View RSS Feed

SAMLAND

Disney's Animal Kingdom: First Impressions of Avatar Land

Rate this Entry
by , 09-28-2011 at 07:01 PM



There has certainly been a lot of talk within the Disney online community about Disney’s recent announcement that they have formed a partnership with director James Cameron to bring to life an immersive, multi-attraction environment that recalls the lush forest on the moon Pandora from the film Avatar. The location for this new land will be somewhere in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

So, just like any good columnist, I might as well follow the herd and put in my $.02 worth. However, I am going to lean in a slightly different direction and talk about how I tend to process the underlying guiding design principles of this very unique theme park. It comes down to two ideas: Contrast and Balance.





According to architect Christopher Alexander, one of the primary design building blocks is the use of contrast. In The Nature of Order, he said that one way to create powerful, meaningful places is to use contrast because “the unity is achieved with visible opposites.” As we all know, first impressions matter. When I arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, my first impression is the use of contrast in the surroundings as a storytelling and urban design device. Contrast is used to hammer home the park’s organizing themes of life in balance and the need for conservation.

Those that have visited Animal Kingdom know that in many ways it is a different kind of theme park then the other three on property. I know a lot of people who tend to say some pretty negative things about this park. You’ve heard it; “Not enough to do”, “way too hot”, “half day park”, “what happened to the Yeti? (wait that was me!)” etc. Some of this may be true (especially the Yeti).


There is only one way to truly enjoy Disney’s Animal Kingdom. You just have to recalibrate the way you visit to really enjoy this theme park. You have to turn the dial down to slow. The Imagineers have provided you a challenge and you have to decide if you are up for it. This is a park that is designed to reward the visitor who takes their time. If you rush through it like the other three parks, you will be missing out on the best bits. You cannot skim this environment.




After you have paid your parking toll and make that big right hand turn toward the main parking lot, what unfolds before you is a giant patch of hot, barren, hard asphalt, void of any trees or landscaping. The pavement appears to be washed out and already cracking, especially at the edges. It is as if the parking lot is ready to be returned to nature but it can’t. Not a very inviting first impression. You exit your air-conditioned car and step out into what can only be described as a lifeless place. This is one miserable place and someplace where you do not want to linger. There is one saving grace. Off in the distance, at the far edge of the parking lot is a lush, inviting tropical forest. The contrast between the trees and the dead space of the asphalt parking lot is profound. By this point, you are motivated to get to the tram to the front gate as quickly as possible. By design, you will go from a lifeless environment to a place filled with life. Contrast.

Another use of contrast is embedded directly into the park’s building code. The code does not allow for any structures to be taller then the tree canopy. There are exceptions. They include Expedition Everest, which is supposed to be a mountain, and The Tree of Life, which is supposed to be, well, a tree. The design objective was to have the tree canopy rise entirely over the roofs of the buildings. The buildings would become secondary to nature. The park’s design guidelines and building code took into account the natural changes to the landscape from the start. Over time, the iconic Tree of Life would be better integrated within the landscape, as it remains the same size while everything grows around it.

Contrast is used to demonstrate how to identify when people and nature are in balance. Some say that the conservation theme is delivered in a heavy-handed fashion. Some say that it is commendable that a corporation such as Disney is using a theme park to educate the public as well as entertain them. I am more intrigue by the clever use of contrast and the transect as a way to calibrate the urban design guiding principles of each of the different lands.




In all things concerning life, there must be a balance. The circle of life and the need for conservation is the central message throughout Animal Kingdom. In environmental design, this balance is best achieved when the edges are blurred and the environment is a gradient. In the field of ecology, naturalist use transects to describe the characteristics of an ecosystem and describe the changes in ecosystems over a gradient. Architect and planner Andres Duany, said of the transect, “Certain forms belong in certain environments. Ecologists use the transect to describe how each habitat supports symbiotic sets of mineral conditions, microclimate, flora, and fauna.” An example of a transect is the progression through a sequence of natural habitats such as a shore-dune-upland to a wetland-woodland-prairie. The original idea for taking a geographical cross-section of a region and used to reveal a sequence of environments goes back to Von Humboldt in 1790. When the Transect is severely disrupted, significant environmental impacts can be felt. Virtually every attraction in the Animal Kingdom and every land deals with the impacts of a disruption in the natural transect to move the story along.





