When James Cameron’s huge box office success “Avatar” hit theaters in 2009, reports began circulating about fans who suffered from a form of depression because they longed for the sparkling beauty of the film’s mythical CGI-enhanced setting, Pandora, home to the blue-skinned Na’vi. Any fans still suffering from post-“Avatar” withdrawal, however, will soon have a place to sate their desires: the forthcoming Avatar theme park at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.
Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, debuted the first images of the as-yet unnamed Avatar land over the weekend at the D23 Expo in Tokyo. The park renderings offer an early glimpse of the attractions, set to open in 2017, which include an immersive Pandora-like walk-through, a boat ride through a bioluminescent jungle and, perhaps, a ride through the sky on the mythical Banshee.
“As these concept renderings show in epic scale, in the world of Avatar guests will encounter awe-inspiring floating mountains and wander through a nighttime jungle of bioluminescent plants that are alive with light and sound. Guests will also discover what it feels like to soar into the sky riding a Banshee,” Staggs promised on the company’s official blog.
Disney announced a long-term creative partnership with Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and Fox Filmed Entertainment in September 2011 to bring the fantasy of “Avatar” to life at Animal Kingdom. “As I walked through the park, I kept imagining Pandora coming to life all around me and found my mind racing with all the possibilities of what we will be able to create in the years ahead," Cameron said during a site visit to the Florida theme park in October that year.
Over the ensuing two years, Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau have served as creative consultants on the project, working beside Walt Disney “imagineers” to dream up an experience that will take guests deep into the world of mythical Pandora.
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“Our combined team has taken huge steps forward in ‘imagineering’ Pandora as a real place for our guests to see, hear and touch,” Staggs said. “As the world of Avatar becomes real at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the energy and passion shared by our imagineers and the Lightstorm team for this monumental task continues to be remarkable. I can’t wait to see the reactions of our guests as they step into a world that until now has only existed on the screen.”
Disney opened Animal Kingdom in 1998 to showcase the harmony of animals and nature -- both real and mythical -- and celebrate environmental stewardship. Both themes, Staggs said, are deeply rooted in the story of “Avatar,” making it a perfect fit for the park.
The Avatar attraction, estimated to cost $500 million, is part of the largest expansion in the history of the park. “We’ll be adding all-new entertainment experiences, including a new nighttime spectacular where live music, floating lanterns, water screens and swirling animal imagery all combine to bring a show to Discovery River that will delight our guests and truly cap off their day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” Staggs explained. “The park will introduce more nighttime entertainment as well, including live performers on Discovery Island and a new nighttime version of the Kilimanjaro Safaris.”
Of course, the Avatar land will form the centerpiece of the expansion. It’s one of the most hotly anticipated theme park additions since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Orlando in June 2010. That attraction helped boost overall paid admissions to Universal’s Orlando parks by 20 percent in 2010, while revenue from food, beverages and merchandise was up 29 percent.
Unlike the world of Hogwarts, however, the new world of Pandora will open in the early days of the “Avatar” franchise. Fox announced in July that the studio would release three “Avatar” sequels, due to come out in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The original film, meanwhile, was the highest-grossing blockbuster of all time, bringing in a grand total of more than $2.7 billion in box office receipts worldwide.