Avatar Land

by Steve Russo, staff writer

With apologies to Buffalo Springfield (and good grammar)…

Something’s happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.

There’s big doings coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. On September 20, 2011, the Walt Disney Company announced plans to build a new theme park land based on the movie Avatar. This new land, yet unnamed, will be constructed in Disney’s Animal Kingdom and represents the first step in a licensing agreement that portends similar attractions in Disney parks worldwide.

Avatar Land. Image © Disney.

I mention the new land is without a name but I’m betting it will be Avatar Land or Pandora, the fictional planet featured in the film. Avatar Land has arguably more mass appeal—even those folks that haven’t seen the movie have probably at least heard of it. Pandora, I think, would be a truer representation of the film but probably more obscure if you aren’t familiar with the film’s plot.

There’s no doubt that this arrangement is in direct response to the apparent success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. Will Disney be able to reap the same benefits in attendance and revenue as Universal has? That’s a point that will be argued frequently in the coming few years.

As reported in the Orlando Sentinel, this arrangement with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment studio and Fox Filmed Entertainment gives Disney exclusive theme-park rights to use elements from the 2009 box-office hit. They will also be able to take advantage of two planned sequels: according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), the first sequel is due out in 2014 with the second coming in 2015. Presumably, this agreement will give Disney’s Imagineers a look into the content of those films in order to be able to design selected items into the new attractions. That’s nothing more than a guess on my part but I think it’s a logical conclusion.

Let’s get back to Harry Potter for a moment. There’s no denying that the series of J. K. Rowling novels, and the subsequent films, have reached a level of popularity we have not seen previously—and may never see again. There’s no doubt that visitors have flocked to Universal Orlando to see for themselves how Hogwarts has come to life. But what really drives them to visit?

Do they come for the rides? There are currently only three—and two of those were essentially “re-imagined”. They existed previously at Universal’s Islands of Adventure but were re-themed and re-named to fit within Harry Potter’s World. The third, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, is, by all accounts, a wonderful attraction that combines technology and some of the films’ elements into a thrilling and repeatable ride—but it’s still only a single ride.

Do they come for the theming? I have to believe this is, at least partially, the case. There’s always something special about seeing a fictional place come to life—a place you’ve only read about or seen in the movies. There are also the many shopping/dining opportunities for the true Harry Potter fans. What Potter aficionado could pass up the chance to sample a Butterbeer or purchase an authentic magic wand? It’s been reported that the sale of food and merchandise in Universal’s theme parks were up a whopping 90 percent during the first half of 2011. Similarly, reported attendance at the two-park resort soared 52 percent. Successful? I would think so.

Personally, I think it’s the combination of all those things that draw Harry Potter fans to Universal. A chance to immerse yourself in a “world” that you’ve grown to love because of the books and films. I could probably say the same thing about several sections of Walt Disney World though, couldn’t I?

The real question is whether Disney can approach this type of brand recognition from Avatar. The film was wildly successful and grossed nearly $2.8 billion in worldwide box-office receipts. If you’ve seen the movie, and many of you obviously have based on its revenue, can you name any of the main characters? I am not a Harry Potter fan—I’ve not read any of the books and have only seen parts of a few of the films but I can name and recognize Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. I’m also familiar with the names Hogwarts, Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort—and I know what a Muggle is. Face it, for better or worse, Harry Potter has become a significant part of our pop culture.

(For the record, Avatar’s main characters were Jake Sully, Dr. Grace Armstrong and Neytiri, one of the native Na’vi. How many did you get?)

Disney’s plans are to build multiple attractions based on the film’s fictional world of Pandora. I’m sure we can also expect a few themed shops, restaurants, and other entertainment. It’s the same approach taken by Universal Orlando but can Disney expect the same level of attraction without the same level of branding?

