Walt Disney World at 50

In October 1971 Walt Disney World first opened its doors, making this month the park’s fiftieth anniversary. Though competitors have risen in the years since – Universal Studios most prominently, but there are others – Disney is still the world’s preeminent theme park brand in 2021, which is no small accomplishment!

2006 was the last time I managed to get to Walt Disney World in Florida, and it seems unlikely I’ll be able to make another trip – my health generally prevents me from travelling these days. But I’ve made some wonderful memories at Walt Disney World, from my first trip when I was very young with my parents through to an incredibly fun jaunt with friends while at university. Walt Disney World has always had a lot to offer – and not just for children.

Mickey and Minnie are celebrating 50 years of Walt Disney World!

Recently I put together a list of ten of my favourite Walt Disney World attractions – and you can find it by clicking or tapping here. Long story short, some of the best experiences at Disney – at least in my opinion – aren’t the most extreme roller coasters with the highest drops or fastest speeds. What Walt Disney World has always excelled at is its world-building, crafting lovingly-detailed experiences that don’t need to rely on speed or being an adrenaline rush to hook riders in.

Attractions like Spaceship Earth, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, and even the Monorail are all incredibly fun to ride over and over again, and in many ways it’s these slower rides that made me fall in love with the Disney theme parks. It’s this combination of slow rides, dark rides, fast-paced rides, shows, and simulation experiences that has meant Walt Disney World has so much to offer to such a range of visitors. Many theme parks – especially here in the UK – tend to be built around one or two big attractions, and these are almost always ultra-fast adrenaline rush roller coasters. Once you’ve ridden one or two, you’ve ridden them all!

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority is one of my favourite rides!

Every aspect of Walt Disney World was planned in detail – with early plans coming from Walt Disney himself before his death in 1966. The idea of corridors running underground to allow employees – better known as “cast members” – to secretly move from one location to another out of sight of guests is a genius move. It means that guests never see a character “out of place;” no cowboys in Tomorrowland nor spacemen in Frontierland.

On a smaller scale, no shop in Walt Disney World sells chewing gum. Why? Because it’s one of the worst forms of litter and the hardest to clean. If every road and pavement were covered with discarded gum the entire park would feel ever so slightly less polished, and Walt Disney was very keen that visitors should feel as if they’d been transported to a magical land away from their everyday lives. He wanted everyone to have the perfect experience – at least within their budgets!

Walt Disney.

The food at Walt Disney World is also exquisite. The park has a huge variety of restaurants and fast-food joints both in the parks and attached to the numerous hotels spread across the property. Many of these are themed experiences in and of themselves, offering guests a chance to dine in the banquet hall of a castle or an orbiting space station – with themed menus to match. And of course, many restaurants bring Mickey Mouse and other characters right to the table.

Walt Disney World didn’t pioneer the concept of the theme park. It wasn’t even the first Disney theme park, with California’s Disneyland having been open for more than sixteen years before it came along. But Walt Disney World took the theme park concept and honed it to near-perfection, having learned the lessons not only of Disneyland but also of other theme parks as well. With years of experience under their collective belts, the team behind Walt Disney World came together to build what they hoped would be the best theme park in the world. Fifty years later the park is still right at the pinnacle of the theme park industry, so it’s hard to say that they didn’t succeed.

The original Walt Disney World logo. It was in use from the park’s opening in October 1971 until 1996.

There are controversies about the way Walt Disney World came to be, of course. Not least the Walt Disney Company’s policy of buying up the land that the parks would ultimately be built upon using dummy companies with fake names to avoid the price shooting up! And of course it’s sad that Walt Disney didn’t live to see his project to completion.

As we look back at Walt Disney World, it’s only natural to look forward, and I’m afraid it’s here that I see new controversies, as well as problems ahead.

In the early 2000s when I was planning a trip to the parks with friends, it was quite achievable for students to put a bit of money aside from part-time jobs to be able to afford not only to visit Walt Disney World, but to do so in style! After saving up, my friends and I were able to afford flights there and back from the UK, as well as a moderately-priced hotel, park tickets, food, and we still had money left over for souvenirs. I can’t remember the exact amount of money we spent apiece, but none of us were wealthy and we still managed to have a wonderful time.

Visiting Walt Disney World is an increasingly expensive proposition.

