The Avatarland project at Disney’s Animal Kingdom got a sudden and unexpected boost Friday night (United States’ time) when details and concept art were unveiled at the D23 Expo taking place in Tokyo, several time zones away. Some Disney fans were happy; others remained uninterested. But when you put the Avatar project into proper perspective of the Walt Disney World storyline, it forms a more complete picture of the Disney response to Potter. At the end of the day, this expansion (plus the other two in nearby parks) is really about Potter.

The scale and scope of the Avatar project, as unveiled, wowed some members of the Disney fan community, including some who previously were against the entire idea of this expansion, but the timing raised questions if Disney was attempting to “bury” the story at the very end of the U.S. news cycle. Midnight on a Friday night is historically when releases come out that want to attract little notice, so people wondered if this was intentional. Surely the American market is huge, and this *is* an American park getting the expansion, so it is a little curious to release it “overnight” for us. Are they ashamed? Did they recognize that fans have been less than excited for Avatar, and didn’t want to risk overhyping something that some would end up not liking? (this exact scenario now plagues SeaWorld with its Antarctica expansion)

The announcement called for a few things for sure: a boat ride (the artwork shows it to be nighttime) and a Soarin’-type ride where we swoop around the planet with the flying dragon-like banshees. There was no merchandise location or restaurant announced at this time, but they’ve been mentioned in earlier releases and they are logical additions anyway. Construction starts in 2013 (in other words, soon!) in the Camp Minnie-Mickey area (which will have to close in 2014), and is slated to take up to five years to complete. They were a bit unspecific about actual time frames.

DAK will also be getting a nighttime lagoon show near Everest, something I heard independent rumors about more than a month ago. The nighttime entertainment will also include a stationary parade of sorts near the Tree of Life, and projections on the tree itself (this story was broken a few months ago, though I didn’t know about that scoop until recently). And there’s going to be a nighttime safari now. Add it all up, and you’ve got a full slew of evening entertainment. DAK is going to do its darndest to finally shed that “half day park” reputation which has dogged it since the beginning.

Here is the concept art released at the DisneyParks blog:

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And here is a video from James Cameron and Imagineer Joe Rohde, released a day later:

It can be instructive to take those concept art images, and zoom in a bit on them. Shall we see what we can see? There might be hints about the land here.

Is that a thanator? (http://james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Thanator)
Is that a thanator on the boat ride? (http://james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Thanator)
Light levels in this picture have been adjusted to show more of the boat.
Light levels in this picture have been adjusted to show more of the boat.
Herds of animals, limitless waterfalls (since they are digitally created)... this could be impressive!
Herds of animals, limitless waterfalls (since they are digitally created)… this could be impressive in the Soarin’ type ride! Does that T-shirt say “AVTR”?
A happy family in the foreground, and a couple nuzzling in the background!
A happy family in the foreground, and a couple nuzzling in the background!
The rock arches in the distance are likely to be forced perspective, I'd guess.
The rock arches in the distance are likely to be forced perspective, I’d guess.
A vine-covered trailer (like the one at the end of the movie)
A vine-covered trailer (like the one at the end of the movie)
Expect a lot of plants. Is that an egg/embryo in the background?
Expect a lot of plants. Is that an egg/embryo in the background?
I spy a distant (overrun?) structure to the left.
I spy a distant (overrun?) structure to the left.
A ruined vehicle.
A ruined vehicle.
The model shows a lot of plants, but no structures (at least from this angle)
The model shows a lot of plants, but no structures (at least from this angle)

 

On the one hand, it’s not a huge stretch to say that the Avatar expansion is a response to the wildly successful Harry Potter expansions up the road at Universal. Many fans make the point that Avatar isn’t enough.

But if you think about the storyline the Disney CEO has to craft to HIS audience (he only reports to one place: the Board of Directors), Avatar is only a part of the puzzle. Iger will get to tell the board that while Potter is certainly drawing in tourists and new visitors, Disney isn’t standing still. They added a big expansion in the form of New Fantasyland (which will appeal especially to those families with young girls) and now is throwing hundreds of millions into this DAK expansion based on one of the most profitable movies of all time. It seems a sure win for the Board of Directors, especially when you consider the upcoming announcements on Star Wars.