As you leave the parking lot and head to the front gate, you come across architecture that is based on the American Arts and Crafts tradition. Arts and Crafts is a style that demonstrates how man-made structures can be made compatible with the natural environment. This is not the only time Disney has used American Arts and Crafts for architectural inspiration. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is also based on this style. Within this design tradition, the blending of indoor and outdoor space is blurred, natural materials are featured, and the machine age is shunned for hand-made. The difference between the coasts is the Anaheim resort takes the style and blows up the scale beyond any real building in that style. The gateway and ticket booths in Florida are at an appropriate scale and blend into the environment.

Once you have entered the park you find yourself in the Oasis. Here, balance favors nature. This is a land that could only exist in this theme park. The Oasis serves the same function as Main Street USA (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom), Hollywood Boulevard (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) or walking under Spaceship Earth (Epcot). The job is to create a shared experience that sets up the adventures that lie ahead. For this park, the Imagineers were trying to slow you down. They described the Oasis as a “cool, green decompression zone”. People will always run toward the Safari or Everest, so this is a feat which is rarely achieved on the way into the park. On the way out, it can be a different story. From the very beginning, the Animal Kingdom was a place where the best way to get from here to there may not always be the shortest path or the straightest line. At every other theme park, it is the destination that matters. At Animal Kingdom the best way to enjoy the park is to let the journey become the thing. This park is designed to reward the guest who takes their time.

The pathways in the Oasis meander and cross under a land bridge just like the train tunnels at the Magic Kingdom. This obstruction acts like a curtain that sets up the big reveal; your first view of the iconic Tree of Life. The wide walkway over the main bridge is designed to accommodate the large crowds who just stand there and gawk. Many visitors will not realize that from the parking lot to this point you have walked up a 20-foot hill.Like the other Disney park entrances, the Oasis funnels you through a single entrance and a narrow portal to separate you from the real world and allow you to enter the fantasy world of the park. Although it may not be obvious at first, the layout for Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom are very similar. In both parks, you walk through a narrow corridor that creates a shared experience with other guests and that experience transfers you from the real world and immerses you into a fantasy environment (the Oasis and Main Street USA). The only way to really see the parks iconic structures fully (Tree of Life and Cinderella Castle) is to cross underneath an obstruction (the rock cropping at the end of the Oasis or the tunnels under the train). The best view of the park icon occurs when you cross over a slightly elevated, very wide bridge that stretches over a waterway. Beyond the bridge is a central area that acts like the hub of a wheel and the various lands radiate out like spokes (Discovery Island and the Plaza Hub).



Discovery Island is the hub. Here nature and people are in balance. The decoration embedded in the architecture is a celebration of animals. The trees tower over the structures. The focus is on the Tree of Life at the center.

As we travel clockwise, we come to Camp Minnie-Mickey which I will ignore as it was just kind of slapped into the park at the last minute. The next land is Africa. Here, urban life was beginning to carve its way into the wilderness and people were beginning to upset the balance. However, wisely, the community pulled back and has benefited by careful stewardship of the land and the constant search for balance. The contrast is the way the wilderness frames the very urban plaza at the heart of Harambe Village. Even the main attraction, the Kilimanjaro Safaris, was primarily a battle between passive exploitation of nature versus aggressive exploitation.

Next comes Asia. Throughout Asia we see the constant struggle between man and nature. It seems that nature seems to be winning in this case. The structures are covered in plant material, which seem to be slowly destroying what was built and returning them to the soil. The two main attractions are not-so-subtle hints that people are evil and will destroy what nature has brought merely for the sake of making money. Whether that is clear-cutting a forest like the Kali Rapids River ride or tromping through sacred ground like Expedition Everest.

By the time we get to Dinoland we see exactly where former Disney CEO Michael Eisner was heading when the Animal Kingdom project began. He told his Imagineers, “You’ve got to lead with your clichés! I want a Dinoland, and I want it to be called DinoLand.” This area is the contrast to Harambe Village. There, the community has slowly integrated itself within the surrounding natural habitat. At Dinoland, they just plowed down the trees, poured concrete, and viola! Instant tourist attraction. Whether it was the meteor that destroyed all of the dinosaurs or Chester and Hector destroying the countryside, life is out of balance.

