How I learned to stop worrying and love Pandora-The World of Avatar

by on September 8, 2015 25 Comments

Filed under: Attractions, D23 Expo, Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Recent News, Walt Disney World (FL)

The Na’vi just can’t win.

First, the initial announcement that James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar would be coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom was met with jeers from those who questioned the introduction of fantasy in a park dedicated to realism, along with those who groused about the tree hugging politics of the film and others who just didn’t think the intellectual property was a fit with Disney’s family friendly fare.

Then at the D23 Expo, the big reveal for Pandora-The World of Avatar was overshadowed by the hoopla surrounding the announcement of Star Wars-themed lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Overlook the 2017 opening of Animal Kingdom’s newest land if you will. I’m here to tell you why you should be excited enough to plan a trip around the debut of Pandora and why it won’t be the dud that some Disney fans suspect.

©Disney

©Disney
From left, James Cameron, Disney Parks & Resort Chairman Tom Staggs and Joe Rohde view a model of Pandora-The World of Avatar.

The key moment during the presentation by Imagineering legend Joe Rohde was when Cameron and his co-producer Jon Landau joined him on stage.

“The thing that impressed Jon and I so much when we first got introduced to the idea of this project is these guys are crazy. They’re crazier than us,” Cameron said, gesturing to Rohde. “I mean, we thought we were the most ambitious guys out there in terms of trying to do fantasy imagery and create an alternative universe, and we found out that their vision … so far exceeded our expectations.”

Cameron continued, “We always feel sometimes when we’re dealing with big corporations that we have to compromise and we’re trying to get up to a level of mediocrity. When we first heard the pitch of what they wanted to do, we were absolutely blown away.”

Now, for Cameron to say that the Disney team was crazier than his team is no small statement. If you know anything about Cameron, he takes crazy to a whole other level. Look no further than the documentary on the making of Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss. You can view Under Pressure: Making The Abyss here on YouTube.

The Abyss, which primarily takes place in the deep ocean, still holds up a quarter century later thanks to the lengths Cameron went in the production. They used an unfinished South Carolina nuclear plant to construct the film’s sets in giant tanks, one of them 7.5 million gallons (by comparison, the tank at Epcot’s The Seas with Nemo and Friends is 5.7 million gallons). Cast and crew went through diving training. Special diving helmets to better see and hear the actors had to be engineered. To eliminate the reflection on the tanks’ surfaces, they floated a layer of plastic beads and covered the top with a huge tarp. When a storm gashed the tarp, they moved filming to nights. All along, Cameron would be underwater to direct his actors, spending hours afterward still underwater going through decompression to avoid getting the bends.

What you learn from this documentary is that when Cameron has a vision, he has an unyielding determination to see it through, even if it means driving himself and members of his cast near the breaking point. He’s also able to problem solve and find solutions where others see obstacles. Combine that resourcefulness with the Disney Imagineers’ attention to story and detail, and the results could very well be beyond anything that anyone has seen in a theme park.

“But I didn’t even like Avatar,” you say? Well who’s actually seen Song of the South? And yet Splash Mountain is one of Disney’s iconic attractions.

My guess is that when guests actually get a chance to walk in the world of Pandora created by the team of Cameron-Rohde, any doubts about the project will be erased. We’ll have an amazing addition to Animal Kingdom, one that will reveal different details during the day and night and erase any notion that it’s a “half-day park.”

And be honest, you really can’t wait to see how they’re going to make mountains float.

 

Posted on September 8, 2015

25 Responses to “How I learned to stop worrying and love Pandora-The World of Avatar”

  • Not buying it. There is absolutely no substance to the original product. At least everyone knows the story of Breir Rabbit being thrown in the briar patch, and the songs are recognizable to most children (whether they have seen the movie or not). Kids don’t care about some politically correct “tree hugging” themed story….and to be honest, when I’m at a Disney Park neither do I. I get enough of that at work and in the news. So, basically all you have is a movie with cool effects and now a whole land trying to replicate that (whatever that is). I hope I’m wrong, but I think we are looking at a dud in a park the could really could benefit from have a few more good attractions.

    • by Robert Blaszkiewicz on September 8, 2015, at 12:03 pm EST

      I see what you’re saying, but I think a big reason that Avatar did as much box office as it did was the immersive experience seeing it in 3D in the theater. If Cameron’s team and the Imagineers can pull it off, people will flock to a similar experience in the theme parks. And isn’t tree (of life) hugging what Animal Kingdom is about, anyway?

  • My, that’s a lot of lipstick on that pig. But the color is very becoming….