Nowadays, the inflated prices Walt Disney World charges – and the dozens of hidden extra charges – make it so much more difficult to consider a trip there a worthwhile investment for a lot of folks. Walt Disney World now charges for parking – even at hotels – which is something that never used to happen. And coming very soon is the “Disney Genie Plus” app and programme, which includes paying to skip some of the lines at popular attractions – including on a ride-by-ride basis in some cases, with prices rising dynamically depending on how busy the park gets.

Add into the mix the generally inflated prices of everything from tickets to food, and Walt Disney World is no longer a holiday within reach of everyone. It’s beginning to feel like an attraction targeting wealthier folks exclusively, and when a vacation for a small family is now easily running around the $6-8,000 mark (not including flights, which from the UK aren’t exactly cheap) it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

The new Disney Genie Plus paid-for service is going to make Walt Disney World more expensive – and a worse experience.

Just to give one example, a single portion of popcorn from one of the popcorn stands scattered throughout the parks now comes in at $5.25 (£3.90). That’s a heck of a lot for something as basic as popcorn, so you can imagine that other snacks and meals are priced similarly. Because Walt Disney World knows it has a captive audience, prices have shot up. It was never a cheap place, don’t get me wrong, but recent years have seen price hikes left, right, and centre.

In addition, Walt Disney World is losing many of the things that made it unique. One-of-a-kind attractions are being replaced with bland-looking roller coasters, and rides that used to have unique animatronic characters are being closed down or altered to include Disney-branded characters. One of my favourite rides at Epcot was called El Rio del Tiempo, and it was a slow boat ride that brought guests a small taste of Mexico and Mexican history. Since I last visited it’s been re-themed to include Donald Duck.

El Rio del Tiempo is one of many Walt Disney World attractions that you can’t find any more.

Rides and attractions like El Rio del Tiempo – and many more – were part of what gave Walt Disney World its unique charm. There were always Disney-themed rides like Peter Pan’s Flight or the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland respectively), but they were balanced out by these other rides that weren’t associated with a film or television series. With some rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise having been turned into films in recent years, there aren’t many attractions left that exist purely for their own sakes any more. Perhaps I’m showing my age by lamenting that change of focus!

To end on a much happier note, one of my favourite memories as a geeky, nerdy kid came at Walt Disney World in the early 1990s. Not long after having seen the Star Wars trilogy for the first time, I got to go on a Star Wars ride – Star Tours – at Walt Disney World. After queuing up excitedly, the moment the doors to the Starspeeder 3000 wooshed open for the first time was truly thrilling! Boarding an actual spaceship complete with a droid pilot and going on my own little Star Wars adventure felt like a dream come true.

I have incredible memories of Star Tours!

Walt Disney World has delivered an uncountable number of moments just like that one to children and to adults. My cousin visited a couple of years ago, and her daughter got a complete “princess makeover,” complete with makeup, a tiara, and a princess dress. Wherever she went all day long the cast members would bow and wave and treat her like a real Disney Princess. These kinds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences really don’t exist anywhere else, not in the same way. Just like I had my moment of wonder as I boarded a ship in the Star Wars galaxy, so too did my cousin’s daughter as she was transformed into a princess. Walt Disney World makes magical memories like that, and I hope it always will.

The only reason I criticise Walt Disney World for some of the recent changes – particularly the way things are being priced and the “stealth” costs like charging for hotel parking – is because I wish those kinds of experiences were available to as many people as possible. Walt Disney’s dream was that families could visit his theme parks together, and he even said: “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” Try telling that to the executives of the company today, eh!

I doubt that I’ll ever get back to Walt Disney World. But the park holds happy memories for me from childhood – and from adulthood as well. I hope that the park succeeds and will endure for another fifty years, bringing those same happy memories to new generations.

All properties mentioned above are the copyright of The Walt Disney Company. Some images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company and the Disney Wiki. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Ten of my favourite Disney World rides and attractions

It’s been a long time since I visited a Disney theme park, but with the re-opening of Disneyland in California recently hitting the headlines, I’ve been thinking about past visits. I’ve been very lucky to have visited three of the six Disney parks in my life, and though California’s Disneyland is the original and thus a classic, for my money you can’t beat Walt Disney World in Florida. There’s just so much more going on and so much more to do!

The last time I visited Walt Disney World was in 2006, and there have been many changes to the resort and its four constituent parks since then. This list won’t reflect those changes, so don’t expect to see me talk about Galaxy’s Edge and Rise of the Resistance. I would love to try that ride for myself one day, but my health prevents me from travelling (even if there weren’t a pandemic going on) so I doubt I’ll ever get to experience it for myself.

