So the entirety of theme park fandom is still talking about it.
The announcement that an Avatar-themed land would be built at Disney's Animal Kingdom (DAK), with construction starting in 2013, certainly came from out of the blue (pardon the pun). Normally there is chatter before major announcements, if not fleshed-out rumors that have already made the rounds of various message boards. Perhaps because the news was so unexpected, fan reaction has been swift, explosive, and divided.
Let's sketch the negative reactions first. A number of folks have been dismayed that Disney has gone to an outside mythology for this expansion, rather than building their own. Most attractions in the parks have been based off Disney's existing film/animation properties, or else designed from scratch by the Imagineers. In particular, DAK was once supposed to receive a realm called Beastlie Kingdomme, which would focus on fictional animals like unicorns and dragons. The coming Avatar-based land is similar enough in scope that many fans view it as the final nail on the coffin of Beastlie Kingdomme, and lament that they'd rather have Beastlie Kingdomme. The reality is, Beastlie Kingdomme hasn't been a possibility since Islands of Adventure opened, since some of the ideas planned for DAK made it into IOA instead.
Walt Disney World (in red) shown with the smaller DAK park highlighted in blue.
Others protest that Avatar was a PG-13 movie, and as such the property is too adult for a Disney park. I’d forgotten all about the ponytail-sex of the movie, but reminded of it now I agree, it would not fit Disney. Certainly the violence and language would also be too much for DAK, but Iger said at the press release that he's not interested in the battle scenes (nor, presumably, will he want to depict the follicle fondlings of the oversized smurfs). What attracts people to Avatar, Iger said, was the planet of Pandora itself.
That may be true, but it's harder to explain away the fact that Avatar's characters are not animals at all; they are tall blue humanoids. And this is to be an expansion to an animal-based park. There are *some* animals in the movie - things that are like horses, others like forest panthers, and others like dragons. But they aren't just mythical beasts; they are extraterrestrial beasts. The difference between fantasy and science fiction may be subtle, but it's there and shouldn’t be discounted entirely.
There are other concerns, such as the movie’s impact (and staying power). When was the last time you quoted a line from the movie in casual conversation? Can you name the main characters? Did you see any Avatar costumes for Halloween last year? For that matter, can you find Avatar toys in your local Target today?
If Disney was looking to announce something beyond the Fantasyland expansion as a "Potter swatter" (and I think it’s pretty plain they were), then in this one respect Avatar is bound to come up short. Disney executives don't envy the great attractions in Wizarding World so much as the healthy sales of butterbeer, wands, any flavor beans, and Gryffindor scarves. But it's far from certain that Avatar can generate such frenzied interest in their products.
It's the details that bring in the crowds to Islands of Adventure.
Also remember that the Potter fans are legion and multi-generational. This is partly because the stories have been with us for so long. The Potter phenomenon lives across platforms. My eight year old reads one of the books, then watches the movie, then plays the Lego Harry Potter video game, and then visits the theme park. It's a complete ecosystem of Potter products that Avatar can't hope to emulate. (This is, by the way, not a hypothetical example. That is exactly what my eight year old spends all his time doing these days).
That said, the first point to make as we switch to listing the positives in an Avatar expansion is a direct answer to the question of Potter fanatics. It’s true that Potter has wider reach across generations, lives on more platforms, and drives more merchandise sales. But it would be unfair not to mention the effect Avatar—and in particular, the planet of Pandora—had on moviegoers. There were articles in newspapers and online about people seeing the movie multiple times just to “revisit” Pandora. Avatar may have had a warmed-over plot, but it is literally the top-grossing film ever at 2.8 billion dollars (a full billion more than the #2 spot, which happens to be Titanic, another James Cameron movie), so the audience reaction should not be dismissed out of hand. Some of these repeat visitors would even report clinical depression as a result of the fact that Pandora was a fictional place and they’d never be able to visit. THIS sounds like an ideal “problem statement” for a theme park presence. If people want to visit a place very badly, then someone should build that place. Seem logical that it would make some money as a result. Who argues with a $2.8 billion track record?
Will the new land be in one of the existing pads (shown in yellow),
or will they move outward into the red zone?
