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The Rumor Queue: The unofficial story behind Disney’s Avatar expansion

by Matt Roseboom

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By Fowl Owlerson

The recent unveiling of concept art for the Avatar expansion at Disney’s Animal Kingdom evoked a mixture of emotions and memories.

World of AVATAR artI viewed the James Cameron penned and directed Avatar in 3D on a massive screen when it was released in 2009. At the time, I was fascinated with the scenery of Pandora, and felt it’d be an intriguing addition to a theme park, even if the story felt trite. The bioluminescent forest in particular felt like it possessed the most potential.

It’s been close to six years since the film debuted and we’re still two years off from Animal Kingdom’s expansion opening. My thoughts about the future movies have transmogrified from intrigued to indifference due to the time that’s passed.

Is it too late for an entire experience about Avatar? Why did it take so long for construction to start from the announcement made by Disney in September of 2011? Does Avatar feel innate to Animal Kingdom’s core?

Join me as we delve into this curious tale that stretches across many years, several theme park rides and multiple companies.

Cameron’s First Theme Park Outing

Terminator 2 3-D opened at Universal Studios Florida in 1996. The 12-minute film portion of the show was written and directed by James Cameron, the man behind “Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, both spectacular action films. The attraction was a direct sequel to Terminator 2, which is one of the greatest sequels in cinema history, and I’ll trade blows with anyone who says otherwise (I’d like to think of us horned owls as apex predators).

T2 3DDesigner Gary Goddard was approached by Universal’s Jay Stein, then CEO and Chairman of Universal’s theme park division, to produce a concept for use in its theme parks. Due to an issue with the rights of the first film, the team was only permitted to draw upon Terminator 2 for its proof of concept.

What Goddard and his team came up with in a year and a half was an exciting mix of live-action show elements, pyrotechnics and animatronics, and a 3D film to tell the story set in the Terminator universe.

When the concepts were finalized, they needed to be approved by James Cameron to ultimately receive the license. This required Goddard and his team to assemble storyboards, concept art and mock-ups of the theater. An entire pitch was created, with a first pass of the story handled by Goddard’s team. The next step was holding a meeting with Cameron to go further with the project.

In a Q&A with James Cameron Online, Goddard elaborated on the stress of pitching to the man who created the universe they were basing the attraction on (keep in mind that Cameron is referred to as “Jim” in the following transcript):

“So I did the pitch. About 30 or 40 minutes, and Jim said nothing – he really just focused on listening and understanding the concept and story. At the end, I finish, and the room is silent. Jim’s sitting staring at the boards. The silence is getting a bit uncomfortable, so I try to break it with a kind of ‘Well, you know this is ——’ And Jim raises his hand to cut me off. I stop talking. He gets up and goes to the storyboards. He says ‘these are pretty good boards – who did them?’ I said Greg Pro – he’s really great. He nods, looks at the boards a bit more and then says – and I’ll never forget this —

‘You know when I was driving over here, I was thinking, who the hell is Universal to take my Terminator and try and create a ride from it? What would they know about it? And I was fully prepared to come here and not like whatever it was that you were going to present.’ He turns back to the boards and continues, ‘But this is really good. You got the characters right. You got the mythology. The whole idea of it is great.’ And then he turns to me and the group and says ‘not that I can’t improve it a bit.’”

Cameron did a pass on the script and the final product still holds up remarkably well. The show implementation ultimately came down to Goddard and Universal, as Cameron was in the thick of “Titanic” and couldn’t break away from it to assist after directing the 16 minutes of footage for the show. The Orlando attraction opened first and a counterpart was subsequently constructed in Hollywood on the Upper Lot.

In 2012, the Hollywood counterpart closed for Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. Rumors have persisted for quite some time that Universal was exploring other concepts to replace Terminator 2 3-D in Orlando. Terminator Salvation’s lackluster critical and box office performance proved to succinctly kill Universal’s aspirations to revamp the venue. Perhaps this new Terminator film will jumpstart the attraction’s revamp?

It still stands as Cameron’s first collaboration with the theme park industry and one of the best live-action hybrid theme park experiences created.

Disney’s Beastly Kingdom

In the nascent “blue sky” phase of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the park was pitched as a place guests could encounter animals that presently roam the Earth, creatures that once existed but are now extinct (the horned owl will never be in this section of the park), and beasts that never existed.

The impetus for the idea was said to have been spear-headed by guest feedback being infatuated with the idea of unicorns and dragons.

Imagineering pitched three experiences for this third section of the park, which was titled “Beastly Kingdom.” The land would have been constructed where Camp Minnie-Micky was until Avatar construction required flattening it. There was apparently going to be a “good” and “bad” side to the land.