Cinderella’s Castle is the centrepiece and icon of Walt Disney World.

Luckily, though, I had several wonderful Disney experiences earlier in my life while I was able, and I’ve visited the parks both with family and with friends. Disney World – and the other parks – are presented as family-oriented attractions, but even as an adult you’ll find plenty going on and lots of things to have fun with.

So let’s celebrate all things Disney by picking out ten of my favourite rides and attractions! For the record, because I know people like to argue: I’m not saying these are objectively the best things to do at Disney World. These are simply ten rides and attractions that I enjoyed at the park on my earlier visits. If you have your own favourites and don’t like these ones, that’s okay! There’s a broad range of things to do at Disney World, with rides and attractions to cater to many different folks and the things they enjoy. We don’t all have to like the same things!

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at my list.

Number 1: The Tomorrowland Transit Authority/PeopleMover

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority/PeopleMover track.

I said at the beginning that this isn’t a top ten list of my absolute favourite rides. But if it were, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority would be my number one! It’s almost certainly my favourite ride at the Magic Kingdom and the whole of Disney World, which might come as a surprise considering it’s very tame. Unlike other slow rides at Disney, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority doesn’t really have its own theme, instead making a loop of Tomorrowland – one part of the Magic Kingdom – from about one storey up.

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority is fun and interesting, passing through several rides in Tomorrowland and a shop, giving you a birds-eye view over much of the future-themed area of the park. It’s gentle, so it’s perfect for young kids and others who don’t enjoy fast-moving rides, and unlike many of Disney’s other slow rides it isn’t in the dark, which again makes it great for kids who might not be so happy in the dark.

There usually isn’t a horribly long queue for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority (or at least, not as far as I remember from past visits) which, combined with its gentle nature, means it’s something relatively easy to do in between “bigger” attractions. Riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority can nicely punctuate a visit to the Magic Kingdom, providing a way to slow down while still enjoying a ride. But it’s absolutely great fun on its own merit, and well worth a visit. If I ever go back to Walt Disney World, I’m making a beeline for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority as soon as I walk through the gate!

Number 2: El Rio del Tiempo (Mexico Pavilion at Epcot)

The entrance to El Rio del Tiempo.
Photo Credit: Disney Wiki

Sadly, El Rio del Tiempo has been re-themed since I last visited the parks, with the dark ride now taking on a theme based loosely on The Three Caballeros, a 1944 film featuring Disney mainstay Donald Duck. I believe the ride layout remains the same, though, despite the re-theming, so I imagine the gentle pace of the attraction has been retained.

Epcot’s World Showcase is an eclectic mix of different countries, with themed areas representing different parts of the world. There are points of interest and lots of places to eat, but what World Showcase doesn’t have in abundance are rides. The Mexico Pavilion contained my favourite, which is/was a dark ride set inside the attraction’s Mayan pyramid. The version of the ride I remember was a gentle boat ride, with no big drops or splashes, and after trailing around World Showcase in the Florida heat, it was great to take a break and sit down in the shade – and air conditioning!

A lot of theme parks (especially here in the UK) go all-in on thrill rides, trying to outdo each other with bigger and faster rollercoasters. Walt Disney World has always been great at having slower, gentler attractions that aren’t just rides for kids, and El Rio del Tiempo was a great example of an adult-oriented dark ride, one which paid homage to Mexico and Mexican history in a respectful way. I haven’t ridden the updated Donald Duck version, but I hope it managed to keep some of what made the original attraction so pleasurable.

Number 3: The Great Movie Ride

A recreation of Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater served as the building for The Great Movie Ride.
Photo Credit: The Walt Disney Company

Another attraction that, sadly, can no longer be ridden, The Great Movie Ride was one of the original rides and showpieces of Disney’s MGM Studios/Hollywood Studios. It closed in 2017, being replaced by Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. As with El Rio del Tiempo above, this reflects a move on Disney’s part to introduce its own characters and brands into all of the rides at Disney parks.

What I loved most about The Great Movie Ride was that a cast member (i.e. a real person) was present throughout, serving as a guide as the ride took you through clever recreations of scenes from famous films like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Alien. There was an incredible diversity of films on display, and having a live performer along with the wonderful animatronics brought the world of Hollywood to life in a way I’d never really experienced before.

