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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Disney's Animal Kingdom Thinks Outside Pandora's Box: James Cameron's AVATAR Land

I think the shocking, exciting announcement of James Cameron's AVATAR Land expansion for Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World is a stroke of genius, and an incredibly smart strategy for the growth and life of the park. Animal Kingdom is, after all, a Disney park that usually closes down by 5 or 6pm in the summer, while the others stay open late. The world of AVATAR, which was first brought to life by Fox Filmed Entertainment and James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment, should begin construction at Disney's Animal Kingdom by 2013.

AVATAR is a game-changer for Disney's Animal Kingdom, and should generate interest that the park has never seen before. I can already imagine seeing the AVATAR Animal Kingdom ads at the Orlando International Airport. Many people already know about the world of AVATAR, and want to go there, so it's a "pre-sold" property. Disney partnered with Fox and James Cameron for this expansion because Disney doesn't have a property that could boost Animal Kingdom's attendance and attraction idea options like AVATAR could. Oh, and they'll have James Cameron guiding the project, too. Why put AVATAR in Disney's Animal Kingdom and not Disney's Hollywood Studios? Because Disney's Animal Kingdom needs it more, and has more land to work with.

The AVATAR Land will bring the lush world of the leonine Na'vi people and the exotic creatures of Pandora to life. Perhaps park Guests will get to pilot their own AVATAR and see their own customized character (and get a souvenir photo). Maybe we'll get to fly through the sky on a Mountain Banshee. We'll surely have an encounter with the panther-like Thanator, and the rhino-like Hammerhead Titanothere, too. Pandora is especially beautiful in the evening, so there should be a nighttime spectacle to watch. Could Sigourney Weaver be featured in two different Walt Disney World parks? Right now, you can find her in the Alien section of the Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

For years, Disney fans have been waiting for more mythical creatures at Disney's Animal Kingdom. After all, there's a Dragon in the park's logo. The original plan for Animal Kingdom included Beastly Kingdom, a land that would have been home to dragons, unicorns, and other fictional characters. In 2006, Disney's Animal Kingdom finally got a fantasy element when it opened Expedition Everest, home of the legendary Yeti.

Disney's Animal Kingdom had a small roster of attractions when it opened in 1998.

The big focus was on the Kilimanjaro Safaris Ride in Africa. This was a massive, expensive attraction, about the size of the Magic Kingdom theme park.

From Day One, Disney's Animal Kingdom has had whimsical elements.

On my November 2009 visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom, I took pictures of the beautiful artwork throughout the park. Many of the signs here are works of art.

Dinoland U.S.A. is home to the Dinosaur ride (formerly Countdown to Extinction).

Originally, this section was supposed to get a roller coaster called The Excavator.

Camp Minnie-Mickey is the place to find Disney Character Meet and Greets.

This section sits in front of a large parcel of land where Disney Imagineering planned to build Beastly Kingdom.

Asia was the first expansion of Disney's Animal Kingdom in 1999. This was originally planned to have a boat safari. Instead, the park got the Kali River Rapids ride.

Asia is the home of the park's big roller coaster, Expedition Everest.

Disney's Animal Kingdom has lots of details that may go unnoticed.

Flame Tree Barbecue has a clever predator/prey theme.

Guests enter and exit the park through a lush jungle called the Oasis.

I know they were trying something different here, but on this trip, I wished the entrance was more like Main Street at the Magic Kingdom. It could be a Village with shops, and instead of Main Street's animated Emporium windows, there could be small animal displays in the windows.

On my August 2011 Walt Disney World trip, I stayed at Disney's Yacht Club Resort. This 1998 map shows how close I was to the parks (the Yacht Club is #9 here).

It's time for my trip report!

Day Three (Saturday, August 27th, 2011): Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom and Epcot.

Part Two: A Rainy Day at Disney's Animal Kingdom

I spent the first part of the day at Disney's Hollywood Studios. To read about that, check out Disney's Hollywood Studios (AKA Disney MGM Studios) And A Muppet Twist.

I had spent a beautiful, sunny morning at Disney's Hollywood Studios. When I got to Disney's Animal Kingdom, it looked like a storm was brewing.

The park's logo features an elephant, triceratops and dragon. You can find these animals on the three ticket booths at the front of Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The elephant represents living animals, the triceratops represents extinct animals, and the dragon represents imaginary animals.

I would suggest that Disney could license the Ice Age movies from Fox for Dinoland, but they can already be found at a theme park in Europe.

Here is Animal Kingdom's legendary dragon, at the ticket booth closest to the Rainforest Cafe.

In a few years, Animal Kingdom should see something similar to a dragon (a Mountain Banshee) in the AVATAR Land.

