Alicia and Herman Lopez remember how much their son Hunter loved all things Star Wars, even telling his parents before he deployed that he wanted to be buried with the lightsaber he built at Disneyland park in November 2019.
Less than two years later, 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Hunter Lopez is being laid to rest, one of the 13 U.S. service members killed in the attack at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan on Aug. 26.
His parents intended to honor Hunter’s request, “but I just couldn’t find the courage to part with the lightsaber he built,” Mrs. Lopez said through tears. So the Lopezes, along with their 18-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter — just six days after Hunter’s death — drove from their home in Indio to build a replica of the lightsaber Hunter had created in Savi’s Workshop in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. And this one, built by his entire family, would be buried with him.
“As we walked into Disneyland, the marching band was coming out onto Main Street [U.S.A.] and started to play a Star Wars song,” Mrs. Lopez recalled. “We don’t know if it was Disney magic or whether it was Hunter, but either way it felt good knowing he was there with us.”
A friend of the couple, both of whom work for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, helped arrange for the family to build the lightsaber privately at Savi’s, followed by lunch at the membership restaurant, Club 33, to which the friend belongs. As soon as Club 33 Member Services Coordinator Rex Roberts heard that the family would be coming later that day, he advised a few resort leaders to see what else they could do, given Disney’s legacy of honoring military service personnel, veterans and their families. Members of SALUTE — the cast member Business Employee Resource Group (BERG) that supports veterans and members of the military — connected with Dan Hughes, vice president of Security at the resort.
“We took the American flag that was flying over Disneyland and quickly had it framed and created a plaque, so we could present it to the family,” Dan shared. In the space of 90 minutes, he was on his way to Club 33. “I said, ‘Your son’s sacrifice means the world to our country and also to us at Disneyland, and it’s our honor to give you this token of our appreciation,’” Dan recounted. “Mrs. Lopez broke down in tears and said, ‘My son loved Disneyland,’ and the whole room got choked up.”
Mrs. Lopez said later that the family has been annual passholders for decades and that Hunter had loved coming to the parks since he was a toddler — the spinning tea cups at Mad Tea Party were his favorite. He loved Winnie the Pooh so much as a child that his mother still called the Marine by his nickname, “Hunter Pooh.” But Star Wars was his passion, she said. “He’d dress up as a Jedi for Halloween, he knew all the movies, all the lines — even the background characters.” Mrs. Lopez laughed as she recalled that when she was pregnant with her second child, then-5-year-old Hunter asked if he could name the baby “Uncle Owen” after the Star Wars character Owen Lars. They agreed to keep the name Owen, and laughed as they explained to Hunter why they’d have to drop “uncle.” In fact, Owen had enlisted in the Army just hours before the family received a knock on the door from casualty notification officers about Hunter, who had wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps in law enforcement with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
At Club 33, 13 glasses of champagne were lined up on the service counter on the day of the Lopez family’s visit as a tribute to all 13 service members lost last month.
“Disneyland is all about celebration and happiness, so it’s not often that we see or hear this in our work,” said Club 33 General Manager Luke Stedman. “But in this divisive world, when we can all come together and support something so meaningful, it’s a reminder of how much pride our cast can take in what this place means to people.”