The Great Movie Ride was a love letter not just to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, but to cinema in general. The queue area contained actual props from more than a dozen films – including the famous ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and a dress worn by Kate Winslet in Titanic. While it makes sense in some ways for Disney to want to stick to its own brands, I think something significant was lost with the closure of The Great Movie Ride that took away from Hollywood Studios’ premise as a park.

Number 4: Star Tours

The StarSpeeder 3000!
Photo Credit: Disney Wiki

Galaxy’s Edge was not the first Star Wars-themed attraction at Disney World. Not by a long shot! Star Tours opened in 1989, and is still open today – albeit having been given a makeover! Unlike most attractions at Disney World, Star Tours is a simulator, meaning that it stays in one place and doesn’t follow a track.

I can still remember the thrill of boarding Star Tours in the early 1990s, not too long after having seen the Star Wars trilogy for the first time. Actually boarding a starship, complete with a droid pilot, and going on my own Star Wars adventure was a geeky kid’s absolute dream, and the sense of wonder I had as the doors to the simulator opened that first time is a memory that has stuck with me for decades.

The simulator itself was clever, and the ride managed to really give you the sensation of being a spaceship passenger, lurching from side to side and up and down as the ship tried to escape Imperial attacks! The “story” of the ride was, of course, a bit silly, but the experience of being part of Star Wars – even just for a few minutes – is something I’ve never forgotten. I haven’t been able to ride the updated version of Star Tours, but I’m sure it’s just as much fun, and that there are young Star Wars fans today about to have that same kind of experience!

Number 5: Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean exterior (at Disneyland Paris).
Photo Credit: Crazy Uncle Dennis

Pirates of the Caribbean was a ride long before anyone conceived of Jack Sparrow or the film franchise! And it’s a fun pirate-themed boat ride perfect for Adventureland. It wasn’t the first ride to be given the feature film treatment – that dubious honour goes to Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror, which saw a truly mediocre adaptation in 1997 – but it’s not unfair to say it’s been the most successful to date.

The ride itself – at least the classic version, prior to being updated with characters from the films – didn’t have a strong story, instead comprising little more than a set of pirate-themed scenes loosely bound together. Thus there wasn’t much to “adapt” to bring it to screen, just a theme and a song.

Though the ride has now been updated to reflect the popularity of the films, which makes sense, the original version was plenty of fun. The ride is a step in between something like El Rio del Tiempo and more thrilling, faster-paced rides, containing several short drops and faster sections rather than simply being a slow boat tour in the dark. Pirates of the Caribbean is a Disney classic, and one that nobody should miss when visiting!

Number 6: The Monorail

A Walt Disney World Monorail train.

Though you aren’t technically supposed to… this is the only ride on this list you can ride for free! Because the Monorail runs outside of Disney World itself, connecting the theme parks to several resort hotels and the main entrance, it’s possible to hop aboard even if you don’t have a ticket for the theme park – or at least, it used to be!

The Monorail is a lot of fun to ride, and offers great views of both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. As a kid, I was seriously impressed with the way the Monorail glides through the inside of the Contemporary Resort – one of the hotels near the Magic Kingdom. The idea of a train going inside of a hotel blew my mind!

It’s designed to be a practical method of transportation, providing guests with an easy connection between their hotels or the car park and the theme parks. But the Monorail is so lovingly designed and well maintained that it’s a fun ride in itself. It also bookends a day at the parks – and even a whole Disney trip – perfectly, by beginning and ending with a ride.

Number 7: Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth is symbolic of Epcot.

Epcot’s talisman is a perfect representation of the concept behind the Epcot theme park. It’s a dark ride that goes through a summarised version of history, specifically the history of communication, with great animatronics and excellent narration. Epcot was originally intended as a park with a greater emphasis on imagination and education, showing off a particular vision for a possible future. Spaceship Earth is one of the few remaining elements of that original vision, with others having been closed or Disney-fied.

Spaceship Earth is the first thing you seen upon entering Epcot, and the huge geodesic sphere can be seen from all over the park. Its futuristic design still looks great as the park approaches its fortieth anniversary, and it’s become absolutely iconic. I hope that a planned renovation of the ride, which was due to start last year before the pandemic delayed things, doesn’t take away its educational charm.

Because Spaceship Earth is the first attraction inside the gate, it’s easy to make it your first port of call in Epcot. In my recollection, the queue wasn’t especially long on any of the occasions I wanted to ride, and inside a combination of moving walkways and continuously-moving ride vehicles seem to provide a smooth experience. The final part of the ride, which takes you through a field of stars “into the future” always feels moving and beautiful, and the ride ends on a very optimistic and hopeful note.

