Marc Snetiker
July 14, 2017 AT 03:56 PM EDT

Disney officially kicked off D23, its three-day biennial fan convention, with as starry a start as can be imagined — the induction of 11 artists from across the company’s history into its esteemed Disney Legends hall of fame, including the late Carrie Fisher, her Star Wars costar Mark Hamill, and talk-show legend and A Wrinkle in Time star Oprah Winfrey.

Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, could not attend the ceremony but sent a letter (read aloud by Disney CEO and event emcee, Bob Iger) that sang the praises of her and her mother’s lifelong fanaticism of Disney. “We went to Disneyland so much that I now realize that she might have even loved it more than I did,” wrote Lourd. “So becoming a part of the Disney family was truly an amazing moment for her. She secretly always wanted to be a Disney princess, so getting to be a Disney princess and a Disney legend would have been her ultimate dream.”

Hamill then shared a long story of his reverence for Disney: “Disney provided me a tutorial of how I could make my dreams come true by lifting the curtain. I hadn’t even started grade school when I saw Clarence Nash recording a Donald Duck cartoon and a lightbulb went off in my head! This man gets up every morning, kisses his wife goodbye, drives to the studio, and makes Donald Duck cartoons. I want that job! Unfortunately, I do a horrible Donald Duck. But the ‘making of’ aspect of the Disney programs… he lifted the curtain. No other studio did that. And in my young brain, I thought, there’s a path to achieve what I want. So I am forever grateful for that learning process that was provided by Walt Disney.”

Lucasfilm Ltd./courtesy Everett Collection

The Star Wars actor, who will reprise his role as Luke Skywalker in December’s The Last Jedi, also honored his former onscreen sibling, who died in December at age 60. “I would love to give my deepest respects for the super cool space sis I have in Carrie Frances Fisher,” he said. “I loved her. And we were like siblings. The good and the bad! We’d have huge fights and not speak to one another. But we loved each other, and what a great thrill it was to come back in The Force Awakens at that time in our lives. There was a comfort level with each other. We could rely on each other. And there was a deep respect. I know if she was here this morning, she would have flipped me the bird at least twice already, so thank you all so much. I’m so humbled and so grateful, and I love you all. Thank you.”

In addition to Fisher, Winfrey was also honored at the event. The 63-year-old was cited for her work in ABC daytime television and well beyond. She took the stage with an enthusiastic hello and recalled a story from her dinner the night before: “As I was there, sitting alone, I had time to talk to my waiter, whose name was Steve. I was getting Steve’s story, and I was saying, ‘Tell me, how long have you worked here?’ And Steve said, ’42 years’… and I said, ‘How did you stay at this company for 42 years?’ And he said, ‘I found it to be the best place to let me be me.’ And I feel the same way about my work with Disney since 1984, launching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Every day, Disney ABC-7 let me be me. It was an honor, and I feel that more than anything, being a legend, more than being a celebrity or being awarded for notoriety, that really a legend is about the common experience that we all hold and share, and every day, on that show, I was able to tell our common story.”

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Garry Marshall, the esteemed director of film (Pretty Woman) and TV (Happy Days, Mork & Mindy), died earlier this year but was honored for his work within the ABC/Disney family by his children. “I know our dad’s up there right now and I’m sure he’s thinking, ‘Oy, you’re following Oprah — good luck,'” his son joked.

Elswhere in the ceremony, comic icons Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as Manuel Gonzales (a key figure in the publishing of Mickey Mouse Sunday comics) and prolific animator Clyde Geronimi (the director of Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, and more) were honored as part of the Disney “Legends of Pen and Paint.”

While Kirby, Gonzales, and Geronimi’s children accepted on behalf of their fathers, Lee was in the audience and offered his own remarks, first getting emotional about the tribute to his longtime creative partner, Jack Kirby, before explaining his own childhood connection to Walt Disney: “I’ll go back a few years to a teenage boy. Not even a teenager. A kid around 8 or 10, who loved to read everything he could get his hands on. In those days, he read The Hardy Boys, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes. Little books he could buy inexpensively. One day in a bookstore, he saw a book that was an expensive book. It was what they would have called a coffee table book. It was called The Art of Walt Disney. I was that boy. And I couldn’t afford the book. And it drove me crazy. I wanted that book so badly. I saved my pennies, and after a few months, I bought The Art of Walt Disney. I loved that book so. I loved Walt Disney so. To me, he was more than a man. He was an inspiration. He was something to reach for, to be like him. And to think that today, I’m standing here in the house that Disney built, and we’ve paid tribute to Jack, and now we’re talking about all the things of Disney’s, it is so thrilling, I can’t tell you, and I thank you all.”

In the first of several surprises over the weekend, Whoopi Goldberg was revealed as a surprise inductee. The Sister Act and Lion King legend showed off her Minnie Mouse pumps and shared memories of her first trip to Disneyland: “When you live in the projects and you had a black and white TV, you knew what you were going to see every week. Every Sunday, The Wonderful World of Disney would come on. I was born the same year the park opened, so I’ve always felt like it was home. And my mother always said, ‘You know, one day, I’m gonna take you kids.’ As a parent, that’s what you want to do. And instead, I got to take her. For me, that meant we were okay, because Disney made you feel that no matter where you came from, you were welcome.”

Finally, the panel ended with final honors going to Julie Taymor, the Tony-winning, record-breaking director of The Lion King on Broadway (which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year). Before introducing a surprise performance from her cast that ended the show, Taymor shared an emotional story that illustrated not only her experience with Lion King but the sentiment that many Disney artists echo: “There was a family that bought tickets for themselves and their two children. They bought them way in advance. And that year, unfortunately, the little girl died. And her younger brother was waiting to see the show, but the family didn’t want to go. They’d been in mourning for a month, but everybody encouraged them to take this child and go see The Lion King. So they [do], and they come to the point where Simba asks his father if he’ll always be there for him. And Mufasa says to the child, ‘Look at the stars. The great kings of the past look down upon us from those stars. They live in you. They live in me. They’re watching over everything we see.’ And that child, that little boy, turned to his parents at that point during the drama, during the song, and he said, “Sarah’s with us, isn’t she? She’s with us.” Now when I hear that, I think that’s when we’re doing our job.”

The inductees will have their names enshrined in Legends Plaza on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California. The full list, and their area of contribution to Disney, is as follows:

-Carrie Fisher (Film)
-Clyde Geronimi (Animation)
-Whoopi Goldberg (Film & Television)
-Manuel Gonzales (Publishing)
-Mark Hamill (Film)
-Wayne Jackson (Imagineering)
-Jack Kirby (Publishing)
-Stan Lee (Film & Publishing)
-Garry Marshall (Film & Television)
-Julie Taymor (Theatrical)
-Oprah Winfrey (Film & Television)

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