Tom Staggs, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said it is possible that Disney’s Avatar land will include food and merchandise based on items found in the films, though he said the project is still in the very early design phase. What would an Avatar-themed restaurant serve? I may need to re-watch the film but I can’t recall any food or drink items that I’d be looking to sample. Other than a few flying dragon-like plushes (they’re actually called a Toruk but I had to look that up) and Avatar-themed T-shirts, what could they sell? As you can see, I’m skeptical on the dining/shopping tie-ins.

However, I’m much more positive on the potential for attractions. First, the dense jungle-like appearance of Pandora should fit nicely into the existing theme of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I have no doubt that the Imagineers are capable of constructing something, using real and/or artificial flora and fauna, that will place us smack dab into the middle of the fictional planet.

How about the attractions? The two concepts that pop immediately into my head represent flight. A simulation of the soaring ride aboard a Toruk (those pterodactyl-like things I mentioned earlier) would make a wonderful and repeatable attraction. I can envision a Soarin’ type of ride over a CGI version of Pandora. Swooping low over the forests, up over those rock formations in the clouds… could be a lot of fun. They could even “plus” the Soarin’ technology with a themed ride vehicle and a 3D representation of Pandora.

I could certainly see a ride similar to the new Star Tours: The Adventures Continue attraction in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. There’s the same potential for flight and the added possibility of battle scenes to be incorporated. I also think there’s some traction with a Dinosaur-like ride. Using a similar vehicle to Dinosaur in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or the Indiana Jones ride for the left-coasters, we could have an exciting escape driven ride through the Pandora forests, being attacked and chased by all manner of Pandora’s beastly creatures. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a version similar to Universal’s Spiderman attraction here—a dark ride with 3D CGI renderings.

Those are a few possibilities but I know Disney’s Imagineers have a better… er, imagination than I. As I’ve said many times before, I’m always amazed that they can amaze me when I have lowered expectations for something.

Construction of Animal Kingdom’s Avatar land won’t begin until 2013 and the expected opening is about five years from now, or 2016. That opening date should allow Disney to capitalize on a fresh wave of interest generated by the two upcoming sequels. That is, of course, dependent upon the success of those sequels. However, it would seem that betting on the success of a James Cameron film is reasonably safe.

Many have claimed that Disney’s Animal Kingdom is lacking attractions and is only a “half-day park." That’s not an assertion I happen to agree with but I would think this new land would go a long way to silencing some of that criticism.

What’s the bottom line? Do I think that Pandora or Avatar land can do for Disney’s Animal Kingdom what the Wizarding World of Harry Potter did for Universal Orlando? I don’t. I don’t believe it can turn the Animal Kingdom into a singular destination the way Harry Potter apparently has for Islands of Adventure. However, I do think it will go a long way toward upgrading Disney’s Animal Kingdom in the minds of many visitors.

Will it be a game changer and entice people to visit Walt Disney World that hadn’t previously planned to come? That’s debatable, but I would say…probably not. Nevertheless, it should serve to increase the popularity of Animal Kingdom, and by default, Walt Disney World—and that can only be a positive thing.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours?


  1. By Andrew

    welcome back, steve!

  2. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew View Post
    welcome back, steve!

    Thanks, Andrew. Not all the way back just yet but I'm trying to work some tie in.

  3. By hilsommer

    I always enjoy your articles and trip reports. I totally agree with you about Avatar Land (or whatever it will be called). I think it will be good for Animal Kingdom -- though I'd have preferred they go ahead with Beastly Kingdom. I haven't seen Avatar but have seen enough previews to see the potential for some great rides. Like you, I don't think this will have the "Harry Potter effect" Universal is enjoying.

  4. By cbarry

    Nice to see Steve back on the masthead.

    I think the Imagineers can and will do an amazing job with an Avatar Land. But do I want them too? I'm curious to see it, but I wasn't dying for someone to do so. I know the film is the biggest selling movie of all time now, and that's obviously what they're banking on. I just don't know, much like Steve says, if Avatar has seeped into our consciousness enough to warrant an entire new land. I'll be there to check it out and hopefully by then, the next film will come out and I'll have grown more attached to Pandora.