Number 8: Kilimanjaro Safaris

The sign welcoming guests to Kilimanjaro Safaris.

In 1998 my family and I were fortunate to be among the first guests ever welcomed into Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The new theme park was fantastic, and coming a few short years after The Lion King had been in cinemas, it was wonderful to see Disney really embracing the animal theme. Kilimanjaro Safaris is, as you might expect from the name, a safari ride.

Growing up, my family visited South Africa on a few occasions to visit an aunt who had moved there, and I lived in South Africa for a time shortly after graduating from university, so I’ve been lucky to have been on a real safari on a number of occasions. And I have to say, Kilimanjaro Safaris compares positively to the real thing! Because the ride is relatively compact, it’s possible to see many different animals – real animals, not animatronics – during the course of your expedition, which is fantastic.

There is a story to the ride, and like The Great Movie Ride above, Kilimanjaro Safaris has a cast member driving the ride vehicle to serve as your guide, adding a whole extra level of immersion. The animals at Animal Kingdom are well cared-for, and while it is still a “zoo” of sorts, knowing that the animals have space to roam and aren’t confined to small cages is nice to know. Getting up close and personal with some of these wild animals might otherwise be impossible, so Kilimanjaro Safaris offers a unique experience that really can’t be found elsewhere.

Number 9: Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain looms large over Frontierland!

After putting so many slower rides on the list, I suppose we need at least one “thrill ride” before we wrap things up! Splash Mountain is a log flume with a slow and tense build-up to a long drop, and it’s very easy to get absolutely soaked while riding! The ride is being re-themed at some point in the near future, following criticism of its present theme, which includes elements from the controversial film Song of the South. The new theme will draw on The Princess and the Frog, and based on concept art looks fantastic.

Splash Mountain slowly builds up a sense of tension. A couple of smaller drops get you riled up for the big one, and the slightly creepy vibe present in some of the animatronic scenes really ramps things up as you… go up the ramp! By the time the big drop is imminent, the ride has done its job of building anticipation!

I’ve always enjoyed Splash Mountain, and though I don’t expect to be able to see the re-themed version any time soon, it sounds like it’s in good hands. It’s one of the main attractions in Frontierland, and one of the “three mountains of the Magic Kingdom” along with Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain. Doing all three in a day makes for an amazing and thrilling time!

Number 10: Peter Pan’s Flight

Entry to Peter Pan’s Flight.
Photo Credit: Disney Wiki

Peter Pan’s Flight is a dark ride that vaguely follows the story of the 1953 film, taking you on a journey to Neverland with Peter and the Darlings. The gentle ride is great for young kids, and the adventure of following Peter Pan as he flies above London and battles Captain Hook is rendered beautifully with Disney’s animatronics.

Clever use of forced perspective really does give you the sensation of flight – being high above London and Neverland, looking down. It’s a very well-designed ride to get that sense of scale, and I’ve always appreciated that about Peter Pan’s Flight. Most of the characters from the film are present, including Tinker Bell and Captain Hook, and it’s just a cute, fun ride.

Given the recent controversy surrounding the way Native Americans were depicted, and Peter Pan’s restricted access on Disney+ that has resulted, I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Pan’s Flight is reworked or even closed and entirely re-themed at some point in the near future. So this might be one to ride while you can!

Bonus: Fireworks displays

Fireworks in the Magic Kingdom.

Few places in the world do fireworks displays as well as Walt Disney World. Even though I’m not the world’s biggest fan of fireworks, which I feel can be a tad boring, the displays Disney World puts on at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot in particular are absolutely fantastic, and well worth sticking around for after dark.

Seeing the fireworks pop over Cinderella’s Castle, while also watching performers in costume as Mickey, Minnie, the Princesses, and other Disney favourites is one of the must-do experiences while in Disney World, especially if you’re visiting with kids. Not only is it a quintessential Disney World experience in itself, it’s also one of the best fireworks shows you’re ever likely to see!

Most places around the world are only treated to fireworks once or twice a year, so seeing a live display – especially a professional one on a large scale – does still present a sense of wonder and excitement, even to an old cynic like me! It’s a great way to end a day at the parks.

So that’s it. Ten of my favourite attractions at Walt Disney World.

No Rise of the Resistance for me… yet!

