First Thoughts: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Expansion

| October 13, 2013 | 25 Replies

Last night, news broke online regarding the latest in plans for Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. Tom Staggs, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, announced details at the first ever D23 Expo in Japan of both an AVATAR Land and nighttime entertainment for the park. Although the creative partnership between AVATAR’s director, James Cameron, and producer Jon Landau, was originally revealed back in 2011, new information has emerged about the themed land and its future. Couple that with a surprising extension of what guests can experience after dark and Disney fans everywhere are voicing their opinions. Being that Animal Kingdom is my favorite park at Walt Disney World, I have to weigh in on the news, and let me warn you, it’s sprinkled with just a bit of pessimistic pixie dust.


DisneyÕs Animal Kingdom Theme Park Expands

Late last night, Disney Executive, Tom Staggs, announced plans for what is being coined the “largest expansion” project in Animal Kingdom history. Adding more experiences at any Disney park is exciting, but how will this work here?

Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK) is misunderstood by many. I remember when it was first revealed back in 1998. This is when the phrase, “Not a Zoo,” became synonymous with the park, and it’s true, this is not your standard animal-viewing arena. Instead, DAK is a hybrid of both an attraction-filled theme park and a true wildlife sanctuary for over 250 species. The amount of work it took to merge the two is unfathomable. Joe Rohde, Senior Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering: Creative, led the team which designed DAK and started official construction in 1995. “I really don’t think that people come to Animal Kingdom just to look passively at beautifully designed environments…they come for something else. They come for something richer, something more meaningful, something more personal, something more emotional,” he explained at a special presentation during DAK’s 10th anniversary celebration. This is what makes the park so different from other experiences at Walt Disney World, and this is the reason I am a bit concerned about where the expansion project could lead it in the future.


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From left: Tom Staggs, Chairman, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts; James Cameron, award-winning director of AVATAR; Bob Iger, CEO, The Walt Disney Company; Jon Landau, producer of AVATAR; and Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, Fox Filmed Entertainment chairmen


Shaping a Future Land at DisneyÕs Animal Kingdom

Director James Cameron, Chairman of Walt Disney World Parks & Resorts Tom Staggs, and Imagineer Joe Rohde discuss a model of the new AVATAR-themed land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.


Let’s break the news down. Here is what we know:

1. An AVATAR-themed land will be built starting this year (in fact, construction walls popped up this summer and surround the supposed area to be used).

2. The land will focus on the film’s world of Pandora and will allow guests to “see, touch, and hear” all that comes with it.

3. Guests will discover floating mountains and be able to walk through a nighttime jungle that includes bioluminescent plants that are “alive” with light and sound. Such plants were found throughout Pandora in the film.

4. One attraction will allow guests to “soar” into the sky while riding a Banshee, a colorful dragon-like creature with a long neck and membranous wings. One could say that they are similar to pterosaurs, the flying reptiles of the late Cretaceous Period millions of years ago.


AVATAR-Inspired Land Coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Concept Artwork of Pandora


AVATAR-Inspired Land Coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Banshee creatures soar above Pandora in a concept sketch for a new attraction at Animal Kingdom.


Guests explore a beautiful area in Pandora aboard a boat ride surrounded by plants and mythical creatures.


In addition to AVATAR land, we also learned that DAK will increase its park hours to offer after dark experiences:

1. A new nighttime show on Discovery River will feature live music, floating lanterns (I’m sure Rapunzel will appreciate that), water screens, and swirling animal images.

2. Live performers will provide music and other forms of entertainment each night.

3. A new night version of Kilimanjaro Safari will be designed.


DisneyÕs Animal Kingdom Theme Park Expands

Nighttime Entertainment at Animal Kingdom will feature a new show and live performers.


As you can see, there’s quite a bit coming to DAK, but can it work? I’m all for adding to the attractions and entertainment options offered. The world of Pandora is breathtaking, and Joe Rohde could make magic out of a plastic bag as far as I’m concerned. It also would address the need for a mythical animal area like the rumored “Beastly Kingdom” which was supposedly scrapped due to budget constraints.