The “good” side would have involved a Fantasia boat ride and a Unicorn themed attraction. The bad would have featured Dragon Tower, a roller coaster set inside a castle inhabited by a gargantuan fire-breathing dragon, which would have been a full-fledged audio-animatronic.

dragon on a bench at animal kindomEvidence of what the Imagineers hoped to incorporate into the park still exists today. The marquee features a dragon on it, as well as a giant stylized dragon head on a ticket booth at the front of the park. You can also park in “Unicorn” when visiting Animal Kingdom.

Admittedly, Expedition Everest features the Yeti, a creature that is of myth and legend portrayed with a large audio-animatronic that presently doesn’t move because “REASONS”. This still doesn’t account for all of the other shelved aspirations for Beastly Kingdom.

Why didn’t this expansion happen? Money. The concept was postponed to cut costs and finish the remaining attractions for Animal Kingdom’s opening. It was then shelved entirely as other projects took precedence.

For further reading, theme park writer Jim Hill unfurled a fascinating yarn about why Beastly Kingdom never happened on a page at Jim Hill Media.

Hill postulated that Dueling Dragons at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, now Dragon’s Challenge in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, was said to have been conceived by former Imagineers hired by Universal to conceptualize Islands of Adventure. The similitudes certainly make one question if it was truly coincidence, but neither company has ever officially gone on the record, nor will they probably ever comment on it.

Beastly Kingdom’s demise set the stage for Avatar, but the decision was said to be spurred by another acquisition.

A Wizard, a Hunter, and a Mouse

Before there was a Wizarding World at Islands of Adventure, there were talks between Disney and J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. to incorporate the world of Harry Potter into a Walt Disney World park. Given the specificity of the property, the concept probably would have been implemented in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios), but I’m just a horned owl who lives in a tree.

It’s likely that Disney wanted to take a more “traditional” approach with the property, unlike the immersive world Universal would ultimately accomplish with pain-staking effort.

Disney Imagineering is an insulated group of talented and passionate people all working on an array of projects in tandem. While input is gathered from an assortment of people, Disney in the past, hadn’t ceded much authority to the property’s holder to the same extent Universal did with J.K. Rowling.

Hearsay over the years claims Disney and Rowling couldn’t come to terms with how to execute the concept. Rowling was adamant the characters not be reduced to costumed meet-and-greets (which is a Disney staple) and insisted upon many of the specifications Universal ultimately implemented into their design, such as the geographic locations of Hogwarts in Islands versus Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, the manner in which guests enter Diagon Alley, and various other stipulations.

wizarding world at nightThe property ultimately slipped through Disney’s grasp due to creative differences. Universal had put forth a preponderance of work and careful design for Seuss Landing. There isn’t a single straight line of architecture, so as to stay true to the spirit of Seuss’s work, and that is no easy feat.

Word around the industry claims that Universal showed Rowling their work on Seuss Landing and agreed to her terms, even if they presented unique challenges, effectively snatching the property from Disney’s hands.

Per a source, the KUKA arm employed in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was first conceptualized for a Van Helsing attraction in Universal Studios. The film was meant to kickstart a new universe with the classic monsters, and the hope was its success would warrant a brand new attraction. The film ultimately did not meet expectations, which left Universal with an unused concept.

Per the same source, the Van Helsing attraction’s layout was at first close to the Forbidden Journey’s layout, but of course underwent changes once Harry Potter was incorporated into the design.

The Wizarding World ultimately lead to exponential attendance increases, critical acclaim and lots of revenue for the park. Universal was later fully acquired by Comcast. The resort’s since undergone rapid and numerous expansions which shows no sign of coming to a halt anytime soon.

Avatar Land

Universal effectively created a park that transports guests to another world in a fully immersive experience. This inspiration would serve to fuel Disney’s desire to counter with something unique. Indeed, looking at the Avatar Land sneak peek video proves as much.

According to a source, when Universal was scouting new properties to serve as a replacement for Terminator 2 3-D, Avatar was at the top of the list. Universal had a healthy relationship with Cameron, but the timing didn’t work out for a myriad of reasons.

We can only speculate, but Disney’s decision to sign an agreement with Lighthouse Entertainment and James Cameron suggests this was to circumvent Universal snatching another property from the company. I believe this is apparent by the amount of time between Disney formally announcing the expansion, the construction start date, and the proposed opening date.

Logically, this makes sense. Oftentimes in entertainment, companies acquire things even if they aren’t absolutely sure that they’re going to use it.

A source once revealed that concepts weren’t fully hashed out when it was announced by Disney and the contract gave Cameron more creative control than what the company normally offers to property holders. Cameron is a known perfectionist and Avatar is his creative baby.

Per Collider.com, Cameron outlined and had all three sequels of Avatar written back-to-back by different writers. The goal? Shoot all the sequels back-to-back and release the first of these films in 2017, which is said to be the opening date of the Avatar expansion. Ah, corporate synergy!

