Which is the worst gate at Walt Disney World? Heading into 2017, most park guests would split their vote between a pair of parks. We know this by the attendance, as Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom have historically lagged far behind Magic Kingdom and Epcot. In the summer of 2017, something shook up the status quo, though. Here’s how Pandora – The World of Avatar fundamentally changed the perception of Animal Kingdom while influencing the direction of future themed lands at Disney theme parks, notably Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Call and response
The Walt Disney Company first announced their planned addition to Animal Kingdom in 2011. At the time, critics wondered why Disney would construct a new themed land based on an intellectual property (IP) that they didn't own. Even stranger, the company selected one whose cultural impact is in question even though the movie, Avatar, is the biggest global blockbuster ever.
Disney officials dodged the issue for the most part, but everyone understood the actual rationale. A rival theme park, Universal Studios Florida, had recently become the talk of the industry thanks to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. A Universal gate, Islands of Adventure, increased in attendance from 4.6 million to 5.9 million in a calendar year. Theme park analysts attributed the entirety of that traffic to the new themed land with that particular brand of Potter magic.
To Disney officials, this news stuck in their craw. They'd had the first crack at Harry Potter but only wanted to build a single ride. The remarkable success of a different Orlando theme park with a project they'd passed on put Disney on the defensive. Most observers viewed Avatar as their (questionable) response to the situation. And those same observers almost universally expected Disney to fail.
A surprising turn of events
Nobody outside of Disney anticipated heavy demand for a themed land of a largely forgotten 2009 movie. Sure, Disney fans would show up because we show up for everything. The prevailing belief, however, was that Avatar wouldn’t foster extra incentive for casual theme park tourists, the ones who don’t necessarily visit Walt Disney World regularly.
Criticism grew with each passing year as Disney failed to progress on the Pandora project. Originally expected after only three or four years, it suffered several unexpected delays. By the time Disney finally confirmed a year of release, cynics wondered aloud if anyone would even remember Avatar by that point. A 2017 opening for Pandora – The World of Avatar meant almost 8 years between the film and themed land based on it. That gap would seem significant for a beloved Disney property like Monsters, Inc. or Toy Story, much less a non-Disney IP of questionable cultural impact.
A funny thing happened along the way, though. Imagineers fell in love with Pandora. They relished their encounters with the film’s writer/director/producer, James Cameron, a modern day Walt Disney. And they were invigorated by a rare opportunity to flex their creative muscle with cutting edge technology, the kind that other theme parks lack the resources to utilize.
When Pandora finally opened on May 27, 2017, something unprecedented happened. In an age where anyone is 140 characters away from an angry screed against anything, Disney opened a new themed land to glowing reviews. The comments were as close to universal as the social media era allows. Even the most critical theme park analysts acknowledged that Pandora – The World of Avatar is a modern masterpiece. The instant that it opened, it became the most technologically advanced and immersive themed land in the world. From its architectural wonders to its stunning attractions to its otherworldly restaurant, Pandora checked all the boxes for perfection.
Audiences noticed, too. Pandora drove traffic to Animal Kingdom in a rare and profound way. Only weeks after critics loudly wondered whether it would cause even a ripple in attendance, the results spoke for themselves…loudly. Animal Kingdom’s traffic rose from 10.8 million to 12.5 million. It didn’t just leave Hollywood Studios in the dust; it also surpassed Epcot, becoming the sixth most trafficked theme park in the world.
We can quantify the popularity of Pandora – The World of Avatar by looking at the numbers. Park attendance increased by 25 percent after the themed land opened. It was undeniably a blockbuster.