Disney opening Avatar in phases: Terrible idea, or no big deal?
Published: November 13, 2013 at 11:08 PM
Avatar land concept art courtesy Disney
Opening New Fantasyland in phases didn't hurt Disney's bottom line. Disney's theme park division earlier this month reported big earnings for the year, driven by increased attendance at the Magic Kingdom, where a big ticket price increase didn't trim the crowds. It only added to the money that New Fantasyland helped the company earn.
Also to consider: If you're willing to stretch the definition of the word, all theme parks develop in phases. Theme parks stop developing new lands and attractions only just before they close forever. The huge costs of some theme park developments force companies to spread the work, so that plans often come to life in stages, even if they're not always sold to the public that way.
Would fans rather see four new attractions open over two or three years, or settle for just one or two attractions at once? Obviously, the most enthusiastic fans would like to see everything, all at once, but that's almost never an option.
The challenge for theme parks is to manage fans' expectations. Insider reports suggest that Universal had a phased plan for its development of Harry Potter all along, one that would begin in Islands of Adventure, then expand to Universal Studios Florida. But no one thoughts of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter as "phase one" of Universal's plan. Fans saw it as a complete work, unto itself, and embraced it as such. Universal kept its entire focus on the initial development, and word of "phase two" didn't leak until well after the Wizarding World's debut. (Though, in hindsight, the way that Universal branded the Wizarding World almost as a separate entity instead of making it subordinate to Islands of Adventure should have provided a big clue that Universal had grander plans for the development — plans that extended beyond IoA.)
Getting fans to see a project as complete is key. Fans understand that theme parks aren't complete works, but platforms for an ever-expanding and often-changing line-up of attractions. But fans don't want to feel ripped off by paying for incomplete attractions within those parks.
That's the big problem with Walt Disney World's approach to New Fantasyland. Disney built the edges of New Fantasyland first, and left the middle for last. The literal centerpiece of the new land, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, will be the last thing to come online, more than two years after New Fantasyland's first elements opened to the public.
That created an impression of an unfinished land for many visitors. If Disney had completed the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train first, then waited two years to open, say, The Little Mermaid ride, one suspects that many fewer fans would have taken to the Internet to complain. New Fantasyland would have felt complete upon the opening of the Mine Train, and then felt as though it was simply growing even bigger when Mermaid opened. Construction that way would have proceeded at all times beyond the park's apparent boundaries, instead of happening so conspicuously within it, as has been the case for the past several years.
If Disney builds Avatar in phases that gradually extend Animal Kingdom's boundaries, most fans might not even notice the phased implementation. But if phase one leaves a giant, under-construction Tree of Souls in the middle of the land, surrounded by wooden walls and a solicitation to come back in three years to see the rest of Avatar, Disney ought to brace itself for a flood of fan complaints.
Still, as we mentioned, Disney's experience with New Fantasyland suggests that such a flood of complains won't stop the flood of those visitors' money.