It’s May the Fourth, which nerds and geeks like me all around the world celebrate as Star Wars Day in honour of the forty-fiver year old film franchise created by George Lucas and now recently owned and enhanced by Disney.
Four months ago, almost to the day, I was having a different sort of Star Wars day as I wandered through the modern theme park experience in Orlando, Florida, the hyper-themed Star Wars land in Disney World known as Galaxy’s Edge.
I’m not nearly as big of a Disney theme park fan as my wife, but I agreed to a two week Disney World vacation in the middle of a global pandemic for two reasons: (1) because I wanted to run the Disney World Half Marathon and (2) because I wanted to check out Disney’s effort to recreate the Star Wars film vibe in theme park form.
As to the latter of those travel dreams, we delved into the fantasy world of Star Wars for the better part of a day on New Years Day 2022.
I spent many of my first hours of this year wandering among rusty sci fi space ships, meandering among future-rustic market stalls, being chased by storm troopers on the Rise of the Resistance ride and again on Smuggler’s Run aboard the Millennium Falcon, and sampling weird beverages at the overpriced, but authentically themed, cantina bar (where they don’t serve droids!)
For any fan, myself included, it was going to be an enjoyable experience.
Yeah, it was crowded and, yeah, there was far too many enticing ways for Disney to separate fans from their money.
But for a fantasy adventure, and a way to spend a few hours as a Star Wars fan, I don’t know that there are many places like it on this planet.
Sunday Runday, and just over a week after rolling through the finish line of three Florida Disney World races, I did a (socially distanced) ten klick run back with the crew through the icy streets of Edmonton.
Amazing. Crazy. Chaotic. Nostalgic. Insane.
What other words can one use to describe the first international mega race back after a multi-year break from the same.
Exactly eight years ago I was standing on the same set of start lines getting ready to run (that time) four races. Back then I’d signed up for the inaugural Dopey Challenge, four days of four races starting with a 5k, ending with a full marathon, and tucking a 10k and a half in the blurry middle of it all.
This year, I cautiously signed up to do the first three of that series.
So, on that Thursday about ten days ago, all three of us, my wife, my daughter and I, woke up at 3am, found our way to a shuttle bus stop, trotted through the security mayhem outside Epcot, and queued up to run the five kilometer loop through that parks winding walkways.
My wife and daughter are not runners, but they are not out of shape either. We followed the crowd and dashed along the route and crossed the finish line to applause and medals.
I repeated the next day, but solo. Bus. Security. Race corral. Ten kilometers looping through two parks instead of one, past our first hotel of the trip, and ending with a musical pre-dawn dash under the glowing blue orb of Epcot’s Spaceship Earth as we pushed to the finish line.
I wore a mask the whole run. I wore a mask for all the runs. There were crowds and people and more crowds and on top of it all there were even more crowds. I have not been around that many heavily breathing runners in years and I’m surprised I didn’t bring home a viral souvenir from the experience.
Did I mention crazy and insane?
On the third day I woke up at 3am one last time and made my way to an even bigger starting corral with an even bigger crowd. It would be fair to say that somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand people stood at that start line, and if more than ten or fifteen of them were wearing masks I would have been surprised.
I went out in the second wave, with another dozen or so behind me.
We ran up the dark highway to the sounds of Disney movie soundtracks blasting from speakers. The path brought us under the park gate and through the parking lots and past the Contemporary resort and between the turnstiles of the Magic Kingdom. I held my phone out in front of me recording video as I ran onto and up Main Street:
I paused at a few spots for photos.
I absorbed the moments.
I kept on running.
Did I mention amazing and nostalgic?
In a short kilometer or so we were out the back gates of the park, running past some utility buildings and behind Splash Mountain as we disappeared back onto another Florida highway.
The sun rose as the view of the castle faded into the distance behind me, and I plodded along to finish the race back at Epcot.
My time wasn’t so great. Running 20.5 of the 21.1 kilometers in a surgical mask didn’t do much for my endurance. Stopping for photos and dodging crowds and slowing down to video or record a bit of it here and there left my pace a little dodgy in the end. Neither the pace nor time was the point, anyhow. The point was the experience.
And then it was over, and we flew home, safe and negative, and a few days later I was plodding along once again through icy streets with friends pondering the next year and wondering if maybe it had all been some kind of dream.
The weeks before Christmas were a flurry of packages arriving on our doorstep. Avoiding crowds and malls we’d done much of our shopping online, tho less shopping than usual overall. Not all those packages were gifts, however. I’d snuck an order of some sketch supplies into my incoming parcels, including a fresh moleskine watercolour book and a pack of new ink pens.
I had a plan and a goal for vacation. As the first trip out of the country in almost three years, I was determined to document it in art.
Now to be clear, dreams and ambitions aside, if anyone googles this post wondering “can you sketch in Disney” or looking for “urban sketching tips for theme parks” up front I’m going to suggest it is impractical… unless that’s why you went there.
If you don’t care about rides or are committed to be the guy who sits holding a spot on the curb for the fireworks or a parade, maybe you’ll have lots of time to draw.
My family never sat still long enough to do that. I had discussed my interest in doing this with my wife prior to our trip, but boots on the ground in the Magic Kingdom that first day, even tho I had my sketch supplies in my backpack, I would have had a couple sketches of her tapping her foot impatiently on the ground while reminding me how short the day was. Reality did not align with my vision.
