October 2011: Disney announced a new land coming to Animal Kingdom based on the Avatar movie series, and comparisons to Universal’s “land” based on the Harry Potter movies began immediately. In most cases, the comments criticized Disney’s move, pointing out strength in the Harry Potter brand compared to the Avatar brand – Harry Potter is beloved not just for his location but for his personality; Harry Potter has a series of books and will be popular for many more years; Harry Potter is, well, Harry Potter.
Who can name a single resident of Pandora? (That’s the planet/moon avatars live on, in case you can’t even remember that.)
However, a comparison between Avatar and Harry Potter has a systemic problem: They’re not the same. They’re based on popular movies; and yes, major Orlando theme parks bought the rights to create a “land.” But that’s where the similarities end.
Universal had its hands tied when it created The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It had to look right. The drinks had to taste right. The shops had to feature wands and magic tricks and Hogwarts capes. Universal didn’t create Harry Potter’s world; it Xeroxed it, with mandatory approval along the way by the book’s creator, J.K. Rowling. That gave Universal built-in demand but little creative leeway.
Disney, however, has freedom to create, making the success of its new land, due to debut in 2016, dependent on Disney imagineers’ creativity more than licensing contracts.
Why Disney made a smart move
• Disney doesn’t have to please fans. In Harry Potter’s world at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, moaning Myrtle kvetches inside a restroom – a neat touch – but it’s not the restroom from the movie. That grates on Harry Potter’s fans. However, Disney can do no wrong with Avatar, providing they make everything pretty and blue is the dominant color.
• Disney can create a new hero. Perhaps a new teenage avatar – a cousin, say, to the movie’s star-crossed lover – can get into trouble while exploring Pandora’s self-lighting wilderness. Guests can follow his adventures without wondering what happened to everyone else.
• Disney doesn’t have to worry about visitors who haven’t seen the movie. The land speaks for itself – a recreation of a far-away world that stands on its own. The concept won’t grow old even when the movie franchise becomes dated. Even fans will accept bizarre plants that never appeared on a silver screen.
• Disney can ignore the movie’s main theme. Avatar is movie is about war; about native residents battling those who would steal their land. While conflict can be expected on at least one Disney ride, this land can focus on Animal Kingdom’s core message: Stewardship of the environment and man’s (avatar’s) place in the ecosystem.
Why Disney might stumble
• Avatars don’t show weakness. It’s tough to relate to Avatars. We root for their culture, but figure the main characters can take care of themselves because, well, they’re better than us. Harry Potter and friends have dimension – they make mistakes, they cry, they stumble, they succeed. As a group, the Avatars are an ideal of greatness, of family, of strength against diversity. However, few people even remember the individual Na’vi’s names – Neytiri, Eytukan, or Mo’at. (You need a lot of apostrophes in Na’vi.) Without a personal weakness, audiences can’t relate. Will little girls prefer blue skin and tails to a Princess Aurora tiara? Disney goes into this venture with a pretty planet but no emotional touch point.
• At least one ride has to be great, and it can’t be a roller coaster. Universal’s main Harry Potter ride introduced new storytelling techniques, and mixed them up along the way. If Disney hopes to retain the “king of theme parks” crown, guests must believe – if only for a few minutes – that they’re actually on a blue-tinted planet with floating mountains and 15-story hardwood trees. It also should have some new technology element that gets critics saying, “Most amazing ride ever,” and potential visitors saying, “We can’t wait to go.”
• The next two movies must be good. Attitudes about Disney’s Avatar will be based on the Avatar movies released over the next few years – and not just how well they’re written or filmed. An evil Na’vi or emotionally torn central characters could build enthusiasm. A destroyed Na’vi in the final film – a lesson to all of us who would destroy our planet – could make Disney’s land a sad memorial.