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See that dragon silhouette towards the center of the Animal Kingdom logo? It’s always been questioned by fans. Could that be the new symbol of AVATAR land?


However, I’m not so sure that this is the direction things should take. AVATAR hit theaters in 2009, and while I recognize that three more films in the quadrilogy will be released, I’m not so sure that the concept will be fresh enough to entice fans to visit. That is, unless Disney and Lightstorm Entertainment decide to tie together the opening of the land with the sequel. Even then, will it be possible for the story of AVATAR to stand on its own to new generations who have never seen the movies? Part of me questions this. AVATAR is not like the beloved Disney classics that become a part of our childhood and are reborn as a family grows. It is a science fiction flick that does not necessarily appeal to all movie-goers. That’s it.

Or is it?

As I’m sitting here going back and forth on how I feel, something newly discovered has my attention: James Cameron has other plans for AVATAR and its characters beyond the new sequels – a novel series. In a press release from late this summer, Cameron announced collaboration with sci-fi author Steven Charles Gould who will write four stand-alone novels based and expanding on AVATAR. “Steven Gould is one of the shining lights in contemporary science fiction, and I’ve long admired the worlds and characters he’s created in his books and stories. We’re very fortunate to have Steven bring his formidable talents to the Avatar universe. He is already working closely with me and the screenwriters to flesh out the expanding world of Avatar,” Cameron explained.


Could the addition of an AVATAR novel series help extend the life of the phenomenon and propel the success of its place in Animal Kingdom?

Could the addition of an AVATAR novel series help extend the life of the phenomenon and propel the success of its place in Animal Kingdom?


Okay, maybe Disney is, in fact, onto something here, especially if these books are marketed well. The combination of three new films, four new novels, and genius Imagineering might just bring this world to the forefront of success. With the release of the sequels in 2016, 2017, and 2018, this could very well expand its current fan-base and even entice sci-fi lovers from the bookstores into DAK to explore Pandora themselves. Even as I contemplate all of this, I’m starting to become curious myself and am now thinking that perhaps this is the answer to Universal Studios’ epic success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which will eventually run its course due to the end of films being produced and novels being written. Touche, Disney. Touche indeed.


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James Cameron and Joe Rohde take time to explore Disney’s Animal Kingdom while designing their new land.


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Rohde shows Cameron some of Animal Kingdom’s current inhabitants.


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Cameron also toured Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land during its construction to learn how Imagineering creates an all-immersive experience to guests.


Now let’s focus on the new night offerings at DAK. This is something that I’m questioning purely for the sake of the some 1,500 animals who call the park “home.” For years and years, DAK has closed early in the evening to allow them to head backstage into special holding areas and recharge before the next day. It keeps them safe, allows zoologists to check on them, and offers time to attend to any of their needs on and off the Savannah. Having a night version of Kilimanjaro Safari will change that. The animals will remain on the trail longer which may require a period of adjustment for them as they are so reliant on their set schedule; with this being said, DAK provides such a high quality environment for them that I doubt they will mind after some time passes.


Kilimanjaro Safaris takes guests on an open-air vehicle tour of 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve.

Kilimanjaro Safari takes guests on an open-air vehicle tour of  the 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve.


This change will also affect the near 5,000 cast members employed at DAK as they will have to work longer hours to do the necessary “after hour” maintenance later in the day. I can see this being a good and bad thing depending on the personal needs of everyone involved. Longer hours could very well equal more pay unless shift periods are modified. One would hope that this would not be the case.

Still, the nighttime show has me wondering how it will disrupt the animals’ norm. Even if Kilimanjaro Safari is closed early so the larger creatures can be brought into their backstage homes, others could still be startled by the loud sounds of the water show and live entertainers. The park has become their home and altering its sounds and sights may lead to unnecessary stress on the animals. I truly hope that Disney takes this into consideration and develops a plan to help everyone adjust without issue.