Unlike a quiet travel holiday to a beautiful city, I would posit, vacation in a theme park is not about quiet contemplation while sipping a cup of coffee, pencil in hand.
Instead I opted to start looking for things to sketch later from a snapshot. Admittedly this was a bit cheating on the strict urban sketch rulebook, but I always drew stuff on the same day I saw it and I think in my “still just learning” mode that’s okay.
(On a side note, outside the parks, I did do some situational drawings live from a bench or table, so I’m satisfied with the chance for that opportunity at least.)
As it turns out I found strength in drawing a couple specific things: signage and wide scenes with people in them.
Signage is a curious thing in Disney World. There is a blend of actual and meaningful directional and informational signs on one hand, while on the other there are countless signs that are purely decorative and part of the theme for whatever “land” you happen to be in. This makes for some very geometrically interesting walls or signposts that are fun to sketch but also subtly unique to the place and space. For example, in one part of Animal Kingdom there are areas devoted to Africa and Asia where signage is designed to advertise make-believe tours through the jungle or made up vendors in a marketplace facade, but mixed in among that is a real sign for mobile food orders from the kiosk or directions to the washroom. A blend of fake and fun and real makes for a very Disney subject.
As far as crowds and people go, it’s fair to say it’s been tough to find strangers to sketch these days. I find myself very limited in the groups I’m around and for the last couple years lacking in opportunity to sit somewhere public and sketch real live humans. For better or worse, or whatever your opinion of the state of the world right now, Disney seems to blur the fear that many seem to feel about gathering these days. There were crowds in abundance. This added to the complexity of finding a rare seat from which a sketching opportunity might have occurred, but my photo-now draw-later approach netted a positive number of crowds in cool places scenes worthy of an hour or two of drawing back at the hotel.
Over the autumn I’d bought a book called “Drawing Expressive People” which offered some useful if somewhat vague, learn-by-example guidance and has let me leap into the rewarding realm of drawing people in public. As a result these are still rough but are among some of my favourite sketches from the vacation.
The results are the best part tho.
I’m back home with that moleskine notebook now three-quarters filled with vacation art, and in person holding it in my hands there is no comparison between the pics I’m able to share of that art folio and the real thing. It is a unique and beautiful souvenir of a weird and crazy vacation, created almost entirely as a result of being somewhere and finding moments to sketch and paint those things.
It makes me want to improve and repeat and keep creating more like it. Precious and priceless, perhaps just to me, but a perfect vacation artist effort just the same.
I’ve been thinking about our recent trip to (and back from) Florida and how it fits into the core context of this blog … because, frankly, it doesn’t much, really.
I mean, I ran. I raced in three official races with start lines and medals and free bananas at the end and everything. This, of course, is something I consider on topic for this blog.
I also did a lot of sketching in my off hours. I’ve written a bit about sketching in the past, and so again, that’s something that is mostly on topic as well.
But then the rest of the time I spent in and around a theme park. I didn’t cook. I didn’t camp. I didn’t season a single cast iron pan. And to be completely honest, what we did wasn’t so much “travelling” as it was “vacationing.”
Or, to be fair, the trip was split about ninety-ten vacation to travel.
The travel parts? Well, for example, we made a couple trips to Florida grocery stores to stock up on quick breakfasts and race fuel and cheap drinking water.
For the most part, shopping for food in a foreign country is pretty routine. But I’ve been in food stores all over Europe and the UK, Iceland, and multiple places throughout North America.
And it’s the little things that throw you off.
Like, for example in the UK, eggs are not refrigerated.
No big deal, but it’s just enough jarring to remind you that you are in a foreign country.
In Florida (albeit I took the photos attached to this post two days before New Years Eve) I could have loaded up my basket with as many fireworks as I could carry. Back in Canada fireworks are treated like Grade A contraband with (I assume) thirty seven pages of government paperwork required to even discuss buying fireworks, let alone actually exchanging hard cash for explosives alongside my blueberry muffins.
As my daughter pointed out, mostly because we wouldn’t let her buy any, there were also a lot of doughnuts to be had among the shelves and aisles of the two markets where we shopped.
One particular Publix where we bought our first round of groceries was an anchor store for a cluster of smaller stores, one of which was a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. Yet, fear not, those same doughnuts could be purchased inside the grocery store saving busy shoppers a five minute stroll to the stand-alone doughnut store.
None of this is judgemental, by the way.
I mean, I’ll take a fried egg and some sourdough toast over a glazed doughnut for breakfast every time. Ten times out of ten. Not interested in chocolate frosting with my morning coffee. But then that’s how I was raised and what I like, and that’s why we travel … to see those little cultural differences, no?
Back inside the park there was a cultural uniformity that comes from existing inside the boundaries of a massive corporate juggernaut like Disney World for nearly two weeks. One tends to forget for a bit that it takes effort to actually leave the park, when even back at one’s pirate-themed hotel room, one is still in Disney, enveloped by the intellectual property and profit-driven fantasy world of such a vacation.
Yet, even in that, snippets of travel are possible, and as simple as exploring a more real part of the country and culture surrounding that park with something as simple as a trip to buy fruit and cheese at the grocery store.