The Upside of Avatar

According to a Gallup poll released recently, Avatarland has an approval rating that’s actually worse than the French head of the IMF. Blue Man Group has seen its ticket sales plummet since the announcement. It’s gotten so bad that the church of Scientology released a statement calling it a “patently crazy idea.”

I cannot disagree with many of the points made by the fanbase. Avatar is no more a classic than Slumdog Millionaire, and the Disney attraction based on that movie lasted only 5 short years at the Disney MGM Studios.
Yet, every cloud has a silver lining, which is why werewolves are desperately afraid of them, but also why we can take a 3-D spectacle rip-off of Dances with Wolves and still find a lot to get excited about. Such as the demise of Kevin Costner’s career. If you’ll allow me, I’m going to show Avatar’s positive side.
A Strong Brand
Is it Harry Potter? Not even close. But to be honest, there are very few properties that are. As far as I can tell, there are really only one franchise still on the table that is worthy of the Potter hype, and that’s the Lord of the Rings. All the other mega-huge blockbuster franchises have been snapped up. Some may not have been done to their full potential (Star Wars), but there simply aren’t any other external properties worthy of a theme park treatment.
Loggers beware!

Which is not to say that Avatar is deserving, but it’s no less deserving than anything else out there, including most Disney properties. Would we really rather have a Toy Story land, having seen what Disney comes up with when they do that idea? And Avatar does have something going for it that’s a pretty strong selling point: It’s the highest grossing movie of all time. Even if it’s not a beloved classic, it is extremely well known for its crown. It has some serious name recognition. In other words, it can sell.

The reality is that Avatar is a stronger marketing hook than Beastly Kingdomme, even if it’s not as pure an idea for Animal Kingdom. It comes with some built in expectations: jaw-dropping visual feasts, exotic adventure, and a strong naturalist theme (John Muir would be proud). Quest for the Unicorn might be the most incredible dark ride ever, but it does not have the same drawing power as a promise to visit Pandora. Casual park goers are never going to get as excited as true park fans about Spaceship Earth, in spite of its artistic mastery. Similarly, a billboard for Dragon Tower isn’t going to spark their interest as much as a Navi flitting through a bioluminescent forest.
Oh, not to worry, Simba One! You flushed them right into my patrol!

Ironically, Disney actually had a franchise that could have put Beastly Kingdomme back into play, but it petered out after one film. Narnia has all those dragons and unicorns and fauns and minotaurs. But even after the first film went platinum, it just couldn’t hold on to its audience.

Avatar will bring more tourists to Animal Kingdom, no question about it. And for a park that doesn’t get the respect it deserves, that’s a good thing. And it’s not like Avatar is a horrible movie. It is generally critically acclaimed. This isn’t Transformers: Rise of the Fallen. What kind of theme park would build rides around crappy movies like that?
A Chance to Take Back the Crown
In my opinion, Potterland is a pretender to the throne, and is wholly unworthy of its accolades as the new gold standard.  The land itself is great achievement, among the best themed lands anywhere — but make no mistake, it is not better. Is Wizarding World any more immersive than World Showcase, AK’s Africa, or Disneyland’s Fantasyland? I submit that it is not. It may be their equal (debatable), but it does not surpass. It is simply newer.
For all its charm and elegance, Potterland has some rather ghastly errors — namely the Dragon Challenge exposed coaster tracks, the unthemed backside of Hogwarts, and the kiddie Hippogriff coaster. Not to mention severe, truly enormous operational problems. It’s one of the dangers of letting a raging egomaniac have so much say in your design (I’m sure J.K. Rowling could match James Cameron beat for beat).
Today, that bare bones approach is about to become extinct. In a breathtaking blend of science and technology, we have created… The Avatar.

And for all the brilliance of the Hogwarts queue, the Forbidden Journey is not even in the same league as the best Disney experiences. It may not even be the best ride in Islands of Adventure. There are sparks of wonder, but far too much reliance on film (and poor quality at that). So what are we left with? A brilliant, utterly charming collection of buildings, shops, and restaurants, with a decent major ride, two bare coaster overlays, and a wand shop retail outlet with a traffic flow problem to rival the Santa Ana Freeway.

