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With the force of ‘Star Wars,’ Disney tightens grip on toy universe

Disney chairman and chief executive Bob Iger on Saturday, standing in front of concept art for the “Star Wars” expansion at two Disney theme parks. (Image Group LA/Disney Parks via Getty Images)

Disney chief Bob Iger recently announced his media-and-merchandising juggernaut would soon be launching one of its biggest theme-park expansions in history: A “jaw-dropping new world,” sprawled across Disney’s parks in Florida and California, exploring the Big Mouse’s newly purchased mega-franchise, “Star Wars.”

He didn’t say when the elaborate 14-acre expansions would open, but analysts agree it hardly matters. In recent years, Disney’s theme parks have set new records for attendance and profit every quarter — and the final “Star Wars” trilogy, and its big-budget side anthologies, are planned to release in theaters once a year through at least 2020.

The world is in the first hours of what Disney hopes will be Star Wars’ infinite, imaginary empire, its blockbusters and theme parks fueled by (and helping fuel) the Big Mouse’s store-conquering merchandising machine.

Plans have been announced to build 'Star Wars'-themed lands at both Disney theme parks in the U.S. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Reuters)

Even before Disney assumed control over the “Star Wars” brand in 2012, the $180 billion behemoth was the strongest merchandising force in the galaxy, with Marvel, Pixar and box-office giants like “Frozen” helping bring the company billions of dollars in revenue every year.

But with the help of the Jedi knights and decades-old grandeur of the “Star Wars” universe, analysts said, Disney has set its sights even higher, eyeing world domination of theme parks, toys and beyond, for potentially decades to come. Said Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, “The canon is big enough that they can spin off stories for the rest of time.”

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The “Star Wars”-themed lands, at Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, will include “a never-before-seen planet, a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space,” Iger said Saturday at D23, a Disney fan expo.

The expansions will include two new attractions: one riding through a secret mission aboard the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s ultrafast smuggling ship, and another involving a “climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance.” Construction on the Disneyland park will start in 2017, though no date was given for the Disney World start.

Disney won’t share a price tag for the expansion, though some analysts suspect it will cost $2 billion, a staggering total in line with how much it has spent on other parks. Disney spent more than $1 billion in 2012 expanding its California Adventure Park, and next year it intends to open the Disney Shanghai Resort in China, for about $5.5 billion.

During the construction, Disney will profit from “Star Wars” through a few smaller moneymakers: Star Wars Launch Bay, a courtyard of costumed characters and film props, opening later this year; Season of the Force, a limited-time event starting early next year with themed space-food offerings and fireworks shows set to the Star Wars score; and even a remodeling of the famed Space Mountain roller coaster, which will soon be Hyperspace Mountain.

The few announced rides, analysts said, will largely serve as attraction points for park visitors. From there, they will shepherded between interactive areas (like the Mos Eisley Cantina, the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” made famous in the first film) and mega-stores, where all employees (including those at the register) will be expected to stay in intergalactic character.

The hype over Disney’s theme parks lands only a few weeks before “Force Friday,” when Disney’s stores, online shops and global retailers will open at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 4 to unveil its new apps, books, collectibles, toys, “lifestyle accessories” and other goodies.

Disney is already showcasing lines of “Star Wars” merchandise, including a $399 “Return of the Jedi” poster and a $149 R2-D2 built-to-scale model, with its own swiveling arm and drinking glasses — both of which you can buy with your “Star Wars” credit card.

But “Force Friday” has been made into its own consumer spectacle, along the lines of a Black Friday; fans have even kept countdowns. Disney has also announced collaborations with seven mega-brands — Covergirl & Max Factor, Duracell, carmaker FCA US, General Mills, HP, Subway and Verizon — that have developed their own marketing campaigns.

“Every lightsaber, every action figure, every LEGO set tells a story for generations of ‘Star Wars’ fans,” Josh Silverman, an executive of global licensing at Disney Consumer Products, said in a statement.

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Disney’s “Star Wars” roll-out will likely best even that of “Frozen,” the cheeky princess tale that became both the highest-grossing animated movie in history and Disney’s 11th franchise to drive more than $1 billion in annual retail sales a year.

Disney Cruise Lines will run eight daylong “Star Wars” cruises in the Western Caribbean next year, including meet-and-greets with characters like Chewbacca. Even the way visitors get into Disney’s parks, via the wrist-worn MagicBands, have been given the Star Wars treatment: Limited-release bands with Luke Skywalker and a stormtrooper sell for $24.95.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the franchise’s seventh film and the first of its new trilogy, premieres in theaters in December, and Morgan Stanley analysts this summer projected it would make more than $2.3 billion in ticket sales worldwide, making it the second-biggest box-office seller in history, between “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

Star Wars holds unprecedented cross-generation appeal — many viewers of the 1977 original are still mega-fans today — and a virtually unstoppable media powerhouse. Even the trilogy that launched with “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” in 1999 — which, with its interstellar trade embargoes and Jar Jar Binks, was widely panned by critics as a disaster  — grossed $2.5 billion worldwide.

And it was very true what Mel Brooks said in the “Star Wars” satire “Spaceballs,” in 1987: “Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made.” “Star Wars” toys have brought in $12 billion in revenue over the lifetime of the franchise, more than its total box-office, DVD and video game revenue, combined.

But Iger has said the “Star Wars” marketing machine comes with its own risks, including burning out a nation of toy buyers. As he told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2013, “I don’t want to over-commercialize or over-hype this. It’s my job to prevent that.”