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

Disney CEO Bob Iger recently announced his media and merchandising empire 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 records for attendance and profit every quarter, and the big-budget movies of the new Star Wars trilogy and its side "anthology" films 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 an infinite, imaginary empire, its Star Wars blockbusters and theme parks fueled by (and helping fuel) Disney's store-conquering merchandising machine.

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 such as Frozen helping bring the company billions 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.

"The canon is big enough that they can spin off stories for the rest of time," said Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.

The hype over Disney's theme parks lands only a few weeks before "Force Friday" — Disney's stores, online shops and global retailers will open at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 4 to unveil new apps, books, collectibles, toys, "lifestyle accessories" and other merchandise.

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

Also part of "Force Friday," Disney has announced collaborations with seven mega-brands — CoverGirl/Max Factor, Duracell, carmaker FCA US, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, 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.

Disney Cruise Lines will run eight-day-long Star Wars cruises in the western Caribbean next year, including meet-and-greets with characters such as 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.

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 Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 — which, with its interstellar trade embargoes and Jar Jar Binks, was widely panned by critics — grossed $2.5 billion worldwide.

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 overcommercialize or overhype this. It's my job to prevent that."