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Disney's Avatar Kingdom
 
Disney’s AVATAR Kingdom

In a surprise announcement on Tuesday, September 20, 2011, the Disney Parks & Resorts organization revealed it had obtained the exclusive, worldwide theme park rights to filmmaker James Cameron’s 2009 mega-success AVATAR and its forthcoming sequels. A new land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom will take guests to Pandora, the distant moon where the tall, blue-skinned, humanoid Na’vi live in harmony with nature.

A major expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is long overdue. But is AVATAR Land really the best concept?

This is Yesterland, so we’ll start in the past before we look at the future.

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, September 23, 2011


Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

“Animal fantasy area” concept from The Making Of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park (Hyperion, 1998)

In 1989, after the successful launch of Disney-MGM Studios, Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner challenged Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) to come up with a concept with animals as the centerpiece to be the fourth theme park at Walt Disney World. The park’s pre-opening paperback book, A Sneak Preview, Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Hyperion, 1997), described what WDI dreamed up:

Brainstorming, book reading, research and soul searching led to a clear consensus—the park could not be simply about live animals. The theme would be derived from humankind’s emotional reaction to animals. Our love for animals of all types—our enduring fascination with living, extinct, and imaginary creatures—is the core of what would become Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

An AP article in 1995 revealed what the new park (announced as Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom) would offer to guests:

The park would ultimately include themed “lands” connected by a central hub: Africa, which takes visitors on a safari with live, wild animals; the Beastly Kingdom, focusing on mythological creatures, like unicorns and dragons; and Dinoland, with dinosaurs and extinct species brought to life through robotics.

Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom also will feature a Conservation Station, which will be the headquarters for conservation and species survival activities for the park.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Discovery River Boats in 1998

When Disney’s Animal Kingdom (without “Wild” in its name) finally opened in April 1998, the park had Safari Village (later renamed to Discovery Island) as its central hub, Africa, Dinoland U.S.A., and Conservation Station (later renamed to Rafiki’s Planet Watch). Asia was already under construction. But the Beastly Kingdom was nowhere to be seen.

Animal Kingdom had real animals in various parts of the park and extinct animals (dinosaurs) in Countdown to Extinction (later renamed Dinosaur). Where were the imaginary creatures?

Guests on the Discovery River Boats passed a cave near Camp Minnie-Mickey. Clouds of smoke would emerge from the cave. The guide on the boat would explain that a dragon lived there.

Camp Minnie-Mickey had been added to the park before it opened as a temporary replacement for the Beastly Kingdom to keep costs under control. Somehow, the cave was built anyway as a small reminder that guests could expect a wondrous land of imaginary creatures in the near future.

Oh, and one section of the parking lot was named “Unicorn.”

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

A highly-detailed crumbling building of Harambe in the Africa section

There was much about Disney’s Animal Kingdom that was really wonderful.

Over the past few decades, zoos throughout the world had been adding exhibits that include themed environments—not just cages or walled pens—with varying degrees of success. Disney embraced this trend and advanced it considerably. Disney sought to makes guests feel they had travelled to Africa—without needing vaccinations or experiencing jet lag.

Guests would begin their visit to Africa in Harambe, a struggling rural village at the edge of an African wildlife preserve. Harambe provided a convincing fantasy of being 8,000 miles from Orlando—and also provided entertainment, clean restrooms, African-inspired Disney souvenirs, and cold beer.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Kilamanjaro Safaris

Then guests could embark on Kilimanjaro Safaris, a truck safari into the preserve. Along the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail (later renamed to Pangani Forest Exploration Trail), guests could spend as much time as they wanted seeing animals up-close and even talking with “researchers.” And guests could catch the Wildlife Express Train “out of Africa” to Conservation Station, a conservation, education, and veterinary medical facility.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Gerenuks along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail

For the animals, everything was first-rate too. Disney created habitats with the animals’ physical and mental needs in mind, built state-of-the-art support facilities, and raided other zoos for top animal care experts.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

“Ancient” mural on a wall along the Maharajah Jungle Trek

Asia, which opened in 1999, continued in the tradition of Africa. Kali River Rapids was the draw for people who like to get wet on rides. But the real star attraction—at least for people who enjoy observing animals—was the Maharajah Jungle Trek trail into Disney’s mystical Anandapur Royal Forest.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Asian tiger in the ruins of a crumbling palace

Maharajah Jungle Trek is arguably the finest collection of coordinated animal exhibits in any zoo in the United States. Guests who take their time are amply rewarded.