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The Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom


Overall, the more I think about the expansion, the more intrigued I have become. My favorite park already has so much to offer and new areas to explore would make it that much more fun. As I mentioned earlier, the Imagineering work that went into building the park is amazing, and I am sure that the new areas will match it. With this being said, I can’t be fully behind the project unless more information is released about what will be done to help the animals feel safe, cared for, and at ease both while the construction is being completed and afterwards when the nighttime show is performing. Animal Kingdom is just that – a kingdom built for the animals – and they need to remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind as they move forward.


Image Credits:

Disney Media

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Category: Disney World, News

  • MJ

    I can’t understand why they have chosen Avatar (and paid so much for it!). The only reason it was so commercially successful was that it was the first movie to do “proper” 3D so it was a novelty, and they charged much more for 3D in those days. I don’t hear anyone talking about it anymore (except in relation to AK). It’s not the sort of film that has lasted beyond the movie itself or created a “cult following” like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the sequels flop (or even be shelved).

    • Nicole L. Mancini

      That was my thought originally as well. However, looking at the timeline of what is to come…both the three new films and four new books…it has me thinking that this was a smarter move than what it appears. I think Disney is onto something here.

    • LisaM

      I just came back from a trade show dedicated to home automation including some crazy good home theatres.
      Guess what movie is still being shown to showcase a good projector and sound system? Avatar.
      As much as I was not a huge fan of the movie…I’m thinking Disney is making a good move…but we will have to wait and see!

  • CarolLyn Newhoff Wauford

    Do they have any projected dates for these expansions and changes to be complete? I am rather fascinated with the idea of Pandora. I also would like to add you guys might not be taking into consideration the pure dedication of sci-fi fans. These are the same people who are still dedicated to Firefly, a show that was only on the air one season… TEN years ago! :)

    • Nicole L. Mancini

      That is exactly why I think the new novel series is going to have a big impact on the expansion and the new films…IF they are marketed well.

  • Alice West

    hum, I wrestled with whether or not to comment as I’m not a big Avatar fan. In fact, I could not understand the fascination with the movie outside of it being 3D. It just reminds me of a star wars rip off.
    That being said, I do have my reservations. I love AK so of course I probably don’t handle “changing” it very well. I think AK is a different breed than the other theme parks and worry about it losing it’s “uniqueness”.
    My second “worry” is that while I love fantasyland, I think Disney seriously dropped the ball on the DTD “renovations” . With any Disney announcement I take a “wait and see” attitude.

  • Chris

    Your comments about the animals adjusting is interesting to me. I live in California and at the San Diego wild animal Park, they have night time offerings every summer. The animals ate always out, but they have shelters they can choose to use any time day or night. I would think that Disney would modify their enclosures to work similarly.

  • Mike McCall

    I welcome any expansion that Disney would like to offer. Even if it is a theme I am not fond of. Avatar is nothing special in my opinion, when it came out I called it “Pocahontas in Space”. I found the plot to shallow, and the representation of the invading modern civilization to crude. (“GET SUM!” immediately comes to mind)

    However, any addition offers you more value for your ticket price. While I may not like the new addition, It makes the line for Expedition Everest shorter at night. I also have to admit, the bioluminescent night time experience sounds amazing. Since the strong point of Avatar was the visuals, I think Disney has a lot to work with here. Look forward to future updates.

  • PoliticalTruth

    I too questioned the value of AVATAR as a land. But I think, with the movies coming out and the novels (new info to me) there is some real potential for this. As long as it has enough of a following to begin with, its life long appeal I think is ensured by its existence as a Disney park. I mean, Animal Kingdom doesn’t really have anything to do with Disney, most of Epcot has nothing to do with Disney Films. They stand alone in the appeal they have as a park, I think Avatar land will do the same.

    The Safari I think might benefit some of the animals. Some of the animals are naturally nocturnal after all. So I could see some of them being more active and the appeal to guests increasing.