By contrast, there are certain skills Disney Imagineers bring to the table that Universal can never hope to match. In animatronics alone, an Avatar ride (assuming there will be one) would devastate the flat 2D movies of Forbidden Journey. And Disney is almost always lightyears ahead of other parks when it comes to capacity, so a visit to Pandora is likely to be a less of a hassle.
Avatar also gives Imagineering a canvas to paint with that they could never hope to achieve when dealing with a Seven Dwarfs family coaster and a Belle meet-and-greet. It gives Disney the chance to add a brand new land to Walt Disney World — the first since Asia opened 10 years ago. That’s definitely something to get excited about.

Miss Jobson! Nobody in Pandora calls them Avatars. They are Na’vi. Naaaa’vi. Over.

Finally, maybe we can put to rest that stupid “mini-park” term invented by Universal, by which they mean “land.” When your “mini-park” has the same number of attractions as Liberty Square, I don’t think you’re exactly annexing Texas.

Night KingdomPandora is a veritable nighttime spectacular all on its own. The glowing jungle offers a kind of themed environment that we have never witnessed in any Disney park, outside of a controlled dark ride. Being able to walk through an ethereal alien world is going to be tons more enchanting than watching the Osborne Lights go berserk every 5 minutes. And you won’t have to be thumped over the head with the Trans-Syberian Orchestra while it happens.

And let’s not forget that Animal Kingdom is almost never open past 5:00. The park simply doesn’t have any reason to stay open until after dark. That goes away with Avatar. It would be criminal to bring Pandora to life, then close the gates before sunset. Pandora itself becomes the attraction, much like Wishes or Illuminations or Fantasmic. And it might help ease the burden from those other parks.

New Training Film for visitors to Pandora.

 

Jaw-Dropping Possibilities
Avatar may lack that “it” factor that makes it beloved like other franchises (Potter, Star Wars, Princesses), but there’s no question that if done right, we could be in for some incredible experiences. Granted, this is a big “if.” But actually exploring — not just riding, but meandering through — the bioluminescent world of Pandora would be breathtaking.
Up close encounters with the flora and fauna of an alien world, surrounded by impossible landscaping, immersed in a living, breathing environment… We forget that in spite of the coldness of the story, the film world itself is an incredible beauty. If Potter proved anything, it’s that if you’re going to build an entire land based on an intellectual property, it’s a pretty good idea to use a franchise known for its world building.
The New Legend of the Forbidden Mountain. Featuring Disco Toruk in B-Mode

Just imagine if Disney can somehow figure out a way to give us the Hallelujah Mountains? Would we not beside ourselves with giddy excitement, regardless of whether we cared for Jake Sully and his blue girlfriend? Remember, we don’t need to be familiar with the “love monkey” lines and racist voice casting of the Dinosaur movie to get a thrill from the theme park ride. Keep what you can from the storyline, but focus on the world. It will be truly astounding.