Oops. Did I write zoo?

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is NăHTăZū! (Guidemap from 2001)

Around 2001, Disney began promoting Disney’s Animal Kingdom as NăHTăZū!—pronounced “not a zoo!” Presumably, the goal was to convince people that Animal Kingdom was a full-fledged, Disney-quality theme park, not just a Disney zoo with an admission price five to ten times that of a typical municipal zoo.

To the casual observer, Disney’s Animal Kingdom always seemed to draw a healthy crowd. Sure, there were more people at the other three parks, but those parks had more attractions too.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom earned a reputation as a half-day park. For guests who visit parks by running from one ride to another, the dearth of rides made that a quick process. And for dedicated zoo fans—even those who take their time at each exhibit—there really weren’t that many animal exhibits. Sure, guests who wanted to see every show, exhibit, ride, shop, and restaurant could spend all day and run out of time. But especially for return visitors, Animal Kingdom needed more.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

The “more” came in the form of an expansion of DinoLand U.S.A.

Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama opened partially in 2001 and fully in 2002 with the addition of TriceraTop Spin. A store with “wacky dino stuff,” Chester & Hester’s Dinosaur Treasures, had been part of DinoLand U.S.A. since opening day. But now Chester & Hester became the focus of DinoLand U.S.A.—and the park gained two much-needed rides.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Carefully simulated cracked and patched asphalt

“I’m surprised Disney would do something so cheap and tacky,” a co-worker told me after her 2002 visit to Walt Disney World. “They just plopped a carnival on a section of their old parking lot. You can still see the white lines painted on the asphalt. They aren’t even Disney rides. I expect more from Disney!”

The truth is that Dino-Rama has a clever, elaborate backstory about how gas station owners Chester and Hester sought to cash in on the discovery of dinosaur bones nearby. Dino-Rama is WDI’s homage to the roadside attractions, with witty signs and over-the-top tackiness to make you smile. The area where Dino-Rama sits was never part of the Animal Kingdom parking lot. The cracks, filled potholes, and fading white lines of the asphalt are all the result of the same care that went into aging the Africa and Asia sections.

There’s just one difference: perception. Africa and Asia come across as journeys to far-off lands. Dino-Rama is seen at face value as a roadside carnival, and there’s no denying that the rides of Dino-Rama are modest by Disney standards.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

The next big expansion at Animal Kingdom was Expedition Everest in 2006. This time, the scale was grand. Also, an imaginary creature, the Yeti, finally played a prominent role at the park. Thrill ride fans were thrilled. Unfortunately, the huge mechanical Yeti soon ceased to function, but the ride continued to draw guests to Animal Kingdom.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

70-foot-long underwater tunnel in the Arctic Ring of Life polar bear exhibit at the Detroit Zoo

Internet rumors—probably just instances of Internet wishful thinking—have claimed that it would only be a matter time before Australia would be added. After all, just think of how WDI and Disney’s animal experts could show off kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas, koalas, and other Australian creatures in an environment that makes guests feel they’re in Australia.

And what about South America, with its Amazon rainforest? Or the Arctic or Antarctic? In fact, any region of the world with wildlife could make a great addition to Animal Kingdom, given the skills of Disney’s storytellers.

But Disney seems to have taken NăHTăZū! to heart. The live animal exhibits that are present today were all either there or under construction when Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998.

But what about the rich traditions of creatures of myth from cultures all over world? Surely there are countless opportunities to bring imaginary creatures to life.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure

These days, however, theme parks are all about movie tie-ins. Universal hit a home run with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Cars Land promises to get the turnstiles clicking at Disney California Adventure as never before. Both of these are entire lands based on movie franchises.

Ever since Universal obtained the theme park rights to Harry Potter, Disney fans have waited for Disney to make a competitive move.

The number one box office movie of all time is James Cameron’s 2009 eco-fantasy-adventure AVATAR, which grossed around $2.8 billion. Two AVATAR sequels in the works, with expected releases in 2014 and 2015.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Neytiri and Jake

This brings us to September 20, 2011, when Walt Disney Parks and Resorts announced it would be “joining forces with visionary filmmaker James Cameron and Fox Filmed Entertainment to bring the world of AVATAR to life at Disney parks.” Disney’s theme park rights for AVATAR would be exclusive and global. Although there were not yet any specific attraction concepts, Disney had already picked the first location, according to the official press release:

Disney plans to build the first AVATAR themed land at Walt Disney World, within the Animal Kingdom park. With its emphasis on living in harmony with nature, Animal Kingdom is a natural fit for the AVATAR stories, which share the same philosophy. Construction is expected to begin by 2013.