So, you must be asking by now what does this have to do with Avatar. After some thought, I feel the movie is a good fit. It is a simple, heavy-handed story of what happens when life goes out of balance. It has clearly defined good guys and bad guys. It is a beautiful environment that will be hard to duplicate. However, if the Imagineers succeed, it could be spectacular, especially at night. Disney does not need to worry about taking care of more real animals, thereby saving millions of dollars that would otherwise have to go backstage. Plus, stiltwalkers and very tall people throughout America will now find new employment opportunities. We shall see in a few years.

What do you think? Will Avatar fit the Animal Kingdom environment? Why or why not?



In October, my new book, WALT and the Promise of Progress City, will be available. Just in time for your holiday gift list! We'll have more information for you very soon.


Submit "Disney's Animal Kingdom: First Impressions of Avatar Land" to Digg Submit "Disney's Animal Kingdom: First Impressions of Avatar Land" to del.icio.us Submit "Disney's Animal Kingdom: First Impressions of Avatar Land" to StumbleUpon Submit "Disney's Animal Kingdom: First Impressions of Avatar Land" to Google

Categories
Uncategorized

Comments

  1. JeffHeimbuch's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Despite my dislike of the Avatar decision, you make an incredibly compelling argument by talking about the rest of the Park. By far, one of the best articles about the DAK I've read. You definitely captured what it is all about...many people don't take the time to stop and slow down to enjoy it, instead rushing from one attraction to the next. It's a shame, really, because it's a beautiful Park, and deserves to be looked at the way it was meant to be.
  2. AndrewP's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    This is really a great article with lots to think about... but will Avitar fit? It depends on how that "Land" would be entered. If the guest simply walks through some sort of gate,... NO. Since Pandora is multi-miles away, it would be best to enter it through some sort of 'teleporting' or 'spaceflight' system,... exiting onto the surface of Pandora. Maybe your 'system' would be an amphibious vehicle that would enter the waterways of Pandora (at night, of course) so you could see the beauty of the iridescent flora without being in danger of attack from the forest wildlife... an inclosed 'dark ride'.

    Yeah, that could work. Especially if the Imagineers connected it to our own forests & wildlife with various comparisons, etc. highlighting the beauty they have in common.
  3. MrTour's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    If it has to go anywhere, I think this park is the best fit. I mean, what would anyone say about a Pandora Pavilion in World Showcase?
  4. a-mad's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Extremely well-written Sam... and a convincing argument that not only is DAK the right park to include the Avatar-themed land, but that it is a strong story and message that is worthy of Disney theme parks...
  5. TTN's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Very good argument! I do think that Avatar would go great in Animal Kingdom, but as a Ride. My biggest worry is how the imagineers will transport us from the land of earth to the land of Pandora for an entire land this is both the size and scope that Pandora seems like it will be! With a single ride that could be done easily, but I don't see how it will work as a land...
  6. KENfromOC's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    I absolutely hate this idea. Despite the success of the movie it has very limited appeal. That movie related to a very specific audience and had as many negative reviews and general comments as it did positive. I did not see the movie as it in no way appealed to me.
    Many comments I have read compared this decision to the Harry Potter area at Universal, but it is in fact quite different. The Potter franchise has proved lasting appeal for a much wider audience, and the day that it’s popularity wanes that “land” could be retro fitted for some other “medieval” type environment. And it fits with the conflicting fantasy themes of that park.

    Avatar on the other hand in no way fits into DAK which for the most part is not a “fantasy” or “mythical” park (except for Everest which is really more folklore). And bottom line is this: Why can’t Disney do Disney?
  7. coasterjudge's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    When I first heard about Avatar at the Animal Kingdom, I immdiately thought no, but as I thought about how it uses such a (for lack of a better word) natural setting, I kind of began to like the idea. But now that I've read this article, I love the idea, it makes perfect sense. In the article when we came to Dinoland I thought, "Ok this is where nature and humanity and nature will be in perfect balance" only to find out I was wrong.
    In Avatar the Na'vi were in perfect balance with their planet, they had to be, I now think that this will be a terrific edition to Disney's Animal Kingdom. The qeustion is, where will they put it? There might be a plot of land between africa and Camp Minnie-Mickey, but I wouldnt object to it taking over the camp either.
  8. Dustysage's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Great article Sam. I'm also in the camp that thinks Avatar will be fine at Animal Kingdom. True, I'd rather that they had gone with Beastly Kingdom, but Avatar will work out just fine.

