Disney's (NYSE:DIS) new Avatar-themed expansion officially opens in Florida next weekend, but I was able to partake in a passholder preview last night. Pandora -- The World of Avatar is a breathtaking immersion into the richly themed tropical moon that James Cameron birthed in 2009's box-office juggernaut.
It's a hit by most -- but definitely not all -- accounts. There's a lot riding on the new expansion at Disney's Animal Kingdom to get attendance back on track after a rough 2016, and it will undeniably woo a ton of tourists to Disney World this summer. By the time that Star Wars Land opens at Disney's Hollywood Studio in two years, my 2015 prediction that Epcot will be Disney World's least visited park by 2020 will be practically a slam dunk.
As great as Pandora -- The World of Avatar is, there are certainly some reasons to temper one's enthusiasm as we head into next Saturday's grand opening. Let's go over three things that may get in its own way.
1. Familiarity of the intellectual property is a concern
It was easy to get lost in the realm that Disney imagineers have erected. However, with Avatar eight years removed from thrilling multiplex audiences, it's hard to get excited about the intellectual property itself.
There are two rides in Pandora -- The World of Avatar. Flight of Passage is a masterpiece, taking guests on a simulated 3-D ride on the back of a banshee. It's a bar-raising e-ticket for a theme-park giant that's been largely phoning it in over the past few years. You get swept in the moment you mount the ride, with every breath the banshee takes pressing against your knees. Misting effects kick in as your banshee skims over water or glides down a waterfall.
The other ride -- Na'vi River Journey -- is a beautiful bore. It's a gentle boat ride in a world of bioluminescent eye candy. A singing shaman packs some of the most advanced audio-animatronics housed in a Disney attraction, but it ultimately falls flat because the Avatar universe is foreign to most park-goers.
The original film shattered box-office records, but it hasn't aged well. James Cameron's working on several sequels, but as release dates keep getting bumped with a rival studio at the helm, it's hard to count on the franchise's staying power. Flight of Passage would work as a thrilling attraction leaning on any intellectual property. Na'vi River Journey doesn't have the same benefit.
Disney knows how to breathe new life into a neglected franchise, but it's shackled to a property -- one with questionable relevance -- over which it lacks control. Pandora is the third Pandora you think about when you hear the name. It's also not the first Avatar that springs to mind.
2. Accessibility is an issue
Disney attractions are typically accommodating to larger-sized visitors, but Flight of Passage has had to boot several riders during the passholder sneak previews because they didn't fit into the unforgiving restraints. The theme-park giant has also taken some heat because wheelchair-bound guests can't ride either attraction without having to transfer to the ride vehicles.
Disney will inevitably offer larger or motion-free seats on Flight of Passage. Wheelchair-accessible boats will eventually make the floating fest available to all. Until we get to that point, Disney will have to stomach the criticisms that are dripping in irony because -- as the Orlando Sentinel points out -- Avatar's lead protagonist gets around in a wheelchair.
3. Capacity is an issue
Pandora -- The World of Avatar has an amazing ride, but it's one that most guests might not be able to experience. Flight of Passage has several theater pods hosting as many as 16 riders, and peak capacity is supposedly in the range of 1,500 to 1,900 an hour. It was nowhere near that rate during last night's preview, and if that trend continues, we're going to be seeing angry guests in long lines this summer.
Disney ran into technical snags with its Frozen-themed boat ride last year, and Flight of Passage seems far more susceptible to downtime or suboptimal throughput. Crowds will flock to Disney's Animal Kingdom in record numbers this summer. Disney can't afford to not be ready.