Star Wars Rebels tells the story of the early days of the rebellion against the Empire. Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm.

Star Wars: Episode VII isn't due in theaters till December 2015, but that doesn't mean Disney (NYSE:DIS) is waiting to cash in. Far from it.

A bridge to an old favorite

Next month, the studio debuts Star Wars Rebels on Disney XD with a one-hour movie. Early data suggests fans are nearly as excited for the animated epic as they are the next live-action film. According to a quick search at, social networking users were searching for the terms "Star Wars Rebels" and "Star Wars episode 7" once every 22 seconds. Google's Trends data shows a similar correlation:

The message? Fans don't necessarily care what channel or type of media it comes in; they just want more Star Wars. In the case of Rebels, they'll get a story that looks and sounds like the 1977 version of Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope. But don't take my word for it; listen to the whine of the Tie Fighters in this extended preview:

Star Wars Rebels kicks off with a one-hour movie on Oct. 3. Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm.

What history says about extending the Star Wars franchise

If my experience at San Diego Comic-Con is any indicator, fans will take to Rebels as easily as they did Star Wars: The Clone Wars, another animated epic that debuted with a movie. But in that case, fans had to brave the box office to see Anakin, Obi-Wan, and padawan Ahsoka Tano in a new adventure. Plenty did exactly that.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars took in $68.3 million at the global gate, and earned another $23.8 million in home video sales. Lucasfilm spent an estimated $8.5 million to produce the movie, which opened in August 2008. A spinoff TV show premiered that October and ran for six seasons, the last of which is available exclusively on Netflix.

To this day, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television show remains one of the most-watched animated series in sci-fi history. More than 1 million have rated the show on Netflix. In 2010, the Guinness World Records named Clone Wars the "highest rated sci-fi animation" on television at the time.

New stories mean new merchandising opportunities

Rebels may never be as popular as Clone Wars; but you know what? Disney investors will profit anyway. Just having the show allows the House of Mouse to greenlight entirely new merchandising lines.

Hasbro introduced new toys at Comic-Con in July, including this Star Wars: Command playset. Credit: Tim Beyers (via Pinterest).

Add-ons like these are why Disney brands are responsible for more than $40 billion in annual retail sales, and why its Consumer Products group -- which writes the contracts and cashes the checks -- has enjoyed five consecutive fiscal years of expanding operating margins. With new Star Wars gear on the way, a sixth seems likely.

How high can Disney go?

October marks two years since Disney announced its $4 billion bid for Lucasfilm. The stock is up more than 82% since, mostly due to the franchise-establishing success of comic book movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy. How much higher it goes depends on fans' appetites for properties that exist outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. None in Disney's lineup have as much potential as Star Wars.

"I feel the greatest responsibility to Star Wars because I think it's a religion greater than any other story of the last century," Rebels Executive Producer Simon Kinberg said in an interview at San Diego Comic-Con. Fair? Blasphemous? I suppose that depends on your point of view. Either way, the pantheon grows when Star Wars Rebels begins airing next month.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.