Did your favourite(s) make the list? If not, I hope you’ll stay tuned. This is a subject I’m sure I’ll revisit at some point in future, as there are at least ten more rides and attractions I can think of that didn’t make this first list! Disney World really has something for everyone, in my opinion. Whether you want the thrill of a fast rollercoaster, an immersive story-based ride, something gentle to do with young kids, or a show to sit down and watch, there’s so much going on that kids and adults of all ages should be able to find something to enjoy. I greatly enjoyed my visits to the park, and I’m glad to have been able to attend while I was capable of doing so.

The great thing about Walt Disney World is – as Walt Disney himself said – that the parks are “never finished.” There will always be changes, additions, and updates to keep things fresh and interesting, and while the trend in recent years has been for including more of Disney’s own characters and intellectual properties, that may not always be the case, and we could see more changes in future that bring back ideas like The Great Movie Ride or Epcot’s Innoventions.

Regardless, I hope this list was a bit of fun, and maybe a trip down memory lane for those of you who, like me, haven’t been able to visit the parks in a number of years.

All rides and attractions listed above are the copyright of and owned by Disney Parks and/or The Walt Disney Company. Some images courtesy of the Disney Wiki and Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Will the Avatar sequels improve the franchise’s standing?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Avatar.

James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi film Avatar never really managed to break into pop culture in quite the way he hoped. It was a huge financial success – in part because folks were curious to see what this new project was all about – but it never really became a top-tier entertainment brand in the way Star Wars or Harry Potter did. In 1977, Star Wars became a phenomenon, and in the years afterwards the film was constantly on fans’ minds. The Empire Strikes Back cemented its place at the pinnacle of the sci-fi genre… even if Return of the Jedi perhaps tarnished its halo a little!

Avatar just isn’t on that level. There was a lot of hype leading up to its release, with a decent (if rather boastful) marketing campaign spearheading 20th Century Fox’s efforts to push Avatar as the “next big thing.” But for a lot of moviegoers, the film was just okay. It wasn’t bad; it was a solid, enjoyable summer blockbuster that went toe-to-toe with the best pictures of 2009 – including the rebooted Star Trek! But after leaving the cinema, I never really got the sense that fans were clamouring for more in the way Trekkies, Potter-heads, and Star Wars fans are for their respective franchises.

Avatar was a successful film – but can it become a successful franchise?

The creation of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World in Florida is a great demonstration of this. The new land attracted attention when it was built, and for months after it opened its rides were queuing out the door! But that happens for almost any new Disney attraction, and when compared to the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, it pales in comparison. There was huge excitement to be transported to a galaxy far, far away. There was curious interest in Pandora… but that was all.

None of this is to say Avatar was bad. It wasn’t at all, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I first saw it. But I was never desperate to re-watch it, and my latest revisit to the 2009 film – which may be the third or fourth time I’ve seen it – was prompted by nothing more than boredom. But it also led to this article, so at least I got something out of it!

Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World.

This is a much broader point that ties into another piece I’ve been writing, but the difference between a good one-off story and a good story that becomes a larger franchise is world-building. Any film, television show, book, or even video game that hopes to be “the next Star Wars” needs to put time and effort into creating a world that fans want to explore. Star Wars and Star Trek did so, and they did so by showing fans a relatively small piece of what felt like a huge picture. The galaxies depicted in Star Wars and Star Trek are so much bigger than the few characters we met in their original incarnations; it feels like there’s much more to see beyond what was depicted on screen.

Avatar – and a lot of other wannabe-franchises too – doesn’t have that, at least not yet. Partly that’s because the film doesn’t hint at anything more than what we see – Earth, Pandora… and that’s it. And on Pandora there’s one major human outpost. There are starships flying back and forth, and the glimpses we got of Earth had a futuristic vibe, but the world Avatar created doesn’t feel as though it extends beyond the places we see. There’s no other planets that we could imagine humans or Na’vi colonising one day. There’s no fleets of starships on missions of exploration or fighting battles; the few ships we see just fly between Earth and Pandora.

A starship seen in Avatar.

Pandora itself is absolutely beautiful; a location painstakingly created. And the Na’vi are more than just a simple analogue for Native Americans or other indigenous peoples; Cameron and his team went to great lengths to craft Na’vi culture, even going so far as to write a fully-formed Na’vi language. Those efforts may yet pay off, but they don’t seem to have thus far. Because as interesting as the Na’vi are – and they are undeniably interesting – they’re all there is. One tribe of Na’vi and one human settlement on Pandora, and… what? Nothing else, as far as the film showed us.

