Disney (NYSE:DIS) has paid more than $15 billion to acquire Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm during the past decade. This summer has certainly validated the decision to shell out $7.4 billion, $4 billion, and $4 billion, respectively, for the three character-rich story weavers.
Right now, Pixar's Inside Out has topped $268 million domestically at the box office, making it the country's highest grossing animated feature in nearly two years. Marvel's going to get yet another chance to shine when Ant-Man opens at a multiplex near you over the weekend. However, it's hard to deny that the real excitement for Disney and its shareholders is the return of the Star Wars franchise as a theatrical property later this year when Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives in December.
It's a foregone conclusion that the film is going to be huge a box office beast. The only real mystery is how Disney will cash in at its growing theme-park empire.
Disney shed some light on the Star Wars-ification of its gated attractions on Wednesday when it unveiled some of the attractions that will open early next year when Shanghai Disney opens to the public. Star Wars Launch Bay will be a key element of Tomorrowland, offering up a high-tech cinematic experience to go alongside props and memorabilia from the new movie that will be on display.
Closer to home, we're now possibly just weeks away from the family entertainment giant spilling the beans on the role that Star Wars will play in its partially gutted Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. It was announced on Tuesday that George Lucas will be honored at next month's D23 EXPO, an annual powwow for Disney buffs. CEO Bob Iger will host the event on Aug. 14 that will culminate with tapping Lucas as an official member of the Disney Legends hall of fame.
It's been widely anticipated that Disney will use D23 to introduce its makeover plans for the Florida park that has dropped to dead last in attendance among the four Disney World parks at the massive resort. Now with the assurance that Lucas will be in attendance, it seems like an ideal time to do more than just drop a new trailer for the upcoming Star Wars film.
This doesn't mean that Star Wars isn't creeping into the theme parks already. I just got back from six weeks in Central Florida, taking several trips to Disney's parks along the way. Star Wars merchandise is everywhere, and often where you least expect it.
Star Wars products are naturally a big part of Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's where the Star Tours motion simulator ride attraction takes guests into a mission to transport a rebel spy, and that park also hosts Star Wars Weekends every year, where an entire section to the park is devoted to shopping. Yes -- you guessed it -- Disney calls it the Darth's Mall.
However, even Disney's three other Florida parks are actively pitching Star Wars merch. Let's start a photo tour at EPCOT. The Chevy-sponsored Test Track ride takes guests through a driving course, dropping them off at a gift shop. Does Star Wars fit into a shop selling model cars, road signs, and other vehicles accessories?
Why, yes -- it does. You can snap up Yoda, R2D2, Boba Fett, and Darth Vader decals for your windows at the Test Track store. It only seems a little out of place.
The Star Wars merchandise feels much more out of place at Animal Kingdom, Disney World's "not a zoo" park where wildlife rule. There we turn to the Chester & Hester's Dinosaur Treasures shop in the park's DinoLand U.S.A. section.
What do Stormtrooper pillows, Yoda backpacks, and R2D2 mouse ears have to do with prehistoric times? Nothing; but if it sells, you know it's going to get plenty of shelf space.
Then we head out to Magic Kingdom, Disney's most visited theme park on the planet. Is there any doubt that you will find plenty of Star Wars gear being sold there?
Yes, you can assemble your own personalized lightsaber at the Magic Kingdom. To be fair, the store is called Star Traders, but the Tomorrowland theming had nothing to do with Star Wars until Disney shelled out big bucks for Lucasfilm. So, yes, big Star Wars news may be coming to Disney's theme parks, but the franchise itself is already there in a major way.
Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney, and he spent the first half of the summer in Celebration, Florida just a fireworks shot away from the parks. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.