    For those wondering how they will transport you from Earth to Pandora, all they really need to have you do is cross the bridge in the same way you cross over from Discovery Island to Dinoland, Asia or Africa. Crossing over takes you to a new place. Same idea of the hub and spoke transportation at Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom. The water and bridge allow for an easy transition.

    My guess is that there will be some sort of flying ride to compete with Harry Potter. DAK will soon get its own dragons. And just think how beautiful this land will be at night (finally giving folks a reason to stay late at DAK and Disney a reason to keep it open late).
  9. toonaspie's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Quote Originally Posted by KENfromOC
    I absolutely hate this idea. Despite the success of the movie it has very limited appeal. That movie related to a very specific audience and had as many negative reviews and general comments as it did positive. I did not see the movie as it in no way appealed to me.
    Many comments I have read compared this decision to the Harry Potter area at Universal, but it is in fact quite different. The Potter franchise has proved lasting appeal for a much wider audience, and the day that it’s popularity wanes that “land” could be retro fitted for some other “medieval” type environment. And it fits with the conflicting fantasy themes of that park.
    I think Harry Potter will probably last longer than any of the lands the were originally built at Universal IOA (some like Seuss Landing or Toon Lagoon I'm amazed are still standing). I agree that Avatar will have less of a timeless appeal.

    If Avatar is gonna happen, I want it to have a small presence. If the land is considered big on the level of let's say "Africa" I would despise it. I don't want the land to have such an overpowering presence in the park. I say make it a small land with 2-3 attractions and you're good to go. Because I still want Beastly Kingdom to happen someday.
  10. ttintagel's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Thematically it fits. Artistically, I'm not so sure.

    Speaking as a person who can;t see 3-D because of a scarred retina, I can testify that without the gimmick of the realistic 3-D projection, the movie wasn't all that interesting, and the scenery wasn't anything particularly special as far as fantasy movies go. Certainly nowhere near as beautiful as the New Zealand countrysides that stood in for Middle-Earth in the Lord of the Rings movies.
  11. Wreckless Abrandon's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    I wasn't a fan of the movie, but I recognized that 3D was done right for once. Unfortunately it started the whole EVERYTHING in 3D "phenomena" that Hollywood is repeating again from the 50's and even a bit in the 80's. No, technology isn't the same, but gimmicky effects don't make a crap movie better.

    That being said, Pandora (the planet... actually, moon where Avatar took place) was "real" in this movie. I have to disagree with ttintagel... Avatar felt more realistic in some places than Lord of the Rings did and vice versa. Anytime New Zealands countrysides were used, it was some of the most breath taking scenery... however, Mordor, and some of the more CGI heavy areas felt synthetic.

    What I hope happens with Pandora is that everything will be to scale with us humans, without breaking the flow of the entire park of course. At night, I can only imagine the bioluminscent plants and animals. I'm hoping they use of olfactory effects as well as they already do audible effects. I want to see a living, and breathing world. And I hope Carsland does the same. I know most people don't like Toontown in Disneyland, but I can appreciate the use of a faux horizon of hills at the very least. When inside Toontown, you no longer feel like you're in Orange County.
  12. ttintagel's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    "That being said, Pandora (the planet... actually, moon where Avatar took place) was "real" in this movie. I have to disagree with ttintagel... Avatar felt more realistic in some places than Lord of the Rings"

    But was that because of the artistry, or just because it looked 3D in the theater?
  13. DoppelV's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Quote Originally Posted by ttintagel
    "That being said, Pandora (the planet... actually, moon where Avatar took place) was "real" in this movie. I have to disagree with ttintagel... Avatar felt more realistic in some places than Lord of the Rings"

    But was that because of the artistry, or just because it looked 3D in the theater?
    Having seen Avatar three times in the theater and countless times at home, all in 2D, I would say yes, it was extremely realistic.
  14. Timekeeper's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Hmmm, after reading this, Avatar works thematically, because of the contrast it would have against Dinoland. I wouldn't mind that Camp Minnie-Mickey going away, (though, where would 'Legend of The Lion King' Show go?) ; but I still think there ought to a land dedicated to mythical animals and an evening show like WOC/LuminAria (minus fireworks.)


