By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
4:34 PM EDT, September 20, 2011
The Walt Disney Co. will build a theme-park “land” based on the movie “Avatar” in Disney’s Animal Kingdom as the first step in a broader licensing deal that will lead to similar attractions in Disney parks worldwide.
The deal announced Tuesday gives Disney exclusive theme-park rights to use elements from the 2009 blockbuster and from sequels due out in 2014 and 2015. “Avatar,” which was directed by James Cameron and grossed nearly $2.8 billion in worldwide box-office receipts, is widely considered one of the most valuable intellectual properties not already tied up by a theme park.
Disney said it plans to build multiple-attraction lands based on the film’s fictional world of “Pandora,” including themed shops, restaurants, rides and entertainment. It’s the same approach Universal Orlando has taken with its wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which has fueled huge attendance and guest-spending gains since opening in Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park last year.
“Avatar is just a set of worlds that is really rich and offers so much to explore, we thought that offering a land-based approach gives us a much better opportunity to explore,” Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs said in an interview following the announcement.
Disney said it would begin construction of Animal Kingdom’s Avatar land in 2013 and expects to open it to guests about five years from now. A company executive indicated that the price tag would be approximately $500 million.
Cameron said he initially thought Disney would want to build only an individual ride based on his film.
“I quickly realized that their vision for this thing is far beyond what I imagined,” he told reporters. “It was kind of thrilling that they wanted to do a land and really bring the world of Pandora to life.”
More Avatar lands would follow down the road. Disney currently has five theme-park resorts worldwide and is building a sixth in Shanghai, China.
“We obviously appreciate that this was a film that was enjoyed by millions globally. So it’s now a global product,” Disney Co. President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said. “We can clearly leverage the global interest in this property in multiple places, although we don’t have any plans at the moment or specifics to announce to you.”
Disney will license the rights from Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment studio and Fox Filmed Entertainment.
The Avatar land should provide a huge jolt in the arm for the 13-year-old Animal Kingdom theme park. The youngest of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks has been criticized by some park fans for lacking attractions and not amounting to a full-day experience on par with the Magic Kingdom or Epcot.
The last major new ride added to Animal Kingdom was the Expedition Everest roller coaster, which opened in 2006. That ride cost more than $100 million.
A precise date hasn’t been set for completion of the Avatar attractions in Animal Kingdom, but an opening sometime in 2016 could allow Disney to capitalize on a fresh wave of fan interest in the ‘Avatar’ film franchise from the two sequels currently in development. Cameron said the tentative plan is to release the first sequel around Christmas 2014 and the second around Christmas 2015.
“The timing seems to work out well in terms of the sequels,” Cameron said. “Really, what we need to resolve is how much of the elements of the second and third films are incorporated into the Avatar land.”
Although it prefers to use its own characters and franchises, Disney has licensed third-party content before for use in its theme parks. The company has deals for “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “American Idol,” among other properties. But Disney’s use of those properties has generally been limited to stand-alone attractions or, in the case of Star Wars, an attraction plus a relatively contained surrounding area.
Disney’s plans for Avatar appear far more ambitious. Staggs said the project would be similar in scope to “Cars Land,” a 12-acre themed area based on the Pixar animated films “Cars” and “Cars 2.” When Cars Land opens next year in Disney California Adventure, it will include multiple attractions, stores and restaurants.
It’s an approach that has been phenomenally successful for Universal and “Harry Potter,” which it licenses from author J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment. In addition to themed attractions, Wizarding World, which opened in June 2010, includes shops and eateries peddling fare from the Potter universe, from magic wands to mugs of butter beer.
Sales of food and merchandise in Universal’s theme parks were up 90 percent during the first half of 2011 to $171 million. Attendance at the two-park resort soared 52 percent.
Staggs said it is possible that Disney’s Avatar land will include food and merchandise based on items found in the films, though he said the project is still in the very early design phase.
Although Avatar is a science-fiction movie, the film is set on a lush, Earth-like planet with its own flora and fauna. Staggs said that made it a natural thematic fit with Animal Kingdom, which designers always envisioned as including mythical animals in addition to living and extinct ones.
“We just felt like Avatar was the perfect and most amazing mythical world we could think about exploring,” Staggs said.
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