PHOENIX – The city of Phoenix has definitely embraced WrestleMania. From posters at the airport welcoming fans, to signs in restaurants offering discounts for people wearing wrestling-related shirts. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the Phoenix convention center, the walls of which are adorned with giant banners spanning ceiling to sidewalk announcing the building as the host of this year’s WWE Axxess exhibition.

Axxess is the WWE’s annual exposition, held in the days leading up to WrestleMania. It’s essentially a WWE museum, where fans can get a chance to see historical memorabilia, relive some historical WWE moments, and meet their favourite superstars. And it’s a definite highlight of the weekend, judging from the reactions from the crowds on hand at each event.

This year’s session includes a number of interesting exhibits for fans of all ages. Kids lined up for the chance to play in the “Slim Jim Spicy Town,” which included a wall climb and a wrestling ring pit with foam blocks in which they could jump, and to visit the Kidzone, where they could visit a recreation of Hornswoggle’s house.

Fans of all ages were able to live out the fantasy of being a WWE superstar, through exhibits where your image would be displayed on a WWE magazine cover, or a neat one where you would be transformed into a WWE action figure in a picture you would be able to download after. In another corner, fans could sit in the seat of the WWE broadcast centre, or recreate their favourite WWE star’s entrance on a recreation of the WWE entrance ramp.

Old-school enthusiasts, meantime, were able to see a lot of WWE historical memorabilia. An exhibit on the Hart Family, timely given this year’s induction of Stu Hart in the Hall of Fame and Bret Hart’s involvement in one of the main matches on the show, included a number of items on all of the family members that have worked with the family. Highlights were Owen Hart’s original Blue Blazer costume, the trophy won by Bret at WrestleMania IV, in addition to items representing the British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith, Jim Neidhart, and the current Hart Dynasty roster members.

Another tribute to the company’s history showcased outfits worn by legends like Chief Jay Strongbow, Andre the Giant, Freddie Blassie, Arnold Skaaland and various others. Elsewhere was a corner dedicated to the various WrestleMania outfits worn by Shawn Michaels over the years, a collection of championship belts, Mr. McMahon’s limousine that was blown on up on RAW when they did his truncated death storyline, and the 4×4 that Steve Austin rode to the ring at WrestleMania last year.

A new feature, introduced this year, was The Undertaker’s graveyard. This was a cool exhibit that paid tribute to the Dead Man’s 17 WrestleMania victims. This is a recreated cemetery, complete with real grass, with a headstone marking off each of his victims with the date of the event at which he defeated them. An unfinished gravesite, that fans could shovel dirt into, was there to represent his match on Sunday with Michaels. In a darkened off corner of the building, with fog rolling in and the Taker’s music playing on a loop, the atmosphere in this area was spooky enough to have at least a couple of younger kids holding their parents’ hands with anxiety.

Of course, the main event of Axxess is the chance to meet and get autographs of various WWE superstars. There are multiple signing locations throughout the building, with one or two superstars at each location. While the line-ups were fairly long for these sessions, the WWE Universe didn’t seem to mind. The line-ups moved pretty swiftly, though it’s unclear whether a fan would be able to get an autograph from every wrestler that was featured in a four-hour session, so they would likely have to pick and choose their favourites and forego the others.

Naturally, WWE merchandise stations were a-plenty at the event, and there were a few information tables set up for the U.S. National Guard which sponsored Axxess this year.

With a couple of thousand people in the exhibition hall at any one time, it seems the only time the air wasn’t filled with the excited murmur of fans was during the special live appearance moments. Periodically during the event, in a ring set up in one end of the room, Howard Finkel would introduce one of the company’s main event superstars to cut a promo about his upcoming WrestleMania match. Fans paid rapt attention to the Undertaker during his appearance, where he talked about the history that will be made on Sunday when either his WrestleMania streak or Shawn Michaels’ career will “rest in peace.” At other times, a match would take place featuring some of the superstars not scheduled in a match on Sunday, including the “rookies” from the NXT show.

All in all, Axxess is a well-run event that gives WWE fans a truly fun experience, and certainly whets the appetite for the big event on Sunday. Though there may not be quite enough there to fill four hours if you’re not interested in lining up for autographs, what is there is appealing to fans both young and old. If the WWE were to ever build an actual physical Hall of Fame, it would likely look a lot like Axxess. As it looks like WWE doesn’t have any plan to build something permanent, visiting the annual Axxess event over WrestleMania weekend is a recommended alternative.