  • papamouse1

    I personally enjoyed Avatar… not saying I lose sleep over when the next one will be out, but it was an enjoyable movie. But to be honest, whether people liked the movie or not, I think this land will be healthy for AK. Not everything has to have a direct tie to something with a frenzied following. While I am confident its Star Wars ties help immensely, I have a feeling Star Tours would be a great ride if it was based on different theme, simply because the quality is there. I have not drank the KoolAid quite yet about Avatar Land, but I am definitely more intrigued and excited about the possibilities.

  • dctootall

    I’ve posted on several of the Anti-Avatarland thread over the past couple years on the DIS, so I’ll try and avoid going back into the long rant on why this project can be a very good thing. That being said, I thought it might be worth bringing up a couple of my thoughts that might help people think about this project in a new light.

    I’ll freely admit that the first Avatar movie was such a huge success, especcially financially, in large part because of it’s groundbreaking use of IMAX and 3D presentations. It truly looked like nothing most people had ever seen before… Even if it was a pretty hokey and rehashed story once you got past the shiney visuals. That being said, there are still several VERY good reasons to have high hopes that this expansion could bring us very good things (assuming Disney doesn’t let the beancounters gut the project).

    1. If you get past the story in the first film and focus on the planet itself, James Cameron created a VERY visually impressive, comprehensive, and rather complete alien ecosystem on the planet he placed his film on. Even if we didn’t see, or realize that we saw, the extent of that work, The fact is that as part of this deal Disney’s Imagineering got a very complete and cohesive toolkit in which they can do their magic. They can focus on creating the experiences, and the stories, without needing to put much work into the settings, locations, or look of the new land and attractions. There is also a nice framework already in place for different creative teams working on different aspects of the new land so the look can remain constant without having to constantly talk to each other.

    2. If you truly don’t like, or have never seen the original movie… or read the new novels or watch the new movies…. It’s not always needed. Just look at Song of the South and Splash Mountain. A good attraction can very easily stand on its own, regardless of the lasting popularity or even original popularity of the original movie used as source material.

    3. Avatar isn’t the first groundbreaking, highly popular at the time of release, and visually impressive film which suffers from a plot and characters who are pretty 2 dimensional and almost derivative. Many of the complaints about the quality of the film, the characters, or reasons behind why it was such a blockbuster, could be applied to the first film in another major Franchise that Disney recently acquired. As such, I personally believe that it’s too early to cast a final judgement on the quality and longevity of the Avatar Franchise when we’ve only had the first film. With multiple films (and novels) on their way, we have yet to see if the first film is more like Star Wars, and followed up with the character and world development in Empire and Jedi that helped transform the original from a groundbreaking visual effects movie into the mega franchise and industry it is today, 30+ years later…..

    Or is Avatar going to turn into the Matrix… a Visually groundbreaking film that was followed up with Reloaded and Revolution and is almost forgotten about 10 years later.

    And for those who despite these ideas are still so anti-Avatar that you’ll refuse to step foot into the area, Its worth remembering this little bit…. The added space and attraction capacity within this new expansion is such that not only does it make it feasible for Disney to expand the hours of the park beyond the traditional “Animal Bedtime” which is a major factor in the park’s current early closing times, but it also adds a much needed draw and attraction capacity to the park that would allow Disney to finally take Everest down for the rumored extended Refurb that would be needed to properly repair the Yeti.


    It’s awesome! That Avatar my favorite Movie is coming to the Animal Kingdom and the Concept Art of Avatar and the Nighttime entertainment is also awesome! I love it!

  • Toby Foote

    Disney is likely hedging it’s 4th-popular park against Universal Studios. If Avatar in AK is successful, I’d expect Disney to buy Avatar like they did with Star Wars. It’s possible Disney already has a part-ownership in Avatar as part of this agreement already.

  • disqus_RnoDD4aFBM

    I didn’t like the movie. I’ll still visit the land because I have no
    doubt it will be utterly amazing. I have no doubt of this because of two
    words, Joe Rohde. However, it belongs at Hollywood Studios. This is
    Animal Kingdom, the movie is not about animals. Let’s keep “theme” in theme park.