Before entering the park, it was time for lunch at the Rainforest Cafe.

Because there is usually a storm going on inside the Rainforest Cafe, I was unaware that an actual rainstorm was going on outside.

If you don't want to wait in a long line for a table, go sit at the bar and eat.

I had the Awesome Appetizer Adventure, which featured fried cheese sticks. It's tough to go wrong with fried cheese.

By the time I finished lunch, the rain had stopped, but it was still cloudy.

It was time to visit Disney's Animal Kingdom with the threat of a storm.

The Tree of Life is this park's version of Cinderella Castle.

The tree trunk and limbs feature carvings of animals.

I took a picture of this shirt at the Walt Disney World store at the Orlando International Airport.

I had planned on visiting the Dinosaur ride first, but the storm shut the ride down.

From Dinoland, I headed to Asia to ride Expedition Everest. I didn't hear any screaming. That's not a good sign. The storm closed Everest down, too.

I visited the shop near Expedition Everest and found a new Disney character.

There was no information about this character on the tag. I think it is a Snow Leopard.

Maybe this is supposed to be the Yeti's pet. I don't think there's a Snow Leopard at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
I only saw the Snow Leopard plush at Serka Zong, the Expedition Everest shop.

You can also find a friendly Yeti plush here, too.

I believe this character is on some merchandise at Disneyland in California, too (representing that park's Matterhorn ride).

Serka Zong also had Pook-A-Looz plush toys of the Yeti.

You could find these at the World of Disney in Downtown Disney, too.

Not sure what to do next, I started walking towards the front of the park. A friendly Cast Member named Adam asked me to participate in a Disney character game.

Adam's game involved matching Disney characters to their home countries. I won, of course!

I got to choose a Disney pin as a prize!

I picked this crazy Vinylmation pin.

After the game, I overheard someone say that Expedition Everest had reopened, and to get there fast before the rain and lightning returned.

I got on Everest pretty quickly using the Single Rider Line.

Expedition Everest is rather eerie when there's a storm brewing.

One of Expedition Everest's big selling points was its advanced Audio Animatronics Yeti.

I have never seen this figure working the way he was designed. As it is now, he is like some of the animals on Big Thunder Mountain at the Magic Kingdom. However, the coaster goes by him so quickly, you may not even know he's there in the first place.

The Yeti on the merchandise has white fur, but the Yeti in the attraction is tan.

This large, articulated Yeti plush was sold when Expedition Everest first opened.

The "scary" Yeti doesn't seem to be on much merchandise anymore.

I'm pretty sure I've seen a Matterhorn version of this pin from Disneyland.

The "Cute" Yeti seems to be on more souvenirs these days.

Does this character do Meet and Greets? Maybe he should.

I got this keychain plush on my 2009 trip.

It seems like all kinds of ideas for merchandise are tested, and only the strong survive. I did not see this item this time.

I also got a Yeti Bobble Head in 2009.

This was the only flocked bobble head that I have seen at Walt Disney World.

The Yeti also lives at the Matterhorn at Disneyland in California. He's not the same as the one in Florida.

Years ago, Disneyland had a great Yeti design that showed up on some "Retro" merchandise, including this fantastic Bobble Pen.

This Winter 1993 Disney Magazine artwork features the Matterhorn, the Yeti, Mickey Mouse and Pete. The Matterhorn opened at Disneyland in California in 1959 (the Yeti was not around in the those days).

The Matterhorn is very similar to Florida's Space Mountain.

This die cast car with Mickey and the Yeti on the Matterhorn was sold years ago.

I love the Yeti's expression here!

Animal Kingdom's single Yeti is seen as the more realistic, "advanced" figure (though he has been motionless for some time now). Disneyland in California has three Yetis!

Ironically, Disneyland's simpler figures have been roaring at Disneyland without many problems since their debut in 1977. And they actually move, unlike the one in Florida.

Back to Expedition Everest...

It started raining lightly when the coaster train returned to the load station.

I got back in the Single Rider line to ride Everest again, and a major storm hit Disney's Animal Kingdom.
The problem is not the rain, it is the lightning. Expedition Everest's mountain peak is nearly 200 feet tall, so you don't want to ride it in lightning.

There was a merciless downpour that immobilized the many people that had scrambled for precious shelter.
I gave up and made a break for it, and ran to the Serka Zong store. This store was filled with wall to wall people. I bought one of those ponchos and headed for the exit. It rained so heard that the walkways were flooded. My brand new Sketchers shoes, with their soft cushions, filled with water.

