Animal Kingdom: Disney’s Final Theme Park?

We’re deep into the summer months now. Schools have liberated their students for a few short months. Families have packed up their minivans. And theme parks are rolling out their red carpets.

Come every Memorial Day, we’re delivered a smörgåsbord of new adventures from across the globe. 2017 is no exception. An entire park from Universal Orlando. A “new” ride in Anaheim. “And a new life on a different world” in the World of Mouse (and yes, that is a quote from 2009 blockbuster hit).

So, there’s no shortage of opinions floating around out there. Let’s see if we can quickly hit the top five…

“They better not touch Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror.”

“No one cared about Avatar in 2009 and no one cares today.”

“Is it the most immersive land ever build? Maybe.”

“Another waterpark?”

“What the hell is a cheeseburger pod?”

In an attempt to provide you with something fresh, I’d like to dive a little deeper about the deeper implications of Walt Disney World’s hotter-than-sliced-bread, Pandora: The World of Avatar.

Where is WDW headed?

Two-hundred fifty minute waits. A two hour queue to enter a “land.” A 45-minute wait to walk into a gift shop? Clearly Disney has a home run on its hands. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or even a bold prediction to say that Pandora will breathe an entirely new life into the previously-half-day Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Now, guests have a true reason to make the formerly “zoo with rollercoasters” park a can’t-miss full-day journey. Breakfast at Satul’i Canteen in Pandora can be followed up with a late morning trip across the safari. Children can explore DinoLand U.S.A. through the afternoon. Treks through Asia and Africa can quickly fill a day. Then a smattering of meet-and-greets and, maybe, a cool-down in the Tree of Life theater will can carry you straight to dinner, when the park begins to strut its new feathers.

Pandora explodes into one of the most astounding nighttime spectaculars Disney has ever assembled (and it’s not even a show). Rivers of Light offers the chance to watch a lightshow that proves fireworks aren’t necessary. Last, even the Tree of Life shows that Imagineers can make just about any surface a movie screen.

Any moderate Disney fanboy can draw up their new full-day Animal Kingdom plans without any difficulty. But what’s new is – Pandora let’s you build a cohesive adventure unlike any before it. When you step into Disney’s fourth gate, the park feels complete. This is the type of park you recall stepping into when you were a small child. It was walking through Magic Kingdom without Marvel t-shirts in your face, exploring the streets of Hollywood without rumors of another takedown, or just experiencing the quiet of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

At the forefront of the PR push from Disney for Pandora, we’re seeing Jon Landau and Joe Rohde using the same phrase over and over and over.

“It just fits so well into Animal Kingdom.”

They’re not lying. It’s the perfect puzzle piece to the previously incomplete park. It’s about nature. It’s about conservation. It’s about connecting with the natural world. It’s about exploring the great outdoors (even it’s on another moon).

The cohesiveness of Animal Kingdom is unmissable. The park has an identity. It tells stories. It takes you away from central Florida. It’s the type of story Walt dreamed of telling.

Now, when your eyes turn away from Animal Kingdom, you start to wonder – will Disney ever achieve this magic again? To start, no. Decidedly not so in Magic Kingdom. A park that was built to take you as quickly from land to land as possible. Magic Kingdom has been telling the same story since it’s (similar) gates first opened in Anaheim, so there’s no lack of strong narrative – but it’s still not cohesive.

EPCOT, on the other hand, is a park at the opposite end of the spectrum. Even the Imagineers will admit that they (quite literally) pushed together two ideas into one park. Each splice of the park has attempted to tell its story through the years. That message has not only been on the decline, but also appears to be on the way out. With the impending IPCOT makeover (an entirely different matter), it’s clear that Disney has Disney’s interests in mind. Telling a cohesive story is less important than selling tickets to the park (and promoting the brand).

And the next destination up the pike, is Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Oh, what a mess that’s become. Right now you have a smattering of Disney IP, Hollywood magic and a sprinkling of Star Wars (and a rock band). Think this is very cohesive? Even when Bob Iger proudly unveils the most anticipated park land ever built in 2019, do you really think he’ll be talking about the cohesiveness of Hollywood Studios? Nope.

At that point in time you’ll have Toy Story Land, Star Wars Land and an odd collection of Hollywood magic all right next to each other. What is this? Two movie franchises and a street? It just feels weird when you stack that next to the brand that Animal Kingdom has so delicately built.

At the end of it all, however, this begs the question… Does it matter?

I’ve spent all this time lamenting the lack of cohesion across 75% of Disney’s property in Orlando, but do people really care? Would Walt have cared?

Let’s circle back to the idea of a Disney theme park. Walt wanted distinct experiences in each of the lands, so much so that he restarted his idea after seeing cowboys walk through Tomorrowland. In his new theme park in Orlando, that was going to be different. He cared about cohesion…but mostly inside each area of the park.

As the number of universes continues to grow in Disney’s IP library, fans will clamor for their newfound love to have a theme park home. So…what’s wrong with a collection of world’s that you can visit in a day? Isn’t this Magic Kingdom’s original mission?

Animal Kingdom is the last remaining “complete” theme park Disney that may ever be built… But that’s nothing to cry over. It’s something to admire. It’s something to appreciate. From here on out, let’s embrace immersive experiences inside parks, even if their neighbor doesn’t make sense.

Just as long as their aren’t Toy Soldiers walking through Tatooine, I think Walt would be happy with the way things are.

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