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?


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Steve's a Disney Vacation Club member that has been planning Walt Disney World vacations since 1984. Along the way, he's tried to learn everything he could about the Disney World resorts, restaurants and theme parks. He brings you that knowledge via planning tips and insights, often delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

His three children are now grown but still vacation at Walt Disney World with Mom and Dad. The clan has increased to include a daughter-in-law, two sons-in-law and grandchildren. Steve is now retired and he and his wife, Barbara anxiously await their next visit to the World.

Steve is the author of So... You're Going to Disney World: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the planning process.