Can ‘Avatar’ Save Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

Alamy The afternoon exodus of turnstiles clicking the wrong way may soon be coming to an end at Disney’s (DIS) Animal Kingdom.

Disney announced over the weekend that an entire land themed to James Cameron’s “Avatar” — complete with at least two E-ticket attractions — should open at the animal-themed park by early 2017. The addition of the fictional Na’vi tribe’s lush Pandora moon landscape should help shake the park’s negative tag of being a half-day park.

It’s been more than two years since Disney and Cameron announced that “Avatar” — a 21st Century Fox (FOXA) property — would be coming to Florida. At the time, the parties earmarked a $400 million investment and squared away several acres at Animal Kingdom for the project.

However, things had been relatively quiet since then. After spending billions to acquire Marvel and Lucasfilm, it was only natural to wonder if Disney was having second thoughts about its blue-hued plan to use the section of the park that had originally been slated for the mythical Beastly Kingdom, before Disney settled for installing the far more modest Camp Minnie-Mickey.

We’re Back on Pandora

Marvel and Lucasfilm properties would’ve been an odd fit, even for a park that stretches the scope of being an animal park to include talking bugs in a 3-D show, a track-wrecking yeti, and a time-traveling dinosaur-hunting thrill ride.

Marvel itself comes with unique challenges. Marvel’s most prolific characters are tied to a licensing deal with Comcast’s (CMCSA) Islands of Adventure in the Universal Orlando Resort that prohibits their appearance at any of Disney’s Florida parks.

Since things had become so quiet on the “Avatar” front lately, it was easy to speculate that Disney was working on a deal to buy those rights from Comcast. That never happened.

However, now that Disney has come clean with some more details and offered up impressive concept art, it seems as if the family entertainment giant has made the right call by dreaming up an experience where park guests will be able to take a leisurely boat ride through the bioluminescent forests of Pandora, or take the thrills up a notch by flying alongside the movie’s mountain banshees.

Scaling Everest

A bit of back story: Animal Kingdom had a rocky reception after it opened in 1998. Outside of the magnetic Kilimanjaro Safari motorized trek through real animal habitats, many visitors were left heading for the exits after a few hours at the park. (I didn’t win too many fans with a scathing rebuke at the time, but the park was a disappointment in its first few years.)

The park went on to close as early as 5 p.m. some days, and attendance fell in each of its first four years. That turned around when Disney expanded the park to include popular stage shows and the Expedition Everest roller coaster. The park that had attracted 8.6 million guests in its first full year — falling to 7.3 million by 2003 — drew nearly 10 million guests last year, according to Themed Entertainment Association.

Naturally Animal Kingdom can do even better, and the Avatar expansion will also include the introduction of a new nighttime show — away from the live animal staging areas — that will help keep guests at the park longer.

It’s going to be a long wait until early 2017 — or the more likely late 2016 soft opening — but at least Animal Kingdom can capitalize on the favorable momentum that’s been building over the years before it shakes the distinction of being a park that can be knocked off in a few hours. Despite the uptick in attendance, the park is still closing at just 6 p.m. this week (7 p.m. on Saturdays). There’s a lot of dinner business that the park is missing out by being so incomplete. That will change.

It’s better to be Na’vi than naive. Disney knows it needs “Avatar” at this point, and by the looks of things, when it arrives, it’s going to be spectacular.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney.

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