Training Trends from the Disney Trenches
Behind the Scenes at Pandora – The World of Avatar

By Chad Emerson

In the next issue, The Large Park Report will offer extensive coverage for the newly-opened Pandora—The World of Avatar which is arguably one of the most ambitious domestic theme park additions in decades.  Indeed, other than Harry’s Wizarding Worlds at Universal Orlando, few new additions rival Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in terms of sheer size, scope, and budget.

This coverage will include detailed looks at the merchandise, food and beverage, technology and attractions that make up Pandora.  However, before a place like Pandora can even open, months of training must go into both the technical operation of the attractions as well as the interactions with guests.  In this issue of The Large Park Report, we’ll preview the extensive employee training that Disney has invested in opening and operating its new Avatar-Land.

Guests shown with floating mountains and exotic plants at Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The attraction has required months of employee training. (Matt Stroshane, photographer)

Investing in Employee Training

When a theme park is investing tens of millions of dollars into a new park area, the temptation to value engineer the budget can be strong, especially as budgets filled with new technologies are notorious for cost-overruns.  One area that may seem like an easy cut would be the amount of non-technical training for employees assigned to the area.  While topics like ride safety and food safety are highly-regulated and thus not prone to these cuts, soft training such as immersing employees in the storylines that often tie the attractions and experiences together is a much easier target.

After all, while it’s nice for employees to be able to interact with guests using deep knowledge of the backstories and legends that make up a park area, most guests don’t buy a park ticket just for that.  Still though, if you’ve invested multi-millions and skimped on training, its akin to buying a house and deciding to not paint the exterior.  No matter how nice the interior is, the house still looks incomplete.

This is why large parks like Universal and Disney have invested significant sums in training the employees in both the technical and non-technical aspects of their jobs.  For example, at Universal Orlando, employees who work at the two Harry Potter park areas are given supplemental training beyond just the basics of the attractions.  Sometimes this involves how to do things but sometimes it also involves how not to do something.  Case in point:  though Harry Potter employees are encouraged to interact with guests, they are prohibited from personalizing their assigned role with additional details (such as whether they’ve ever met Harry and friends).

For the debut of Pandora, Disney has taken this level of soft training to another level.  This is impressive since Disney has long been the industry leader in employee (or what they call cast members) training. While the scope of this training has been reduced in recent years, most Disney employees still go through training sessions focused on the history of Disney and the principles that Walt Disney founded his parks on.

At Pandora, Disney (working closely with Avatar creator James Cameron) refined this level of soft training with specific attention to the back stories that make up the Avatar universe.   This was not as simple as a few intensive training sessions though when you consider the fact that Pandora is the largest expansion at Animal Kingdom since the park opened in 1998.  Hundreds of employees would have to be immersed in the fictional world of Avatar—a world that James Cameron created in great detail much like George Lucas did with the Star Wars universe.  This even included a unique fictional language and dialect for Avatar which Disney would require Pandora cast members in certain roles to learn to speak.

Needless to say, this was probably one of the first theme park job descriptions that included “learn to speak a fictional language”!

In addition to learning pieces of a new language, Disney also invested extensive resources into teaching certain cast members about the faux flora and fauna of Pandora as well as the culture that makes up its fictional inhabitants.  While this may seem over the top in some ways, it represents a smart investment since one of the most anticipated features of Pandora is the bioluminescent trees and plants that combine to effectively create their own light show in the evenings.  While the trees and plants are actually man-made, Disney opted to give them an extra level of immersiveness by training cast members to basically serve as fictional botanists from another world.

Of course, an easy reaction to all this investment is that only large operators like Universal or Disney can afford to spend the resources on this level of soft training.  Though that may be true to some extent, the reality is that soft training is simply another form of customer service.  While technical training is critical to safety and maintenance, soft training (like learning the storylines behind the themes or characters of an attraction) allow employees to connect with your guests on more than just a functional level.  Plus, in many cases, requiring employees to learn the backstory of a super hero or other fictional character affiliated with a ride or show can be fun for the employee and gives them a sense of involvement that is deeper than just making sure the turnstiles are working.

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