Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that Avatar is coming to Disneyland Resort. This post shares everything we know so far (which is not very much) plus commentary and rampant speculation about what this could mean. (Updated March 8, 2023.)
This announcement came as offhand remarks during the Walt Disney Company’s first quarter fiscal 2023 earnings call. During that, Bob Iger reported that Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Disney Cruise Line did particularly well, with Disney Parks, Experiences and Products revenues for the quarter increasing 21% to $8.7 billion.
Iger went on to say that he’s “very, very bullish” on the future of Disney’s theme parks. “We have learned that when we invest in increasing capacity, with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge being a good example of that and Pandora a great example of that, we can grow our business,” he continued. Iger indicated that if you look at the results when Pandora – The World of Avatar was built in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the year-to-year growth numbers in terms of the number of people who visited were “stunning.”
With regard to the new Avatar experience coming to Disneyland, here’s what Iger had to say:
James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, which will be one of the most successful films of the quarter, became the fourth biggest film of all time globally with close to $2.2 billion earned in the box office to date. The global polarity of this film will result in the creation of more opportunities for fans to engage with the franchise.
They have been doing well at Walt Disney World’s Pandora: World of Avatar, as well as in theaters globally and on Disney+, the first film is delivering very strong numbers. Today I am thrilled to announce that we will be bringing an exciting Avatar experience to Disneyland. We will be sharing more details on that very soon.
Avatar represents yet another core franchise for the company and as you have seen, time and time again, we have a unique way of leveraging creative success.
March 8, 2023 Update: A new article by D23 offers Avatar actor reactions to the announcement, with most offering what I can only assume is feigned excitement for the addition at Disneyland Resort. Here’s a representative quote from Bailey Bass, who plays Metkayina clan member Tsireya in the film: “I am over the moon about the Avatar expansion to Disneyland [Resort]! As a huge Disney fan and fan of the Avatar rides in [Walt] Disney World, I am so excited for Avatar fans to be able to experience the world of Pandora at Disneyland. I cannot wait to see what the Avatar and Disney team creates. I already know it’s gonna be awe-inspiring, jaw dropping, and magical.”
The rest are more or less the same idea. The D23 piece goes on to indicate that although specifics about the Avatar experience remain under wraps, it “promises to be as amazing as those found at Walt Disney World Resort.” The article also quotes James Cameron, who said he was “thrilled to talk with Bob Iger about additional opportunities for people to step into the wondrous world of Pandora.”
Added Jon Landau, partner and COO of Lightstorm Entertainment and producer of the Avatar films, “Together with Disney’s Imagineers, and with future Avatar films already in production, we’re excited about where we might be able take future guests.”
Honestly, the substance of this is not particularly newsworthy or insightful. Some Disney fans have seized on the line that the Avatar experience at Disneyland will be “as amazing” as the one at Walt Disney World, concluding that this means it’ll be Pandora. We’d stop well short of that.
Read in full, this article is clearly a puff piece, meant to generate excitement among fans without actually saying anything. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it–D23 is a fan club and its role is maintaining momentum among Disney enthusiasts. This is in furtherance of that. Saying, “you might want to temper your excitement, because this is not going to be as good as Pandora at Animal Kingdom” would not serve that purpose and would be at odds with the article as a whole.
What’s more noteworthy, in my view, are the stealth edits that were done to the article. Originally, the article headline said “Pandora Coming to Disneyland Resort.” That was updated to “Avatar Experience Coming to Disneyland Resort.” Likewise, at least one actor quote was changed from mentioning Disneyland to “Disneyland [Resort].” The insistence on using “Disneyland Resort” could be a weird vernacular thing, or it could be deliberate–because this Avatar experience is not coming to Disneyland [Park].
Even more interesting than this article is what happened in the “background” at the same time. Disney announced that Bruce Vaughn is returning to co-lead Imagineering. Vaughn was the co-head of Imagineering during development of the original Pandora – World of Avatar, and could be returning for his project management expertise on that.
To that point, even during the earnings call Bob Iger was very deliberate in calling this a new Avatar experience coming to Disneyland Resort. Not a new Avatar attraction or Pandora – The World of Avatar, and not coming to Disneyland Park.
As we’ve pointed out countless times in the past, Iger is a master wordsmith who is great at sticking to the script, and also is cognizant of what different terms mean. (For example, he got the name of “Pandora – The World of Avatar” correct, rather than calling it “Avatar Land” or “The Theme Park in Florida With Blue Alien Sex Cats By Jimmy C.”)
If this were Chapek, we wouldn’t be parsing words–he wasn’t as on-message and fumbled with words all the time. In Chapek-speak, “Avatar Experience” could mean everything from a new blue churro to an entire 3rd gate.
However, since this is Bob Iger, our guess is that ‘experience’ was chosen purposefully because this is not a new attraction or land, but rather, something else. What is anyone’s guess. It could be a new Meta Quest VR game in Downtown Disney, an overlay of the Boudin Bakery Tour, walkaround mech suit dude in Pixar Pier, or build-a-banshee shop.
Obviously, some of these possibilities are jokes. While an Avatar Experience (like a Meta Quest VR game) replacing the old ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney makes a ton of sense, even that feels a bit on the small side to tease on an earnings call–and Bob Iger ended up mentioning this Avatar Experience twice. Once at the beginning of the call in the quoted part above, and again while answering an analyst’s question at the end.
