Troweling Theme Parks: Archaeology as Narrative in the World of Avatar

As someone who has spent a very large portion of her lifetime in various theme parks, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve started to write about them through an archaeological lens! Troweling Theme Parks will be an occasional writing series where I’ll look at how many immersive theme park experiences use a sort of archaeological-type of narrative to get stories across…and of course talk about the Indiana Jones rides later on. Our first foray into this series will look at the World of Avatar, located at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL.

Remains of the original expedition to Pandora from the first Avatar film. (Photo Credit: Ricky Brigante, Inside The Magic)

In the spring of 2017, Walt Disney World officially opened up the newest addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL. It was called “Pandora: the World of Avatar” and was based on the James Cameron film of the same name from 2009.

The conceit of this additional “land” is that it takes place a generation after the conflict between the exploitative human Resources Development Administration (RDA) and the native Na’vi of Pandora. With peace between humans and Na’vi, a company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions now leads research and ecotourism trips throughout Pandora, leading to the creation of the outpost that guests can now visit at Animal Kingdom.

This backstory is not explicitly stated, however – instead, environmental clues are designed into the decoration of Pandora to suggest the revitalisation of the area after the invasive mining excavations. In some respects, this is a sort of archaeology to this narrative, allowing for guests to peel back the layers of time to interpret for themselves why they may stumble upon old, rusted signs that say “RDA Scientists Only”, or why the rusting husks of military equipment, overgrown with plants, can be found among the lush, alien landscape.

Na’vi rock art from the Flight of Passage queue. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

Probably the best example of this can be found in the queue for the land’s most popular (and innovative) attraction, Flight of Passage. This simulation attraction has guests using the Avatar technology used in the film in order to ride a species of flying alien known as “Banshees” to tour Pandora. Further backstory, however, is explained through the queue for the attraction – guests first enter through a series of winding caves that showcase traditional rock painting and other artwork from the Na’vi (perhaps from their prehistoric ancestors?). The queue then transitions into the rusty metal corridors of a now-abandoned base, where the destructive RDA group from the film first occupied Pandora. These corridors are separated by the lush, bioluminescent greenery, which has slowly overtaken the human-made base over time. As the queue gets closer to the newly repurposed part of the RDA base that hosts the Avatar technology, murals of Banshees and their Na’vi riders have been painted over the originally bare walls, perhaps reflecting a more respectful perspective of the Na’vi and their cultural from their human colleagues at Alpha Centauri.

The rusty old RDA base transitioning into the overgrowth of bioluminescent flora. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This immersive type of storytelling isn’t new to theme park development. Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers arguably first pioneered the idea of “environmental narrative” with the original opening of Disneyland in 1955, where the story is told through environmental clues that are purposely designed into the setting of the theme park. It has since spread to other big-name theme parks – for example, see Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a land based on J.K. Rowling’s wizard franchise.

Murals painted over the original RDA buildings, placing the present emphasis more on the Na’vi and the native species of Pandora, rather than exploitation of Pandora’s resources. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This sort of “archaeology” in narrative storytelling, through environmental clues that allow for guests to further interpret the story on their own, is not only a subtle way to further expand on the sort of messages that are encouraged in both the original film and the overall theme park – the importance of conservation, the evil of exploitation of nature, etc. – but also reflects the sort of cultural conflict that can only be illustrated through material remains. The traditional art of the Na’vi, permanently showcased on the natural formations of cave walls, which in turn gives way to the invasive RDA expedition that replaces the natural with the artificial, to the “present-day” repatriation of the RDA’s land and equipment to not only the Na’vi and their human allies, but also to the natural environment of Pandora itself.

Of course, there is something to say about the anthropological discourse surrounding ecotourism in the real world and problematic aspects of the practice, especially with regards to Indigenous communities…but perhaps that’s a blog post for another day.

References

Anonymous. (2017) Pandora – the World of Avatar. Walt Disney World Resort. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/en_GB/destinations/animal-kingdom/pandora-world-of-avatar/

Martens, T. (2017) A Visit to Disney’s Pandora – What We Learned. Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-disney-pandora-avatar-20170502-htmlstory.html

Mitrasinovic, M. (2016) Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space. Routledge.

Taylor, D. (2017) The Inside Story of Why Disney Spent Half a Billion Dollars on an Avatar Theme Park. Vulture. http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/disney-world-pandora-avatar-theme-park.html

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