Why comparing Avatar with Harry Potter is a bad idea

March 1, 2017, 12:43 PM · 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?

Replies (28)

March 1, 2017 at 12:59 PM

I would go check out Avatar if I was already planning a trip to Florid and visiting the park. However, I won't go there *because* of Avatar. Conversely, the opening of Wizarding World prompted me to fly 2,000 miles -- once for the opening of the original land and again for the debut of Diagon Alley.

Now, that being said, when Star Wars Land opens, I'll be there. That moves the needle for this theme park fan.

March 1, 2017 at 1:13 PM

I think that the execution counts 85% of the time. The other 15% would be the IP. WWOHP consists of great execution, ride and thematic wise, with the ever so popular HP IP. Avatar for one hand, has a poor IP fan base as compared to HP, yet the land will attract many for its visually stunning landscape. The rides, we shall see (for they're rumored to be clones). It'll attract many people and be successful probably, but not to the level of HP as Disney executives are hoping/Pixie Dusters.

March 1, 2017 at 1:31 PM

Interesting analysis. Honestly, I could not care less how Pandora affects the Orlando market. What I want to know is whether it's worth the added expensive of going to Florida. Since I don't think Avatar/Pandora will ever have the same emotional impact that the Harry Potter franchise does I'm skeptical. I'm not even sure if I would agree with the implied premise that because there were no people in Cars it automatically made Cars Land it less immerse. But it will definitely be a much needed addition to DAK and maybe that is what's really important, and not how it will affect the Orlando market or whether it bring in more visitors to WDW. Star Wars Land will be the really big immerse, multi-generational, emotional connected land that will likely exceed even Harry Potter's Wizarding World.

March 1, 2017 at 1:43 PM

Great points. My wife hates The Simpsons but she loved The Simpsons ride and the surrounding Springfield area. She also dislikes Star Wars (which I love... crazy, right?), but loves Star Tours. On top of that, very few visitors have even seen Song of the South, yet people ADORE Splash Mountain. IPs can be simply be foundations for great experiences. You don't need to LOVE the IP to LOVE the attraction. Everything that is crucifying this project before it even debuts needs to relax and wait until they experience Pandora- the land, before the judge it based off of Avatar- the movie.

March 1, 2017 at 1:55 PM

Spot on, as usual.

In the era of fanboys/girls so many opinions are black and white, one or the other. I like Marvel, therefore DC must suck. Star Wars vs Star Trek. Disney vs Universal. The real world isn't so binary.

Pandora may be as big as Potter, it may (probably) not, I'm sure neither the Disney or Universal execs give a damn. What matters to us is, is it enjoyable, do we have fun there? I think on the front Disney will have a success.

March 1, 2017 at 2:15 PM

Agreed. Pandora doesn't have to be a Potter Swatter. It just has to be good.

Besides, the real Potter Swatter will be Star Wars Land.

March 1, 2017 at 2:25 PM

Well, the true comparison is Harry Potter vs Star Wars. We knows who wins that bet. Avatar is the appetizer. Star Wars is the entrée.

March 1, 2017 at 2:30 PM

Disney will have a success if guests flock to AK and stay for dinner and buy souvenirs. Their night time offerings, up until now. didn't gave the return on investment, that is why the night offerings stopped.
Now there is finally the Rivers of Light show that is nice to see but, according to the many reviews just doesn't is there (yet).
With the addition of Avatar the scale maybe tip. That would make it a success. But I'm wondering when they'll see a return on investment because all of this costed the company at least 3 Harry Potter expansions.

