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Monday Mouse Watch: Why that AVATAR concept art got unveiled in Japan rather than stateside. And what's in the works for the Disneyland Resort in regards to "Star Wars"

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Monday Mouse Watch: Why that AVATAR concept art got unveiled in Japan rather than stateside. And what's in the works for the Disneyland Resort in regards to "Star Wars"

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It's been a busy couple of days, Disney news-wise. With all sorts of official announcements being made and weird rumors bubbling up. So as a special Columbus Day treat, I thought that it might be fun to dig down into this pile and then offer some additional information about some of the stories that have been swirling around out there.

Guests stroll through Avatarland in Disney artist concept art recently released at D23 Expo Japan
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

First of all, let's talk about that concept art for James Cameron's World of AVATAR that was showcased at Japan's first-ever D23 EXPO. And while the stateside Disneyana fan community of course immediately began carping about the 2017 projected opening date for this Disney's Animal Kingdom expansion, there was also much "Oohing" & "Aahing" about how lush & ambitious this Camp Minnie-Mickey replacement looked.

Mind you, no one seemed to be questioning why this James Cameron's World of AVATAR artwork had been released at Japan's D23 EXPO rather than the stateside version of this Official Disney Fan Club back in August. But there is method to Mickey's madness.

Long story short: Walt Disney Imagineering has been trying to convince the Oriental Land Group (i.e., the company that actually owns & operates the Tokyo Disney Resort's two theme parks & four onsite hotels) for over two years now that they should add a World of AVATAR area to Tokyo DisneySea. But so far, OLC execs have been resisting WDI's entreaties. So the thinking within the walls at 1401 Flower Street was that -- if they filled a hall at the Tokyo Disney Resort with some of Japan's most passionate Disney fans and then allowed these folks to be the first to see concept art for James Cameron's World of AVATAR -- Oriental Land Company officials then couldn't help but notice the huge, passionate & vocal reaction that this proposed DAK addition would receive from the crowds at this past weekend's Official Disney Fan Club event. And after that ... Well, maybe OLC execs might then be willing to revisit WDI's proposal to add a version of James Cameron's World of AVATAR to Tokyo DisneySea.

Toy Story Mania ride in the American Waterfront area of Tokyo Disney Sea
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The only problem with this idea is ... Well, WDI's relationship with OLC has recently hit a rough patch. As I understand it, Oriental Land Company executives took issue with what it cost to add Toy Story Mania! and the Toyville Trolley Park to the American Waterfront area at Tokyo DisneySea back in 2012. And ever since then, Imagineering has been getting considerable pushback from Oriental Land Company, Ltd. when it comes to the proposed budgets for any WDI-designed additions to the Tokyo Disney Resort. (This is why the Cars Land project -- which was to have replaced Tokyo Disneyland's Rivers of America with a clone of DCA's Radiator Springs area -- reportedly went off the rails. All because OLC execs supposedly began questioning what the Imagineers said it would cost to bring Radiator Springs Racers to Japan).

So long story short here: No matter how enthusiastic those Japanese D23 members were at the EXPO this past weekend when that James Cameron's World of AVATAR concept art was unveiled, I seriously doubt that we're going to see a clone of this proposed DAK addition begin construction alongside Tokyo Bay anytime soon. Which I know is going to disappoint a number of vice presidents at Walt Disney Imagineering. Who were allegedly hoping that they'd then be able to split the development costs of this obviously enormous project and its ambitious attractions between The Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disney Resorts.

And speaking of enormous ... There's this huge rumor making the rounds right now about how The Walt Disney Company is reportedly in the process of cutting a deal with Peter Jackson & Co. to acquire the theme park rights to "The Lord of the Rings" & "The Hobbit" movies. Which -- I'm sorry to disappoint all of you J.R.R. Tolkien fans out there -- just isn't true. At least not according to the Imagineering insiders that I've spoken with over the past few days.

Lord of the Rings: The Hobbit movie poster
Copyright Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved

That said, I can understand how this rumor might have gotten started. You see, back in December of last year, some WDI officials took a contingent of New Line Cinema (i.e., the studio that has produced all of the "LOTR" & "Hobbit" films) execs for a tour of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure theme park and then very publicly wined & dined these Hollywood types.

"And what was the point of doing something like that if Walt Disney Imagineering wasn't actually wooing New Line to then award them the theme park rights to 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' ?," you ask. As I understand it, it was supposedly about this same time that James Cameron had once again become difficult when it came to the development of World of AVATAR. And given that WDI officials had reportedly grown tired of dealing with James' I'm-taking-my-ball-and-going-home negotiating style ... Well, it was then decided that it might be time to at least pretend that The Walt Disney Company was exploring other options. Maybe send a message to Cameron that the Mouse might be considering dropping the World of AVATAR in favor of a "Lord of the Rings" -themed area for DAK.

