Disney's Empire Strikes on All Fronts to Promote 'Star Wars VII'

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We may be 19 months away from "Star Wars: Episode VII," but it's not too soon to start generating buzz. Director J.J. Abrams announced last week that the film's production crew is teaming up with UNICEF for a contest that will land someone a part in the movie.

It's part of the Star Wars: Force for Change campaign that aims to raise funds and awareness for community-building projects in impoverished nations. However, for Disney (DIS) -- the family entertainment giant that paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm two years ago -- this is just another way to keep building interest for a movie that fans have been waiting for since 2005, when the last film came out.

Disney wanted to have the new film out by next summer. The folks working on the film wanted to hold out until the summer of 2016 to get everything right. They split the difference. It's coming out on Dec. 18, 2015. It's a foregone conclusion that this will be the hit of the 2015 holiday season. Disney just wants to make sure that it's even bigger than that.

Use the Force, Walt

Disney has big plans for the Star Wars franchise, and it's apparent to anyone visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida these days. Celebrities and costumed characters converge for several weekends through June 15. Star Wars Weekends has been an annual event for years before the Lucasfilm acquisition. The park features the Star Wars-themed Star Tours attraction, and it's had a solid relationship with creator George Lucas before cutting him a big check.

However, Disney is ramping it up. Character meals -- a staple at Disney's theme parks and resort hotels, where guests pay a premium to dine alongside Mickey Mouse and other characters -- have taken a Star Wars spin at Disney's Hollywood Studios. At the Star Wars Dine-In Galactic Breakfast at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant, Darth Vader, stormtroopers and other iconic characters visit the dining cars. At night, Jedi Mickey's Star Wars Dine at Hollywood & Vine is hosted by Disney characters decked out in Star Wars garb. Mickey Mouse is Luke Skywalker. Goofy is Darth Vader. Minnie Mouse is Princess Leia, hair buns and all.

The meals -- $48 for breakfast or $56 for dinner -- sold out quickly. One could say that patrons are hungry, but Disney's hungry for more.

The Dark Side

Disney isn't afraid to cut a big check to get its hands on endearing and enduring characters. It has negotiated 10-figure deals for Pixar, Marvel and now Lucasfilm. If you're the owner of a popular character-rich franchise, Disney wants to talk to you.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%The Pixar and Marvel deals have already paid for themselves by opening up Disney to computer-rendered characters and comic book superheroes. Disney can still create the occasional in-house hit. "Frozen" recently became the highest-grossing animated film of all time. However, the one Disney movie that it has yet to topple is Marvel's "The Avengers."

Lucasfilm will be carved out into more than just the final three Star Wars movies. There is already chatter of spinning off secondary characters into their own franchises.

Luke Skywalker may have been shocked to learn who his father was, but there's no denying who the parent company of Star Wars is these days. Disney's a well-oiled media empire that can elevate an entertainment brand higher across its TV networks (such as ABC and ESPN), theme parks, retail stores, and even cruise ships.

The Force is strong in this one. Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.