Skip to content

A few thoughts on Avatar, will Pandora fit in at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

The Na’vi Hometree on Pandora reminds me of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life. Of course, we can’t forget that Avatar is a sci-fi film too.

I’ve had a day to think about the announcement of Disney licensing James Cameron’s Avatar properties for it’s theme parks. We’re still very early in the process, but even in just the last 24 hours many interviews with key players have been published. That gives us a slightly better idea, but it’s still pretty much conjecture. Never the less, I have put down a few thoughts on the news, realizing that all this could change as more details of the partnership are revealed.

Disney did a good job keeping the Avatar partnership secret, I’d only heard a few rumors about the idea prior to the announcement but the exact names of Avatar or Cameron never explicitly surfaced, so I didn’t feel comfortable reporting it. However, many Disney fans now feel like they’ve been blindsided and they’re not happy.

One thing is clear, Bob Iger wasn’t kidding when he told investors that Disney was looking at acquiring even more characters for the Disney umbrella. Marvel Comics, Prince of Persia, and now Avatar. I’m afraid to ask what’s next. That said, the characters we think of as Disney now, were someone else’s characters before that. Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins are two famous examples but even Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella were drawn from other mythos. After Walt we’ve added Star Tours, and Indiana Jones to the parks, not to mention Twilight Zone and, in the Walt-era,  The African Queen.

The glow of the phosphorescent plants of Pandora will no doubt play a large role in the new land. Whether it’s an indoor space that glows all day long or some sort of night time show, I’m really looking forward to this.

There are some interesting comments from Jay Rasulo saying that if they hadn’t licensed Avatar, they would be doing something else at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Do tell? What was that something else? Something Disney owned and created? Where you don’t have to share merchandising rights? On the other hand, there is likely some argument for not letting a competitor get these rights. Could Disney afford to let Universal build a Pandora to go with their Harry Potter scoop? It appears this deal is at least in part to prevent the risk of that happening?

Is Disney’s Animal Kingdom the right park? What about Disney’s Hollywood Studios? First lets look at what needs DAK has to fill. It definitely needs some new attractions, but DHS might win in that category as DAK does have the animal encounters. What DAK really needs is some reason for guests to stay in the park after dusk when the animals are no longer visible. This is where Avatar’s planet of Pandora will really shine.

Of course, the Na’vi weren’t the only aliens on the planet. Human researchers used avatars to meet and interact with the natives. It will be interesting to see how that storyline is integrated.

It is likely there won’t be any actual animals, as Avatar is set on an alien world. That means the fantasy theme that runs through the latest additions to DAK will continue. From Dinoland to Expedition Everest the trend has been to fill in the blank left by the absence of Beastly Kingdom. And sure, the theme of DAK is nature, but it’s still an artificial construction of nature designed to make us hyper aware of nature. Pandora fits in that mold quite nicely.

The size of the new land is projected to cost somewhere between $400 and $500 million. That’s about right as this will be a brand new land from the ground up. Unlike Universal, Disney doesn’t have to worry about people putting off their vacations between now and 2015, with three other parks and a new Fantasyland that is still rolling out in phases in 2014, there will still be a lot to see. There might be some people who postpone a few months to make sure the new land will be open before their 2016 trip. A good way to cancel out that effect would be to have a huge 45th Anniversary celebration (hint).

Cameron has said he really wants to see a flying attraction that captures the feeling of what it’s like to ride an Ikran aka Banshee.

So far the most legitimate complaint I’ve read is that the movie Avatar was rated PG13. (Disney has confronted this before as some of the Star Wars films were PG13, also the Pirates films.) That means a whole slew of kids who are visiting DAK for the day probably have not seen the movie. Now, the movie was rated PG13 for violence and it deserved that rating. However, the situations of space travel, colonization, personal identity, learning to work with nature instead of against it, etc are all G rated topics. Disney and Cameron can mediate this issue by releasing some G rated TV cartoons and a few comic books aimed at the younger set. Turns out Disney has a TV animation division, who knew!

