The Force is now just three months from its awakening at a multiplex near you, and a few months later the same thing will play out at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) unveiled plans and preliminary artwork for Star Wars Land -- a richly themed 14-acre expansion at both of its U.S. resorts -- last month. On Thursday, Chief Operating Officer Thomas Staggs announced that construction would begin next year.
That's welcome news for Star Wars fans and Disney shareholders. Reports last month when Star Wars Land was introduced had the project not breaking ground until late 2017.
Breaking ground doesn't mean that park guests will be piloting the Millennium Falcon or exploring galactic landscapes anytime soon. Disney moves slowly, and that means that it will still take a couple of years before Star Wars Land opens to the public. Franchise buffs and investors should consider themselves lucky if it opens as early as 2018, though 2019 or 2020 seem to be the smarter wagers.
Why that far out? Well, Disney doesn't have a problem announcing projected opening dates of new attractions that will be available in the next year or two. If Disney's lips are sealed in throwing out a debut date, it's probably at least three years away.
Use the Force, Luke
It never should have taken this long. It's been three years since Disney announced that the seventh installment in the Star Wars movie series will hit theaters in 2015. There was some jockeying for position. Executives wanted it out during the summer of 2015. Creatives wanted it out during the summer of 2016, buying themselves time. They split the difference with a 2015 holiday release, but the point here is that Disney's known for three years that the franchise that it spent billions to acquire was going to return to the big screen. Star Wars Land should be opening now.
Disney's first Frozen ride -- a boat ride going into EPCOT's Norway pavilion next year -- is rolling out three years after the movie, but that animated feature was a sleeper hit. It was hard to know the magnitude that the flick's catchy score and strong female characters would drive young girls into a frenzy with all things Anna and Elsa. It's a different story here. There's no doubt that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be huge, and the only attraction that Disney will have open in time for the theatrical run is Star Wars Launch Bay, an exhibit with movie props and interactive stations.
Disney's nearest theme park rival -- Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSK) (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Studios -- is adding a King Kong-themed thrill ride next year to its Islands of Adventure park in Florida. It's not a coincidence that the studio will have a new King Kong movie hitting theaters a year after that. Comcast's theme parks have been growing attendance at a much higher percentage rate than Disney in recent years, and a big reason for that is that it's perpetually adding new rides and attractions.
Disney needs Star Wars Land, particularly in Florida where Disney's Hollywood Studios has been stagnant. It's been dead last in attendance among Disney's Florida parks since being passed by Animal Kingdom a couple of years ago. The addition of Star Wars Land -- and Toy Story Land -- should push the park back into bronze medal contention among Disney's four Florida theme parks if not overtaking EPCOT for silver. However, having to wait years for something that should've happened already isn't easy for a non-Jedi to understand.