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 project 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."
When Disney first announced the project in September 2011, 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, a 12-acre area based on the 2006 Pixar film, has driven big gains in attendance and guest-spending across Disneyland Resort since opening in June. Staggs suggested Disney is likely to copy the concept in some of its other parks.
"Cars Land has been a tremendous hit in Anaheim. It's such a hit with our guests that it clearly factors into our thinking about the long-range plans for our other properties," he said. "We haven't made any final decisions about if or when that might happen. But we're excited to see how much the guests are really loving that land."
Disney this summer reassigned the creative executive who led the development of Cars Land to Orlando, appointing her to a new position of "executive producer" for all of Disney World, which includes four theme parks, two water parks and two dozen hotels and time shares.
"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.
"I think it's less about selling it and more about trying to make sure that our guests know that those tools are available to them – that that ability to personalize and enhance their experience and interact in new ways with our properties is there for them," Staggs said. "It's not like opening a land. It's meant to be infused throughout Disney Parks and Resorts."
Staggs said Disney is gleaning lessons from Aulani, the standalone hotel and time share in Hawaii that the company opened last year. It is the first large-scale resort that Disney has built in market away from its traditional theme parks, something company executives have said is a future growth strategy for Disney's $13 billion-a-year vacation business.
"If there's anything that we've been grappling with, it's that, more than we even expected, our guests come on property and want to stay there, as opposed to exploring the rest of the island," Staggs said, noting that Disney recently launched an expansion at the Oahu resort that will include a third pool and more food and retail space.
Aulani has yet to generate any meaningful returns for Disney. The company's chief financial officer told analysts earlier this week that Aulani is "frankly not a big contributor or detractor from earnings" as of yet.
Staggs would not say whether Disney still views standalone resorts as a key growth strategy.
"I think we want to make sure that Aulani gets a chance to stretch its legs before making any definitive decisions," he said. "But as I said, I'm really pleased to see how that Disney approach to service is resonating."
email@example.com or 407-420-5414