March 1, 2017 at 5:31 PM

I think the arguement is that Universal has officially passed Disney as the innovator and leader. Disney has been trying to match Harry Potter land for almost a decade now. Disney is like Microsoft they take some stuff from Apple/Universal but it is not its as polished. They also spend a lot more money and take a lot longer to do less. Dragon Alley was built quicker and cost way less then new Fanastyland. Disney is too conservative to invest in new ride systems and instead recycles Test Track for Cars land, Soarin for Avatar, or off the shelf coasters for Mine Train and the future Mine Train Slankey dog ride. Universal on the other hand improves and invents new ride systems while keeping the best elements from Spider-Man and Mummy. Disney has become too big and disconnected from their core fans and Soarin over Avatar land is the nuking the fridge or jumping the shark moment where they distance their biggest supporters even more. I'm more excited to see concept art for Nintendo land then this

March 1, 2017 at 5:46 PM

I heard a very similar thought from another wise theme park man who isn't Mr. Niles.

Universal had to do something, they were really running flat and had to come up with something to bring people in their gates. They succeeded. Disney on its worst day (or month or year) is still outpacing the rest of the Orlando competition. If you want to find the roadkill of this competition, its Sea World.

Also, more people at Universal really do mean more people at WDW. Disney still has the edge that people are going to spend at least one day at the Magic Kingdom if somebody is in Orlando.

Disney has also proved that they can build a successful attraction with weak (or controversial IP). Example: Splash Mountain

March 1, 2017 at 6:10 PM

Completely agree Robert, the Avatar vs Harry Potter chats are tired and pointless. Avatar won't be a failure if it doesn't sell as much as HP and won't be a success if it draws more people opening month. All that matters is that is sustains Disney's long-term goal of keeping people coming to the parks.

March 1, 2017 at 8:05 PM

I think Avatar looks great and I'm really excited for it, that said the Avatar world (as of right now) is not nearly as developed as the HP world. HP continues to have legions of devoted fans and new fans emerge every year as new children continue to read the books and become introduced to HP. I'm not convinced that Avatar will have the staying power of HP but like others have said the IP doesn't have to be super strong for the land or attractions to be good.

March 1, 2017 at 8:21 PM

Avatar Land won't reach The Wizarding World to its toes. Nothing is anywhere close to the following and popularity of Harry Potter worldwide.

March 2, 2017 at 12:21 AM

It'd be impressive if it can switch up the popularities of the parks within disney world

March 2, 2017 at 12:30 PM

Robert, you do make some excellent points.

Still, I think it is a valid thought to compare what Disney is doing to what Universal is doing at any given moment since they are the two major theme parks in Orlando. Disney continues to roll out mediocre stuff at a snails pace, and I will never give them a pass just because they are Disney.

Universal, on the other hand, continues to excite with innovative ride systems, continually improved theming (Diagon Alley, Reign of Kong), and large dedication of capital. They recently purchased a huge chunk of new land. Although not a water park guy, Volcano Bay looks to be well themed and a new take on water parks. They will do some great things with Nintendo IP (like Mario Kart!) And they have dedicated a huge recent investment in ownership of USJ.

As far as Avatar Land, I'm extremely excited to check it out. And I'm even more excited about Star Wars Land. But I'm most excited to see what Universal announces over the next few years.

March 2, 2017 at 11:24 AM

Whether humans can feel right at home in an alien environment populated with 10 foot blue people is debatable. The argument against an Avatar land has always been that a lot of people don't care about the characters, or can even name one.

March 2, 2017 at 12:14 PM

I've always been a bigger fan of Universal Studios over any Disney parks. All though we have been to all the Disney parks both in Orlando and Anaheim at least once the only parks we go back to year over year are the Universal ones.

Avatar does look amazing however and all though I wouldn't plan a trip simply to go see it like we did with the Harry Potter lands I do look forward to checking it out the next time we go to Orlando for Universal. Will just have to add a day so we can go check it out.

I can't wait to see the numbers on this land weather or not it will draw new people to go to Disney simply to see it. Obviously that park will have a huge spike in attendance but will it be from new people visiting Orlando or simply more traffic from the ones already there? I wish them the best but I don't think it will be as big a draw as the Harry Potter lands.

