‘Avatar’ Orbits Disney Parks: James Cameron to Build Film-Themed Land at Animal Kingdom

Pact with 20th Century Fox will add themed lands

Disney already is in the midst of spending billions to build new theme parks or give major facelifts to its existing facilities.

But this week’s pact with James Cameron and 20th Century Fox for the rights to develop new attractions based on “Avatar” signals just how serious the Mouse House is about boosting its resorts biz.

Outside of deals with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for rides based on “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” the Mouse House typically doesn’t create attractions from films it doesn’t fully own. That’s partly why it took years to integrate Pixar’s characters into the parks.

With “Avatar,” however, Disney is clearly changing its mandate. Plans are not to develop a single ride but entire lands with multiple rides and themed food and merchandise based on the fictional world of Pandora from Cameron’s sci-fier. The first will be built inside Animal Kingdom, one of four parks that make up Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Although no opening date has yet been announced, construction is set to begin in 2013. The two “Avatar” sequels bow in theaters in 2014 and 2015, around when the park is expected to be completed.

The “Avatar” deal is clearly Disney’s answer to Universal’s pair-up with Warner Bros. to build an expensive Wizarding World of Harry Potter park inside Islands of Adventure in Orlando.

Since opening a year ago, the Potter park has broken attendance and ancillary-sales records for U, with ticket sales up 52% and food and merchandise sales up 90% at its Orlando parks during the first half of 2011 alone.

But Universal has long turned to off-the-lot productions to exploit when its own studio didn’t give it the content to adapt into attractions. It’s currently building a “Transformers” roller coaster, for example.

With “Avatar,” Disney knows it has a similar-sized property to lure guests — pic generated $2.8 billion at the worldwide box office in 2009, guaranteeing at least some curiosity from potential tourists, especially those overseas.

“We obviously appreciate that this was a film that was enjoyed by millions globally. So it’s now a global product,” Disney topper Bob Iger said.

Animal Kingdom needed an injection of some kind.

The park, opened in 1998, has struggled to win over guests the way its sibling parks Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios have. Its last major upgrade was the addition of the $100 million Expedition Everest roller coaster in 2006. Last year, it counted 9.7 million visitors, ranking as the fourth most visited park in the U.S.

“Avatar’s” environmentally friendly message is expected to fit in well with the nature theme of Animal Kingdom, which centers around the Tree of Life, a 14-story structure with 400 animals carved into its trunk.

“We just felt like ‘Avatar’ was the perfect and most amazing mythical world we could think about exploring,” said Tom Staggs, chairman of Disney’s theme parks. “Its spectacular settings, intriguing characters, imaginative creatures and strong themes of family and loyalty make it a perfect fit for Disney.”

The Mouse House’s current building boom includes the $1 billion overhaul of California Adventure, which will open Cars Land next summer. It’s already launched the World of Color show and a “Little Mermaid” ride. It also spent considerable coin to revamp its aging “Star Tours” ride.

Disney has already begun expanding Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, the most popular park in Disney’s portfolio. Move to add more of Disney’s popular princesses into the theme park is that property’s first enhancement since its 1971 opening and will cost at least $300 million by the time it opens in 2013.

Disneyland, in Anaheim, will get its own Fantasyland update, with Fantasy Faire replacing Carnation Plaza Gardens to create a permanent meet-and-greet with Disney’s beauty queens.

Overseas, Disneyland Paris recently opened its own $100 million “Toy Story”-themed playland.

The company’s biggest project is its sixth park, the $4 billion Shanghai Disney Resort. Disney will own 43% of the park, sharing the rest with the Shanghai Shendi Group.

Disney already ponied up $500 million to expand Hong Kong Disneyland to attract more Chinese guests as leisure travel takes off in the region.

The addition of the first “Avatar” land won’t come cheap, with insiders at Disney saying it could cost as much as $500 million once licensing rights and consulting fees to Cameron are factored in. Cameron and Fox will benefit from a share of merchandise sold in the park.

Cameron said he initially thought Disney wanted to build a ride based on the film like “Star Tours.”

“I quickly realized that their vision for this thing is far beyond what I imagined,” he said. “It was kind of thrilling that they wanted to do a land and really bring the world of Pandora to life.”

Disney already has plans to add more “Avatar” lands to its other parks around the world as part of the deal.

“We can clearly leverage the global interest in this property in multiple places,” Iger said.

Cameron, “Avatar” producer Jon Landau and their Lightstorm Entertainment group will serve as creative consultants on all of the projects and will partner with Walt Disney Imagineering in the design and development of the “Avatar”-themed lands.

It could amount to a lot of coin in their pockets given that Spielberg earns around $50 million a year from royalties and consulting fees for Universal’s theme parks.

In the meantime, Cameron is prepping to lense two additional “Avatar” adventures that Fox will distribute. Those pics will give Disney’s theme park designers at Imagineering “even more locations, characters and stories to explore,” Cameron said.The parks and resorts group is Disney’s second-biggest moneymaker, behind its media networks, generating $10.8 billion in revenue. Profits came in at $1.3 billion in 2010, its lowest in five years.

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