  • LettyLibrarian

    I cringe everytime I read about the impending Avatar land. I hope Disney gets it right. They’ve sunk a lot of money into the project. It has become too big to fail. I feel better knowing Rhode is behind the masterplan. If Disney sticks to an immersive experience giving the guests an attraction that suspends reality then I think we’ll get an E ticket attraction.

  • Mike Naypauer

    I don’t think a ride or themed area necessarily has to have a direct relationship with how popular or beloved what you are theming it off of is based upon. For example although it just one ride Splash Mountain is a classic based off a movie Disney won’t release again. I’m not sure “Cars” ranks in the top 10 on any lists of classics, however the “Cars” themed land at DCA is amazing.

    Even if you don’t like the movie Avatar I think the visuals and imagining of an alien world if done well could be amazing. At first I was skeptical of the placement of this theme in DAK. I felt it either belonged in DHS or a 5th park where they could combine Star Wars, Marvel and Avatar into a full immersion movie park.

    However when I see the link to protecting the environment I believe it’s a good fit and will help DAK become a full day park that will stand with EPOT and MK. Now they just need to bring Star Wars and Marvel to DHS.

  • Matt Ferrell

    I don’t get it. Let James Cameron build his own world. This is DISNEY world. Let’s build lands from more DISNEY movies. I’d even prefer a good Bedknobs and Broomsticks themed restaurant over this.

  • Porky Pig

    I think they could do just as much or more with Dagobah, and save the money they’re paying Cameron for the Avatar tie-in. If Voyage of the Little Mermaid is any indication of the level of imagination left in Imagineering, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

  • Jax Maxton

    Now that Disney has Star Wars, I’m surprised they are still going through with Avatarland. Quite frankly they could have done something similar with something like an Endor Experience. They could even expand on the Star Wars universe by creating something completely new for the Star Wars universe. Oh, well. I guess they can always do that if Avatarland really fails.

    • Greg Leonard

      They are expanding the Star Wars world in Hollywood Studios

  • Just me

    This looks wonderful!!!! If done well, no one will care later if has a movie tie in or not. People will still come, and return, for the experience. (Some of the most popular rides and attractions do not have a Disney Movie tie in.) Did they actually say that the safari will run at night, or just that is will be reworked? Who says that a nighttime show has to be loud? Maybe it is more of a visual effects, floating lanterns, Asian spa music style? Two thumbs up!

  • Just me

    Why does Disney need James Cameron? Because without him they would do something unimaginative & cheap like the Test Track de-hab, I mean rehab.

  • Forist Sylvester

    As a huge, HUGE fan of Disney World, and a boy who basically grew up in the parks and became a man there, I have to say I think this is a bold move and a brilliant one! I am also a big fan of Avatar, and the world of Pandora, and an animal lover! This concept fits perfectly into the theming of AK! The BEASTLY KINGDOM has arrived! This film is loved and known all over the world too, so it makes sense to put it in Disney World over Disneyland. AND with more films and a series of novels arriving, it will be more popular than ever! I met a couple of Lebanese girls about a year ago as we were walking into Camp Minnie Mickey to watch FoTLK and I told them Disney’s plan to turn that area into Avatarland and they lit up! So excited. First time in America from Lebanon and it works for them! Just you wait, this will be the best thing to happen to Disney World since Epcot Center. I for one, am so happy to hear the news…

  • Jack Bisikirski

    Has anyone mentioned a mono rail conection being planned. When I stayed a DAK that was a drag. Prob a big reason why I wont stay there again even with the cool animals at your back door.

  • Mary Ellen Nunes

    I’ve never even seen Avatar, but this and another articla on the new Avatarland have me curious. I have faith that Disney will make sure that any night time shows or entertainment are within appropriate ranges to not disturb the animals that call AK home. Rock on Disney!