Now far be it for me to suggest that this tactic worked. But here we are, some ten months later. And there's James Cameron posing for a photograph with Tom Staggs & Joe Rohde, the three of them smiling down at a finished-looking model for the World of AVATAR. So maybe this bit of theme park theatrics on WDI's part actually worked.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

More to the point, given that The Walt Disney Company is currently up to its knees in IP (EX: Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, Phineas & Ferb, Pirates of the Caribbean ... to name just a few) that it owns outright and has yet to leverage to full effect across its theme parks & resorts, why would Disney then be pursuing the theme park rights for yet another film franchise? Wouldn't it be smarter -- strictly from a fiscal point-of-view -- for the Mouse to stick to its knitting? Make the most of the intellectual properties that it already owns, rather than spend outrageous sums to secure the theme park rights for another entertainment companies' IP?

And speaking of Star Wars ... Just last week, MiceChat posted a piece about a proposed Star Wars-themed redo of Disneyland's Tomorrowland area which reportedly involved ripping out a good portion of that theme park's Monorail track as well as shutting down the Autopia ride to make room for a new Speeder Bike experience.

Well, I'm not going to say that MiceChat got it wrong. But I think that what may have happened here is that MC may have gotten wind of a one dimensional model that's currently sitting in WDI's model shop. Which -- truth be told -- is just one of several different site plans for Star Wars-themed redos of Tomorrowland that are currently being considered for that Anaheim theme park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

More to the point, given that there now are multiple generations of Southern Californian drivers who got their first experience behind the wheel by climbing into an Autopia car, Disneyland Resort officials know all too well what sort of uproar would result should they ever decide to replace this opening day attraction. Which is why they will look long and hard at all other pieces of available Tomorrowland real estate before the Imagineers then circle back on the idea of shutting down the Autopia.

And speaking of replacing Tomorrowland attractions at Disneyland Park ... I did hear from one friend at 1401 Flower Street that one of the ideas that's reportedly being toyed with is relocating Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters to DCA. Taking this interactive dark ride out of the old Circlevision 360 show building and then moving it over to one of Paradise Pier's expansion pads. Where it would then become a companion for Toy Story Midway Mania (not to mention help increase the hourly ride capacity for this portion of that theme park). More to the point, once Astro Blaster vacates the old Circlevision 360 building, that then would free up space for a new Star Wars-themed experience.

Beyond that ... I guess I should mention that while it is unlikely that Disneyland's Autopia will be closed anytime soon, simplifying the route that the Monorail takes after it enters that theme park (to be specific, eliminating a lot of the looping & the doubling-back that this transportation system does as it travels over Disneyland's old Motorboat Cruise area) is something that the Imagineers have been wanting to do for over 25 years now. So the fact that they're once again exploring this idea so that WDI could then drop an attraction of size in the area between the Matterhorn Bobsleds & "it's a small world" isn't really all that surprising.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, what's always prevented the Disneyland Resort from doing this in the past is that -- in order to simplify the Monorail route and take out all of those lengths of track & support pylons ... Well, that would then mean having giant construction cranes inside of that theme park for months at a time. Not to mention shutting down popular attractions like the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, the Autopia, the Disneyland Railroad and "it's a small world" for much of the time that this work would be going on. And let's not forget about inconveniencing the folks who'd be staying at the Disneyland Hotel while all of this Monorail track removal work would be going on.

But given that Monorail service was going to be disrupted anyway in the not-so-distant future once work finally begins on the "Monsters, Inc." -themed coaster that's supposed to replace Muppetvision 3D as well as Soundstage 17 (i.e., the home of DCA's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Play It!") in the not-so-distant future ... Disneyland officials are now wondering if they should just bite the bullet here. And that -- when construction finally goes vertical on the Doors Coaster and it's time to bring the cranes in to lift all of that structure steel & ride track into place -- the Imagineers should just take advantage of this necessary closure of the Monorail to then simplify this now-54 year-old transportation system's  layout in & around Tomorrowland.

