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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.