This is where the Main Street-style entrance to Animal Kingdom would have been nice. I probably would have lingered in the park a bit more. Instead, I Park-Hopped back to Disney's Hollywood Studios. There, I rode Star Tours, the Great Movie Ride, and Toy Story Midway Mania. I then went to Epcot, where I rode Spaceship Earth and Test Track, and had dinner at the Land's food court. After that, I walked "home" to Disney's Yacht Club to change my soaking wet shoes (glad I brought some sandals on the trip!) and rested a bit before exploring the shops of Disney's Boardwalk Resort.

On this Walt Disney World trip, I spent the least amount of time at Disney's Animal Kingdom. The only attraction I experienced was Expedition Everest. The tone of my trip report took a totally different direction once I found out that this park has such a bright future with the AVATAR addition and the world of Pandora. Fantasy is what Disney does best, and when I'm on vacation, it's nice to escape from reality.

For more Disney's Animal Kingdom fun, check out Disney's Animal Kingdom McDonald's Happy Meal.

Up Next: A Blast to the Past with Epcot!


  1. That's pretty sad about the Yeti not being animated. I was able to see him on two different WDW trips and was pretty impressed with him. I can't imagine him just being static and Disney not doing something about it.

    So I am assuming this news of an Avatarland means Beastly Kingdom will never be built now? If given a choice, I would rather see a land/attraction devoted to dragons, unicorns and other mythological creatures instead of being based on a movie property that is NOT Disney's, but I know that isn't how Disney works these days. All I have to say is that it better be on par with the stuff that the Universal parks are doing these days (like the Spiderman and Harry Potter attractions). I had heard something about an Avatar themed version of "Soarin'". I hope that rumor is not true. Disney desperately needs something original and mind-blowing and not just a reworking of an attraction they've already done in the past like "Soarin'". Sorry to be negative, but the recent announcement just doesn't excite me. When Universal announced they were building a Harry Potter "land".....THAT excited me. And I can't wait for Universal Hollywood to open their Transformer's attraction. With Disney these days, it's "it and miss"....and often too many times it's "miss."

  2. Hey TokyoMagic!: The rumor is that AVATAR Land will be going behind Asia. If that's true, maybe we'll still see Beastly Kingdom someday. I still want to see dragons and unicorns and griffins there, too! However, I can't see how they'd top the dragon encounter on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, or avoid comparison, or look like they were just following Universal's lead. Maybe they could at least put the Dragon from Disneyland Paris somewhere at Animal Kingdom.

    Yesterday, I was surprised to hear a little bit about AVATAR from someone in the robotics industry (out of Pennsylvania, of all places!). It doesn't sound like this will just be Soarin' with a different film.

  3. Great report Dan. Sorry to hear that AK got rained out. From your photo, it certainly looks like it was an absolute downpour. Glad you got to do Everest at least once. We only had time to ride once also, and I completely missed seeing the Yeti! Too bad about Dinosaur too. I love that ride.

    I'm reserving judgement on the Avatar land. It sounds cool, but I too had hoped Beastly Kingdom would be built.

    Looking forward to hearing about Epcot. I usually have to hit Spaceship Earth at least 2 or 3 times every visit. Just something about it that I dig...especially since AT&T no longer sponsors it. Much better ending descent.

  4. Thanks, A Snow White Sanctum! On future visits to Disney's Animal Kingdom, I will wear sandals and bring a poncho. Since so much is outside, there's nowhere to hide from the rain.

    I've wanted to see Beastly Kingdom since I first saw the concept art of the place in the 1996 Walt Disney World book "Since the World Began." They really should have built Beastly Kingdom many years ago. I'm afraid The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its dragons, hippogriffs and other mythical creatures, may have killed off the Beastly Kingdom concept.

    The AVATAR announcement was a shock initially, but quickly made sense to me. The AVATAR characters are a little frightening, but monsters and creatures do very well in theme parks (see The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Men In Black: Alien Attack, The Revenge of the Mummy, Star Tours, etc.). With such a high profile franchise to work with, and James Cameron on board, this has a good shot at being done really well.

    When I was telling someone about my Epcot trip, they asked me if I went on "that communications ride---you know, the one that lasts about 40 minutes?" Of course, I always have to ride that!

  5. At the very least, the announcement of Avatar land is exciting because it means they're finally adding something new to AK. And Dan you may be right, this does have a good shot at being done well.

  6. A Snow White Sanctum: Yes, when I was at the park in August, the whole time I was wondering, "When are they finally going to add a new attraction here?" The timing of my trip report could not have been better.

    A few days ago, a bumper on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim mentioned the AVATAR Land at Walt Disney World! Like so many stories of the expansion in the media, it failed to mention Animal Kingdom by name.

    Maybe it is time for a name change. I'm thinking "Disney's Wild Kingdom." When the park was first announced, it was going to be "Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom," after all.