  • The phrase “opportunity cost” comes to mind. Yes, the Imagineers and James Cameron might be able to make Avatarland work; they might even produce some unique special effects. But Disney’s attractions don’t work primarily on special effects, they work by having great stories. The original Imagination ride was a masterpiece; the current one’s a dud–even though the current version has more elaborate effects, it can’t overcome the dumbing down of the story. Pandora may look beautiful, but the story of Avatar was laughable and can’t stand the test of time.

    Now, is it likely to better than nothing? Yes. But you don’t need to be a genius Imagineer to come up with better, more fitting ideas for the area. The current structure of the park, with main lands based on Africa and Asia, screams for a South America land, and Disney has at least one very popular movie (Up) and one popular set of characters (The Three Caballeros) that are tied to South America. Or, renew the Beastly Kingdomme mythical creatures idea that originally came with the park, integrating some ideas from Tokyo DisneySea (could it be a decent place to bring the Journey to the Center of the Earth ride to the U.S.?). Or as long as Frozen is taking over the parks, step on Sea World’s toes with an Arctic section.

    And let’s remember that while Disney spent all this money developing an Avatar themed area, Universal picked up yet another formerly neutral IP that will be a huge hit–Nintendo.

    • by Robert Blaszkiewicz on September 8, 2015, at 12:23 pm EST

      I really love your ideas, Brian. If you saw the documentary Walt and El Groupo that was recently on TCM, there is a lot of potential for a South American-themed land that draws upon Disney’s legacy. As far as story goes, it looks like the setting is post-Avatar with some decaying military wreckage among the scenery. Perhaps the story they will tell is one of nature reclaiming and healing what was damaged.

    • Yes…Well said!

    • Actually, I’m happy to see a new development that *isn’t* based around an existing (or even upcoming) Disney movie. My preference would be to develop fresh projects that stand on their own, like Disney did up until maybe the 80s. (Not saying there are _none_, but they’re definitely the minority, as “synergy” and “leveraging” have become the operative words.)
      Still, I look at it as an immersively-themed area with a lot of potential. and that’s coming from someone who was not thrilled with the film, other than its visuals.
      Still, Brian, you’re the first one I have heard who has expressed reservations to Pandora in terms of opportunity cost. It’s probably the fairest argument I’ve heard on the “opposed” side, even if I don’t agree with it.

    • The choice isn’t between Pandora and Beastly Kingdom, it’s between Pandora and an empty section of Animal Kingdom. Beastly Kingdom is dead, not gonna happen.

      Also, Disney isn’t footing most of the cost of Pandora, Cameron is.

    • I love the South America and Artic ideas but I’m happy with Pandora too. I think it should be a welcome addition. Also, I really like the film Avatar…it doesn’t hold a place in my heart like ‘Up’ but it was a decent blockbuster* movie. *caveat being that blockbusters are not the best sorts of movies, just the most successful usually.

      • How abt Rio that is in Brazil. For South American land theme….sure South America would be a good place for adventure based attractions…..Indiana jones ride is needed at WDW…I am sure other rides would fit in for South America that would be a hit… Also carnival themed attractions…food..etc

  • I think the ““But I didn’t even like Avatar,” you say? Well who’s actually seen Song of the South? And yet Splash Mountain is one of Disney’s iconic attractions.” quote is the most true.

    The way Jim Hill has talked about riding on a fantastic beast that you can feel breathing underneath you sounds like all my childhood dreams of riding on the back of a dragon. I don’t care about the plot, but the sensation of doing that seems incredible.

    Soarin’ doesn’t have a great story, yet it’s massively successful primarily because of the feeling and sensation you get of flying! That’s what makes a great attraction is experiencing something you couldn’t do in your home or everyday life.

  • I never even saw Avatar yet I still think this looks like a really cool place to hang out on vacation!

  • Haters are going to hate. It may have seemed odd that such an expansion would be made around a single movie (especially one that did not have much merchandising associated with it), however let’s not forget there are THREE sequels in the works according to James Cameron. I think much of the “delay” in opening can be attributed to the first sequel coming out next year. I can’t imagine that it will flop, and Pandora will become THE place to go when visiting Disney World. At least until Star Wars land opens!

  • I don’t think Avatar-land is going to be a dud. I just wish Disney had enough faith in the Imagineers to commit this kind of budget to their own ideas.