There’s a sense of scale missing from Avatar, and its world-building, while wonderfully done, is small. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one aspect of a story and a few characters – in the first film in a series that kind of needs to happen! But if the aim is to create a series with franchise potential, something to hook fans in and get our imaginations running, that sense of scale and the idea of a greater world beyond what we see on screen is essential. It’s the single most important element in building a larger story – and Avatar didn’t get it right.

So on to the question I posed at in the title of this article: can the planned sequels – of which there are four – improve the franchise’s standing? Can they spin out what was a decent one-off sci-fi blockbuster into something more? Can Avatar make the jump and become “the next Star Wars?”

Two Na’vi seen in concept art for the Avatar sequel series.

The length of time between Avatar and its sequels may be an issue. By the time Avatar 2 hits cinemas in December 2022 – assuming it meets its planned release date – thirteen years will have passed since the first title. Given the general apathy and lack of interest in Avatar this long after its premiere, the first part of this sequel series will have to spend at least some of its runtime refreshing audiences on what happened in the first film and what the setting is. When I sat down to re-watch Avatar earlier, I had only a vague recollection of the film, and I daresay a lot of folks will be in the same position.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out, it had been only three years since Star Wars had been in cinemas. And while Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released a decade after The Original Series ended, the only reason the film was made was because there was a growing fanbase who had watched the show when it was rebroadcast and those fans were clamouring for more. Is anyone clamouring for Avatar 2?

A scene on Pandora from concept art.

Avatar was a welcome addition to the sci-fi genre. Especially as the last decade has been dominated by reboots, adaptations, remakes, and sequels, it was a welcome breath of fresh air, and despite what I’ve said about its world feeling small, there is potential for it to be expanded upon. To say that the Avatar series can never be more than it already is would be ridiculous – there’s only been one film so far, and it was decent. It didn’t blow up the genre or redefine what a film could be in the way its pre-release marketing seemed to suggest, but it was good. I don’t dislike Avatar.

The sequels do have a pretty big job to do, though. The storyline of Avatar was exciting, but it was hardly original. Comparisons have been made to Dances with Wolves and even Disney’s Pocahontas, and while I don’t think it’s fair to call it derivative, it wasn’t a unique narrative by any means. That point of criticism will have to be addressed, and the sequels will have to try harder to be different from a story perspective if they’re to achieve the heights the films are aiming for.

Na’vi fly atop their banshees in more concept art.

The beautiful world-building that worked so well for Pandora and the Na’vi needs to be expanded upon. Perhaps we could see different Na’vi tribes and civilisations on Pandora, or better yet, expand the scope of the setting out into space. Are there other moons or planets in the Pandora system, perhaps? Or is there another human settlement on some nearby world? These are just a couple of ideas for how the Avatar series can build on the successes of the first film to be bigger – to achieve that sense of scale which the best and most successful franchises have.

Avatar was also a film which had contemporary real-world analogies. I noted influences of at least two of America’s recent wars in the depiction of the Marines, scientists, and Na’vi – Vietnam and Iraq. The dense rainforests of Pandora, and the way Jake and others had trouble navigating them, were the film’s answer to the jungles of Vietnam. And references to winning “the hearts and minds” of the locals was a phrase we heard often in relation to the Iraq war during the 2000s – which is when Avatar was in development. The latter of those themes is arguably less relevant in 2021 than it was in 2009, and Avatar 2 will need to adapt to changing times.

Night time on Pandora in this final piece of concept art.

One improvement we’re sure to see is in CGI and digital animation. Avatar was released at a time when CGI was improving – and was far better than it had been even five or ten years earlier – but there are still some aspects of its visual style that haven’t aged especially well. Some textures have that “too shiny” look that plagued cinematic CGI in the 2000s, and while viewing the film on a cinema or IMAX projector screen dulled the impact of some of that, on a television set in 2021 it’s something you notice. I wouldn’t say Avatar looks dated – but it’s right on the cusp. A film that relies so heavily on computer animation – many of Avatar’s sequences are basically fully-animated – is always going to run that risk, and while it has aged more gracefully than, for example, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, there are still noticeable places where the animation isn’t up to code.

