“So, who is Han and who’s Chewie?”
The little boy sitting in the pilot’s seat of the Millennium Falcon wastes no time in answering my question. He is Han. His dad, who is sitting in the seat next to him, is definitely Chewie.
“Chewie is bigger,” he says, matter of factly, and goes right back to piloting the massive spacecraft through a galaxy far far away.
And who could blame him? The Millennium Falcon is a veritable playground for any kid or kid at heart and he’s got his run of the place, at least for the next few minutes. You see, we’re not really in outer space — of course — we’re in Northern Kentucky, and while it might look like the Millennium Falcon on the inside, outside it’s actually three large shipping containers, combined by a team of workers in the middle of the night. Our pilot for the moment is Justus McKinley, and he and his dad, Gene, got here early to be one of the first inside.
This is the Millennium Falcon Experience, an outdoor event put together by Lucasfilm and Disney to promote the upcoming May release of Solo: A Star Wars Story. For four weekends, the attraction will travel across the country, stopping in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and Denver. Its first stop, though, is here at the BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University.
It’s a strange location for the kickoff to what might otherwise be considered a major promotional event for one of the biggest movies of the summer, but it’s a boon to the university, who see it as the perfect opportunity to bring attention to the small state school in Highland Heights, a Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati.
And the event is definitely drawing a crowd. By 10 a.m., a line stretches all along the side of the stadium, as excited Star Wars fans impatiently wait their turn to head inside and experience the famous ship for themselves. They’ll be waiting a while too, since the event doesn’t even begin for another hour.
Gene and Justus are lucky, though. After arriving at 9:15 in their family van decked out in Star Wars decals, decorative lightsabers, and color changing headlights, they were plucked from the crowd by a local reporter for her story. Now, they’re making the most out of their exclusive pass to Han Solo’s ship before they’re kicked out.
Like most of the attendees, they’re spending as much time as possible in the cockpit. The entire experience begins in the Millennium Falcon’s hallway, which leads quickly into the ship’s main room, complete with a bar and a seating area. Every surface of the ship has something to look at or play with, whether you’re hoping to see how the folks on board mix their drinks or just play with all the various buttons. It’s a pretty immersive experience and the main room is large enough to comfortably hold a large group of people with room for plenty of photographs.
It is also large enough to keep you busy while you wait your turn to take the helm. The cockpit is the draw for a reason. While the main room of the ship has plenty to see and poke at, it’s not until you venture further inside and around the corner that you really feel like you’re on board a spaceship. Where the larger room feels very much like a staging area, the cockpit, with all its bells and whistles, feels like the main event. There are four seats, space for a pilot, co-pilot, and two passengers, and nearly every button and lever moves and lights up, offering those who came out to live their childhood fantasies — at least as much as one can in a university parking lot.
The experience doesn’t last long — the organizers want to keep things moving — but attendees have their chance to play at being the galaxy’s greatest smuggler for a few minutes, and while the ship won’t jump into hyperspace at the push of a lever, you will leave with some enviable photographs, and an interesting story.
With a price tag of “free,” you really can’t go wrong spending your day hanging out in the sunshine chatting about all the Star Wars trivia you can with fellow fans and getting your chance to pilot the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
For Gene and Justus McKinley, though, their time is over, as the crew gets ready to welcome the first group of guests. Lucky for them, though, they’ve rejoined mom in line, ready to jump right back into their playground.
The Millennium Falcon Experience heads to Atlanta next, where it will spend Star Wars Day at Atlanta Braves Stadium before moving on to Salt Lake City, Utah.