If you were at a Disney park over the Memorial Day weekend, the crushing lines were likely even more intense than expected. On one coast, the company’s Animal Kingdom park officially opened Pandora, its immersive land inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar, while in California the public began riding the new attraction Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! It was a one-two punch that underscored the company’s brand-focused strategy under the stewardship of CEO Bob Iger: our theme parks are movies, and movies are our theme parks.
But Disney isn’t alone in this strategy. Parks have become an increasingly important investment focus for Hollywood studios — particularly as blockbuster season has become dominated by franchises and expanded universe films. With US movie attendance stagnating, the future is more uncertain than ever, and bringing beloved intellectual properties like Marvel into the physical realm adds a new revenue stream to the portfolio. But the Guardians ride and Pandora represent two drastically different approaches: one is a short-term fix, designed to surf the wave of popularity from James Gunn’s films. The other points toward a new weapon in Hollywood’s fight for mindshare, a type of experience that won’t just drive interest in flagship properties, but one that could become a full-fledged storytelling medium unto itself.
Living in Harry Potter’s world
Theme parks riffing on existing intellectual property is certainly nothing new. Disney’s been doing it for decades, and over the years visitors to Universal’s parks have been able to go on rides based on everything from Jurassic Park to Twister. But the landscape shifted in 2010, when the Universal Orlando Resort opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Instead of going for standalone rides, Wizarding World was about recreating the experience of being in J.K. Rowling’s fictional universe. It had rides and rollercoasters, but for many guests the thrill was just walking the recreated streets of Hogsmeade, wand in one hand, Butterbeer in another. Universal has long boasted that its parks let you “ride the movies,” but the selling point for the Wizarding World could be that it allows you to live in the movies.
Wizarding World let visitors live in the movies
As Wizarding World expanded its Orlando footprint and spread to California and Japan, the opportunity was obvious: the chance to visit the fictional world of the franchise didn’t just bring visitors into the park. It inspired them to buy in-world merchandise, to purchase costuming and props, and perhaps most importantly — to reengage with the source material itself. It was a new part of the Harry Potter ecosystem that encouraged and rewarded further engagement with every other part: a rising theme park tide that lifted all boats.
The promise of Pandora
Avatar may not have the same cultural footprint that Harry Potter enjoys, but producer Jon Landau sees Disney’s Pandora park as a step toward that same grand concept as Wizarding World. “We're going to be building out our world in a whole series of publishing programs, including Dark Horse comics. We're doing 4 novels. And there's an Ubisoft game with [developer] Massive,” he tells me during a Pandora press event. “It’s all about expanding the story world of Pandora. What audiences can get here [in the park] is they can explore and discover.”
Ideas from Imagineering will end up in the sequels, and vice versa
Bolstering that strategy is the way Pandora plays into the franchise’s larger lore. The park’s “Valley of Mo’ara” is set decades after Cameron’s fourth and final Avatar sequel, currently scheduled to hit theaters in 2025. The time frame sleight of hand lets the park exist without interfering with anything that may appear in the upcoming sequels — audiences won’t even see Avatar 2 for three more years — but more importantly, it creates a scenario where the park itself can freely become part of the franchise’s larger mythology. Landau says that kind of creative cross-collaboration has already begun, with ideas from the team at Walt Disney Imagineering making it into the upcoming sequels, and ideas tied to the upcoming films present in the park on opening day.
“Pandora is a large place,” he says. “We see stories that can take place in Mo'ara Valley, we see stories that can take place out in those waters that you saw [in Flight of Passage] with the crashing waves. The Shaman of Songs, that you'll see in the Na'vi River Journey — I can see her coming up in some of our publishing programs.”
Anecdotally, Pandora seems to have the desired effect; after touring the world my colleague James Bareham and I both commented that the first thing we wanted to do was watch the original movie again. But the trick for Disney is that it doesn’t actually own Avatar. Much like Universal did with Warner Bros. for Harry Potter, it licensed the theme park rights to the film, which was released by 20th Century Fox. The latter studio is moving forward with its own theme park ambitions internationally. 20th Century Fox World — featuring attractions based on Planet of the Apes, Alien vs. Predator, and Titanic, among others — is scheduled to open in Malaysia, Dubai, and South Korea over the coming years.
Disney was no doubt willing to make the Avatar deal because its parks are a vastly bigger business than its film division. In the 2016 fiscal year, Disney’s parks and resorts unit brought in $16.97 billion, dwarfing the $9.4 billion from the studio entertainment division. But as grand as Pandora may be, Disney is reserving its biggest bets for its own properties.
