LONDON (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co has "struck more than gold" with the "Star Wars" franchise and it wants to expand plans to build attractions for the sci-fi saga in its theme parks, Chief Executive Bob Iger said.
Some three years after Disney bought George Lucas' Lucasfilm Ltd for $4 billion, it is bringing its first "Star Wars" picture to cinemas this week in what has been billed as the movie release of the year.
"The Force Awakens", expected to be a box office smash, has won rave reviews from critics and fans awaiting the next instalment in a series that began in 1977.
"I think we struck more than gold here frankly, it's just great," Iger told Reuters at the movie's premiere in London on Wednesday. "(Interest) has exceeded our expectations but so has the film."
"The Force Awakens", which has been cloaked in secrecy, is the first Star Wars film in 10 years. Reviews were embargoed until Wednesday but when they were finally published, many critics praised the film and the first fans who saw it approved.
"I feel relieved, yes, but really I think I feel validated," Iger said. "I feel that the people who made this film are getting the proper praise both from critics and from audiences."
"The Force Awakens" follows on from 1983's "Return of the Jedi", with franchise veterans Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Han Solo, Leia and Luke Skywalker respectively. It is the first of a new trilogy and standalone movies the studio is planning.
"We intend to move the story forward, introduce new places, new characters but also continue to show respect for what was, both in terms of people and places and themes," Iger said.
"While this is a hand-off from the past to the present and the future, I view it just as a continuum."
Disney said in August it plans to build "Star Wars" lands at its California Disneyland and Florida Walt Disney World parks, with new attractions celebrating the franchise.
"We will expand to our other parks but we haven't made any announcements," Iger said.
Reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Mark Heinrich