I think it’s fair to say that the Avatar demographic will not match the Potter demographic. If Potter attracts kids (who either drag along the rest of the family, or else grow up and then drag THEIR kids), then Pandora will attract adults. Will they be single adults? And if they are predominantly single, might this park become the destination of choice for adults instead of Epcot? That could be especially true if the Pandora they end up building is a truly oversized indoor experience, shielded from the punishing heat and humidity that usually characterizes DAK. I could even imagine actively targeting this demographic. Let Potter have the kids and selling their non-alcoholic butterbeer to minors. DAK could go the other route, and concoct a truly delicious adult drink that becomes a fan favorite. Sip your Pandora Punch while you roam the glowing forest, exploring the dozens of trails that seem to lead ever deeper into the jungle. Make it a potent enough alcoholic drink and you could change the very definition of what being in a Disney park means. But having Avatar may do that already, anyway.
As refutation to the idea that Avatar brings the wrong sensibility and the wrong “message” to Disney, let’s not forget that Wizarding World faced the same questions. Some dismissed the upcoming land as too kid-centric (“only kids read those books!”) and other did not like the pagan message of the stories. Neither complaint has stopped the park from making wheelbarrows full of money, so we should be cautious about over-generalizing. In the case of Harry Potter, the proof was in the pudding. The experience COULD have been too kid-oriented. Or it COULD have irritated strict religious thinkers. Perhaps most damagingly, it COULD have just been mediocre, and then everyone would have their own individual reasons for finding the place lacking. The old adage about writing (“what works, works!”) is also true about theme parks. And it will be true of Pandora-Land as well.
A further thought on scope and fit: as a movie, Avatar does, in fact, match the theme of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. So many of the rides and experiences at DAK are infused with the message of conservation and responsible stewardship of the planet—could there *BE* a movie more in line with that thinking than Avatar?
It’s true that the main characters in Avatar are not animals, but as Iger pointed out, the star is Pandora. Mostly, that means the plants (and I guess the blue-glowing ground, too). If you think about it, this is also a match for DAK. The world’s third-largest collection of cycads (wooded plants that resemble prehistoric ferns or palms) resides at Dinoland. DAK owns a amorphophallus titanum (“corpse flower”) that blooms every few years. The entire park is blanketed in landscaping—even the central icon is a tree. In a way, DAK is mis-named. It’s really Disney’s NATURAL Kingdom. And Pandora will be a fit for that, too.
The train (in red) to Rafiki’s Planet Watch (in yellow).
One expansion pad sits to the side.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to welcome Pandora is that a serious land (and I expect a $500 million investment here, all told) will goad Universal to take their own action in response. It’s like an arms war, as envisioned by theme parks. Universal already plans to build a roller coaster themed to the Gringotts bank (and the rest of Diagon Alley) by taking over parts of the Lost Continent, such as the stadium used for the abysmal Sindbad show. If Pandora gets us Gringotts, that can only be a win!
Walt Disney Imagineering has done fantastic rides with rich stories and layers before which were not based off any external mythology. The trouble is, they did the best in the 1960s, with guys who had worked directly with Walt Disney for decades. Since then, the theme parks have used less rich atmosphere in their creations. There is absolutely a storyline for Big Thunder or Space Mountain, but can you rattle it off now? Does Soarin have the same level of detail and “you are there” atmosphere? Mansion and Pirates are the last of the great “atmosphere E-Tickets.” The only marquee rides since then which could possibly compare are Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure (at Disneyland)… both of which came from an outside mythology, the same as Avatar. Splash Mountain, which does have a storyline and a you-are-there ethos, comes from an existing Disney property, so it’s not a WDI invention. When has WDI invented a mythology on their own that really sticks out? I argue that the rides in the 60s (Mansion and Pirates) are the only good examples. So it’s not such a crime to turn to an outside property.
Where will Pandora be located? Iger isn’t saying, but the two obvious plots of land are near the front and all the way in the back. Near the front would mean the plot of land next to the parking lot that sits up against Camp Minnie-Mickey. This is the former Beastlie Kingdomme plot, and if Avatar goes here, that would mean the end of Camp Minnie-Mickey.
