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Earlier this week, it was announced that the Walt Disney Company will be partnering with James Cameron to bring Avatar to the various Disney theme parks, starting with the Animal Kingdom. At first, I was horrified. While almost any Disney park fan worth their salt instantly calls to mind the original plans for the Beastly Kingdom section of Animal Kingdom that was scrapped in development, I instead thought of Harry Potter, and how it seemed like Disney was going out of there way to latch onto a profitable franchise and use it to their advantage.
While there may be a small bit of truth to the idea of oneupsmanship as it pertains to licensing films for attractions, at least in the case of Avatar there is much more coming (two films scheduled to be released in 2015 and 2016, with the latter date being when the attractions are currently slated to be up and running), while Potter is done in terms of films but has things like Pottermore around to at least keep it alive and growing in popular culture. It is sometimes difficult to remember that many of Disney’s most famous stories are pulled from other sources – be it fairy tales, children’s books, or even 1960′s anime (jury’s still out on the last one). Also, a few of Disney’s most famous attractions come from franchises they don’t own (Star Wars and Indiana Jones) so this is not without precedent in their theme park design history.
For now, there are no concrete plans. Construction isn’t planned for another two years, and everything is currently nothing but blue sky (that’s a tie-in to my previous post, probably), but there are actually things that could work in it’s favor…
1. James Cameron is insane. Hear me out, okay? Cameron is a man who has worked on many projects that have taken the limits of creativity, engineering, and special effects and ripped them to shreds. Between Avatar, Titanic, Terminator, and Aliens there is just a whole lot of magnificence that succeeds in pulling you into some other world and keeping you there, enveloping the viewer in a different time and place. That is the exact kind of thing that Disney can be good at and needs to be good at. The idea that I can walk from the hustle and bustle of the Oasis and journey deep into the planet of Pandora and actually feel like I’m on another plane of existence is an experience that sounds too good to be true, but it just might be possible in a few short years.
2. Connections. A big part of the Animal Kingdom’s message is all about conversation of the environment, a story element that was also smeared all over Avatar and is just one connection the two share that can be utilized to at least make sense of placing an Avatar “land” in the Animal Kingdom instead of, say, the Hollywood Studios. There is also the idea that one can go to Animal Kingdom and see animals in natural habitats and even close enough to almost be touched. Now, while i suspect one will not see any Mountain Banshee’s flying overhead around that section of the park, the technology exists for at least the flora (as faux as it will be) to really draw you into this alien world. I mean, seriously, one word – bioluminescence. Night on Pandora might just rival the Osborne Family Christmas Lights as the brightest and most awe-inspiring landscape available at a Disney theme park (the finale to Illuminations would be my third place vote).
3. Technology. I suspect that by the time we get closer to the beginning of construction that some new technology will exist that both crazy James Cameron and profit-hungry Disney will pounce on to create something that is never-before seen in the world of amusement and theme park attractions. Avatar is not something that would benefit by any current off-the-shelf ride model (stupid flying carpets) and by all rights should have something new and exciting to draw people in. It is not enough that the film was immensely popular and has an incredibly large fan base that will no doubt pilgrimage to central Florida in five years and beyond – it needs to live up to the bar already set by the film and be unlike anything anyone has seen before. I can not even been to speculate what exactly this technology could be, but I am sure there are Imagineers sleeplessly staring at their ceilings or fussing about with Erector sets trying to figure out what that is.
Disney, this isn’t about if you are going to make this amazing and brilliant environment that defies all expectations. This is about just how much you will be able to take those growing expectations and smash them to tiny pieces under an entire alien planet that you are inviting us all to experience. I hate to be one to bring this to a close on such a down note, but anything short of perfection is going to be a disappointment. I guess if all else fails, we can be sure to be on the lookout for Dances With Wolves Land in 2018. For now, I will try to be optimistic, if even cautiously so.