Disney’s parks dwarf its movie business
Toy Story Land, a theme park expansion based on the Pixar series, will be coming to Florida and Shanghai in addition to its current Paris and Hong Kong locations, but all eyes are truly on the company’s theme park plans for Star Wars. That 14-acre expansion, scheduled to open in both Orlando and Anaheim, California, looks to be the company’s most ambitious effort in immersive entertainment yet. According to a recent discussion at Star Wars Celebration, guests will be able to pilot the Millennium Falcon, and have their performance impact the way they’re treated by characters they run into at different locations throughout the greater venue. It sounds like a mini-Westworld, set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and if the success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is any indication — attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood grew nearly 14 percent after it opened in California last year — the upside is staggering.
The problem with superheroes
Strategically, it couldn’t come at a more important time for movie studios — and their corporate parents. The theatrical distribution business is uncertain, with the time movies get to play exclusively in theaters potentially collapsing in favor of earlier at-home viewing, and the Blu-ray and DVD business continues to dwindle. With so much invested in ongoing, interconnected cinematic worlds, it’s not only logical to look for every possible way to monetize them; it’s essential. The issue becomes that immersive parks like Pandora and Wizarding World are very specific kinds of beasts, conceptually based upon visiting exotic worlds and universes, and not every property is suited to the approach.
The perfect example may be Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! Disney’s new ride is essentially a reskinned version of the Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror attraction that used to dominate the skyline at the California Adventure theme park, and as an aggressive drop ride, it’s quite a bit of fun. The premise is that The Guardians of the Galaxy have been captured by The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) and put on public display. As guests filter into the attraction, they see various props and costumes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, presented as parts of his collection, before learning that Rocket Raccoon has found a way to stage a massive jailbreak, with the help of those riding the attraction.
There’s a forced, awkward mechanic that involves everyone raising their hands in unison to get Rocket the security clearance he needs, but from there the music kicks in and the ride gets going. The gantry lift aggressively moves up and down, revealing brief cut scenes with Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, and the rest of the cast, in between perilous free-falls. The ride has six different variations, each set to their own song — I got Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” all three times I rode last week — but ultimately there’s not really any story or larger immersive aspect to Mission Breakout! It’s a roller coaster, executed with raucous, rock n’ roll swagger, but that’s all there is to it.
Coming on the heels of our visit to Pandora, it was shocking how noticeable the difference between an immersive theme park experience and a traditional park ride became. It started the moment I stepped off Mission Breakout! and headed to the gift shop. I was expecting trinkets and souvenirs from The Collector’s personal gift shop; instead, I was surrounded by a bunch of T-shirts and merchandise from The Avengers and every other Marvel character I could think of. Essentially, I was dropped back into my own cynical, commercial reality — and after having just tried the immersive alternative in Orlando, it made the idea of a standalone ride in Anaheim seem forgettable.
An immersive Avengers world would be as exotic as traveling to New York
The shift provides a particularly interesting challenge for Disney. As reported by Variety, Disney Parks chairman Bob Chapek promised that more Marvel-inspired attractions will be coming to its parks, and with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s continued dominance the company would no doubt like to do it sooner rather than later. But Marvel’s world seems almost antithetical to the larger immersive strategy that’s worked so well for Harry Potter, and has Star Wars fans salivating. The MCU continuity takes place in a mirror version of our own world, and there’s really no overarching place that an immersive “Marvel World” could logically be set in. A park dedicated to The Avengers would amount to simply recreating New York City — about as alluring as a studio backlot tour. It may mean that Marvel’s presence in the company’s parks remain simpler, standalone experiences — but that’s a far cry from the kind of overlapping, interconnected creative world that Landau envisions for the Pandora park, or that the team behind Star Wars land have been hyping.
It also raises the question of how much influence theme parks may end up having on the film business itself. As far as movie audiences are concerned right now, the world of Avatar might as well not exist. The original film came out eight years ago, and we’ll see countless more Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and even Universal monster movies before we see another Na’vi on the big screen. But that’s what makes Pandora such an intriguing experiment: it has the potential to jump-start interest in a franchise that has otherwise been sitting dormant. Should that prove successful, it creates a scenario where a theme park will have been responsible for driving interest in a new movie rather than the other way around. In that world, immersive theme parks — and the narratives that can be told within them — can be used to launch new story ideas and characters, just as easily as a comic or tie-in novel.
Movies may not even be at the top of the food chain in that scenario. But at least they’ll still be alive and breathing, one part of the self-contained entertainment ecosystems that major franchises seem determined to become.