The Problem With Avatar…

See, Disney can keep a secret after all.
A bunch of rich white guys announce a way to make money off a bunch of poor blue people.
I would guess that they have been scrambling to put this big Avatar deal together for some time, hoping perhaps to have it wrapped up for a big D-23 Expo reveal… alas that never happened.  But better late then never so last week Disney proudly dropped the bomb that Avatar would be rolling into Disney’s Animal Kingdom around 2016.
The answer to our prayers? Why are you even praying about theme parks anyway?
Disney fans the world over have rejoiced!  Spontaneous parties have erupted in the streets at every Disney park around the globe (oddly enough even at Pleasure Island where bewildered and dazed drunkards wished each other Happy New Year before donning 3-D glasses, curling up into the fetal position and quietly sobbing at the remains of the Adventurers Club). The Disney community has universally supported this bold move to bring visionary filmmaker James Cameron on board to save the parks… the only thing is they haven’t.  In fact this mega super secret surprise announcement intended to shock us all into wetting our pants with anticipation has largely been met with malaise and indifference.  A collective shoulder shrug, the “meh” heard around the world.
But why?  Obviously this is Disney’s BIG answer to The Whimsical Wonderland of Harry Potter (or whatever that dump is called… OK, even I admit its pretty sweet).  It is not the gussied up Fantasyland or a refreshed Star Tours; it is this.  Avatar is the savior of Disney… the goliath meant to beat back the advancements of Universal and once again secure Disney’s spot as the king of the parks. On the surface it makes sense I guess… Avatar has made more money then any single movie ever…a lot more! In fact it made more than double what the highest grossing Harry Potter movie has made. Avatar stands at $2,782,275,172 while the last Harry Potter film the Deathly Hallows Part 2 could barely scrounge up a paltry $1,325,136,868.  That means that more than twice as many people like Avatar than those who like Harry Potter, Avatarland will attract twice as many people as Potterland and I am guessing Universal will go bankrupt somewhere around 2017 causing the parks to close and a lot of Harry Potter crap to be sold on eBay (I might buy that giant castle because it would look sweet on the Parkeology campus made into a bounce house).
Everything MUST GO!
Not only that but there are two more Avatar movies on the way and as the Matrix has shown us two extra movies is ALWAYS a good thing.  Likewise Pirates of the Caribbean and others have proven that making back-to-back sequels to be released in consecutive years (as is the case with Avatar) is money in the bank… the surest way to produce the highest quality and ensure creative integrity.  This is such a no brainer I can’t believe no one thought of it before!
And yet it feels odd at best, and flat horribly wrong at worst.  Listen, I have no problem at all with Disney bringing in outside talent or turning to outside properties for inspiration.  I am old enough to vividly recall the outrage and anger from long time Disneyland fans when in the 80’s it was announced that Disney was daring to work with George Lucas to bring Star Wars and Indiana Jones into the parks.  In those pre-internet olden times the word did not travel quite as fast but there were literally petitions and picketers!  There were die-hards camped outside the gates of Disneyland holding signs up telling visitors how Walt was rolling in his grave / liquid nitrogen vacuum chamber over this travesty.  The whole time I thought it was kind of cool and of course the results turned out to be stellar.
In your face losers!
Disney apologists will also be quick to point out that Snow White, Cinderella and pretty much everything that we associate as being “Disney” are in fact stolen borrowed from other outside sources as well… novels, nursery rhymes, fairy tales what have you. You think Disney wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or invented Winnie the Pooh?
The magical world of Panorda Journey to the Center of the Earth.
So then why should we not be excited about Avatar?  Disney points out the huge success that they have had with outside sources and Cameron is nothing if not an egotistical loon… I mean super successful auteur who demands nothing but the best.  Plus Animal Kingdom needs expansion badly.  Since day one (1998) Animal Kingdom has promised us mythical creatures that for the most part have just never been delivered.  The general message of Avatar (don’t mess with nature or it will kill you dead you weak pathetic human) is the exact same as that of Animal Kingdom.  Moreover Disney can make Pandora (the lazily named planet Avatar is set on and also an internet streaming music service) look really great… in fact they already have.  If you get on a plane and fly to Tokyo Disney Sea (something you really should do)  you can get an early preview on what an Avatarland looks like right now.  Ride Journey to the Center of the Earth, despite being built nearly a decade before Avatar was released the first half of the ride looks pretty much identical to the bioluminescent world of Pandora.  Still not enough?  Jump over to the other big ride in the Mysterious Island section of the park… Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  There you will find some tall, lanky blue aliens with hearts of gold… they pretty much look exactly like the Na’vi, the tall, lanky blue aliens with hearts of gold featured in Avatar.  So slam dunk then, Disney has this in the bag.
Hard to tell but this guy is tall, blue and loves you.
But still… it feels off.