Given that and the consequential nature of this call as Iger’s first back as CEO–one detailing cost-cutting, restructuring, and his big ambitions for the future–it seems unlikely that Iger would’ve drawn attention to an addition to Disneyland Resort unless it’s something of consequence. That’s doubly true given how well Avatar: The Way of Water has performed and James Cameron’s reputation as a demanding perfectionist. I don’t think he’d be particularly satisfied with an Avatar-themed bread tour.
With that said, I’m struggling to come up with other ways Avatar could fit into the existing theme parks and lands at Disneyland Resort. Perhaps a nighttime spectacular or projection show? (Again, unlikely in the near-term given that the Disney100 stuff just started.)
Maybe a reimagining of Hollywood Land that successfully shoe horns Avatar in without making it the fully-fledged (and thematically incongruous) Pandora – World of Avatar? There are currently several empty buildings in the backlot, and these could be converted into Avatar experiences to increase capacity. (One of the stated goals of Iger and D’Amaro, per the earnings call.)
If the intention is quickly increasing park capacity, similar possibilities involve utilizing existing spaces. Another prime piece of real estate is the Innoventions building in Tomorrowland. That is essentially flex space, and although it has a DVC lounge coming soon, that won’t take up the entire building.
One potential issue with all of these concepts is getting James Cameron on board. Again, he’s a perfectionist. Longtime fans might recall that there were considerable delays between the announcement of Pandora – World of Avatar for Walt Disney World, and commencement of construction. The rumors at the time suggested that Cameron and his insistence on high-quality attractions played a role. It’s thus difficult to see him getting on board with using ugly, abandoned buildings as a showcase for the Avatar franchise.
Who knows, though. Imagineering’s R&D lab has a lot of cool concepts, and if they could reskin one of those to be the Na’vi, maybe that would work.
One out of left field reimagining idea (h/t to Greg in the comments) that I really like is an overlay of Grizzly Peak. Well, I don’t actually like the idea–I love Grizzly Peak and don’t want to see this happen–but I think it makes sense and is a viable overlay.
Modeled after Northern California’s National Parks, this area is largely forest and is enough of a blank slate that the Na’vi could be weaved into Grizzly Peak relatively easily. Soarin’ could be redone to have an Avatar-based film (although the idea of the attractions is similar, it could not be the same as Flight of Passage) and Grizzly River Run could have Na’vi Audio Animatronics and other stuff added.
It’s a highly imperfect solution, but it seems the most sensible out of the available options if Imagineering is going to embark on a permanent reimagining. Disney California Adventure is now essentially a ‘studio park’ second gate anyway, so a forest of Pandora theme would likely be deemed close enough.
Accordingly, it is also possible that this is a new themed land or attraction that expands one of the existing parks. We don’t want to foreclose that possibility based on semantics. After all, Bob Iger did bet big on Avatar – The World of Avatar several years ago and he was also behind the acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Moreover, based on his social media posts, it seems like Iger has a personal affinity for Avatar and James Cameron.
At this point, it’s patently obvious that Avatar: The Way of Water is a rousing success, with James Cameron (yet again) proving his haters wrong while filmgoers soil themselves in delight while enjoying the sequel. With a half-dozen or so sequels already announced, it seems like Avatar is a bona fide franchise that is strategically important to Disney in the long term. While the media continues to hammer on (and be wrong about) Avatar’s lack of cultural impact, the movies have been huge hits that’ll continue to rake in billions at the box office.
If this “Avatar Experience” coming to Disneyland Resort is a new attraction or land, it would make sense for this expansion to occur at Disney California Adventure. We doubt that the remaining expansion areas in Disneyland are sufficiently large for an Avatar area or attraction. One left field possibility is that an Avatar area could be part of the illusory third gate that’s been teased as part of DisneylandForward.
The possibilities of DisneylandForward are really exciting. However, it’s really all about paving the way for future developments of an uncertain nature by giving Disney more autonomy over land use by relaxing the DRSP. Up until now, Disney has essentially been saying, “give us authority to build whatever we want, then we’ll tell you what, if anything, we’re going to build.”
Attaching concrete plans for Pandora – The World of Avatar to a new gate might make DisneylandForward more compelling, and increase the likelihood of its approval. That seems pretty far-fetched, but there aren’t a ton of other great/interesting options, and that would give DisneylandForward momentum.
Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Based on their recent public statements and interviews, it’s pretty obvious that CEO Bob Iger and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro have big plans for future development at the domestic parks. This is something we cover at length in Bob Iger Wants to Build Big Expansions at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It’s pretty clear that major things are on the horizon. The questions are what and where, and it would seem that “Avatar” and “Disneyland Resort” are two of the vague answers.
I’ve gotta admit, I was initially skeptical that this would amount to an actual addition of substance (or permanence), but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that’s the case as of our March 2023 update to this news. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if whatever happens occurs in phases, with a temporary “experience” leading up to the debut of a large-scale land, with both being announced simultaneously in the coming months. We’ll continue monitoring this developing story and provide updates and analysis as more details are revealed, so stay tuned!
What do you think of Disneyland Resort getting an Avatar Experience? What form do you expect this ‘experience’ to take? Think it’ll be an attraction, clone of Pandora – The World of Avatar, Boudin Bakery Bread Tour overlay, or something else entirely? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!