March 2, 2017 at 8:34 PM

The problem with this is that Avatar still has to get people into the park that normally wouldn't have bothered. Which is actually more of an uphill battle for Disney than it was for Universal. People who NEVER went to UO made special plans to visit. How many people who have NEVER been to WDW will make special plans to visit Pandora? Disney builds things that tend to excite their own fanbase. This isn't Frozen or Star Wars, IPs that even mediocre half-attractions get people slobbering. Avatar didn't make its "record-breaking" box office from a rabid fanbase - like those movies did - but from excessive hype and upcharges.

Even if everything about the land is praised incessantly, it will still only be a mild success. It will make Animal Kingdom seem like a place to actually spend a full day, and it will add to that park's dismal attraction total. It might bring back the attendance lost last summer. But I don't see people falling all over themselves to buy Avatar-branded merchandise. And I don't see the actual attractions selling merchandise either, not the way the Tower of Terror or Pirates of the Caribbean can sell. Which leaves it up to the food, and it's doubtful there's a butterbeer successor to be found.

And, really, that's where it will be decided if this land is a failure or a success. If guest-spending within AK doesn't go up, the land WON'T be seen as a success by Disney, even with an attendance boost. It was simply too costly to rely solely on increased admission. But the real cost will come in the future. WDW just won't spend money anymore on untested IPs. Star Wars will get money thrown at it. Frozen might still get a worthwhile attraction one day. And Marvel might start making a dent somewhere outside the Tower of Terror. And even with these surefire properties, it'll still probably take a decade to build anything... after they've first tested them with cheap character meets, half-hearted live performances and Planet-Hollywood-level museum exhibits.

March 3, 2017 at 12:48 AM

Honestly, overall, Disney is now innovating more than Universal. Forbidden Journey was innovative, but virtually every other new ride since Spider-Man is more or less another version of Spider-Man. 4D/simulators/motion base rides have become a major crutch for Universal Creative. Where's the innovation in pushing the limits of screens, screens and yet more screens?

March 3, 2017 at 3:02 AM

Just you wait ... Just you wait ...

March 3, 2017 at 6:39 AM

I'm waiting.....I'm waiting....

March 3, 2017 at 4:45 PM

The one big thing this new land will change is about what parks to visit when in Disney. Animal Kingdom has almost nothing worth the prices, so it's usually left behind. This new Pandora Land could change that. But still, nothing to do with Universal's Wizarding World.

March 5, 2017 at 10:40 AM

AK is now undoubtedly a full day or multi-day park, and the new offerings will draw crowds away from the Magic Kingdom (which is always needed).

March 4, 2017 at 8:57 PM

I read the same thing on the discussion page a few hours ago.

March 5, 2017 at 7:44 AM

HP was specifically written / made for kids. (Upgrowing teenage)
Avatar was not specifically intended for kids at all.
Thus, Disney will attract a more mature public, in that Pandora corner. Mature people do not shout around so much... :-) ... not jumping around as fans, not writing on forum websites... nowhere. They just will come and enjoy, when it's ready.

Different age bracket marketing, people !

March 5, 2017 at 10:43 AM

Potter appeals to all ages. Millions of adults have read the books. They have crossover appeal, which is why the books sold hundreds of millions of copies.

March 5, 2017 at 1:26 PM

'Still a fan', such a statement does not touch the correct statistic marketing reality.
Every IP appeals to 'all ages' (no exception), but in vastly different age bracket partitions. As professionals, we DO take that reality into account.

March 6, 2017 at 5:54 AM

To think that Avatarland was not Disney's reaction to WWOHP is foolish. They wouldn't have spent tons for licensing and delt with the netoriously difficult James Cameron if they didn't think so.

As far as wholly immersive land based off of a single theme (I hate the term IP) Disney did all this first with Mysterious Island and Port Discovery at Tokyo Disney Sea back in 2001. In fact with the "SEA" backstory it could be argued that the entire park is unified with a single immersive theme.

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