By now, we all know the story – in the 2010 wake of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it was clear that the theme park industry had been changed forever. The age of the "Living Land" had arrived, and theme park operators raced to choose, purchase, or license the biggest intellectual properties they could find in (or out of) their home-grown studio catalogs.
As the story goes, seeing guests line up for shops and restaurants in Universal's Hogsmeade lit a fire under Disney that had not been seen in decades. The first Disney-distributed Marvel film was still a year away; the company's purchase of Lucasfilm, two years away. So there, sensing a seismic shift to the business, Disney looked around for something – anything! – Potter-sized to bring to its parks. And in 2010, nothing was bigger than Avatar.
The James Cameron film had spent the year breaking every conceivable record. Its box office topped $2.7 billion – an unthinkable sum even today, when billion-dollar blockbusters are still rare. Avatar had captured the globe. A first wide-release modern 3D film, it was a sensation; a CGI big screen event that few had ever seen on such a scale before. If you didn't see Avatar, you were out of the loop. And that meant that Disney's 2011 announcement – that it had acquired the worldwide, global rights to build theme park attractions based on the 20th Century Fox film – was a major win... Right?
The Anti-Avatar Club
To be clear, there was pretty immediate pushback to Disney's September 2011 announcement. Though the deal had only been secured days earlier, we already knew the first output: a full, permanent Avatar land at Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park. That, of course, ruffled feathers.
Did a PG-13 sci-fi action film really belong at Disney's Animal Kingdom? For that matter, how would a fictional alien moon besieged by a human-led military assault for mineral resources seen in the film translate to a theme park at all? Who would want to visit a war-torn Pandora? What made this one-year-old film worthy of a permanent land besides its box office? And why should Disney's purest and most beautiful theme park be burdened with a land themed to a 20th Century Fox war movie?
It was clear that fans weren't thrilled about the project that would become Pandora: The World of Avatar. And though it sounds short-sighted in retrospect, anyone who was a fan of the parks in the early 2010s will tell you: we were all on the Anti-Avatar bandwagon. It seemed like the wrong time, place, and property; like this was an unproven IP that didn't deserve a permanent land. And adding even more complexity to the situation, something unprecedented happened to Avatar: it disappeared.
Seriously, most of the 2010s were filled with online think pieces that basically wondered aloud: Why Doesn't Anyone Care About The Biggest Film of All Time? Just about everyone had seen Avatar; but no one seemed to remember it. An easy test was to ask a room of friends if they could recall the movie's plot; quote a single memorable line; even name the main character.
It seemed true that Disney's big bet on Avatar had been a dud. Especially if an Avatar area was supposed to be Disney's answer to Harry Potter, even a few years had revealed that the biggest movie of all time still didn't stand a chance next to the "boy wizard." Even as the first concept art and models of the land were revealed in 2013, skepticism remained high.
As Avatar fell further from pop culture memory year after year after year, fans began to cross their fingers that Disney was noticing Avatar's lack of staying power. Rumors began to mount that internally, Disney regretted their deal; that James Cameron's infamous difficulty to work with was wearing on Imagineering; that Disney toured the rights-holders to J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings around Animal Kingdom, perhaps as a signal to Cameron that if he didn't play ball, an IP-infused version of the park's never-built Beastly Kingdom might indeed rise instead of an Avatar land.
A sequel – initially set for 2014 – didn't materialize. Even so, Cameron announced that instead of the two follow-up films he'd initially announced, Avatar would now have no less than five sequels. It was almost laughable, starting a whole new round of mockery. In the midst of the world forgetting about Avatar, who cared about an Avatar sequel, much less five of them?! Sure, the first film had made more money than any other – probably on the back of inflated 3D ticket prices and vital, gotta-see-it CGI appeal... but a second film wouldn't have the same built-in, billion-dollar guarantee, especially if no one cared about or remembered the characters or plot.
But after three years of silence, Camp Minnie-Mickey closed... and it seemed inevitable that a still-unnamed Avatar land was coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom, like it or not. Though we all know how that went, on the next page, we'll dissect the worries around Avatar 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 and decide if Avatar is over... again.