Avatar Land and How Disney Missed The Point

This has been back on my radar for a while now and I felt the need to have a little bit of a rant. Back in September 2011 Disney announced that the long awaited expansion of Disney's Animal Kingdom would be happening and Disney Park enthusiasts' bubbles everywhere were suddenly burst as they were told that it would not be their beloved Beastly Kingdom coming to fruition, but instead a highly themed and immersive experience constructed around Pandora from the hit movie Avatar.

The dragon in Animal Kingdom's logo remains the last clue to Beastly Kingdom's existence
So, a few problems with this initially. It had long been rumoured that Beastly Kingdom had been scrapped ages ago because of Imagineers leaving Disney to work for Universal and taking a lot of the concepts for this land with them, hence Duelling Dragons at Universal's Islands of Adventure which apparently is very similar for a 'flying' style of rollercoaster themed to dragons that was originally conceived for Beastly Kingdom. How much truth there is in that we can't really say (I was always under the impression that Universal worked mostly with freelancers but that might be wrong on my account), but what we can say is that the Beastly Kingdom concept, despite being totally epic, praised amongst enthusiasts and even nodded to in the park's logo, had been binned. But the fact remains that it was one of those concepts that truly demonstrated the Imagineers' skill to create a concept for a whole land without resorting to IPs and merely drawing for mythological folklore and adding that touch of Disney magic to give it that brand specificity an quality of a great immersive themed experience. So when Avatar Land was announced, I almost felt cheated that they'd essentially decided to build a world whose concepts and inspiration could literally be copied from movie concept art to theme park, and that to me felt so wrong and not a good use of Imagineer talent at all. Where is the magical Disney originality that we're so used to? Especially in a park like Animal Kingdom. It all felt a bit weird.

Disney Imagineers work on Pandora concept models
Secondly is the problematic use of a movie theme in an animal themed park. Don't get me wrong, of course we expect to see the Disney characters wandering around in the Disney theme park environments, but Animal Kingdom is very careful with its use of characters to try and keep them specific to the park's theme. You, of course, see Baloo and King Louie from The Jungle Book, characters from Tarzan and A Bug's Life and Pocahontas, and even the famous five, albeit dressed up in safari gear of some kind. You'd never see Snow White or Sleeping Beauty because their theme in no way links to the animal kingdom, and therefore makes no narrative sense. So it is incredibly intrusive for me to imagine Pandora in this setting because it isn't Disney, it is a land based on a film. And whilst you can argue that Harry Potter isn't Universal, it is still a film and therefore fits with the theme of the park. I am no denying that Pandora is full of interesting and beautiful landscapes, but its neither Disney nor general mythology that is relevant in many cultures, it is a specific IP that in my opinion sticks out like a sore thumb and also, and probably most importantly, lacks that special Disney kind of magic. It arguably has its own kind of magic sure but that will be jarring to the flow of style in Animal Kingdom.

No doubt the land will be stunning
Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, it's completely irrelevant. I'm sure, way back in 2009, we all saw Avatar and all thought it was a pretty nifty flick. Not an instant classic, but a must-see for the time for sure, if only for the impressive visuals if anything. Now fast-forward 6 years to present day. Who is even talking about Avatar anymore? It has literally disappeared from the public sphere. Apparently there are three sequels in the pipeline but keeping an eagle-eye on IMDB I've seen the release dates for these slip further and further away. Because nobody cares. Nobody wants the sequels because the first movie didn't have a big enough cultural impact to leave audiences gagging for more. The fact that Avatar Land was announced in 2011 says to me that Disney made a snap decision and decided to collaborate and ride the forecasted waves of Avatar's success with Avatar Land, but ultimately the movie did not make that much of an impact to necessitate a land in a theme park. And how weird that it would be a Disney park, and of all the Disney parks how weird that it would be Animal Kingdom? Why not one of the two actual movie themed Disney properties? At least that would make some thematic sense.

