Disney’s Calculated Bet – Avatar at Florida’s Animal Kingdom

February 16, 2012 No Comments

Okay, two quick questions: Who is Jake Sully and what is a Na’vi? Not quite sure?
That shouldn’t be surprising because you’re probably in good company as it relates to the number of average Americans who don’t know the answer without first Googling it.  While we haven’t found any official polls on how many Americans could correctly answer those two questions, the fact is that neither Jake Sully nor the Na’vi have thoroughly permeated the pop culture lexicon.
This is interesting because they are two central characters in the largest grossing movie of all-time, Avatar, the 2009 hit from super-director James Cameron. For theme park followers this is even more interesting in light of Disney’s recent announcement that it is developing an entire new area at the company’s Animal Kingdom park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., based on Avatar.
While the company has not announced specific details like price, size or attractions for the expansion, several industry vets have expressed curiosity, if not downright skepticism, about Disney’s decision to license the Avatar franchise and build a multi-million dollar themed environment around it.
Part of this results from the very fact that the Avatar characters and storyline, despite their high grossing ticket sales, are not very familiar to many Americans.   Granted, sequels to the original have been approved and are in production, so it may be that this familiarity grows in the future.  Still though, Disney is placing a big bet on a franchise that has proven it can sell tickets but not necessarily become a social phenomenon.
Compare this approach to that of Universal Orlando, Disney’s main theme park competitor down Interstate 4 in Central Florida, and its licensing content strategy.  In the case of Universal Orlando, the company paid big money and ceded significant creative control in order to secure the domestic theme park rights for the Harry Potter franchise.  With the Boy Wizard came a well-known set of characters and storylines whose immense popularity spanned several generations.
With the two Florida theme park giants taking such different approaches, we decided to explore what are the key issues that should be considered when a theme park is considering the use of licensed creative content.   With Avatar, Disney secured the rights early in the lifetime of the franchise and, in doing so, hedged their bets that it would hopefully grow more popular over time.  Conversely, Universal obtained the rights well after Harry Potter had become a household name.

Is one approach better than the other?

To help answer that question, we reached out to two industry veterans who possess theme park design and operational experience when it comes to creative content and amusement attractions.
According to Brad Rex, the former vice president at Epcot, the decision to use licensed content should be considered in the broader context of how you want to theme your entire park.
“Most theme parks would benefit from a mixed strategy of both licensed and original characters,” explained Rex, currently the CEO at TBRG, LLC. “The licensed characters provide a marketable, ‘tent pole’ attraction that is known by consumers.  The original characters provide unique theming at much less expense.”
This ability to balance the better known/more expensive use of licensed content with less known/less expensive approach of developing your own original characters and storylines is a critical part of a successful business strategy.  Diversifying your strategy and embracing both “is a combination [that] maximizes the value to both the guest and operator,” noted Rex.
Once this balance has been struck, the key to the licensed content side of the ledger is to select characters and storylines that are most likely to have a lasting impact.
“A key challenge in focusing on licensed IPs or characters is shelf life,” explained Mel McGowan, chief creative officer at VSI Architects Leisure Group and a former Disney Imagineer.
While the temptation might be to license whatever movie or television characters are popular in the present time, McGowan noted that a better investment is one whose popularity is likely more sustaining.
Indeed, according to McGowan, that’s the approach that the theme park master himself took in developing his attractions.
“Walt Disney wisely built upon a foundation of immersive environments and experiences, many of which have successfully crossed cultures and eras,” explained McGowan.
Which leads us back to the Avatar versus Potter comparison.  Both are, or will soon become, major centerpiece attractions for their respective resorts.  Only Harry Potter though seems to have crossed cultural and generational lines in terms of awareness and popularity.
Could Avatar eventually do so?  That’s possible (though its failure to do so despite being the highest grossing movie of all time should raise potential red flags).
However, announcing and developing an entire themed environment around a lesser known franchise like Avatar is a big gamble, especially when Disney has a roster full of more popular characters including many new ones incoming from its recent billion-plus dollar purchase of Marvel.
Or, if determined to license content it did not own or had not internally developed, then Disney could have aimed for a more expansive demographic audience as well as lasting appeal by obtaining popular licensed rights (such as a Lord of the Rings theme park franchise).
For an industry behemoth like Disney, losing a gamble on Avatar could be overcome.  However, for most industry operators, carefully heeding the advice of Rex and McGowan can go a long way toward developing attractions that have broad appeal and a long life of popularity.
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at chaddemerson@gmail.com.)


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