    Timekeeper
  15. JiminyCricketFan's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    I loved your analysis of Animal Kingdom. There is one thing that you are missing, IMHO. I believe that all that makes Disney special is "magic." While nature itself is a beautiful theme, Walt was not affraid to add magic to it. Adventureland was originally inspired by the True Life adventure seriies. But Walt added his Tiki Room, where birds and flowers would sing. I think that DAK is despirately in need of more Disney magic. There is just not enough of that in the park. Avatar "might" work, but it depends on how the Imagineers handle it. A heavy handed lecture on econogy or the evil presence of people will not add to a park which already seems overly heavy on a "message." I believe that a "Beastly Kingdom" filled with different and Disney Created characters would have worked a whole lot better and been able to charm small children as well as older ones. I cannot see how small kids are going to be attracted to Avatar.
  16. DisWedWay's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Disneyland's Indiana Jones attraction was based on the first 3 films at a cost of about 150 million. The 4th was not out yet. Harry Potter has had quite a few films out to work with. Maybe Disney should sit on Avatar and see if a sequal comes out and if the fans are still there for it, before spending that kind of an investment on it. I was just wondering if anyone has done a James Cameron Alien park based on its 5 films? I know Walt Disney World tried 1 attraction based on the film called Alien Encounter that was short lived. Alien has survived in Disney's Great Movie Ride. Jurassic Park has had 3 films for Universal to work with and base their attractions on. Good question to ask Esmeralda next visit to Mainstreet. PD
    Updated 10-07-2011 at 04:40 PM by DisWedWay
  17. Atomobile's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    I love DAK and count it amongst the best themed experiences overall anywhere. It does have much to detract from it, particularly that there's not enough to do once the animals are getting ready to go off display, but even with that I often wish I had more time to explore it and that there was even more to explore! Some of its spaces remind me of an amp'd up version of the early Busch Gardens I enjoyed in Los Angeles as a child.

    You've done a great job of distilling each land here Sam. You're right on as to what makes each what it is, for better or worse... and the overall theme of the entire place really does seem to be a kind of PC-driven, "Humans are BAD and Nature is GOOD!" message, which frankly I actually dislike and choose to ignore due to its negative attitude. In many ways, despite the beauty and brilliant theming work, it reeks of fuzzy Hollywood angst-driven "Let's all enjoy ourselves living in excess as we learn about how living excessively is horrible and we should feel guilty for it" hypocracy. It has always been my feeling that the mythical creature part of the park was going to correct much of what has been wrong with it. Too much focus on poaching and not enough Disney Magic saying: "If you use you imagination, you can come up with amazing new ways of living better while supporting our home planet we all must live together on." Using the mythical creatures as a jumping off point would allow a common touchpoint of the folklore of various cultures, entertainment that fantastical "beasts" could offer, and a vehicle for introducing lessons without having to have a physical, live, current creature as the center of that lesson, which could open opportunities.

    If the Disney Company feels that the world of the Avatar film is going to provide that mythical world, well... Hmmmm... interesting. I just don't feel it though. For me, Avatar was another card-board cutout, ham-fisted, self-interested Hollywood take on the ills and evils of man and the violence at the core of each of us set against a fantastical planet from the imagination of Frazetta and other 70's fantasy artists. It was preachy, costly, derivative, and in itself besopke of all of the excesses Hollywood indulges in while telling the rest of the world what's wrong with it. I think this is a BAD basis for a Disney park-land. If Disney felt the need to team up with another franchise, far better that they work a deal with Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli to present a fantasy world where the answers to living with nature are to simplify, go back to center, listen to the world and search for the authentic experiences that really ARE at the core of human-kind. Sure his work is heavily Nihon-centric, but his worlds are often international and his themes mostly come from come from a child's perspective. Disney already has distribution deals with Ghibli, making them a perfect partner.

    By and large, violent heavy-handed attractions don't do as well in Disney settings. The "kill-em all and assimilate with the natives" story isn't a traditional draw for Disney, so to me, Avatar is a bad fit, chased by money-grubbing bottom liners within the marketing organization of the Disney Company. There is nothing in the Avatar franchise that makes me think of Walt or ANY of his films. In MY opinion, regardless of the case one makes for this project, it is a poor choice and one that will be doomed because no-one would want to go to Pandora, where the very landscape might eat you, while wearing Mickey ears.