Disney’s First Year at Pandora – The World of Avatar
This week, Pandora – The World of Avatar celebrates its first year at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The themed land has proven so popular that it’s almost single-handedly responsible for the explosive increase in park attendance at Animal Kingdom. But how did we get to this point? In today’s article, I’m going to take a look back at the turbulent history of the most popular themed land in the world today. Here’s a brief look at how Pandora – The World of Avatar became so successful.
Pandora Origin Story
Legendary director James Cameron has famously stated that he imagined Avatar decades prior to its theatrical release. He went so far as to write an 80-page treatment (like a mini-movie script) in 1994. After his labor of love, Titanic, debuted, Cameron intended for Avatar to become his next project. He was right, just not on the timeline.
Titanic entered movie theaters in 1997 before becoming THE film story of 1998. Avatar came out in 2009, almost exactly 12 years later. The cause for the delay was understandable. Cameron’s vision for the world of Pandora was so advanced that the technology simply didn’t exist yet. Like Walt Disney with Space Mountain, the visionary had to wait for cameras and computer graphics to improve dramatically. Cameron couldn’t even start the complex production shoot until 2007.
Avatar was well worth the wait.
The Number One Movie EVER
For roughly 12 years, Titanic had claimed the title of largest blockbuster of all-time. It had fought several pursuers, most notably Spider-Man and The Dark Knight, along the way. Fittingly, Cameron ended his own reign as the creator of the most popular movie ever. Avatar earned $100 million more than Titanic domestically.
Worldwide, the science fiction epic didn’t merely break the box office record. It destroyed everything that had come before. Avatar grossed $2.79 billion in global box office, more than $600 million more than any other film ever. And that record stands to this day.
Even though The Walt Disney Company had nothing to do with Avatar at the time, they conversed with Cameron about a grand idea. How would he like to see the world he had imagined so long ago become a reality? How would Cameron like for Disney to create a themed land based on the world of Pandora?
Because of a Wizard
Disney had ulterior motives for these negotiations. They’d failed to anticipate the popularity of J.K. Rowling. The Mouse House had passed on an opportunity to build a Hogwarts at Walt Disney World. They’d felt that a Harry Potter ride was a good idea. Rowling wanted more, and Universal Studios gave it to her. Within months of the debut of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, everyone knew that it had profoundly impacted theme park tourism. That was all the way back in 2010.
You shouldn’t see it as coincidence when you hear that Disney announced a Pandora project in 2011. They wanted to slow the momentum of their Orlando neighbors, Universal Studios, and they also wanted to prove that Imagineers still constructed the best themed lands on the planet. Tourism analysts were understandably skeptical, as the Harry Potter attractions were state-of-the-art for 2010. For its part, Disney had thrown down the gauntlet, but the next part of the journey wouldn’t be easy.
Bringing Fiction into Reality
From a certain perspective, every Disney attraction turns an imaginary place into a tangible location. Neverland only existed in people’s imaginations until Peter Pan’s Flight opened in 1955. Toy Story was just a fictional story that took place in a boy’s play area until Midway Mania arrived in 2008. Bringing fiction into reality is what Disney does better than anyone else. Even so, the scale of Pandora was daunting.
While Avatar is nearly three hours long, that’s not a lot of time to see an entire world. Imagineers had to liaise with Cameron on literally hundreds of aspects of this world thousands of light years away from Earth. To persuade Mickey Travelers to buy into the immersive illusions of Pandora, they had to create an alien world that seemed “real,” one that guests would believe existed somewhere in outer space.
The task took much longer than anyone initially anticipated. By 2014, cynics were already questioning why the themed land announced in 2011 wasn’t open yet. As a point of comparison, Disney announced the impending updates that would become New Fantasyland in 2009. This themed land at Magic Kingdom opened in December of 2012. It would add more attractions over the next two years, but it was ready in three years.
