Welcome to my blog. I write mostly about travel and in particular my love of Disney, with a few tidbits such as musings about movies or theater thrown in for good measure. I have stories dating all the way back to 1997 so be sure to explore! I don't post regularly, so if you want updates be sure to join and follow this blog (links below). Feel free to share, and if you want you can also click the Facebook or Twitter links below. You can also follow me on twitter. And be sure to comment letting me know what you think!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Some thoughts on "Avatar Land" at Walt Disney World

OK, this is a bit of a digression for me, and admittedly I still have a couple of blog posts that I really should be doing instead of this, but hey! I'm feeling inspired.

As you may or may not know, Disney has announced that they are going to develop an Avatar themed "land" at their Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World Florida. Among Walt Disney World enthusiasts this has become a subject of much debate. Disney has still not released details, and indeed there has been much speculation that it will be an attraction as opposed to a real "land". Much of the speculation has been less than positive. In particular, Mike Scopa of and WDW Today has expressed some concern about the project. What I would like to do here is to take many of Mike's concerns and explain why I, for one, am optimistic. For the record, I am not saying that AVATAR is the best idea Disney ever came up with - in fact I think there are many other things they could have done that I would have preferred. But I do think that there is a better than average chance that AVATAR will be awesome.

I will list some of Mike's concerns here that I have heard and will address each.

AVATAR does not have a fan base. It is true that AVATAR lacks the fan base of, say Harry Potter or Star Wars. To that I say two things. First, AVATAR is, as of yet, only one movie. How big was the "Star Wars" fan base after only one movie? Honestly, even though I was around back then I don't recall. But I can say that the obsession with SW did not start until later. Same for Harry Potter - HP did not get really huge until after the 3rd book (and even more so after the first movie). James Cameron is making the second movie now and I see no reason to doubt that it will be a hit. So, Disney may very well have made the smartest play in the world by getting in on the ground floor.

And even if AVATAR does not do very well in the sequels and build a fan base - so what? Bottom line, if the AVATAR land (or attraction or whatever) is an amazing attraction, will anyone really care about the movies and how well they did and whether they developed a fan base? I doubt it (and see my final point).

Good Disney themed areas are all about story and AVATAR has a week story. OK, two points here. First, how important is story really to a good themed attraction? The best themed attractions tell a story, but that story is, in reality, a simple story and not necessarily a "good" story. Let's be honest - is the story of "Haunted Mansion" a "good story" using the same criteria? Or Pirates of the Caribbean? Expedition Everest? Seriously - "the band really wants to help their fans by giving you back stage passes and you need a really fast car to get there"... that is a great story? Really? And are you going to deny that Rockin' Roller Coaster is a great ride?

So why are all these attractions so great if the stories are not that great? Simple. It's the atmosphere that the stories engender. A dusty old attic with ghosts popping out of every corner. A Spanish town being pillaged by singing pirates. The Himalayan mountains - home of the legendary Yeti. These all have the potential for great atmosphere. And I don't think that anyone can deny that Pandora has the potential for some great atmosphere.

Second - The story of AVATAR is NOT a lousy story!!! Derivative? Of course. Unoriginal? Absolutely. But just because the story is unoriginal does NOT make it "bad". In fact, if anything, quite the opposite. Pocahontas, "Dances with Wolves", "Last of the Mahicans" - all of these share a basic story with AVATAR. This is a really good, compelling story. It's just not original. "Star-crossed lovers try to find love despite the violence and hatred around them". This is a lousy story? Well, jeez, it's been told like a million times! But I think Edward de Vere.. sorry, Shakespeare might take exception to it being called lousy.

James Cameron has no theme park experience. First this is simply not true as there have been several Terminator attractions. Second, the same could be said for Steven Spielberg and JK Rowling. But I think they've done OK.

AVATAR is not a Disney property and they should have done that first. Firsts, I think this argument has some validity. I too would have preferred Disney develop their own properties - if I had my way they would have developed Thunder Mesa. But that does not alter the fact that I think that AVATAR will be awesome. Interestingly, the two properties I hear brought up most in the "I wish they would have" category are "The Muppets" and "Star Wars". ahem... not originally Disney properties...

Disney's history with Science Fiction in their theme parks is not good. Mission: Space. Alien Encounter. OK, I get it. Disney has issues with Science Fiction. But, uh... AVATAR is a fantasy, not science fiction. Unless "floating mountains" and a giant tree that can bring someone back to life has some base in science I'm going to stick with that analysis. And I think Disney has done OK with Fantasy. At a minimum AVATAR is no more science fiction than Star Wars is - and I think they've done pretty much OK with that. 

AVATAR is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to Harry Potter. Maybe, but consider this - Disney was in talks with JK Rowling about Harry Potter and Universal won. Universal was, rumor has it, in talks with Cameron about AVATAR and Disney won. And you know what? I think in both cases they were a better fit. Why do I say that? Simple. Rowling insisted on exerting a degree of creative control that would never have worked for Disney, yet was fine for Universal. And I think that Cameron will be much better at working, creatively, within the constraints of what Disney wants. Honestly I think it was win-win.

Finally, don't under-estimate Disney Imagineering and James Cameron. Disney has a big ace-in-the-hole with Imagineering. Don't believe me? Take a stroll through Carsland at Disney California Adventure. Check out the new Fantasyland. And think about the creative genius of James Cameron. This is the man responsible for the two most successful movies of all time. How, as a Disney park fan, can you not be excited by the prospect of what these two creative titans can accomplish?