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.

Comments (15)

  1. Re-reading this in 2020 has me shook. This article completely nailed it with the references to the landscape (floating rocks) and the bioluminescent forest, among other things! Very impressive.

    • I will take all the credit! Okay, maybe some of these were a little obvious in hindsight. But it’s good to know that they didn’t blow it.

  2. @tamajinn, I honestly don’t know if Avatarland will ever make it to reality. Seems to be a lot of rumors running that it is dead in the water. Wouldn’t be the first time Disney announced something, then killed it (Roger Rabbit rollercoaster, David Copperfield Restaurant, Hyperion Wharf). If Avatarland does get built, I think all the negative stuff will be forgotten in the wake of the reality. People actively dislike “Cars” as a franchise (I’m not one of them), but everyone knows Radiator Springs Racers is going to be amazing.

  3. This post was so hilarious, I just love this blog so much. The “Loggers” picture caught me off guard, it’s so perfect. I don’t know how to feel about Avatar at AK but you guys have given me a lot to think about.

  4. @Snax, I think negative criticism is true of any fan group. It tends to be strongest in fanbases with the most rabid following (Disney, Star Wars, Star Trek, comics, video games, etc.) It’s hard to live up to the images in the fans’ heads.

    While I do agree with most of the Avatar criticism, I’m with you in that I think it is highly likely Disney will blow us away, and all this criticism will be rendered moot. This isn’t like DCA, where everyone could see disaster coming a mile off. This is more about ambivalence towards the source material. If Disney does a good job, there will be grudging acceptance around the fan community.

    Disney is far from perfect, and it would be no fun at all if the fans were mindless drones who fell into step behind everything the company did. But I see no real cause for alarm here, just a general wish that it could have been something else.

  5. I have seen so much negativity in the past week or so since the release of the information about Disney and Avatar it is disheartening. Sure, Disney has made some decisions in the past 15 years regarding it’s theme parks that have left some of us wanting and some of us disappointed. But, for some reason we are still devoted to the idea that is Disney. We trust them, even though they have screwed up. Universal got lucky with Harry Potter. All of the work was done for them in the movies. They didn’t have to come up with a creative way to make the buildings and the castle. Those are normal human structures. They proved that their creativity lacked when they overlaid two coasters. Disney has a greater challenge with Pandora. Let’s all look at it that way. The company that we have come to trust has it’s work cut out for them. They have blown us away in the past time after time. Let’s start acting like we support this company instead of being so darn nitpicky about every decision they make. Let’s start acting like we trust them.

  6. Tim, I can think of one gigantic flop, though it was at Disneyland. The Rocket Rods were billed as a major thrill ride, and they were only around for a matter of months before they closed for good.

    It’s a great question to consider though. Does the Imagination ride count as E-ticket? The original was certainly elaborate enough. The new one is a disaster on every level, but probably not as ambitious.

    I think Dinosaur gets some bad press among fans and casual guests alike (though I personally love it). And there are things that most people love, that i consider to be artistic failures (Test Track). But a universal flop? That’s a tough one to pinpoint.

  7. To Cory’s point about zoos, I do agree that it applies in most zoo situations. And Disney may indeed pay that idea lip service regarding their closing time. But their actions clearly show otherwise. They once ran an entire ad campaign trying to tell people AK was not a zoo. And if they were truly worried about animal bedtimes, they wouldn’t keep the park open later during peak season.

    Regardless of what they might SAY, we all know there is only one real reason why AK closes at 5. It’s because there’s not enough to do there to justify longer hours. The Studios sometimes gets hit in the same way. Once all those stage shows wrap up in the late afternoon, there are precious few rides left.

  8. The thing about Narnia is that it really doesn’t have a passionate fanbase either. It’s certainly well-liked, but you don’t see Narnia conventions or things (unlike Star Wars, Potter, or comic books). One could even argue that Avatar fanatics are actually more passionate. Lots of Na’vi show up for the various sci-fi conventions and the like. Narnia is charming for sure, and I happen to love all three movies, but I don’t think it has any substantive advantage over Avatar, other than that it was originally a Disney franchise.

  9. An early evening closing time is pretty standard for zoos. Adding a whole extra theme-park land is not a reason to keep Animal Kingdom open later. It’s a double-reason to close it down so the animals can actually get some sleep.

  10. I think at this point we have no choice but to look for the positives in Avatar, largely because it’s happening regardless. The success of Avatarland as an attraction will rest entirely with Imagineering and Disney and NOT with the film.

    Also, I’d imagine it will be successful, particularly if an E-ticket is involved, just for adding a large new attraction. Has there been an E-ticket that could be considered a “flop” by any means? I mean, Mission: Space isn’t exactly the next Pirates of the Caribbean but people still ride it. The same could be said for Dinosaur. They might not be tops from an “artistic” standpoint but they managed to be larger-than-life ride experiences that are somewhat unique to the Disney Parks.

  11. You bring up a good point about extending the hours of the park now with nighttime Pandora. I know the reason why they have the shorter hours is because it takes so long to move the animals back to their pens every day, but I don’t see why they couldn’t close off the bridges to Africa and Asia so they could do that and leave the rest of the park running. They have staggered hours at Epcot already, so they could figure it out.

  12. What my colleague Shane is saying is that Avatar offers a world somewhat unique to itself and therefore perhaps offers new opportunities beyodn what Narnia or even Lord of the Rings woudl offer (which honestly are all very similar to Potter or any other typical fantasy genre franchise).

    OK, I can buy that… but I woudl MUCH prefer simply createing a truly original land…let the Imagineers come up with something totally new and unique. Avatar does not have such cache that it will bing hordes of visitors beyond what any large scale additionl to the park will bring. Potter and Star Wars… those names alone WILL bring guests.. Avatar will bring no more than an original concept.

    With an original concept you have total control, free riegn and ownership.

    Listen… I don’t really hate this idea and Shane does a good job making the positive poits (we had to arm wrestle to see who got to choose which side, I’m not saying who won)… but really what this is a an OK movie that just happened to make a ton of money. It is not a beloved movie and it does not have truly unique settings… so then what exactly does the Avatar name bring to the table? As far as I can tell maybe some bragging rights, keeping it out of Universals hands and bit of name recognition which is debatable if that is good or bad.

    But maybe we can get Shane a job at WDI because he has some awesome ideas… and for the record he nailed Potterland perfectly. Want to see a TRULY immersive land… again, fly to Tokyo Disney Sea… it makes Potter look like a small conuty fair and that is NOT a joke.

  13. Narnia could have been spectacular too, if Disney had done it right. The weak Narnia attraction at the Studios probably did more to harm the franchise than to help it. I agree with Melissa that although the Narnia sequels did not do as well at the box office, they did have a dedicated fan base. And the books have an multi-generational, international fan base. If Disney was looking for an answer to HP, Narnia is definitely a closer fit.

  14. If they absolutely, positively felt they had to base it on a well-known franchise, I still say Narnia would have been a safer bet. The movie sequels didn’t go so well, but the books have a huge, dedicated, passionate international fan base going back decades. That’s not going anywhere just because the last film didn’t live up to the books.

    However, If I was Disney, I wouldn’t try to play the game by the rules that the competition laid down. Universal and WDW, while maybe not apples and oranges, are at least apples and pears. If they’d concentrate on being the best Disney they can be instead of trying to out-Universal Universal, it would be magical.

    And the absolute only reason Avatar looked good on the screen is because people were so astounded to see a 3D film that actually looked 3D.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *