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Disney's Animal Kingdom needed more attractions to get visitors to stay longer, but will Avatar be the key to boosting the park's popularity?

Walt Disney World’s youngest park has been trying to stay up late for awhile now.

Animal Kingdom, the fourth addition to the Orlando resort, has typically been a partial-day park since it opened in April of 1998. It started experimenting with extended hours last spring, opening some rides at night and adding an evening show that finally made its official debut in February.

With the opening of an entirely new land based on the film “Avatar” on May 27, that transformation is expected to be complete. For the height of summer, closing time will be 11 p.m., with Disney hotel guests allowed to stay until 1 a.m.

The 12-acre Pandora — The World of Avatar, first announced in 2011, includes two rides (one for flying, one for floating); shopping; a restaurant; drink stand; and rainforest areas meant for meandering. There are also, somehow, floating mountains. The land has been created in collaboration with filmmaker James Cameron and his film production company Lightstorm Entertainment, and is set a generation after the events depicted in the 2009 blockbuster.

“The whole experience experience is sizable, and it is an add-on to Animal Kingdom, which has always been a good park, but it has never been a full-day experience,” Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Robert Iger said of the Avatar attraction earlier this year. “So we added…a nighttime safari experience and some other entertainment, and by adding this, we’re going to be turning our fourth gate — the last one to be opened in Orlando — into a much fuller experience.”

Joe Rohde, the Walt Disney Imagineering executive who headed up the team that dreamed up, designed, and built Animal Kingdom, described Pandora as “a linchpin in this whole transformation of Animal Kingdom into a place that’s going to run at night.”

At a media event in New York City this week, Rohde — whose title is creative portfolio executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, and who is overseeing the Avatar project — spoke at length about the park’s transition, the work that has gone into the new land, and what visitors can expect (and not expect) to find. Below are five takeaways from that conversation.

Animal Kingdom is going all in on the nighttime experience in the Pandora land.

First, some history: When the park opened nearly 20 years ago, night operations were not possible because of inability to light and monitor the animal population, Rohde said. Technology has come a long way since then.

“What can be done with light, the nature of light bulbs, all this stuff is different and it all opens up possibility that just wasn’t there,” he said.

Rohde said the Avatar attraction became the right way to anchor the night experience because bioluminescence was an important part of the land’s identity.

“If you’re going to choose to make Animal Kingdom run into the night, making this happen with an installation that features bioluminescence is a strategically smart thing to do,” he said. “Because it’s so much about night.”

When the sun starts to set, the environment begins to glow.

“This is not passive glow,” Rohde said. “It moves, it pulses, it communicates, it reacts to you. The paving under your feet is alive, the mountains in the background are glowing with bioluminescence and you can see the footprints of animals you might have missed by day that now are glowing by night as you look through the environment.”

Sound elements were an important part of the land’s design.

“Now we have an entire sonic environment that we built here that is unlike anything we’ve ever done,” Rohde said. “It changes literally from the moment the sun comes up to the end of the day past midnight. It is not repetitive; it is an evolutionary arc that mimics the kind of sounds you would hear were it to be real.”

Bug sounds start with sunrise, and the noise changes through the day, transitioning to “cacophonously noisy” around sunset and then mellowing into the music of frogs and crickets at night.

“If you were a field biologist, you could walk through this land and identify what was happening by the sonic environment around you,” Rohde said. “It is that realistic.”

Familiarity with the James Cameron film is not necessary, but fans should be happy.

The movie is set in a a time of conflict on the alien world of Pandora that is populated by giant blue indigenous beings called Na’vi and Avatars, or creatures controlled by human brains.

But Disney executives swear no one needs to know that before visiting.

“Everything you need to know about Avatars, everything you need to know about banshees, everything you need to know about Na’vi you will learn in the process of this journey,” Rohde said. “You do not need to refer because that’s just not good storytelling… You don’t start a story by saying, ‘Remember that other story?’ You start a story by saying ‘once upon a time.'”

For those who do know the story — and there were some fans who proclaimed a great desire to inhabit the fictional world of the movie — Rohde said there will be elements familiar and new.

“You have to have an entry-level structure in a story that everybody understands and everybody gets,” he said. “Then you just keep layering. So yes, there’s all kinds of stuff in that world that, if you know the world of Avatar, you will be, I think, very interested in seeing…It’s not simply revisitation, it’s extention. There’s stuff you’ve never seen that is consistent with that world.”

Giant Na’vi creatures won’t be roaming the park. 

“The physical Na’vi, actual Na’vi, are impossible to costume, their actual body shape,”  Rohde said. (He meant, of course, the fictional characters depicted in the film.)

“They’re not only tall — they’re nine, 10 feet tall — and their waist is this big around, their necks are really long,” he said. “You can’t do it. So when you se the Na’vi, you see them in context of the rides in various forms.”

There is a ride that simulates flying, but don’t compare it to Soarin’.

Rohde cautioned that the thrill ride in the new land, Avatar Flight of Passage, isn’t easily described.  It involves 3D glasses, flying on the back of a banshee, and “an entire suite of body sensations that come from the seat and a gigantic projected surface.”

When a journalist asked about the similarity to Soarin’, a multi-passenger simulated hang gliding ride at Epcot, Disney California Adventure, and Shanghai Disneyland, Rohde said it doesn’t compare.

“It’s much more physically dynamic, and because it’s more physically dynamic, that means it can be fantastically visually dynamic,” he said. “Soarin’ is soaring, right? This is like flying, like zooming and diving, curlicues and jumping, it’s dynamic.”


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Tags: disney, theme parks

Photo credit: Joe Rohde is shown as he speaks about the new Avatar attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom in an official video. Disney

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