October 16, 2013
Pandora Rising: Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Two years ago, Disney surprised theme-park fans by announcing a deal to bring a land based on James Cameron's Avatar to their Animal Kingdom park in Orlando. It was a box-office hit and had great visual effects, but this wasn't Star Wars or another beloved franchise. Cameron had produced one film that was admired yet not loved. Looking beyond the imaginative look, the story was too familiar. Would guests clamor to visit Pandora in the same way they'd flocked to Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter? The odds seemed unlikely, and speculation has been rampant that it would never happen. After saying little about Avatar since the announcement, Disney finally released concept art and some details last week at their D23 Expo in Tokyo. Fans who've decried the idea for several years now seem ready to embrace the new land. After no announcements at the California expo a few months ago, they're relieved to hear anything concrete.
Why create a land based on Avatar? There are several main reasons for Disney. First, they're dealing with an aggressive Universal and could lose business when the second Harry Potter expansion opens next year. Disney's attendance remains strong, but it's only a matter of time before the crowds venture across town. The second need is specific to the Animal Kingdom, which hasn't had a significant new ride since Expedition Everest in 2006. It's a beautiful park with amazing wildlife, but the high ticket prices warrant more than impressive zoological exhibits. A big-budget expansion in an underused section of the park can draw huge benefits and reduce the congestion near the other headliners. It removes the "half-day park" label from the Animal Kingdom and makes it a top destination. Disney's revamp of their maligned California Adventure park has worked wonders and dramatically affected the Disneyland resort. They're hoping for a similar impact with this expansion.
The key factor in making the Avatar land a success is developing multiple attractions that please different types of guests. Universal's first Harry Potter expansion was really just one new ride, but they deftly re-themed two others to make it seem larger. Disney doesn't have that luxury. The images show a boat ride through Pandora that hopefully will match the success of classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean. There also will be a high-tech banshee simulator possibly in the vein of Soarin'. Another key element will be the theming, which needs to be immersive on the scale of Cars Land. All the shops, restaurants, and other structures must connect to the theme to create the right atmosphere. If the environment feels right, it could win over cynics who don't even like Cameron's film. The challenge is spending the resources needed to separate Pandora from the rest of the park. It must fit naturally in the overall scheme while standing alone as an individual land.
A major challenge is maintaining the excitement during the lengthy construction time to make the plans come alive. Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs has cited a possible opening time of early 2017, which is still more than three years away. They'll need some additional upgrades to the Animal Kingdom to keep guests happy in the meantime. Staggs' announcement also described a nighttime show and evening version of their headliner Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, so those changes might come sooner. If not, fans will probably get antsy during this extensive timeframe. My reaction is mixed, though I'm feeling more optimistic after learning more about this ambitious land. I still don't love the Avatar deal and its place in the Animal Kingdom, but there's still potential for something great. Cameron is planning to release sequels around the same time as this opening, so it could lead to big returns if everything comes together well.
It's clear that the future of the major theme parks is buying intellectual properties and putting them in the parks. Signature Disney attractions like Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, and Big Thunder Mountain aren't tied to a specific franchise, but they come from a different era. Disney's purchases of Marvel and Lucasfilm show the company's direction moving forward. The fierce competition will benefit visitors and should lead to incredible attractions. The downside of these massive acquisitions is an increase in ticket prices to pay for the expensive rides. They've priced out many visitors, and the costs should only continue to rise in the future. If you can afford the trip, there should be plenty to see in the next decade. Rumors have swirled for years about Lord of the Rings, and it seems like just a matter of time until that franchise joins the others in one of the major parks. It's sure to be amazing, if any of us can afford the experience.