  • We talked about the Avatar expansion on the most recent episode of Pardon the Pixie Dust (hosted by TouringPlan’s own Brian McNichols) and while I personally LOVE the movie Avatar, I always thought it had no place within the theme park world as we know it. That said, I think model shown at D23 looked amazing and I’m sure the rides themselves are going to be spectacular.
    HOWEVER, while not directly said, I think it appears this Avatar Expansion is going the exact opposite of how the rest of the theme park world is going and I’m not sure people want that. Both Disney and Universal, but especially Disney, are training guests specifically to go from one “experience” to another and in many cases be glued to their phones. The idea of just wandering around and enjoying the atmosphere and world that the Imagineers is being erased by the company itself. I think it’s a shame, as both WDW and Universal Orlando are gorgeous places to just spend time in, but it appears to me that the parks are more concerned with pushing us to the next attraction, the next dining reservation and the next gift shop, etc.
    It’s going to be interesting to see if this area is such a game-changer that it gets people to stop what they are trained to do for the rest of their vacation.

    • by Robert Blaszkiewicz on September 9, 2015, at 10:54 am EST

      That was a good discussion between you and Brian on Pardon the Pixie Dust. I think that the reaction of the public to the opening of Pandora will be a real test for how people tour. But I would say that the extreme scheduling of FastPass+ can coexist with the slow down and savor the atmosphere side of things. For example, at Epcot, I have that Tier 1 Fastpass for Soarin’ or Test Track that I need to prioritize, but beyond that I’m pretty much just wandering the park, particularly in World Showcase. Maybe I’m biased because I love wandering the trails and enjoying the atmosphere and all the details the Imagineers have placed in Africa and Asia, but I think the stop and smell the bio-luminescent roses approach will work.

  • Regarding the oft-repeated point about Splash Moutain: The thing is that it isn’t “The Song of the South Ride”. There is no mention of the original movie made in the name, promotional materials or the attraction . 99.5% of people on the ride probably have no idea what it’s based on. There’s a reason for that – do you think the ride would be as popular if Disney told everyone as they approached that it’s based on a 1946 movie that they probably haven’t seen?

    When you base a land on an existing IP, you are deliberately bringing baggage with it. They are hoping (probably correctly, to a large extent) that this will draw in guests who liked the film. But the flipside is that people who don’t like the film, or haven’t seen the film, are not as drawn to the attraction/land as they would have been if it was a standalone IP. Carsland gets around this to a large extent because it is based on a very simple premise – talking cars. Avatar – not so much – something about blue Aliens in space….?

    The IP baggage is both positive and negative. You can’t have one without the other. I’m sure it will be amazing and enjoyable, but the fact remains that for a large section of the population the Avatar connection just doesn’t do it for them. That’s their opinion, it is perfectly logical and a perfectly valid opinion. It’s not wrong. Not everyone has to agree all the time.

    • by Robert Blaszkiewicz on September 9, 2015, at 10:58 am EST

      Very valid point. Song of the South does have baggage, but most people aren’t aware of it. But reaction to a land can be very different to the reaction to the IP. I’ve heard quite a few people say they didn’t particularly enjoy the film Cars, but loved touring CarsLand.

  • I think the new kingdom looks absolutely amazing! I just wish it wasn’t Avatar. A whole land dedicated to something not Disney makes me sad – at least integrate into Disney before making a land dedicated to it (a la Star Wars).

    As for the comparison to Song of the South. Nobody has seen the movie because you are not allowed! Who didn’t grow up singing ZipeDee Doo Da (I know I butchered the spelling) before Splash Mountain even existed. There was still something there that tugged on your heart strings. Avatar came and went. It was beautiful but not memorable. There is nothing I remember from the movie besides not liking it. It’s not a movie I want to share with my kids.

    I also wish it wasn’t fictional. I guess I feel that the conservation aspect of Animal Kingdom should be saving what we have and not some mythical land. Will the “save the world” aspect show through in the theme park aspect like it did without a 2 hour movie telling us? I like the South America idea. Make it a Brazilian Rain Forest. That could be a stunning immersive environment. There is so much beauty in this world we don’t need Pandora.

    Sorry – I was rambling. I had a lot of thoughts on this one in my head and didn’t write them very eloquently. On a side note – love the title of this entry 🙂

    • by Robert Blaszkiewicz on September 9, 2015, at 11:04 am EST

      Thanks, Stephanie. I think what made the fictional aspect an easier sell is that this area of the park was originally pegged for Beastly Kingdom (hence the dragon that still prowls on the entrance sign). With three sequels coming, I think the world of Pandora will remain in the zeitgeist for a while. I agree with you that a South American-themed land would be an amazing addition to Animal Kingdom.

  • I’m actually pretty excited for Pandora to open up. I didn’t particularly like the movie, but it was stunning to see. I imagine the new land will be just as stunning, i’m trusting the imagineers as well.