    I hate when people make statements like this and second guess the company and all, but here goes anyway...They couldn't have done this type of project with Star Wars?? Never understand that.


  5. By IllusionOfLife

    Excellent article, and I agree with you to an extent. I think despite the fact that Avatar was a fad film that will likely fade from public consciousness in a few short years an Avatar attraction could be good for Animal Kingdom. A single attraction could be very well done and outlast the popularity of the film, however, I think dedicating an entire land to the property is a bad thing for Animal Kingdom in the long run.

    I'm typically against having entire sections of a park themed after one property because I think it's creatively limiting, but I will admit that Wizarding World of Harry Potter looks spectacular and Cars Land looks like it will be neat too, however, there's a unique thing about those properties that justify the idea of dedicating entire lands to them: specific, recognizable, and memorable locations. In Harry Potter Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, the Forbidden Forest are all specific locations that are extremely memorable that can be recreated; Hogwarts castle, in and of itself, has many specific and memorably locations of its own. Cars has Radiator Springs which is iconic in its own right and has specific shops that can be recreated in great detail. What does Avatar have? Obviously it has Pandora, but how many specific locations can you pick out of that? Yes, Pandora was a beautiful setting for the film, but when it comes to recreating it in a theme park, there's no real specific set pieces that stand out to recreate. The best Imagineering will be able to do is recreate the general feeling of Pandora, but that' nowhere near as valuable or iconic as recreating a specific location like Radiator Springs or Hogwarts Castle.

    Also, when the film does fade into obscurity, Disney is left with an entire section of the park that is antiquated and would need a complete re-theme before any new attractions could be added, and by my estimations, that will be no later than 2020. A four year life expectancy for a theme park land is not good, and Disney won't be ready to jump in and spend the money to fix it right away meaning that there will be at least several years of having this land as an embarrassing testament to the bad idea of trying to cash in on a fad.

  6. By safmouse

    I'm wondering where they could put this in DLR. It would totally mess up the theming to DCA and I wouldn't think they would even contemplate putting a non-Disney land in, well, Disneyland. 

    I'm hoping they extract the "E-ticket" ride from the AK version and replace Captain EO or Innoventions with it, and skip the rest of the land altogether. That way it's like Star Tours or Indy, a non-Disney ride that fits in to an existing land. 

  7. By bumblebeeonarose

    I teach in a school that teaches single gender (I teach only girls, others teach only boys). This year the National Single Sex Public Education conference is being held in Orlando. What is on the flyer? A picture of Mickey you say...NO! It's Harry Potter. Come and see Hogwarts. They are trying to lure people to the conference by reminding them that, not Mickey and his world, but Harry and his will be close by. To me, that says a lot. Of course this is a conference for teachers, and teachers tend to read a lot. But still!

  8. By howlongtillsummer

    Avatar = exciting and good news
    New column by Steve Russo = very exciting and very good news

    That's my opinion!!

  9. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by howlongtillsummer View Post
    Avatar = exciting and good news
    New column by Steve Russo = very exciting and very good news

    That's my opinion!!

    Awwww, shucks. :-)

  10. By Allrock123

    Having worked as a volunteer forum monitor for a non commercial Avatar fan site I can honestly say I dont think Avatar is a fad we still get over a hundred posts a day and there is a lot of user involvement with people inspired to create some quite striking artwork and music relating to the film, and how they relate to it , My main question with the creation of a Disney theme park based Avatar attraction is simply "Does Disney realy understand how people relate to the film ? Avatar addresses issues with humanity that are going to be very dificult for disney to express in a theme park attended by young children its far more than glowing plants and flying ikrans, The most spoken about issues usuly relate to what happens in the film and how it applys to a very real world problems and how people from diffrent cultures relate and feel about these issues. there is of course intrest in the NaVi langage and in the technoligy used to create the film, while you can build a copy of a section of pandora and it would look impressive
    unless you can capture the spirit of the film people will just see it as cool looking blue catlike people pandora playland.

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