Sequels, and additional material, have to be up to snuff. Disney’s now counting on it. If Avatar goes all Matrix 2&3 on us (or worse Star Wars 1,2,3 and the retcon that Lucas is trying to pull on his original series) then Disney has just invested in a fizzled franchise. So we’re really putting our faith in James Cameron.

Of course, if you have banshee, you have to have the famous floating Hallelujah rocks made of unobtanium.

For the people who just don’t like James Cameron, I can’t do anything for you man. Believe it or not, there is a segment of the population out there that thinks Walt Disney is evil. It’s true. My personal feelings are that Cameron has been one of the few film makers out there who has effectively tapped into modern themes to build new interesting worlds and mythologies. He’s done it the same way thousands of story tellers, including Walt Disney & George Lucas, have before him, by leveraging existing stories, plot developments, and themes to create something new. To damn Cameron for that, but not Disney and Lucas, is a bit hypocritical.

One storyline from Avatar I know Disney will avoid is how colonization has been an evil force in the world. We’re still seeing the affect of colonization play out around the world with deforestation, dictatorships installed by industrialists, and even the ongoing arab spring. Disney avoided that when building both Africa and Asia at the park, I don’t see them addressing it here.

The question that I really want the answer to is will Avatar give WDI the playground (and budget) they need to show they’re still on top of the game. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is great, but even with the mythology created by J.K. Rowling, it wouldn’t be attracting as many guests if early word about how the detail transports you right into the books/movies hadn’t been so strong.

This is the new frontier in theme parks–who can integrate the latest technology and design for the most immersive and transportive environment. Which is, of course, the original frontier where Walt built Disneyland it was an immersive environment like no one had ever seen before. The industry had been in a bit of a slumber, but with Harry Potter, Universal had staked a claim at the top of the castle. Now it’s up to Disney to reclaim the crown.

What do I want to see from Pandora in Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

  • TIE Total Immersion Experience. Part of the movie of Avatar was the experience of being in another body. Disney’s TIE technology is perfect for this.
  • Incredible detail on the level never seen before in a theme park anywhere.
  • The Na’vi and not just on a screen somewhere, but actual Na’vi living as part of the one-world.
  • Hometree. I often felt that the Tree of Life in someway inspired the Hometree in Avatar. It would make sense if Pandoraland had a replica. It would also be cool to have a memory tree where you could ‘link’ and listen to the thoughts of the world.
  • The Halleluiah mountains made of unobtanium that seem to defy gravity and float. These have to be in an attraction somewhere.
  • Glowing stuff. Whether the whole land is build indoors and set at night or whether there is a special ceremony where the world lights up after dark, Pandoraland has to glow. Heck set up face painting stations and paint Na’vi patterns on guest’s arms and faces, so everyone gets in on the fun.

Even Disney admits they’re still in the blue-sky phase as far as project development. But here’s some speculation anyway:

  • Using the old Body Wars cars from EPCOT for a Star Tours like experience. Would be a cheap way of getting in an extra ride for the land. Yes, its derivative and it’s been done, but more capacity is more capacity.
  • Expect a roller-coaster type attraction, but not a traditional coaster. Something with the flying Ikran.
  • Some sort of Lucky the Dinosaur encounter with Pandora lifeforms.

The final piece of the puzzle is where to build the new land. Will it be on the plot of land that was once intended to hold Beastly Kingdom or back on the parcel that had been intended for Australia. My feeling is that it will go in the back of the park where Australia had been intended. We’ve already heard that the Bird show will be going away and that it will be come the entrance to the new land. This will also add a walking path to Rafiki’s Planet Watch allowing them to close the train and move Festival Of The Lion King to Africa where it belongs. Maybe another show will go into Camp MinnieMickey or they’ll figure out something else to do with that area, like, you know, a ride or two.

As I said, pretty much anything anyone says is conjecture at this point. But hey, I love to dream about this stuff. If you do as well, I’d love to hear your ideas about what a dream version of a new land based on Avatar would look like at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.