There have been improvements in computer animation since 2009, which should mean Avatar 2 and the rest of the sequel series will be far more visually interesting. Pandora was already beautiful, but if that beauty could be expanded upon I think the sequels could really be something special. Some fans tend to turn up their noses at visuals, but if you think about it, a distinct visual style is another absolutely crucial element to a franchise. Star Trek has combadges, ships with saucer sections, Klingons, and the transporter. Star Wars has white-armoured Stormtroopers, lightsabers, Jabba the Hutt, and X-wings. Avatar introduced us to the blue-skinned Na’vi, but none of its technology, characters, costumes, or locations have become iconic in the same way as the other franchises we’ve mentioned. Part of that is down to the quality of the CGI, but partly it’s the film’s own art style. Avatar 2 could introduce a new design for a starship, character, or even just a costume that will go on to be emblematic of the series – in the way that Boba Fett became a symbol of Star Wars after his debut in The Empire Strikes Back, for example.

So yes, there’s work to do to expand on Pandora and the world Avatar created in 2009. But I’m really interested to see where Avatar 2 will take the story after the conclusion of the first film, and what the other films in the planned sequel series have in store. James Cameron is an amazing director, and having put so much work and effort into the Avatar series, I really hope it will see the kind of success he’s looking for. There’s always room for more sci-fi franchises!

Avatar is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, and may be streamed on Disney+ in the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries and territories. Avatar is the copyright of 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company. Avatar 2 is due for release in December 2022. Logo and official promotional artwork courtesy of avatar.com. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Thoughts on Disney Parks giving Splash Mountain a new theme

Though I haven’t been to any of Disney’s theme parks since a brief visit with a friend back in 2009, I consider myself a fan. Walt Disney World is the biggest, and therefore offers the most to do, but the other parks I’ve had the good fortune to visit are enjoyable too.

Splash Mountain isn’t my absolute favourite ride – that honour has to go to the Tommorowland Transit Authority/Peoplemover, which is brilliant and almost always has a short wait – but it’s up there among my favourites.

Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World.
Photo Credit: HarshLight on Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

Criticism of the ride’s theme, which uses characters and songs from the 1946 film Song of the South, has been building for a number of years already, and work to re-theme it has seemed an inevitability – it was just a question of when. Under the current circumstances, where there’s a renewed focus on race in the United States, Disney evidently felt they could wait no longer.

I’ve seen some criticism of the decision, with it being derided as another part of “cancel culture”, but I fully understand why it’s been done. Song of the South is an interesting work of cinema from an historical and academic perspective – but it’s by no means something kids should be watching, and having its characters on one of Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s most prominent and famous attractions is obviously unacceptable. It arguably has been unacceptable for some time.

Song of the South was the first film for which a black American received an Academy Award, and in addition its pioneering blend of live-action and animation arguably laid the groundwork for many of today’s visual effects and CGI. But we’re looking back on it in 2020 in the same way one might look back on The Birth of a Nation – it may have been pioneering in its techniques, but it is undeniably racist in its depiction of black Americans.

Disney parks need to be spaces where everyone can feel welcome, and while Splash Mountain may not have been quite as troublesome as the film it borrows from, the association is enough for many people to feel upset. Furthermore, Disney parks are in a constant state of evolution, with rides being updated and changed all the time. Another of my favourites – Epcot’s Spaceship Earth – is set for a major overhaul in the coming months. It’s no bad thing when a ride is updated, and the re-themed Splash Mountain will be the better for it.

The basic layout of the ride looks set to remain the same. All that will change is the theming – out with Song of the South, in with The Princess and the Frog. The first black Disney Princess had been lacking an attraction of her own at the theme parks, and I honestly couldn’t imagine a more appropriate or poetic way to include her. I don’t think we need to worry about the ride’s song either – The Princess and the Frog had a wonderful jazz soundtrack with some great options to choose from. Or a new song could be composed just for Splash Mountain. I’d be happy either way.

Concept art for the reimagined Splash Mountain.
Picture Credit: The Walt Disney Company

If you like Splash Mountain for the ride itself, nothing will change. And if you enjoyed the theming and lament its passing, I understand. But something that may seem innocuous to one person or group of people may be upsetting or offensive to another, and from Disney’s point of view, making sure everyone feels welcome and included is really important.

Because of my health I have no idea if or when I’ll get back to the Magic Kingdom to see the renovated ride for myself. But if I ever do I’ll be sure to go for a ride on the new Splash Mountain. I think it’ll be absolutely fantastic.

Splash Mountain and The Princess and the Frog are the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.