A Wall Street analyst asked SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby yesterday if he thought that Walt Disney World's upcoming Pandora - The World of Avatar land would have the same effect upon the Orlando theme park market as Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter had when it opened in 2010.
Potter allowed Universal to replace SeaWorld as the number-two destination in the Orlando, behind Disney. SeaWorld Orlando's attendance peaked the year before Potter opened and has been sliding pretty much every year since then. So if any out business outside of NBCUniversal understands the power of the Harry Potter franchise and what it can do to competing theme parks, it's SeaWorld.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with both its original version and its Diagon Alley expansion in 2014, established a new standard for theme park attractions. In the post-Potter theme park industry, world-class lands no longer just provide the setting for great rides and shows, they become the attractions themselves, by immersing visitors in a convincing practical replication of a fantastic world.
SeaWorld was the first park in Orlando to attempt to match Universal's Potter land with an immersive new land of its own. Unfortunately, in Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin, SeaWorld chose to replicate the most inhospitable continent on Earth — not exactly the dreamy Scottish village with warm pubs and ever-present magic that Universal had to offer. Antarctica was SeaWorld's largest capital investment to date, but it failed to win enough of the fans who kept flocking to Potter and Universal.
Walt Disney World expanded and dressed up its Magic Kingdom Fantasyland in 2012, largely in response to Potter. But that expansion still left Fantasyland without any unifying single franchise theme, as Potter offered. It remained a setting, rather than a platform. Disney did create a Potter-like, immersive, single-franchise land on the west coast, with the debut of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure the same year. But human beings had no presence in the Cars franchise, limiting the emotional connections that people could feel as participants in the land, the way they could connect with Potter through Universal's Wizarding World.
But this year, with Pandora - The World of Avatar, Disney finally brings its American fans a land built upon the Potter template: an visually inviting, immersive land, devoted to a single franchise, where human visitors have an explicit role to play as participants in the land.
So will it be as good, or better than Potter? This is the point where I answer, "who cares?"
Arguments over Potter vs. Avatar inevitably end up devolving into a battle of numbers: how much money did Avatar make at the box office versus any or all of the Potter films? How many books did each franchise sell? How much merchandise? How active are their fan communities, online and IRL? How many more movies are planned for each? And how much will they earn?
If we must go there, then Potter is the stronger franchise than Avatar at the moment, without question. Even the highest-grossing motion picture of all time cannot at this moment top the collection of nine movies, multiple books, a play, and four theme park lands — all unquestionable financial successes — that Potter now offers.
But Potter versus Avatar isn't the issue here. It's Pandora versus the Wizarding World — the battle of the theme park lands. And even that imagined conflict isn't particularly relevant, given the current positions of Disney and Universal in the Orlando-area theme park market.
Pandora isn't going to change Disney's position in the Orlando market, the way that Potter flipped Universal and SeaWorld. Disney is the leader now, by a wide margin, and will continue to be the leader once Pandora opens. Pandora is not going to help establish a new creative leader in the industry, either. Disney's long dominated the creative leadership of themed entertainment design. Potter helped amplify Universal's voice, but Disney never lost its role in that conversation.
Disney does not need Avatar to become a more popular or lucrative franchise than Potter for Pandora to be a success. It simply needs Pandora to provide a solid financial return on its (rather substantial) investment.
If Pandora brings more people to the Walt Disney World Resort, enticing them to stay longer and spend more money than they would have without it, then Pandora and Disney win. If Pandora inspires visitors to go home and tell their family and friends, "you've got to go to Disney and see this!," then Pandora and Disney win. And, if on top of these victories, Pandora inspires people to consider the real-world issues that Joe Rohde and the land's designers are addressing symbolically, then Pandora and Disney win.
Harry Potter and Universal figure into none of these hypotheticals.
If anything, a new attraction that draws more visitors to the Orlando area only helps Universal. Theme park competition doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, where one park's success comes at the expense of its competitors. If SeaWorld had built a more enticing response to Potter than Antarctica, it's likely that its attendance would have climbed along with Universal's. (I continue to mourn for what SeaWorld could have done with the How to Train Your Dragon franchise during that brief moment when it owned some of the DreamWorks Animation theme parks rights in the U.S.) With Potter's continuing appeal, a new water theme park, a fresh supply of new attractions and hotels coming every year, Universal Orlando will continue to push its attendance, even with Pandora open down the road at Disney.
And Universal, of all companies, showed that even a weak movie franchise can spawn a wildly successful theme park attractions. Waterworld, the movie, might be one of Hollywood's all-time duds, but Universal Studios Hollywood's Waterworld stunt show endures as an industry classic, winning the Themed Entertainment Association's Thea Classic Award this year.
If Universal could build a fan-favorite attraction from Waterworld, surely Walt Disney Imagineering can build something wonderful from Avatar. And as much as some fans enjoy dogging it, Avatar is no Waterworld. This is a successful franchise, even if it's not yet at the level of Potter, Marvel, or Star Wars. There are great components to play with here: floating mountains, bioluminescent forests, and classic archetypal themes of mankind's relationship with nature.
So the important question is not whether Pandora will affect the Orlando market like The Wizarding World did. Or whether Avatar will be more or less successful than Potter. The question is... when Pandora opens and the first videos and reviews hit the Internet, how badly will you — and millions of other theme park fans — want to spend money to go see it?Tweet
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