Is it that one of the major reasons Harry Potter works so well in a theme park is because the source material created an engaging and deep physical world that was populated with humans and the things humans need?  You have specific buildings and specific transportation and restaurants with specific foods and shops with specific merchandise and it can all be made into real things for real people to interact with, ride on, eat and purchase. Universal truly did a fine job, but the job was so easy!  All they had to do is copy what was in the books and movies and make them real, then stick price tags on them for us to scoop up and buy.  Butter Beer…CHECK, Chocolate Frogs…CHECK, Wizardly Wands… CHECK.  See that big ole castle… looks just like the one in the movie, see that bare, exposed steel roller coaster over there… exactly like the one in the book… oh never mind.
Exactly as J.K. envisioned it!
Avatar has none of that.  Avatar has jungles and creatures that like to have sex using pony tales or something… in fact the entire idea of a store on Pandora not only makes no sense, it is fundamentally against the entire message of the film (watch Fern Gully… same message, pretty much the same movie for that matter). So Disney is behind the eight ball on this right away. What do Na’vi eat?  Bugs or some glowing papaya looking thing?  I don’t know btu I don’t want to buy any of it.  Where do they live? In mud huts or floating lilly pads… I don’t recall but again I don’t want to stay there. Cameron has made a big deal saying that people did not want to leave the world of Pandora but is that true?  Do you know anyone who felt that way?  I sure don’t. Disney can and will find ways to have restaurants and shops and buildings to house it all in… but unlike Potter where all that works to enforce the story and make the world complete here it will be at odds with the source material.
Coming soon… get used to it.
Then you have Cameron himself.  I bet this guy causes problems.  I know next to nothing about him so don’t listen to me but what I do know is that he is a control freak.  I know that he obsessed over minute details of china patterns and so forth while filming Titanic and I know that he is difficult to work with because he wants everything to be perfect or in other words his way.  Not necessarily bad things… I bet Walt was very much the same way (he did have exquisite taste in china)… But now you are going to have Cameron running around dictating things to the people at WDI who have to make it real, make it work, make it on time and make it within a budget.  I just sort of get the sense that Cameron’s blue screen world may not mesh super well with the REAL three-dimensional world WDI has to deal with.  I wonder who would win in a cage match between Cameron and Joe Rohde… we may find out.
Probably a really easy guy to work with.
You also get the final disappointment in the realization that dragons and miniatures are never coming to Animal Kingdom now.  Tetraoterons and Sturmbeests and other digital blue things that vaguely look like dinosaurs have replaced them.  Though I have never been a huge fan of fantasy worlds like Dungeons and Dragons and I have never met a unicorn that I did not want to smack across the face I somehow feel they just fit Animal Kingdom better than sci-fi creatures do.  They are not the same thing. Dragons and company have been ingrained in world cutures for thousands of years, can you name or even really recall one Avatar beast?
Maybe canceling Beastly Kingdom is OK afterall.
Perhaps most annoying is that as Disney struggled to find an answer to Potter surely they looked at Star Wars. A property that they could further tap into that is even deeper, more popular and proven than Potter.  It has restaurants (hello, cantina) and shops (step right up and buy a really expensive light saber folks) and more diverse locations and creatures than any company could ever fit into a park.  I think they even have room in Disney’s Hollywood Studios if they ripped out the aging Indy Stunt show and took over that entire quarter of the park.  WDI is full of smart people… they could figure out a way to build a bridge or a tunnel or a boat on a river or whatever to get people into a huge new section of the park.  Who knows, maybe Star Wars is still somehow part of some distant plan.
Yea, this sucks… no need to look into this.
But back to Avatar, what really worries me at the end of the day is that this feels like a Universal move.  In fact I am shocked it is not going into Universal. That does not make it good or bad it just is what it is, it feels more like something that would fit better into Islands of Adventure than it does Animal Kingdom.
But I hope I am wrong here… and I mean I seriously do.  Given the right budget and time I see no reason why Avatar cannot be a cool area with cool rides.  Heck, just build Journey to the Center of the Earth… overlay Avatar and I would be pretty happy.  Animal Kingdom manages to hide most of it’s buildings now and there is no reason why they cannot continue to do so and maybe the clout Cameron certainly wields will be forceful enough to pressure Disney into doing this right. But while Potter and Star Wars are now timeless classics Avatar has a lot to prove and a long way to go.  Will it become part of our cultural lexicon or will it just be some fad movie that made some cash because it was in the right time at the right place?
I want to like this, I want to be excited about it, I want to stand up and cheer… but right now I just can’t.  I need to be won over as I bet many Disney fans do… I hope Disney can come through on this.
However I have to admit… that girl Na’vi is pretty hot… so it has THAT gong for it at least
Keeping my fingers crossed for now.

The Costume Store Revisited

Just a quick update to settle the debate about what The Costume Shop actually was. I got a note the other day from Ryan, who runs the fantastic Main Street Gazette site. Here’s some scans he provided of the MGM guidebook for this time period:

As you can see, the Costume Shop was essentially Villains in Vogue before there was Villains in Vogue. Which makes sense, since it was right around the time Sunset Boulevard opened that the Costume Shop morphed into the Ellen bookstore thing.

And also accounts for all those little Jafar clones running around the park.