Thursday, December 6, 2012

Staggs on Avatar Land, Cars Land, and Next Gen.

On the same day Walt Disney World formally unveiled most of the elements in its Fantasyland expansion, the head of the company's theme-park business reaffirmed Disney's faith in another project in Orlando — a land in Disney's Animal Kingdom based on the "Avatar" film franchise.

Disney has said almost nothing about "Avatar Land" since announcing it more than a year ago, prompting speculation that it was reevaluating plans for a projected themed around the 2009 blockbuster by director James Cameron. The speculation intensified in October when Burbank, Calif.-based Disney spent more than $4 billion to acquire Lucasfilm and the rights to the venerable "Star Wars" franchise.

But Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs said Thursday that Disney remains enthusiastic about Avatar Land, which designers hope will bring the lush world known as "Pandora" to life inside Animal Kingdom. Analysts do not expect the land to open until at least 2017.

"We've gotten more excited about Avatar as we've gone through development. Because we are finding that really playing around with this notion of allowing guests to visit Pandora can be very magical," Staggs said during a brief interview after a grand opening event for "New Fantasyland," which will remain under construction until 2014. "We're not in construction yet. We're still in development. And we're still honing exactly what we're going to do. But it's going to be big."

 Company officials signaled they would spend between $400 million and $500 million. Asked if Disney still intends to invest the same amount in Avatar Land, Staggs responded, "Yes."

Staggs likened the Avatar plans to both New Fantasyland and "Cars Land," another immersive environment with multiple attractions and shops that opened earlier this year in Disney California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif. "We love that as a direction," Staggs said. "We're going to go for that in Avatar."

"Cars Land is a pretty darn good blueprint," Staggs said when asked if Disney is likely to build exact clones of the California version. "We'll always tinker…But at the same time there's not a lot wrong with Cars Land."

The executive also confirmed that Disney will expand the presence of Star Wars in its theme parks now that it owns Lucasfilm. Disney, which previously licensed Star Wars rights, currently only uses it for a single ride and small surrounding area in theme parks in Orlando, Anaheim, Tokyo and Paris.

"You'll see more Star Wars in the parks," Staggs said, though he did not elaborate.

Long before any new Avatar-, Cars- or Star Wars-themed projects are built, Disney must complete the roll out of "Next Generation Experience," or "NextGen," a billion-dollar technology project that Disney has been working on for more than three years. Elements of the work range from a reservations system allowing visitors book rides from home to keyless hotel-room doors and interactive ride queues.

Staggs said some NextGen elements were built into the Fantasyland expansion, such as an interactive character-meeting experience with the princess Belle of "Beauty and the Beast" and a wireless scanner-based ordering system in the restaurant "Be Our Guest."

The concept is "to give our guests the ability to engage more deeply before they arrive and as soon as they arrive, to plan their day and know that they will be able to enjoy the things that they care most about. And then that allows them to relax and fill in the rest of their day in a way that really suits their individual purposes," Staggs said. "As we get later into 2013, you'll see specific examples of how we're doing that."

One challenge Disney could face is how to effectively market NextGen's applications to travelers, a necessity if the company is to recoup its $1 billion investment — about as much as Disney spent on its five-year rebuild of California Adventure in Anaheim.

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