And speaking of construction projects that are sure to be a bear ... You did see that concept art for that new night-time show which will be presented on, in and around DAK's Tree of Life, right? Well, as you might expect, a project like this is going to be huge. It'll basically involve replacing all 102,583 man-made leaves that currently hang off of this 145 foot-tall structure, with leaves that feature an internal lighting mechanism. Not to mention running the wiring for all these leaves out through the Tree of Life's 756 tertiary branches and 7891 end branches.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

All of this work means that the Tree of Life will then be surrounded by scaffolding for the better part of a year starting in 2015. But the upside is ... Once the scaffolding comes down, all of the faded green plastic leaves that currently cover this structure will then be replaced with leaves that look far more life-like; that are a deeper, richer green. More to the point, many of the paths that are currently closed on Discovery Island and much of the safety netting that's now in place due to falling leaves & branches will then be removed. Which means that the Tree of Life will then be returned to its former glory, looking better than it did when this DAK icon first opened back on April 22, 1998.

Beyond that ... I have heard some rumblings about the night-time water pageant for DAK's Discovery River area. To be specific, that this will NOT be a "World of Color" -like, moving nozzle-based show. But -- rather -- that it will make use of a NextGen version of the water screen technology that's currently used in "Fantasmic!"

And one final interesting little bit of trivia here: As part of the site planning work that's currently being done on both Star Wars Land for Disney's Hollywood Studios and James Cameron's World of AVATAR for Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Imagineers are reportedly deliberately folding in multi-purpose venues that can then be used in the future for fan events like Star Wars Weekends.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which means (you guessed it) after James Cameron's World of AVATAR opens in 2017 (which will be right inbetween when the first "AVATAR" sequel opens in theaters in December of 2016 and when the second extension of this film franchise hits the big screen in December of 2017), you should anticipate that DAK will then annually begin hosting "AVATAR" fan events. Which will feature appearances by those movies' stars, signings by the authors of the "AVATAR" books as well as limited edition merchandise.

Remember. You heard it here first, folks. So be sure and save me a spot in line for that special collector's edition of a mountain banshee. Which will undoubtedly be offered at that first "AVATAR" fan event. Which -- the way I hear it -- could be held at DAK as early as the late Fall of 2017 (and might even feature an early work-in-progress screening of "AVATAR 3").

Okay. Here's hoping that the above info gives all of you Disneyana fans / theme park enthusiasts something to chew on / debate in the coming week. In the meantime, have a Happy Columbus Day, okay?

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  • That concept art looks gorgeous! I never really understood the negative reaction to AVATAR land from some fans. A super-successful movie, with fantastic, exotic environments that fit the theme of the park -what's not to like? And since Cameron is involved, it seems like everyone will bring their A game. I think the essence of Disney parks is the elaborate dark ride (Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Spaceship Earth), a genre that they've seemed to have avoided in recent years. Just to enjoy the sights and sounds... a boat ride through Pandora sounds great.

  • My only question is if Disney really isn't after LOTR then why is Cars Land at WDW canned? Seems to me something else is going on at the studios besides Star Wars Land. Any info on that Jim?

  • I've heard the rumor that Lord of the Rings/Hobbit is the next piece of Universal's arsenal to combat the Mouse. As soon as Diagon Alley opens at the park, they will be building a Lord of the Rings area in Islands of Adventure. Any truth to this?

  • 2017 is far off...  Disney World has four parks and how many years did it take the whole resort to get a mine train E ticket???WOW.      I truly hope at least Star Wars comes out before this project is finished because I can see Universal chipping away from Epcot, DHS and Animal Kingdom until these projects go online. I do not think there would have been as much of a fan backlash over this project if not for the lack of E tickets over the years.

  • Thanks for the article, Jim. Very interesting ideas from WDI.

  • I have no doubt that the Avatar reveal at Tokyo D23 Expo fell flat. As interesting as it sounds, I don't feel that it will fulfill the expectations some fan have of it. And I certainly don't think that OLC would buy into ANY Avatar concepts until after Disney's AK version proved itself.

    As for Lord of the Ring, I would hope that Universal actually gets that property, They have been proving themselves recently and I actually think they might be able to do a better job with it than Disney would. Especially with Disney's current mindset that puts quality and integrity behind marketing and synergy.

    I'm getting REALLY tired of Disney's current trend of just buying other properties and shilling them. Disney USED to be an outstanding creativity pool. Now they are just turning into a distribution company.

  • Thanks for this interesting post Jim!

    When discussing IP, you ask why Disney purchases (expensive!) theme park rights from other companies instead of using their successful franchises. In my opinion, the very point of Disney doing so is simply prevent Universal to make another hit like they did with Harry Potter.

