When Disney announced through its official parks blog that it would be partnering with filmmaker James Cameron to bring the world of the multi-billion dollar grossing film Avatar to Florida’s Animal Kingdom, the response was deafening. The online community roared with response, positive and negative, and Disney followed up the initial announcement with several clarifications and responses. But as the dust settles a bit and the cheers and condemnation die down into acceptance, it’s time to take a second look at the new addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Avatar vs Harry Potter
The immediate and obvious connection that has been drawn by everyone from CNN to our blog is that Avatar is Disney’s answer to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal got its movie franchise; Disney wants it too.
The problem with the comparison lies in the scale difference between the companies. The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and AECOM numbers for 2010 indicate that overall attendance (worldwide) at Disney co. parks topped out at 120,600,000, while Universal reported 26,300,000 visitors. Putting that in park-to-park comparison, the Magic Kingdom welcomed 16,972,000 while Islands of Adventure, home of the Wizarding World, hosted 5,949,000. Setting the figures side by side, there is no question of “direct competition.” Disney is, without question, still the 5,000 pound gorilla of the theme park industry, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
But there is another factor – buzz. While Disney’s bottom line has hardly been devastated by the addition of the Boy Wizard to Universal’s theme park property, the amount of ink spilled and attention devoted to the Wizarding World has been impressive. In a marketplace where branding is vital to success, Disney wants to be seen as an innovator, and it wants to be seen as appealing to a wide range of demographics. The Fantasyland expansion at Magic Kingdom is certainly spectacular, but it is primarily targeted at a younger set – what about the rest of the family?
With increasing swaths of marketing devoted to social networking and internet buzz, Disney may well have had an interest in making an answer to Harry Potter, not for reasons of financial competition – it’s unlikely that Universal will siphon enough guests to register on Disney’s radar – but for reasons of image. Universal’s Wizarding World has been extolled for its theming – its skill in bringing the world of the books and films to life – and applauded for its appeal to multiple generations from adults to children. Disney did not need to compete with those compliments financially, but ideologically, they needed to re-claim their title as the king of theming in the eyes of consumers. They needed to create a new round of perceived “need” for potential guests – a reason for people to start planning and saving for a trip to Disney World.
Avatar may not have been Disney competing with Wizarding World, but it seems safe to say that it was Disney answering Wizarding World with its own franchise.
A third party habit?
One of the points of discussion in the wake of the announcement has been Disney’s collaboration with Cameron in introducing an entire land based on third-party source material into their parks. Considering Disney’s past record of semi-compulsive concern with ownership of its properties, the move seems surprising. But a look over the company’s moves in the past few years indicates that such third-party inclusion may be a trend, for better or worse.
Disney’s acquisition of Pixar (Rapunzel is listed with Pixar characters as well as with princesses on the official Disney Parks App) marked one step in that direction. With a troubled animation department, Disney simply acquired the competition – an unquestionably brilliant move, but one that broke with the idea that the brightest and best were Disney family.
In recent months, the third party announcements have only accelerated. Downtown Disney’s Pleasure Island is rapidly losing any Disney-owned establishments, becoming a prime rental location for other companies and, potentially at least, losing its sense of theme and story in the transition. Shanghai Disneyland will be a partnership in which Disney will split control and profits. The newly announced 4 Seasons luxury resort will be the first 3rd party hotel built on Theme Park property…
…it seems like a trend.
The use of 3rd parties certainly makes good business sense in a tough economy. Disney bears less risk, and it benefits from familiar names, brands, and movie franchises. Avatar has immediate name recognition, and it presents Disney Imagineers with a pre-created world framework in which to work. But what about Disney’s historic ability to create something new and let it become iconic? Certainly, one could argue that Disney Hollywood Studios has always been a hodgepodge of 3rd party properties, but a movie-themed park with movie-themed attractions seems less extreme than the introduction of an entire land into a conservation themed park.
Whether or not the new Avatar “land” is breathtaking, it raises questions about Disney’s continuing role as creator or facilitator. What function will the Disney company take in the future management of its parks? Will they become marketing mediums for existing properties (Disney’s and others) with Disney as broker, or will Disney continue to generate content like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted mansion which, without existing source material, become unique iconic experiences.
A chance to shine
What the Avatar contract does, unquestionably, offer Disney is a chance to shine at what they do best in the theme park industry – create immersive environments and introduce new technology used in remarkable ways.
With the new themed area, Disney Imagineers have the opportunity to create a completely immersive world, a place that transcends plot or reality. They can return to the theming that set Disneyland apart from Amusement Parks and gave Walt Disney’s new creation its name – the Theme Park. Avatar Land should not be about re-telling the movie(s) stories; it should be about creating an environment in which guests can tell their own stories, and Disney’s imagineers have shown they are more than capable of doing just that.
And, with advances in technology, imagineers have more tools than ever before to create that sense of place and wonder. Although the new area, tentatively projected for 2018, is currently a complete mystery, hints of Disney’s initial planning (brainstorming) have surfaced. Take, for example, a patent for a “Flying Entertainment Vehicle” filed in 2010 that bears a striking resemblance to some of Avatar’s flying creatures.
Combining such ideas with advanced animatronic technology Disney has shown in Lucky the Dinosaur, Beaker & Bunsen, and Wall-E could produce breathtaking encounters. And, of course, the advancing interactive digital animation recently introduced in the Haunted Mansion also provides incredible potential.
Will the introduction of Avatar thrill guests, boost Disney’s internet buzz, allow Disney to expand into partnerships with other third parties that capitalize on already realized ideas, and appeal to a broad demographic? Only time will tell, but if nothing else, the move is certainly guaranteed to get Disney a good bit of attention as they dole out glimpses of their new project and join in the furor over the 2 Avatar sequels currently in production.
What do you think? Is Avatar a good choice for Disney, whether you like it or not? Would you have preferred an original property or do you think Disney is better off brokering and realizing other visions?