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.
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.
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.