Once Disney also announces the changes at DHS (part makeover, part expansion) into a fully-themed Star Wars land, Iger will be able to say that three of its four parks are adding Potter-sized additions, and it will be easier to craft a narrative that Disney is responding in kind. Disney isn’t reacting with one giant answer, but rather with several “medium sized” ones.

This strategy is not without risks. Foremost among them is the possibility that local executives, seeking to cut capital costs and thus secure a personal bonus that year, might trim expenses on these additions. In a perverse way, having a LOT of expansions could work against Disney if it starts to think (internally) that there is so much going on, a little trimming won’t be noticed by the Guests. I heard one worrying whisper that the planned Star Wars expansion might be facing some cuts even before being announced to the public, though this sort of thing is actually somewhat routine in the Blue Sky phase. You dream it, you budget it… and then you get to re-dream a different version!

Returning to the subject at hand, the Avatar plans may make some fans very happy (let’s not forget the hordes of online people – not necessarily Disney fans – pleading for a way to “visit Pandora” when the movie first came out). The plans may underwhelm others. Personally, I remain encouraged, as I have been all along. The theme offers a rich and complex canvas onto which the Imagineers can paint experiences and portray exotic locales. This is their bread and butter.

Of course, at the end of the day I believe it doesn’t matter which Intellectual Property (IP) you start with. What matters is the finished product. A poor Star Wars experience (which we arguably have now, with Ewok facades rather than fully-realized environments) might have a great IP, but a poor execution. Meanwhile, both Pirates and Mansion flourished for decades with no movie IP attachment; they were just invented for the parks. And they did great – largely because of execution.

So what do you think? Let us know in the comments what your impression is of Avatarland. Did the concept art change your opinion at all?

Swan and Dolphin Food & Wine Classic is This Weekend

The OTHER food and wine festival on the Walt Disney World property (hosted by Swan/Dolphin) is a single-weekend event, and it’s a hard-ticket ($80) you have to buy as admission. But once in, you get unlimited food and drinks–and these are some high-quality wines I would normally not think to try, or perhaps not want to buy if I’m in a money-saving mood. Translation: you can eat and drink extremely well here. I’ve been very happy to pay the full price for this event in the past, and always felt I got my money’s worth.

Your $80 is much cheaper than the Disney premier dining event (which is $145 this weekend). I’ve talked with folks who have attended both and say the Swan/Dolphin event is of higher quality, too, despite being less expensive!

Vacation Homes – Who’d Have Thunk It?

I moved to Central Florida in 2004, and have had little need of hotels or other lodging in the area since. I’ve never given more than a cursory thought to the idea of vacation homes. Why rent a full-sized house when you can get a hotel room that is cleaned daily by a maid? It seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I know it will come with a kitchen, but if cooking is your thing, shouldn’t you just stay home?

All that changed last week, when I had occasion to rent such a house for a birthday party. I was impressed across the board. Well, almost across the board. The complex of rental homes hides behind a security phalanx notably not only for its heavy-handedness, but also for its almost impressive slowness. But apart from security, I couldn’t be happier with all elements of the experience. Here are a few particulars:

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  • Cost: we paid about $140/night for a five-bedroom house (which also had five bathrooms). If you are going on vacation with a large family or group of families, the cost savings are astronomical to stay here versus a hotel. There ARE extra one-time fees like cleaning fees ($100) or pool heating ($50), but even with all that factored in, it’s much cheaper than a hotel. 
  • Location: Our house was in Windsor Hills, a community a few hundred yards from US-192 at the VERY edge of Disney property.
  • Pool. I grew up with a backyard pool in California, but even I could not believe the relaxation element of your own pool deep in the night, or even first thing in the morning.
  • Convenient check in / check out. We reserved online, we picked up keys after hours, and we returned the contract via drop box. It all happened on our time frame, and we never had to speak to anyone. Simple; no fuss.

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We happened to use Palm Tree Vacation Homes (http://www.closesttodisney.com/), which was fine for our needs, and I would use them again. I can’t speak for ALL the vacation home operators in the area. But I can say that my eyes were opened by this experience.

Has anyone stayed in a vacation home in Orlando before? Feel free to share your experience in the comments.