minutes or so waiting for JJM I get right back into line for Gray.

A weird thing about me is I can wander around a convention center all day and maintain a decent amount of energy as long as I sit for a few minutes here and there. But standing still, or in a slow-moving line, absolutely kills me. So between about ninety minutes’ worth of signing lines and the headache that won’t go away I’m starting to feel really drained for the first time—and the weekend’s only half over! I get a chicken sandwich and a Gatorade at the cafeteria upstairs and chat with Ben Wahrman6 and a few others, then slink away to relax for a while.

There’s a podcast meetup at the Hyatt bar—the same one I was at the previous night—but it’s waayyy too crowded for my comfort. I hang around the edge of it for a while and eventually connect with Jay and the newly-arrived David Schwarz,7 with whom I head over to the Marriott bar instead. Both bars seem to be serving roughly the same number of people at any given time, but there’s much more room for us to spread out at the Marriott so all in all it’s a far better experience, in that I can both sit down and be heard by the person in front of me.

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One Month Earlier: Acceptance

March 8, 2019: I privately reach out to a Lucasfilm representative on Twitter. I’ve been watching hotel prices fluctuate for weeks and at this point I just need to know something. I’m told that I am indeed on the approved list but to confirm with ReedPOP, so I email them again. No response.

Mid-March: Now at least moderately confident that I’m actually getting into the building, I start preparing to make a hard decision on accommodations: four nights seems out of the question, but would I rather go Thursday through Sunday or Friday through Monday? Can I even afford three nights or will that put me back in ramen noodle territory? What are the least bad options for fitting in my eight-hour drive?

March 20: I email ReedPOP’s main customer service address and explain my situation.

March 21: The full panel schedule is released in the newsletter. When people tweet about it the next morning it finally hits me that I’m not getting the newsletter. That’s annoying enough on its own, but maybe it relates to the problem with my media application? I fruitlessly check my spam folder for the twentieth time, then subscribe via my work email instead; from then on the newsletter shows up normally.

March 22: ReedPOP customer service responds—my first email from a human! They’re reaching out to the media team and will get back to me.

March 25: I’ve seen research that says hotel prices tend to go down in the last couple weeks before a given date as they try to unload the last open rooms, but after over a month of close monitoring, my options in Chicago don’t seem to be getting any better. I finally break down and reserve an AirBnB instead, for about fifty dollars less per night than the hotels I was watching. It’s a ways off from the convention center, but driving into town means I can bring my bike, so being out of the way a bit isn’t the end of the world. What really clinches it, though, is that now I can do four nights after all.

34 Minutes Later: I receive my media approval email, and exhale nine months of stress. I woke up that morning with no hard information whatsoever, and by the time I leave work I have a badge and a reservation. It’s really happening.

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April 14, 2019: Day Four

Despite having to get up early-ish again, I’m feeling a lot better by the Mandalorian panel the next morning. After a lot of indecision regarding an attempt at the main stage (our QR codes were never scanned for IX, just glanced at) I ultimately decide to go for a streaming room—a spare pass for which has been graciously provided by ETE Twitter friend Chuck Provost. While I’m still not entirely sure how or whether the footage we saw differed from the main stage, I’m actually pretty happy that they don’t screen a full episode, both because I would rather not have a six-month gap between episodes and because I want to get to the #SWRepMatters panel shortly afterward and it’s starting to dawn on me that the smaller panels can actually be a little more unpredictable.

The instant #SWRepMatters ends I rush back downstairs to SWU for Delilah Dawson’s worldbuilding panel, and strike out once again. When all is said and done I see two giant panels at the Celebration stage, five large panels at the Twin Suns stage and three medium panels at the Fan stage, and despite no reservations I make it in to all of those, which inclines me to think that the real problem here wasn’t timing but SWU just being too small. I am getting better at finding places though—it’s gradually dawned on me that if I know the room number I’m looking for it’s much easier to follow the fixed signs all over McCormick Center than to work out where I am on the official map.

Once worldbuilding lets out I decide to take a shot at the Clone Wars panel across the street. I haven’t been over there since Friday morning and I have no idea how full it’s going to be for something this late in the day—but lo and behold, we stumble upon a big group of friends, including Sarah Dempster,8 and they have spare seats near the front! So that was cool.

We all rush back to McCormick for the live performance of Rogue Podron, which is okay I guess, then I convince a few people to brave the blizzard one more time—oh, did I mention the blizzard? Riding a bike in that was fun—for Pizano’s, the most authentic Chicago deep-dish experience to be found within a block of the convention center (thanks Abby). In addition to being my one non-rushed, non-counter-service meal the whole trip we’re treated to a private performance of that week’s Veers Watch podcast, which is an actual thing that’s been happening for thirty-nine weeks and counting and all the cool people are listening so why aren’t you?

Anyway, after that it’s back to the Marriott bar. It’s the last full night of the convention and Literally Everyone is there.

There’s a lot of this kind of thing.

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Three Weeks Earlier: Shock

Late March / Early April 2019: The downside of getting my media approval so late9 is that my badge is at will call, which means I can’t activate it until I physically get there. Luckily that doesn’t stop me from entering lotteries for the big panels. Throughout this entire process it’s never crossed my mind for a moment that I might get to see the main Episode IX panel—I remember very keenly the stories of overnight lines in Orlando, and some people still not getting in, and I’m too old and cranky for that shit.