The back pad is behind Asia. There’s room for an expansion next to Everest. The rumor has long been for this to be Australia, and a walking path to Rafiki’s Planet Watch. But if Avatar comes here, I wonder if Rafiki’s will just be demolished (and no more train, either).
But one could also imagine them heading eastward in the park. If they wanted to keep the Australia pad for Australia, they could go to the right of Everest (or put another way, go behind Primeval Whirl). There’s a lot of land here, and it’s just possible DAK is looking to shift the center of gravity of the park in this direction. That would especially make sense if they decide to build new hotels in this area, giving walking access to DAK like many of the Epcot resort hotels enjoy.
There is space for a couple of very large hotels (yellow & orange),
if they tried to build Avatar in the red zone.
So what will go in the land, wherever they end up putting it? No one knows. Everyone likes guessing, though. The movie featured flying “dragons,” so people speculate about a Soarin’ type of ride, or a moving simulator like Potter’s Forbidden Journey, or even a flying coaster like SeaWorld’s Manta. I think it’s more likely that dragons, if we see them, will be seen from a distance. In 2010, Disney patented a system for a human rider on an artificial dragon, apparently actually flying in the sky. This strikes me as supremely dangerous, so this won’t be a guest ride; it will be a professional performer. If they even use it.
I’m sure the glowing tree with all the souls in it will be there, maybe as a central feature. Visiting Pandora itself, Iger told us, will be the focus. That might mean the rides won’t be the focus. I’m kind of hoping the rides AREN’T the focus. I would be disappointed if “visiting Pandora” at DAK meant a two-hour line in the heat, then a 3 minute ride through amazing scenes, and then back out in the heat to move on to Africa next. I would want to EXPLORE Pandora. DAK is already full of walking trails that encourage exploration and discovery (see the area at the base of the Tree of Life), so this is yet another good overlap with the mission of the park.
People have wondered online if the presence of Pandora will finally mean DAK can stay open late at night. Historically, the park has closed early because there are animals here, and they retire at dusk. The park *can* stay open late – it has lamps and has been used for evening parties sometimes – but they’ve never yet built an evening attraction, like the once-planned Rivers of Light parade.
While I would be happy with a DAK that stayed open late, I’d be equally happy with a Pandora that was fully and completely indoors, even if that meant DAK would still close early. The reason is simple. Pandora really shines at night. The plants light up beautifully, and even the ground glows when you touch it. Would they want to have that as an option only a few hours per day, especially in the summer months? I’m thinking Disney will want it indoors, so they can have Pandora be the time-of-day they want. Maybe they’ll rotate the time of day artificially. Or maybe it will always be night (my preference). Imagine the black lights, the LEDs, the fiber optics! It could be what Disneyland’s Light Magic always wanted to be, only better.
But to do any of that, a big chunk of the land would need to be enclosed in a giant warehouse – hopefully something the size of a football field (larger, if you want rides in there, too). Simply having that much space with air conditioning would instantly make Pandora the most popular place in DAK. That opens the possibility of people hanging out in Pandora all day, not even bothering with the rest of DAK… maybe sipping those Pandora Punches I was talking about earlier? Some interviews online have mentioned acreage in the range of 12 acres being considered for the land. An acre, we remember, is about 1.1 football fields (ignoring end zones), so we’re talking about 11 football fields for Pandora.
I really hope they do not take the easy way out and enclose only a ride. A Pandora ride is not the same thing as being allowed to explore on my own, at “night” and in air conditioning. If the land is not enclosed, it will be such a missed opportunity that I wonder if the land will even be worthwhile. A daytime Pandora, in the hot and humid Florida weather, with only 1 hour of nighttime to see the effects… pretty underwhelming. Even if it has a great E-Ticket. The lessons of Wizarding World are legion, but chief among them are that details matter, even when it’s expensive to paint speckled fake moss on the walls of the restroom hallway. True immersion does not come from a 3-minute ride after a sweltering wait outdoors.
