With the battles of the theme parks well-underway, theme parks industry leaders like Disney Parks and Resorts or Universal Theme Parks are both trying to adapt their most valuable intellectual-properties to draw crowds to their resorts and parks offerings. On the Disney side of this, this has led to some phenomenal projects like the newly-opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure. At Universal, this led to the creation of great projects like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley), and the upcoming certain-to-be-impressive Nintendo Land at their upcoming ‘Epic Universe’ theme park. Theme parks have entered an unfamiliar stage of adapting popular intellectual properties that put them into an interesting state that has been touched upon at Walt Disney Imagineering in many projects, mainly; ‘how do we adapt these stories into a theme park setting, while also giving us the opportunity to tell new stories and not be too tied to the source material?’. The result is a fascinating experiment in themed storytelling and a great example of the possibilities in exploring franchise in a four-dimensional scale.
Here’s what makes Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge work so wonderfully; the environment which fans are visiting doesn’t exist within the films, as most traditional theme park lands do. Instead, Batuu, the planet that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge takes place within, is an entirely new location with its own unique role in the Star Wars universe. The reason is perhaps multi-fold; one being that the locations in the films often serve a single story-purpose, but don’t quite make for an interesting place to visit, and the other being the opportunity for the exploration of new stories. By not being tied to say, Tatooine, or Hoth, or some other pre-existing planet, the Imagineers had the ability to create their own unique set of characters, locations, and merchandise that is uniquely Batuuian and distinctly Star Wars. It was a brilliant cohesive storytelling feat that allows characters to exist within and outside the land at given times and allows the land to evolve as new films, television shows or books begin to take form in the pipeline.
Batuu is a prime example of great theme park storytelling, but not all franchises can exist in their own sub corners of a shared galaxy. In Pandora: The World of Avatar, the Imagineers created the next best thing. While visitors traveling to the Valley of Mo’ara on the planet of Pandora may be visiting the land and culture of those featured in the Avatar film, the land exists outside of the Avatar movie itself. Imagineers understood that for this land to evolve, it couldn’t exist solely around the story of Jake and Neytiri, it had to exist on the very foundation of the films’ ideas and core concepts without being too tied to it. In fact, Pandora: The World of Avatar is set a generation following the events of the last Avatar sequel (a movie that has yet to be released). This journey is not about re-living the events of the first film, it is about sending you to Pandora with the Alpha Centauri Expeditions, who as part of the journey, will take you on a breathtaking journey through the wonders of Pandora, like on the Na’vi River Journey, and give you the opportunity to take part in its greatest rituals, a flight on a banshee in Flight of Passage.
It’s evident in Avatar’s case that the land doesn’t require you to know the history of the land you are immersed in, but it forces you to consider that what must have happened there was important. In parallel to Galaxy’s Edge, which at the moment very much takes place in the present (sometime between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker), both these lands create the opportunity to create a new story, insert new characters, and develop new ideas without the concern for disrupting canon. Both these lands live harmoniously within their own mythologies, allowing for the lands to exist alongside their theatrical endeavors, without the need for confusion or conflict.
While it’s not to say that theme parks that recreate locations from your favorite movies are bad by any means, as we’ve seen such great projects like Cars Land or The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the fact that these two lands based off intellectual properties have found that delicate balance between adaptation and creative exploration is truly a new frontier in immersive storytelling. Like everything in the Disney Parks, Batuu and Pandora are two living and evolving locations which will lead to new stories, experiences, and developments as their films evolve on-screen and off. Bright-suns to the future of immersive theme park storytelling, and we’re excited for what the possibilities could lead to.