My group isn’t selected for The Mandalorian, but to my absolute amazement we do get into both Episode IX and the Phantom Menace panel. There are some valid criticisms of the lottery process, and especially of the lack of information on said process until pretty much the last second, but I have to admit that this worked damn near ideally for me every step of the way, and seems a hell of a lot better than overnight lines. Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning of a system that continues to improve at future Celebrations.

April 10: With reservations and logistics sorted out as much as they could be in advance, I’m finally able to relax a bit and enjoy the anticipation of what’s to come. After almost six years tweeting as ETE itself I append a selfie to my avatar for the first time so that people who know me only as “website” (far, far too many people) will have some idea of what I actually look like.

I leave work for the last time, and arrive at my car to find a flat tire.

I’m supposed to leave in sixteen hours.

90 Minutes Later: After letting my AAA membership lapse several years ago, I just so happen to have re-enrolled a couple months back when my battery died. With that handled, it’s quick work to have the spare put on. Finding a tire place that was a) nearby b) still open and c) could patch or replace my tire by nine the next morning is more of a challenge, but the fourth phone call is the charm. By eight that evening the car is dropped off and I’m home packing.

April 11: I wake up an hour earlier than I need to and lie there stressing out—my inspection disaster last year was pretty typical of my experience with this car, so as simple as a tire patch should be I’m very much trained to expect the worst. The place calls at about 9:30—half an hour later than they’d promised but let’s not split hairs—and after dropping off my cat at a friend’s house I’m on my way, and scarcely able to believe it.

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April 15, 2019: Day Five

I wake up a little early to pack and straighten up my BnB—this is the one day I’m driving to McCormick so I can begin my return drive as quickly as possible—and twenty-nine dollars later I’m back at the Twin Suns stage just in time for the Writers Roundtable and the announcement of whatever the hell Project Luminous is.10 After that it’s time to check off the last few things on my list; I finally brave the Starbucks line (which is less insane today, granted), then the official store line (around which time the news of the Notre Dame fire breaks, sadly dampening everyone’s enthusiasm a bit), hit one last panel (Creating Content and Communities with Star Wars), and finally, the signing line for Delilah Dawson and Cavan Scott, which makes five authors now adorning the back of my Kindle.

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Claudia Gray / JJM / Alexander Freed / Delilah Dawson / Cavan Scott

That plan has worked out well enough but I end up borrowing packing tape from Tom, Del Rey Associate Editor / Line Wrangler, to ensure that the signatures don’t eventually wear away. As someone who doesn’t care much about autographs this whole thing may have been a tiny bit more trouble than the end result was worth, but what the hell—I tried something new and I have a weird-looking taped-up Kindle to commemorate the experience. While I did get to meet Jason Fry and Amy Ratcliffe very briefly at the DK booth I didn’t have it on me that day—but that empty corner is already starting to nag at me, so maybe another time.

I make one last circle around the main hall, just to soak it all in, and manage to say hi to a few more people from Twitter. As I head to the entrance the Closing Ceremony is letting out, and word is spreading that the next Celebration will be back in Anaheim. Ah, well—maybe 2021.

I lose an hour changing time zones and get home at 3am. I never did meet my AirBnB hosts.

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So, what are my takeaways from all this? If I could send this piece back in time a year, what would I want to tell myself?

  • Definitely keep reasonably healthy snacks on you at all times, and/or be prepared to spend three times as much on the same kind of stuff from the nearby vendors, because it will be very hard to carve out time for normal meals.
  • That being the case, even with convention prices you won’t spend half as much on food as you think you’re going to—so don’t be afraid to splurge on little things to keep yourself going.
  • Figure out beforehand where the closest Starbucks is, because the one inside the convention will not be an option.
  • If someone offers to save you a seat at a panel, say yes.
  • Unlike Pittsburgh, Chicago police actually care if you bike past a stop sign.
  • If you want an exclusive t-shirt don’t put it off—many were still available by the time I did my shopping but not the one I wanted most.
  • Change your Twitter display name to your real name or prepare to introduce yourself as “Eleven-ThirtyEight” many, many times.
  • Twitter may not be real life, but by and large people really are a lot like their online personas. It’s just harder to hear them.
  • Don’t expect to see or even hear about everything big that happens. It’s only a news event if you’re watching online; if you’re there, it’s a social event with occasional bursts of information.
  • Last but not least: try not to drive over any loose screws.

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  1. Well, lightly varnished. []
  2. Including myself there will eventually be six of us here; I’ve never met any of the others before now so spending some quality time with everybody is near the top of my to-do list. []
  3. To be clear, I had all the official convention maps saved on my phone and had studied them a good bit beforehand—but this detail had nevertheless eluded me. []
  4. Two staffers down, four to go. []
  5. Ask Jim about my sandwich sometime. []
  6. Three down, two to go. []
  7. Four down, one to go. []
  8. Achievement Unlocked! []
  9. I still don’t know exactly what the issue was. I definitely had a problem getting emails from them but even if my approval notice was lost the badge should still have appeared in my ShowClix account—and it didn’t until a couple days later. []
  10. The way people had been teasing the Roundtable panel made me opt for that instead of TPM; we may not have gotten any major details but I have no regrets. []

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