Posted Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 9:41p Pacific Time
Disney announced "AVATAR-land" today, headed for the Animal Kingdom some time in 2014 or 2015. Though Disney didn't say so, it's been positioned by press and fans as the company's response to Universal's super-successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
I don't buy that: I don't think Disney truly needed to respond to Harry Potter either financially or creatively. It's not clear Disney's lost business to Universal; indeed, they may be benefitting from overall increased vacationing in Orlando. And artistically, sure, Harry Potter is excellent. But does the creative war that goes on between the two companies really matter to anyone besides us theme park geeks? I don't think so.
So while I don't think there's a business need to one-up Universal, here's what Wizarding World did do: it provided Disney a template for the next generation of theme park experiences. Over-the-top attractions, while still important, are a little less so now. What matters most in this new world is the themed environment: immersive, fantastical…transporting.
And it's here, in creating Avatar's over-the-top alien world, where Avatar-land might—might—succeed. It'll be beautiful, no doubt. Its fluorescent forests and animals will look amazing at night, solving one of Animal Kingdom's biggest problems by giving people a reason to stay after the giraffes go to sleep. (I'm envisioning a high-end restaurant overlooking a glowing Pandoran forest…mmm, could be amazing.)
But as beautiful as the world of Avatar is, it is a little…creepy. I'm not sure I want to bump into 10-foot-tall Na'vi walking around the park. (For that matter, will 5-year-old children want to?) I'm not sure I want to eat Pandoran food. If Disney was looking to respond directly to Harry Potter, then Avatar is a fairly weak comeback. (Much better would have been, say, a Star Wars Land over at Hollywood Studios, Star Wars being one of the only properties that's in the vicinity of Harry Potter in terms of fan base and loyalty.) But if what Disney was looking for was an shot-in-the-arm for Animal Kingdom specifically, especially to give it more nighttime activities…well, Avatar's a decent choice.
A brilliant choice? No. The world of Avatar doesn't seem to mesh with the feel of a Disney theme park. Should Disney be populating Animal Kingdom, a park that's supposed to be about the very real topics of animals and the environment, with fantasy creatures? Probably not. And for those reasons, Avatar-land feels like a business decision more than a creative one.
Yet I'm cautiously—very cautiously—optimistic. I admit, I do want to see what a real-life Pandora looks like. If enough other people do too, and Disney figures out a way to make 10-foot-tall blue aliens feel at home in a Disney park (I'm getting a little queasy even typing that sentence) then maybe it can be something special.