    Then, what are the remaining (non disney) box office movie franchises not used in a theme park, and not too dated yet? Avatar, LOTR. Look no further. I'm surprised very few journalists, bloggers, commenters don't come to such a simple and obvious conclusion.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't think that your "Disney-would-acquire-the-theme-parks-rights.to-the-Tolkien-books-and-movies-just-to-prevent-Universal-from-getting-their-hands-on-them" proposal holds much water. The Disney corporation is, after all, a publicly held company. And taking into account the amounts that it took The Walt Disney Company to acquire Marvel and Pixar, we'd be talking about a multi-billion dollar transaction here. And were Disney to just acquire the theme park rights to "Lord of the Rings" & "The Hobbit" and then just sit on them, the shareholders, the financial press and Wall Street would climb up one side of the Mouse and then down the other. Never mind what the Tolkien fans & the fan boys would say. The unlikely scenario you're suggesting here would be a PR disaster for the Company.

    And -- no -- I also don't buy into the alternate scenario that Disney would buy the theme park rights to Tolkien just so it would then have something to horse trade with Universal. Which then would allow the Mouse to finally acquire the theme park rights to Marvel. That's not the way these sort of gigantic IP deals which then feature dozens upon dozens of pages master licensing agreements are actually written.

    Besides, you have to take into account that Universal has its own agenda when it comes to the intellectual properties that it wants to bring into its theme parks. Speaking of which ... According to at least one Universal Creative rep that I've spoken with, Universal (because of its history with James Cameron due to them working together on the "Terminator 2: 3D" attraction) was offered the theme park rights to "AVATAR" ahead of Disney but passed on the property. Reportedly because it was felt that there just wasn't enough there to support a stand-alone attraction. That -- while "AVATAR" (the movie) was admittedly pretty -- the film's storyline & characters were a bit on the thin side / not very memorable. Which would then make it difficult to translate this IP for a theme park setting.

  • I really do not see how Avatar could fit into TDS - the park is seamless (unlike AK), Avatar would not fit at all

  • The way I understand it is that the Evening AK show, specifically the Tree of Life portion will be solely done by projections and no additional work will need to be completed with the tree of life. I have heard that mock-ups of the TOL have been built and projection similar to the "Celebrate the Magic" show that is projected onto Cinderella's Castles is currently being tested.

  • I just knew you would come through with an awesome column Jim. There has been so much swirling and twirling rumor lately and I knew it would be you who would be the voice of reason. WDWNewsToday started the Lord of the Rings rumor. I wonder if you know anything about Universal going after LOTR. That other site had said Disney was buying it to keep Universal from getting it.

    Would love to see Buzz out of Tomorrowland. I think he's a better fit at DCA and I think Marvel fits better over there too.  For me, Star Wars being in the same park as Indiana Jones makes sense, so Star Wars in Tomorrowland is okay with me.

  • Question for Jim:  Regarding what you said about it being a PR disaster if Disney would acquire the rights to something and then not use it in the parks...but isn't that the situation we are in with Marvel right now?  Sure, they just announced the Hong Kong Iron Man attraction but no Marvel attractions are announced (or seemingly even planned) for the US parks (and they can't ever build any Marvel in Orlando because of Universal). Sometimes it does feel to  us fans that the Marvel purchase was a waste in terms of the parks because Disney hasn't done anything with Marvel there. I personally want Marvel to be in Disney California Adventure, but I see a lot of people hoping that Marvel is the basis of a third gate in Anaheim.  I just don't see the financials being in place from an operations point of view for a third gate in Anaheim to happen in my lifetime.

  • One of the things that troubled me most about the Disneyland Tomorrowland changes is the loss of the tomorrowland terrace. Any chance they would pick a different location for the Cantina? Also, isn't Buzz Lightyear next to Midway games really redundant?

  • Maybe I will end up eating my words, I do honestly hope so, but I am just not thrilled about avatar land. The movie did great in the box offices but mostly because of special effects. Everyone was "you have to see the movie the 3d is incredible" the story itself was often described as dances with wolves meets the smurfs. Now the 3d is old hat. Lots of movies have taken that a ran with it. I actually agree with universal I just don't think there is enough there for a ride let alone whole land. Like I said I hope for disney that the sequel does as well as the first one and it gives the needed umph for the park addition but I still have my doubts. (With that said the concept art does look beautiful and I can see the tie in to AK though I would love to see them someday add the mythical beast section)

  • "I'm getting REALLY tired of Disney's current trend of just buying other properties and shilling them."


    That is not necessarily a bad thing. It's one of the key principles of business; diversification.

    Disney is currently still doing things "in-house" They are still making their own animated films from Walt Disney Animation Studios (and its division, DisneyToon Studios). They are still making money off of their original properties.

  • "the story itself was often described as dances with wolves meets the smurfs."


    I kind of thing if it as Dances with Wolves meets FernGully.

    I do think that Avatar is overrated, however, I also think that the land has potential to be successful.

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