A galaxy far, far away is coming to the happiest place on Earth. Walt Disney Co. announced Saturday that it will create 14-acre "Star Wars"-themed areas for Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla.
The plans represent the largest expansions in the company's history for a single-themed area, and in Anaheim they will require a major reconfiguration of the park, opened in 1955 by company co-founder Walt Disney. "We knew it needed to be big," Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Iger said as he announced the plans to 7,500 people gathered at Disney's D23 fan expo at the Anaheim Convention Center. "We knew it needed to be great. And we knew it needed to be every bit as thrilling as the films are going to be. So we're going to transport guests to a whole new planet."
The new lands will burnish the legacy of Iger, who has audaciously expanded the company during his decade at the helm. Iger also has spearheaded the purchase of comics giant Marvel and animation hit maker Pixar, giving Disney enormous leverage — and cash flow — within multiple businesses. Disney's stock price has more than quadrupled with Iger at the controls.
The "Star Wars" sci-fi franchise has had a presence within Disney's parks in the form of the motion-simulator ride Star Tours. But the new themed areas are the most ambitious effort to incorporate the "Star Wars" universe into the parks since the company acquired Lucasfilm from George Lucas in a 2012 deal worth more than $4 billion.
Not unlike Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the new "Star Wars" areas will be fashioned into an immersive environment evoking the franchise's universe. Iger described it as a "remote port, one of the last stops before wild space," complete with droids, aliens and humanoid characters — and, yes, a cantina.
"We're currently casting for roles," Iger said. "The attractions, the entertainment — everything we create will be part of our storytelling. Nothing will be out of character or stray from the mythology."
Showing off a brief piece of concept video featuring spacecraft flying over an alien city, Iger said that the new "Star Wars"-themed areas will include a re-creation of the Millennium Falcon, in which guests can take the controls for a "customized secret mission," along with an immersive attraction that will put attendees into "a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance."
The new land is targeted to replace Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch and take over backstage areas currently not accessible to guests, a company spokesperson said, adding that speculation "Star Wars" would replace or impinge on Mickey's Toontown was unfounded.
The new themed area had been anticipated after reports that Disney had purchased three parcels of land near its Anaheim resort, sparking speculation about an expansion involving "Star Wars" characters or the superheroes of Marvel, which Disney acquired in 2009.
Property records show that an arm of Walt Disney Co. bought the Carousel Inn and Suites at 1530 S. Harbor Blvd. in March and large office buildings at 1515 and 1585 S. Manchester Ave. last year. The properties total 14.7 acres, all connected, and sit across Harbor Boulevard from Disney California Adventure, although the company said this month that any expansion would not increase the footprint of Disneyland.
The company said Saturday that groundbreaking for the "Star Wars" lands will be in 2017. No opening date has been set. The move is just the latest sign of how vitally important the film franchise has become to Disney's bottom line. Walt Disney Studios has an ambitious slate of "Star Wars" sequels and spinoff films planned for years into the future, beginning with the Dec. 18 release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the first new "Star Wars" film to hit theaters in a decade.
Dusty Sage, the founder of the Disney discussion site Micechat, predicted that the new lands will dwarf the impact that Harry Potter attractions had for Universal.
"People will travel from around the world to go to a 'Star Wars' land," Sage said.
Sage noted that Disney has a reputation for moving deliberately — and sometimes far too slowly to satisfy impatient fans.
"Don't expect 'Star Wars Land' to happen right away," Sage said.
When new attractions are in place, they will echo the company's leveraging of entertainment properties in Florida, said David Koenig, author of several books about Disney.
"Most specifically Cars Land," he said, "which showed that you could take one land and provide the opportunity to really live in that creative property."
Among fans gathered at the convention, the news of the new Star Wars-themed park expansions was greeted mostly with excitement.
"It's definitely exciting as a Star Wars fan but I'm skeptical as to where they're going to put it in Disneyland; there's not much room," said Anaheim resident Oscar Barajas, 25. He would like to see Disney offer an entirely original attraction rather than simply capitalizing on its ever-expanding stable of film properties.
Orange resident Loren Diaz, 26, said she liked the idea of additions to the park but was concerned about how the new attractions might affect the old ones.
"That's something that I hold near and dear to my heart," Diaz said specifically of Toontown. "That's was where my childhood was most spent when my parents took me to Disneyland."
But Stedmond Crowder, 26, of Los Angeles expressed his enthusiasm for the new "Star Wars"-themed areas with full, unadulterated force.
"I usually head out to Disneyland once a year, but with this announcement I'm definitely going to want to come out more often," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'll be there whenever I'm not working, hanging out in the cantina."
Times staff writers Todd Martens, Scott Collins and Meredith Woerner contributed to this report.
FULL COVERAGE: D23 EXPO
PHOTOS: 'Star Wars' at the box office