Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Avatar-themed attraction opens three months from today, and there's a lot riding on the May 27 debut of Pandora -- The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's Disney World's largest investment in a theme park expansion since 2012's New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.
Guests will cross a bridge to enter the tropical moon that James Cameron created in fleshing out 2009's box office smash into what will become a lush theme park land. The new area's two signature rides feature a tranquil river ride through Pandora's bioluminescent rainforest and a more lively simulated flight on one of the film's flying banshees.
Pandora -- The World of Avatar is going to be the centerpiece of Disney's push to woo families this summer after sluggish attendance trends last year. Disney should get it right, but let's go over a few things that can still go wrong.
1. Avatar may be too racy for young families
Disney offered up some more details of Pandora -- The World of Avatar on its official blog last week. A complaint voiced in the typically pro-Disney comments section is that the original film's PG-13 rating has kept a parent from introducing the film to her kids given the salty language and adult situations in Avatar.
Skeptics have questioned Disney's move to go with Avatar as the basis for Animal Kingdom's transformative expansion for years. The movie was all the rage when it came out, ushering in the multiplex revival of 3D screenings, but history hasn't been kind to the film's staying power. Few remember the plot -- think Dances with Wolves armed with killer special effects -- and even fewer moviegoers will remember the characters.
The franchise hasn't aged as well as other blockbusters, but now the new concern is that parents don't want to expose kids to Avatar to get them up to speed in the first place. Yes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was also slapped with a PG-13 rating, but it's tame when it comes to language and sexual situations.
Young families don't need to know a franchise intimately to enjoy the theme park's incarnation. Most kids at Disney World have never seen the racially insensitive Song of the South, but that doesn't get in the way of enjoying Splash Mountain. However, there's a lot riding on an entire land devoted to a stale theatrical property that most young park goers have never seen.
2. The quality of the franchise is out of Disney's control
The good news for fans of the Avatar story is that Cameron is working on sequels. The first one could hit the big screen as early as next year's holiday season, but it's hard to take that for granted given the nine years that it's been in development. The plan it to push out several sequels, and that's good for Disney's chances of increasing awareness of the property. The bad news is that it's 20th Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) that will be pushing out the four sequels in ideally the next six years.
Let's forget the point that Disney's success would mean more money going the way of Cameron and 20th Century Fox. Having a rival studio behind the new story arc means that Disney has no say in the quality or direction of the franchise. There's also less incentive for 20th Century Fox to promote or stick with the property if next year's first sequel falls flat than if Disney was behind the project.
It won't be a surprise if Disney eventually strikes a deal to acquire the property from Cameron and buys out 20th Century Fox's studios rights. The Muppets, Star Wars, A Bug's Life, and Indiana Jones were all licensed for Disney attractions before the media giant acquired the intellectual properties. However, it's investing a ton of dough on a bet that a rival studio doesn't screw up the franchise.
3. New Disney rides don't always impress
When was the last time that Disney World opened a new ride or attraction that raised the bar? Last year's Frozen Ever After had technical snags resulting in a lot of downtime. The Soarin' Around the World update features warped projections unless you're lucky enough to be seated near the middle of the simulator. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is dismissed as tame by coaster enthusiasts and too short for fans of the mine coaster. Disney's Hollywood Studios has turned to quickly pieced together shows to offset the lack of actual rides at Disney World's least visited park.
Will the Na'vi River Journey have reride value? Will Flight of Passage redefine what themed thrill rides can achieve? These are questions that can only be answered if the rides are reliable and open on time. Disney's recent track record hasn't been very impressive on that front.