Disney Animal Kingdom Avatarland in Context

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Features

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Published on October 15, 2013 at 3:00 am with 81 Comments

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:





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:


  • 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.


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.

About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He is a founding member of MiceAge and has written numerous books about Disney parks (see http://bit.ly/kevinyee).

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  • waymire01

    Such a wasted opportunity. I would rather see Narnia, Oz, Alice, anything but Avatar. Pretty is nice but what is the point of pretty when there is no story behind it. Heck for that matter how about an original concept (remember those?) focusing on a menagerie of mystical animals (dragons anyone?). Oh well.

    They really need to fix the broken attractions before they consider all these additions. Ignoring them is not going to solve anything.

    I already consider AK an all day park. There is so much to do if you care about something other than coasters and E-ticket rides. Spend the daytime with the animals and the night time doing the rides. It’s so gorgeous at night.

  • solarnole

    I love the Animal Kingdom train to the petting zoo. It is done so well that it travels backwards and you get to see the same highly themed back of the house fences twice. Its so magical

  • jcruise86

    Kevin wrote: “the Disney CEO has to craft to HIS audience (he only reports to one place: the Board of Directors)”.

    Yes, I’m sure CEO Mr. Iger gets nervous reporting to Disney’s Chairman of the Board.

    Probably exactly as nervous as Michael Eisner was about three to five before Roy Disney, Jr. started trying to oust him.

  • solarnole

    I disagree with Kevin. I think at the end of the day this Avatar expansion is all about getting James Cameron in house with the mouse. Corner the market on action movies. Take our money to fund your next three Avatar movies then sign with us. Disney is a film company first.

    The Fantasyland Expansion was the direct response to Potter it even copied the giant gargoyles and the butter beer.

    Every announcement for Avatar comes with a delay for when it will be opening. Potter phase 2 is opening 2014 this might open 2017 but I highly doubt it no earth has been moved yet.

  • Jdogboy

    I am with Kevin here, I think Avatar land will be a big success and I am excited for it. The fact that Cameron is filming more movies right now will keep it relevant. As for Star Wars land.. if this is even for sure, as all I have heard is rumors.. well Star Wars has stood the test of time for almost 40 years now with no signs of slowing from the fans.. this would make a Star Wars land ultimately successful. I hope the Disney exec’s keep that in mind before they unveil any plans they have.

    As for Vacation homes – I have done this twice now and I think this is the only way for me to go now in Florida. I have a family of 5 and we usually bring a grandparent or two as well and unless I spend an arm and a leg on Hotels with suites or adjoining rooms, I would much prefer a vacation home. Having your own pool to lounge beside.. bathrooms for everyone.. I will sacrifice the turndown service. One thing to be wary of though is if you are planning some meals at the vacation home, don’t buy too many groceries!! Plan your meals there, and don’t buy too much that you cant bring with you. For us the vacation home for a week + rental car + groceries was still cheaper than the hotel route.

  • wdwprince

    I was and still am that one guy on the Disney boards (it seems) who liked Avatar, was excited at the announcement and still am.

    I think the message of the film fits perfectly into Animal Kingdom.

    This project has great potential. Its up to Imagineering to deliver. So far it looks like they are aiming to. I’m also hopeful that Cameron and Rhode are attached to this project.

  • danielz6

    I really want to be excited for Pandora but I can’t. A jungle planet with light up plants just doesn’t do it for me, especially with a story that is so forgettable. I think natural settings based in reality are more beautiful and pleasing to the eyes then fantasy nature can ever be. I’m referring to frontierland based on the real Bryce canyon, grizzly Peak based on the sierra Nevada, Louisiana’s bayou in New Orleans square, the awe inspiring Mt Prometheus in disney Sea or the Jungles of central america, the icy peaks of Nepal or Swiss Alps to name a few. Of course I hope I’m wrong, and that this is the hit Disney is expecting but it produces zero excitement for me. I’d be much more excited to hear 1. the yeti is going to be fixed 2. Kali rapids is reimagined to be a thrilling water ride that it should be 2. Dinoland USA reimagined to fully immerse you in the time and place 65-100 million years ago 3. A new land based on a world region like south America or Australia or Siberia or even the ocean (directly competing with sea world 3. New attractions base on Disney’s phenomenal animal centric IP such as Bambi, jungle book, lion king, Rescuers down under.

  • danielz6

    I’m also worried Pandora may be excessively visually stimulating just like the movie was which is cool for about 5 minutes but quickly becomes nauseating and unenjoyable. Contrast that with actual nature that I referred to in my previous post that you can spend hours in and want to revisit time and time again, and is visually and mentally tranquillizing to the human psyche.

  • mpurciel

    I like the concept of Avatar but it’s not something I would get excited about. The movie has no stickiness. It was great visually but the story-line was weak and the characters had no depth. Disney is the king of storytelling but Avatar lacks no story.

    Visually I think i would be a good addition to the land but I’d rather see the addition be Beastly Kingdom. It would be a great contrast to the jungles and foliage of DAK. DAK needs a “Fantasyland” component. I also think they should bring back the boat cruise that went around the island, fix the past issues, enhance it and make it a e-ticket.

  • richboi117

    I have to admit that this looks REALLY cool. But I’d rather the cash and effort all be put to a Star Wars land in DHS. They could add a boat ride thru the Ewok planet/speeder bike ride, tour of the Millenium Falcon at Hoth, and keep Star Tours, of course. Ooh! I should be hired! Hehehe

  • BrerDan

    Regarding staying in vacation homes, I personally love them. We stayed in one for a week last year around the first week of November, and a few years before that as well. We had 4 bedrooms and 2 baths, kitchen, and private pool for about $125 a night. We had my parents come and then my in-laws came and it was great–we stayed upstairs, and they stayed downstairs. We stayed in Kissimmee, so it was about 20-25 minutes to get to the parks–not bad at all! We ate breakfast there every day and were able to relax a few days without going to the parks. The best part was having a washing machine right there in our vacation home.

    Regarding Pandora…..I’m still “meh.” I have zero interest in the property, and while I do think the environment might be beautiful, I just don’t see how it could have the “fun” little touches that could be had with something like a dragon mountain. I believe this will be visually stunning, but not sure it will be fun. I’m *not* a Harry Potter fan at all, but I found the Wizarding World to be a great deal of *fun* with lots of silly and interesting touches.

    As for Animal Kingdom–I honestly love the park the way it is. We spent a full day there last year from opening at 8am to closing at 8pm and still weren’t able to hit many things, including the Lion King Show, Kali Rapids, any of Minnie-Mickey, the Oasis, and Rafiki’s Planet Watch. How did we do that? We actually went through all of the nature trails and spent time to enjoy them. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it and find it a nice counterbalance to the other parks. Would I object to new experiences? Certainly not, but part of me fears the character of the park will change for the worse with this addition. We’ll see….

  • solarnole

    The old half day Discovery Island was a better zoo then Animal kingdom. I took a friend from South Korea who hated Animal Kingdom because he could not take pictures of all the animals. He was very upset that the elephants and lions were only on the ride and not on the walking trails.

    If I only had one day in Orlando for a park, it would be my last choice.

    At least when Avatar opens the park or sauna will have an air conditioned building that does not require a ride on a one way dead end train to get there.