Pandora

Image source: Disney. 

Piece by piece, a gated attraction that, until a couple of years ago, was Disney World's least visited theme park in Florida is starting to transform itself into a powerhouse. Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) is putting a lot of elbow grease into Animal Kingdom, the fourth theme park it built on its massive tract of land in Central Florida.

The park has its cult following, but there's also an equally vocal contingency claiming that it's an incomplete park. It's the only Disney park that routinely closes well before the sun sets, giving it the unpleasant distinction of being a half-day park at a full-day price.

I was one of Animal Kingdom's biggest critics through the early years. The park was unbearable during the peak summer travel period, lacking the necessary air-conditioned or at least shaded attractions to refresh and entertain guests as well as the whimsy guests find at Disney's other theme parks. I wrote a scathing critique that turned heads in the enthusiast community nearly a decade ago. 

Animal Kingdom has gotten a lot better since then. It added a roller coaster that's thrilling by Disney's typically tame standards. It added the park's first sit-down restaurant. The addition earlier this year of Harambe Market -- a richly themed outdoor food court that's far cooler than my description suggests -- adds another layer of personality to a park that's starting to coming into its own despite the continued early closings.

All of this is going to change in the coming months. Construction crews are hard at work at both ends of the park on magnetic attractions that will expand the available attractions and extend the operating hours. 

The first project to open will be Rivers of Light in the park's Asia section. It will be a nighttime show on the water complete with live music, Bollywood dancing, floating lanterns, and animal images projected on cascading water screens. Crews are finishing up the open lakefront theater, and Rivers of Light should start entertaining guests by early next year.

The more ambitious project is taking place at the other end of the park, where Camp Minnie-Mickey used to provide character greeting experiences. The area is being transformed into a massive area themed to Avatar's Pandora.  

Disney offered up some more details on Na'vi River Journey -- one of the two rides that will open when the area opens in 2017 -- on Friday. The canoe ride into the mysterious bioluminescent rainforest will find riders coasting along until they encounter a shaman with musical powers. Park guests seeking a more thrilling adventure can experience an attraction where they will ride the flying banshees from James Cameron's movie. 

Animal Kingdom has already seen attendance begin to move higher since bottoming out at 7.3 million guests a dozen years ago. It greeted 10.4 million guests last year, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. Many are still exiting the park early in the afternoon, but that won't be the case in a year and a half, when it's entertaining guests well into the night on a consistent basis.

Disney's theme parks division is doing just fine financially these days. It just posted 10% year-over-year growth in revenue for its latest quarter. Things will get better -- a lot better -- soon.   

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.