I wonder if they are considering unifying the Pandora concept with the nighttime show concept. I’ve long been a fan of a nighttime show for DAK – it would keep people later and solve the “half day park” problem. But where to put it? The best place for a stadium would be that pad next to the front of the park. It’s far from the animals (which is good, because a nighttime show would make noise), and at the end of the show, there would be a clear shot to the parked cars for the visitors, with no muss and no fuss. I’d be a big fan of World of Color going here. But if a stadium is built there, that means either a small Pandora in Camp Minnie-Mickey, or Pandora would have to be back behind Asia. Which is closer to the animals’ nighttime homes—another reason to think Pandora will be all-indoors. They could also put fireworks if they build to the east of Dinoland… and that location would also have easy access to the parking lot (and be next to any future walking-hotels).
Like we said about Wizarding World, what matters at the end of the day is the execution. A horrible land with no real effort given to detailing and appropriateness of theme would be a major downer, and would probably cement Universal as the new champ of theme parks. Don’t say it can’t happen. DAK itself has a land like that, in the form of Dino-Rama.
But a deeply immersive land, with gee-whiz technology and rich atmosphere (not to mention air conditioning) that makes people want to stay here all day? That could be gangbusters even without E-Ticket attractions. The possibilities, at least, are exciting indeed.
Tricks, Not Treats
Disney isn’t doing the Happy Haunting this year at Downtown Disney—this had been a free trick or treating experience offered for the last several years, and had grown in popularity. I’m sure they lost money on it, as I wrote in last year’s article reporting on the event, so it isn’t completely surprising they would discontinue it.
Two Video Slideshows!
As a reminder, look below the videos for a bullet-point list of what’s talked about. For those of you about to watch the video, don’t peek at the bullet points! They would be “spoilers”.
Magic Kingdom turns 40
Here’s the video slideshow of the week, featuring a free event (WDW Trick or TweetUp), Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party report, MK’s 40th anniversary, and the opening weekend of Food and Wine Festival.
Trick or Tweet Up: six DCL busses, park behind Splash Mountain for a view of the parade float building. Hall of Presidents presentation with Imagineer Jason Surrell (always funny) and a guy in a turkey leg costume (it looked... inappropriate). Free trick or treating, with more candy than you usually get at MNSSHP. Uncrowded with only 300 people in all of Liberty Square. Mansion was open, plus Imagineer guided tours of the new queue. Character photos and free desserts. We even got a visit by the Headless Horseman!
MNSSHP on Friday night was sold out, and super crowded. The old 'big' trail of candy at Toontown isn't possible, so they made one out of the long winding queue at Splash (I particularly enjoyed the pumpkin carvings of characters on the ride, like the porcupine drummer). Duffy was in a pumpkin costume for photos. The Boo to You parade has a new welcome float at the front, and Angelique is on Jack's float. The Villains stage show, now called Mix and Mingle, has bang-up energetic dancing performances, a level higher than usual, and some great blacklight effects.
Saturday Oct 1 was WDW's and MK's 40th anniversary. Balloons greeted us outside the TTC monorails, and the very crowded rope drop ceremony had a special banner. Another banner hung from the castle, where a procession of characters went after walking up Main Street. All the while, music played from previous parades at the Magic Kingdom over the years. Meg Crofton and Phil Holmes spoke at the podium, confetti was sprayed on everyone, then the shopping was declared open! (just kidding... it only felt like that). Limited edition merchandise created hour-plus lines, while the regular stores had nothing with the October 1 date on it. This was a REAL mistake; they lost thousands of dollars by not offering more 'standard-issue' stuff with the date and anniversary on it. The Grand Marshall of the parade was a family from Oct 1, 1971. Wishes had no special tag, but the regular song was augmented by additional perimeter fireworks.
Food & Wine had its first weekend. The theme is planes, trains, and DCL boats (sort of). The new info board in Future World has tiny font, so you can't read it from a distance. But it also has a scrolling update of twitter posts using the hashtag #epcotfw11. OceanSpray Craisins, the new sponsor of the event, has a cranberry bog in the connector to World Showcase -- think of this as a walkaround area to soak cranberries (guests don't walk there, only the workers). The big field next to the France pavilion this year is home only to a small booth (Belgium) rather than the larger, more extravagant (and expensive?) booths that used to go here. The Hawaiian booth is near the bridge to World Showcase, and is accompanied by a booth with Aulani advertisements (of course). Merch includes a F&W Vinylmation, and a special Duffy ($30). Receipts have a QR code on the back; scanning it with your phone will pop open an app-like interface showing the booth locations and menus.