Pandora clearly wasn’t going to be ready in three years. Disney did what they could to control the news cycles, but the situation escalated over time. When 2014 passed without Pandora, people wondered what the hold-up was. By the end of 2015, many loudly wondered if the themed land would be a debacle. During 2016, Disney finally felt confident enough that they confirmed an opening in 2017. By that point, a lot of people had lost faith in the project, though.
Nothing Silences Critics Like Success
Roughly six years after its original announcement, Pandora – The World of Avatar opened to the public on May 27, 2017. It was Memorial Day in the United States, a federal holiday, and frenzied lines of people waited for hours to see how well Disney had done in bringing the fictional world to life. They knew that Cameron’s fertile imagination had invented a gorgeous landscape that glowed with bioluminescence. Could Disney recreate the shiny gorgeousness of these surroundings?
You already know the answer to this question. Pandora – The World of Avatar is arguably the best received themed land of all-time. From opening day forward, this complex feat of Imagineering, one with iridescent plants and floating mountains, dazzled observers. Importantly, it didn’t suffer any technical hiccups, either. Even straightforward rides like Frozen Ever After suffered through downtime during their early days as cast members worked out the bugs caused huge throughput. Pandora never experienced any of that. Everything just worked.
Everything was also beautiful. The pictures of Pandora are breathtaking. Imagineers were more than up to the challenge of translating Avatar’s dazzling visuals into the real world. After six years of behind-the-scenes struggles, they had perfected all of the tricky technologies needed to craft an immersive realm. A walk through the World of Avatar is a feast for the eyes in the truest sense. The sights and sounds are so subtle but so engrossing that guests do feel as if they’re trekking on alien soil.
The Rides of Pandora
The twin highlights of Pandora are its e ticket attractions. Na’Vi River Journey is an amazing river ride that utilizes digital projection and a giant audio-animatronic to maximum effect. When you encounter the Shaman of Songs, you will gaze in wonderment at the lifelike Na’Vi spiritual leader. You will also feel hypnotized by her song. Amazingly, it’s only the second-best ride at the World of Avatar, though.
The best ride at Pandora is also arguably the best ride at Walt Disney World. Avatar Flight of Passage is something of a first for Disney, an augmented reality simulation. It somehow marries the disparate ideas of the Banshee Flight from Avatar and the ride sensation from Soarin’ around the World. The output is an inimitable journey through Pandora, a place that somehow feels more real than the real world.
You’ll ascend and dive through the landscape, avoiding obstacles like floating mountains and irritable predators. If Flight of Passage is Disney’s first foray into augmented reality, I cannot wait to see what they’re doing in 10 years. It’s difficult to imagine a substantially improved version of this kind of ride. How does one improve on perfect?
The Touchdown Spike
While theme park analysts were quick to hail Pandora as a shocking triumph, their opinions were rendered invalid by the earlier criticisms. They hadn’t given Disney the benefit of the doubt, which is always a mistake. Instead, it was the public that had the final say on the lingering perception of the World of Avatar.
I’m not going out on a limb to say that the public immediately adored Disney’s new themed land. When the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) announced attendance numbers for 2017, one statistic stood out. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, historically neck and neck with Disney’s Hollywood Studios in attendance numbers, had suddenly left its sibling in the dust. While Hollywood Studios earned 10.7 million visits in calendar 2017, Animal Kingdom jumped to 12.5 million, growth of more than 15 percent from 2016.
All of the credit for the traffic increase goes to Pandora. What’s most remarkable about the situation is that Pandora didn’t open to the public until the year was almost half over. Once people could visit the World of Avatar, Animal Kingdom’s attendance increased by roughly 30 percent! The park even passed Epcot in attendance for the year, with no sign of slowing down in 2018.
After years of apologizing for delays, Disney got to spike the football and do an end zone celebratory dance about Pandora. It instantly became the most enticing themed land not just at Walt Disney World but in all of Orlando. Only one year after its debut, we can now look back at its timeline and appreciate precisely how much Imagineers overcame to achieve their latest success story. Pandora took six years to come into being, but it was well worth the wait.
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