Animal Kingdom should now finally get imaginary creatures beyond the broken Yeti and the parking lot’s Unicorn section. But there will no ancient Egyptian Phoenix, no griffins from the Minoan civilization, no Minotaur from Greek mythology, no Chinese dragons, and no medieval European dragons either. But we’re likely to get fearsome thanators, mighty hammerhead titanotheres, and domesticated direhorses—all from the moon Pandora.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Neytiri riding on the back of the Thanator

There’s probably nothing in Disney’s contract with Cameron and Fox that would prevent Disney from also tapping into myths from our own planet. However, as the Wall Street Journal wrote after the announcement, “The project is likely to cost an estimated $400 million, according to a person familiar with the matter.” With that kind of money going into Animal Kingdom for an AVATAR Land, there won’t be money for other major enhancements to Animal Kingdom for a long time.

In the days that followed the announcement, Disney fans on MiceChat and other forums debated the wisdom Disney’s AVATAR plans. The discussions included AVATAR’s strengths or weaknesses in terms of merchandise sales, whether AVATAR was just a phenomenon in 2009 or has long-term staying power, whether Disney should be buying outside properties at all, and even whether theme park attractions really need to be based on movies.

It’s a done deal, so most of these discussions are just intellectual exercises. To chime in anyway, I would prefer to see Australia, South America, and/or a re-imagined “animal fantasy area” for $400 million. Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo built its new Great Bear Wilderness for $27.3 million in 2010, so $400 million can go a long way. But that’s neither here nor there at this point.

Disney's AVATAR Kingdom

Resources Development Administration (RSA) Samson flying through the Hallelujah Mountains

The real issue now is what AVATAR Land will offer and how good it will be. WDI faces a big challenge in how to re-create AVATAR’s incredible CGI landscape as a physical place across a bridge from Discovery Island.

One reason the Wizarding World of Harry Potter works so well is that the intimate scale of Hogsmeade translated perfectly to the theme park environment. Despite skillful use of forced perspective, Hogwarts Castle lacks the grand scale of its movie counterpart, but it still works.

Now consider AVATAR’s immense Tree of Souls, the floating Hallelujah Mountains, and the high activity levels of many of the movie’s creatures. It will be difficult to make Pandora feel real.

Now, to finish what has turned into a rather long article, I offer my wish list for AVATAR Land:

First, in addition of the inevitable thrill ride, provide other rides and attractions that are available to people of all ages—from young children to the oldest guests—and all physical conditions. Families should be able to enjoy most of AVATAR Land together. This is Disney, not Universal.

Next, refrain from attractions that rely on 3-D glasses. Remember that AVATAR, more than any other movie, took 3-D from a theme park novelty to something in almost every movie complex. There would have to be a very good reason for a 3-D movie attraction based on a 3-D movie.

Finally, concentrate on creating magical places to explore and enjoy, not on retelling the plots of the first, second, or third AVATAR movie. Theme park storytelling shouldn’t involve plodding through a plot.

I hope AVATAR Land turns out to be wonderful.

 

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© 2011-2012 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated April 1, 2012.

The “Disney’s AVATAR Kingdom” logo is a parody of the original Disney’s Animal Kingdom logo and the “James Cameron’s AVATAR” logo, which are trademearks or regitered trademarks of their respective owners.
 
Concept art for animal fantasy area © Disney.
Photo of Discovery River Boats: 1998 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of structure in Harambe: 2009 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of Kilamanjaro Safaris: 2011 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of gerenuks along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail: 2008 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of tiger mural on a wall along the Maharajah Jungle Trek: 2007 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of an actual Asian tiger: 2008 by Werner Weiss.
Scan of top of Guidemap cover © Disney.
Photo of Dino-Rama: 2006 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of cracked asphalt: 2004 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of Expedition Everest: 2007 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of polar bear exhibit at the Detroit Zoo: 2002 by Werner Weiss.
Photo of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: 2011 by Werner Weiss.
Three publicity stills from James Cameron’s AVATAR © 20th Century Fox & Dune Entertainment LLC.