November 6, 2015

Thoughts on Animal Kingdom's Na'vi River Journey

Na'vi River Journey. Now this is what makes me want to venture to Pandora World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom. This beautiful piece of concept art by Disney Imagineering is just the thing to draw folks in who are not quite thrilled by just another version of Soarin'- even if it is enhanced by additional technical capabilities and special effects.

Beginning with Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, guests saw what Disney could do in a darkened showroom environment. And they ate is up! Sailing past the Blue Bayou Restaurant before the real adventure started created the perfect blend of mystery and expectation. Thrills of the emotional kind not dependent on a sheer physical manipulation of the ride vehicle meant fun for the entire family.

A few years later, Disney Imagineering took things to another level by using the same game plan in a new environment: El Rio del Tiempo debuted at EPCOT Center, and this time the art of the Imagineers told the cultural story of Mexico, making the attraction a guest favorite. Then came Pirates 2.0 in Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. Obviously, the public loves the concept, right?

You'd think the suits would understand this and continue to build these expanded dark ride attractions available to guests of all ages. But in the last 20 years or so, it seemed all the Disney parks went through a transformed mindset that meant new attractions had to compete toe to toe with Universal and Six Flags in the coaster/thrill zone. Some were great as well as highly successful (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Indiana Jones Adventure), some were fun but fairly pedestrian, being cheap and easy to build (Rock N Rollercoaster). Other additions were just plain misguided from the beginning, never gaining the crowd approval so strongly desired (Mission:Space) and eventually the decisions to build these thrill rides hit the lowest point in creativity ever seen at a Disney park: The Maliboomer. Whereas the Tea Cups and Dumbo were at least Disney themed friendly, the misdirected designers of the awfully ugly Maliboomer couldn't even bother doing so.

Which brings us back to Pandora and the Na'vi River Journey. Perhaps the suits realized a return to their roots would be a good thing for a park that was heavy on thrills on low on traditional Disney dark rides. Was it the combination of the success of Soarin' and the park transforming attraction Radiator Springs Racers (both in California Adventure, by the way) that made the suits rethink the art and ways of Imagineering from long ago? Did they see anew that guests loved mild thrills and also loved being immersed in rich detailed environments? Just maybe they decided guests of all ages needed to experience something much different than everything else available at Animal Kingdom. Could it be just a financial decision, and they want to build a high end expensive restaurant a la Blue Bayou? Perhaps it is just a desire to bring some additional fun, fantasy, and mythology to life? Regardless of the reason for the decision, the addition of the river journey should be a reason for fans of old time Imagineering to cheer... and book their tickets upon opening.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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