Damien Higdon and his 3-year-old daughter Nashira arrived at the Tysons Corner mall around 3:30 Friday morning on a mission: to nab toys from a galaxy far, far away.
Nashira, sporting Princess Leia-style side buns, was bleary-eyed as they held their position at the front of the line of about two dozen people waiting to get into the Disney Store. But she lighted up once she got her hands on a First Order TIE fighter ship, a BB-8 drinking cup and a T-shirt featuring Yoda and other characters. All went into Damien Higdon’s shopping basket, alongside the full lineup of Elite Series die-cast action figures that his own inner child just had to have.
“This is the most excited I’ve been about one [of the movies] since the ’80s,” Damien Higdon said.
The pre-dawn shopping kicked off Disney’s effort to cash in on fans’ eagerness over the debut of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which is slated to hit theaters this holiday season. The company even crafted its own holiday — Force Friday — for devotees to finally get a look at the toys and merchandise.
After purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion, Disney now must show it can keep the franchise alive — and profitable. The film is expected to become one of the highest-grossing in box office history, and experts say that “Star Wars” toys could blow past the $500 million in sales that Disney’s smash hit “Frozen” delivered to the toy industry last year. If they do it right, Disney could be feasting off the sales of “Force Awakens” merchandise long after the movie leaves theaters.
Until now, Disney’s efforts largely have been secret. Toy industry reviewers were not given much early access to “Force Awakens” gear. Even Disney Store employees have been deprived of specifics of the toys.
But the Disney Store’s effort to connect with devoted “Star Wars” fans has been brewing.
In 2014, it invited about a dozen fans and memorabilia collectors to its Pasadena, Calif., headquarters to give them a sneak peek at some toys before they hit store shelves. The goal, a Disney Store official said, was to convince these tastemakers that Disney would not let them down.
“It was new to Disney. And we knew that this was an avid fan. . . . They love these characters, and we wanted to provide comfort to them that we love these characters as well and have taken very good care for them,” said Elissa Margolis, senior vice president and general manager at the Disney Store.
These super fans were given a tour of Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., met some of the “Star Wars” toy designers, and, after signing nondisclosure agreements, checked out some final versions and near-final versions of action figures, role-play toys, costumes and other items.
“They just said, ‘Give us your honest opinion, and we want your reaction to this,’ ” said attendee Steve Sansweet, a onetime employee and sometimes a consultant for Lucasfilm who also is president of Rancho Obi-Wan, a museum that houses his vast private collection of “Star Wars” memorabilia.
Sansweet said a lineup of coffee mugs he saw during the trip convinced him that Disney was approaching the toys thoughtfully. Instead of just slapping an image of the characters on a traditionally shaped mug, Disney Store showed him something different: The R2-D2 mug was short and round, while the C-3PO mug was long and narrow, reflecting the familiar profiles of the famous droids. The Chewbacca mug was sculpted so it looked like the furry Wookiee’s face.
“It was clear to me that they got it,” Sansweet said.
Disney said its toy designers were obsessed with the tiny details, including one toy designer working on a Darth Vader costume.
“There was a certain chain that went across the chest, and when she saw it for the first time in samples, she knew that the color wasn’t exactly what the color should be,” Margolis said. “And that was something she went back and worked on.”
Casual fans may not have noticed such a small discrepancy, but Disney says it is keenly aware that “Star Wars” enthusiasts are unusually persnickety.
Disney aimed to train store employees to speak as fluently about Yoda’s quirky wisdom as they do about Princess Elsa’s “Frozen” ice palace or Aladdin’s magic-carpet-riding skills. Employees, who were encouraged to watch all of the “Star Wars” films, were given trading cards featuring photos of key movie characters, and they participated in a six-week-long trivia contest. For the contest, employees were put into teams — the dark side or the light side, naturally.
“To do their role effectively, they need to know more than just the very basics of the story, of the film, of the characters,” said Jonathan Storey, Disney Store North America’s vice president of store experience.
The hope is that this training will make the Disney Store customer experience stand out in a crowded toy marketplace and will impress die-hard, detail-oriented fans.
“They will go to the stores, and they will look for mistakes in the packaging,” said Jim Silver, editor in chief of toy review Web site TTPM. “They are looking for any little thing wrong.”
Key to Disney’s efforts will be making “Star Wars” toys appeal to adults as well as kids. The franchise has a vast audience of adult collectors, and these loyalists are likely to fuel early “Force Awakens” toy sales.
“Nostalgia plays well, especially with parents,” said Matthew Hudak, toy industry analyst at Euromonitor. “Nearly every parent grew up with ‘Star Wars.’ That was the toy of their youth.”
Indeed, many shoppers who showed up before dawn to pounce on the new “Star Wars” toys said the series triggered family memories. Manassas resident Holli Hume, who brought her 3-year-old son Jason Hume to the Disney Store on Friday, said that Jason’s dad was a big fan and had made their son into one, too. After buying a Darth Vader costume for Jason — which he liked so much he wore it out of the store — Hume said she was headed to another retailer to pick up a lightsaber for Dad.
At the Tysons Corner Disney Store, $9.95 plush BB-8 toys and $24.95 Elite Series die-cast action figures flew off shelves quickly. Some shoppers said that they had come to the Disney Store because they had tried to buy toys at midnight Force Friday events at Toys R Us or Target and had found that their selection was picked over in a flash.
“Star Wars” has been a toy juggernaut since the release of the original film in May 1977. By the time the Christmas season rolled around that year, toy manufacturer Kenner realized that it didn’t have enough “Star Wars” action figures to meet demand and was forced to launch what became known as the “empty box” campaign, in which people could buy empty boxes and secure a promise that their Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca or R2-D2 figure would be mailed to them in early 1978.
The toy industry is already on track for one of its best years in more than a decade, according to Juli Lennett, vice president of U.S. toys at NPD Group, and it is expected to grow 6.2 percent in 2015. “Star Wars,” she said, will provide momentum in sales for an industry already benefiting from the popularity of “Minecraft,” “Paw Patrol” and toys tied to the summer blockbuster “Jurassic World.”
Lennett estimates that in 1999, when “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” was released, retailers sold $700 million in “Star Wars” toys. And for “The Force Awakens,” there’s potential for an even bigger payday.
“With the muscle of Disney, who knows?” Lennett said. “The sky is the limit.”