Potter fans enjoy a Butterbeer in Hogsmeade
I feel that Disney have been watching Universal's success with the Potter and Simpsons franchises with green eyes and Avatar Land is their answer to the fully immersive experience. But there are problems with that where Disney has completely missed the point. IPs like Harry Potter and The Simpsons are universally adored in Western culture and therefore to sit and have a Duff Beer in Moe's Tavern or a Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks has a much wider cultural meaning than, for instance, sipping on a LaFou's Brew in Gaston's tavern in New Fantasyland (another themed experience clearly trying to emulate Universal's success). It is so strange to me how Disney can completely miss the point of something being culturally relevant seeing how deeply their brand is embedded in Western culture. LaFou's brew is nothing. It is a drink sold in a shop in a theme park. Butterbeer is the beverage that brings people together in dark times in the Potter franchise, a drink whose taste is described in vivid detail to us and something that we longed to taste, and that Universal has now made possible.

Fans flocked in their thousands to witness their beloved land being announced
The difference that the Universal IPs display is that we actually feel like we are in the worlds of these beloved characters because not only do we have the locations to explore, we also have the merchandise to buy that is drawn straight from the IPs themselves, as described to us through 7 best-selling novels and 8 blockbuster movies (Potter) or over 20 years of animated reinforcement (The Simpsons). The wealth of the proverbial cultural pot for these IPs is almost limitless and hence the parks have a lot to draw from. I can't think of a single Disney IP that offers locations, food and beverages and merchandise that could be actually realised in a theme park setting, and I believe that is because Disney films draw too much from the fantastical side of things. And not that that is a bad thing of course, but when in a Disney film do we ever really see characters eating branded goods like Chocolate Frogs or Duff Beer, or buying things from shops. We don't. And therein lies the difference. I feel like Disney are going to be sorely disappointed when Avatar Land isn't stupidly profitable as the likes of Potter and The Simpsons are and I can't help but feel they'll still be sat wondering what they're doing wrong.

The key Disney IP that I can see working in the same aspect as Potter and The Simpsons is Star Wars. Here is an IP that is culturally beloved, has a wealth of inspiration to draw from, both from the films and all subsequent character and story development expanded upon by Lucas himself. Disney could realise many a fanboy's dream of sitting and having a drink in The Cantina, for example. But they've chosen not to do this. Instead the proposed Star Wars land will mostly draw inspiration from the newer movies, which is obscene. If you want people to truly love a land in your theme park then build something that they already hold close to their heart and know like the back of their hand. New Star Wars is not the same as old Star Wars and the public knows this. Disney have this arrogance of ignoring the desires of the public sphere and instead build what they think is a great idea and then wonder why it hasn't been as well accepted.

So yes I will of course visit Avatar Land, and of course it will be spectacular and beautiful, but it will no doubt be missing that special Disney magic that sparks excitement when we enter their theme parks, which is sadly ironic seeing as they kind of invented that feeling.


  1. I'm in two minda about Avatar land. On the up side, I believe the IP couldn't be more right for the park thematically. People criticised the story for its similarities to Fern Gully or Pocahontas - and I've always wondered why the park hadn't gone for Pocahontas as a theme for their American inspired area that is Dinoland USA. Here is a story about how humans abuse the natural world and why we shouldn't, because it is beautiful, the core narrative running though everything at the park. But unlike Pocahontas, Avatar isn't about some relatable or understood part of human history or world culture, its purpose built parody. And in that sense, I think its a great theme park choice. Its not so day to day, its not so depressing TV commercial or BBC documentary or green peace, its another world. A story.

    What I don't understand like you is why bother with an IP at all? The purpose of the Uni examples is so blindingly obvious in their ability to attract guests, but Disney seem to use IPs as platforms to make great works of art (Splash Mountain springs to mind here) rather than for their cultural relevance. Clearly they understand the importance of popular > quality, or.. Not quality, but artistic morals? as Frozen for
    Epcot shows... But why Avatar? I can only hope and assume that somebody has a wonderful concept for Avatar's use as a thematic or narrative platform and Disney aren't trying to copy at all, but doing what they do best. It does beg the question if IP is always better at drawing crowds tover original unbranded concepts? I'm skeptical. It does seem like they are just more convenient, ready made quality worlds to utilise, in Disneys case, and profit machines elsewhere - even when they're not.

    1. I would argue that for a Merlin park, for example, the use of an IP is good in most aspects as they don't have the draw of their own brand like Disney do. Disney is an IP, in a way, and so even if they build something 'original' it will eventually come under the Disney Park brand, like Pirates or Haunted Mansion. Hence why the use of an 'outsider' IP is so weird to me!