Both the Yakitori House and the small merch stand in the Japan pavilion have lost their walls under the roof (the construction walls are still there), so the refurbishment here is extensive indeed!
Video Slideshow from LAST Week
Things got busy around here, but I made a slideshow from last week’s news as well, so here it is! Better late than never.
New names (and signage) for parking lot sections at the Transportation and Ticket Center. The sub-lots now combine for a big "heroes" lot and a big "villains" lot -- and each one has a dedicated tram
Big tower outside PotC has speakers for Sorcerers game
New railings outside Splash Mountain
Crane is out installing castle Dreamlights
Spotted: half-size ODV cart selling ice cream
Splash Mtn final boat scene is fully fixed, even rocking back and forth
Spotted: benches outside Mansion have always had "dogs" as handles on the end of the armrests... but the eyes are now painted red
Spotted: new doll in the window outside Hall of Presidents. For Sorcerers?
New dish: $11 salmon with couscous and broccoli, at Columbia Harbour House. Well worth the price.
Osceola signs: all but one are fixed! (and the last one was being worked on late in the weekend; probably fixed now).
Busch Gardens Tampa Howl-O-Scream: a rollickin good time, decent scare houses (6 of them), and one standout named "Alone" for a $40 upcharge (you can bring 3 others with you, so it's not truly alone). But the Alone house is not overrun with visitors; they only let groups go in every 5-10 minutes. Spectacular.
At Howl-O-Scream, there are no scare zones -- everywhere is game! Instead, the scareactors roam in groups.
The Midnight Hour show is campy fun with live singing (Obama, Palin, Sheen, Snookie as comic relief).
The Fiends (naughty nurses) show is equally campy, more Monster Mash oriented.
Construction photos of Universal mini golf. Still quite barren ground, some structures going up.
Despicable Me signs are up at former Jimmy Neutron simulator
Ripsaw Falls photo report: looking great
Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.
Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:
The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.
History was on my mind as I composed this book. As you might expect, there is a section on additions, another on removals, and a third on events. But I wanted to make sure to include some prices from January 2010 in the book, the better to capture in future years (and future generations?) exactly what it costs to buy admission, parking, a night at each level of hotel, or such food items as a turkey leg. I also wanted to provide a bit more specificity to the unfolding of events, so the various additions and removals, as well as smaller alterations and debuts, are laid out in a timeline broken down month-by-month.
In short, the book is designed to appeal to those folks who are similarly history-minded, as well as those who are hungry to know what changed at Disney World since their last visit. Or perhaps it’s a worthwhile keepsake for anyone who DID visit in 2010—it captures what was new, after all.
Also recently issued...
Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes:
As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted. When a ride closes, sometimes pieces or props from that ride are folded into the replacement attraction (think of the World of Motion car seen in the queue of Test Track). Other times, designers intentionally craft a tribute to the previous ride—an example of that might be the carving of a submarine in the cement tree created for Pooh’s Playful Spot where the 20,000 Leagues subs used to be.
The other kind of homage in the parks concerns not rides, but individuals. The designers, artists, engineers, executives, and people important to Disney’s history often provide the inspiration for names and titles used at the attractions. Sadly, these are almost always unheralded. All of these remnants and tributes are normally left for the truly obsessed to spot piecemeal. They are usually not even discussed in the official Disney books and tours. This book sets out to change that, and catalog all such remnants and tributes in one spot.
The final result is 225 pages of hyper-detailed historical factoids. Broadly speaking this is a “trivia” book, but remember that it’s a particular kind of trivia. You’ve known before that the Walt Disney World theme parks wove a thick tapestry of details and backstory into a seamless (and peerless) experience. But armed with the specifics of homages and tributes, you’ll become aware that the parks are even more alive, and layered with meaning, that you could have ever imagined.
Might this be an ideal present for the Disney fan on your shopping list? If so, please have a look.
Also written by Kevin...
Your Day at the Magic Kingdomis a full-color, hardcover interactive children's book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Memberprovides the
first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their
menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo
Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free
for non-speakers of Japanese.
Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland
park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller
story on this place rich with details.
101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented
book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book,
namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides
101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World
follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages
in the four Disney World parks.
More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.