AVATAR-Inspired boat ride Coming to Disney’s Animal KingdomWhile we won’t be getting a roller coaster with a monstrous animatronic that shoots fire or a unicorn attraction, or an ominous kraken beneath the sea, we will be getting a boat ride set in the world of Pandora, as well as a new attraction that will “teach” guests how to fly on a mountain Banshee. A source described it as a “more intense Soarin’,” although whether it’ll be more immersive like Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringotts, or just a Soarin’ clone remains to be seen.

Avatar seems to fill that void left behind by Beastly Kingdom’s absence, although it’ll always be revered as what could have been.

Perhaps my apathy for the future of the franchise is just a result of it being left dormant while Cameron chiseled away at what these sequels will entail.

Regardless of how I feel, I know Disney Imagineering can construct remarkable things. Cars is one of Pixar’s lesser films (the crux of most of its jokes: “Look, I’m a car!”), but Cars Land in Disney’s California Adventure is a vibrant, intricate land that’s a must-see at Disneyland Resort.

I’d like to be proven wrong, and I think the man who created the phenomenal sequels, “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”, and the team behind such feats as Cars Land can do it.

Fowl Owlerson, or “Fowly” as he’s affectionately known, has been attending theme parks since he was a spry owlet. When he’s not filtering through the latest murmurings around the industry, he can be seen writing, reading, and snacking on the occasional mouse. Follow him on Twitter @fowlowlerson for the latest rumors or drop an anonymous letter to him at [email protected]

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4 comments

Gadget March 16, 2015 - 3:57 pm

I find it funny that out of all the ideas possible, James Cameron’s idea was chosen. Mainly because he’s a huge egomaniac, maybe because Pandora has potential, but we’ll never know. I vaguely remember Cameron talking about how he wanted to create a sci-fi fairy tale, so I guess it fits on Disney property. Maybe Cameron took over the Beastly Kingdom project and was disguising it as Pandora, we’ll never know

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Ethan March 16, 2015 - 4:01 pm

Good article, thanks!

I like your analogy at the end about Cars Land. Cars the movie was definitely not one of Pixar’s best movies (and Cars 2 was horrible in my opinion). In fact, all of the stuff based off of that franchise has been a fail, including both of the Planes movies as well. BUT, you are correct in that the themed land feels real. It’s amazing! It’s like you walked into the movie.

If Disney can do that with Avatar, people are going to forgot about some movie that was just “OK” and start to really enjoy just being immersed in a different world. The complaints will go away if it’s done right.

I know people who’ve never even really seen the Harry Potter movies who think the lands at Universal are great…. it goes to show, in today’s parks it’s all about theme immersion!

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Carl March 17, 2015 - 7:04 am

Good story. The analogy with Cars and Avatar might be fitting for Disney fans for adults but it’s not an even comparison. While grown-ups may have shrugged off Cars, young kids – particularly boys – went crazy for it. Years after it’s release it was still generating hundreds of millions of dollars in related merchandise (swing by the toy section the next time you’re at Target). There are plenty of families who love Cars Land because of Lightning McQueen; the immersive theming is just bonus.

The fan base is quite different for Avatar, as is the staying power. Think about it, boys will always love cars just as they love cowboys. That’s why Frontierland and Carsland will endure.

Pandora may look cool but it will lack heart and an emotional drive with fans.

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Don March 19, 2017 - 4:13 pm

When I had an annual pass I’d love to sit on a bench at Animal Kingdom and enjoy the beauty of what many call a “half day park”. I once sat opposite a bird display. It’s a bench just to the right before you take the bridge to Africa. You can see the birds and the water behind it. Almost no one took that path although there is a lot to explore. The only people rushing by where guests in a hurry, needing to go to the safari, the Lion King show or a food reservation. Most of the times the kids stopped, fascinated by the “funny birds”. They where forcefully pulled away by their parent who looked at their phone and stressed they needed to be somewhere else.

I’m sure, in all it’s redundancy and unlikable characters in an ip with a nice shell but no hart, Avatar land will look beautiful and stunning. Just like the park. At night it’ll offer colored lights and there is a boat ride and a Soarin 2.0. But as with the rest of the park the beauty will be unnoticed to tick the boxes of doing the rides preselected 6 months in advance. Due to the fact the ip will not resonate with kids (pg 13) and most adults the revenue out of the very expensive land will not be of Potter level nor will it do anything close to make a bump in the income for Disney.
If that happens Disney will never invest that amount of money in a themed land ever again and that would be a sad thing. I hope we’ll see kids with Na’vi dolls, genital tails and a realistic swearing and smoking Sigourney Weaver dolls. I hope the parents will drink and eat the food colour saturated food and that attendance will result a trafic jam on I4, but I think it won’t.

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