Disney World-Building (and -Telling): The Transmedia Experience of AVATAR: FLIGHT OF PASSAGE (2017)

Some time ago I spent five days at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to share a few thoughts that will perhaps be of interest to readers of this blog. For in Disney’s attractions, we see, in ways I had not anticipated, fascinating points of intersection between numerous phenomena I’ve often written about in this space: franchising, serial storytelling, world-building, and what might labeled world-telling.

One thing I didn’t quite grasp about Disney World before visiting the park for the first time since I was about ten years of age is that Disney is one big world-building enterprise. It’s silly to have overlooked this given the name and reputation of the park. Nevertheless, it is rather extraordinary how deep the world-building–and “world-telling”–goes.

A quick word about “world-telling.” It’s a term I came up with in my courses at Washington University in St. Louis to distinguish between two aspects of franchise creativity. The first aspect: a franchise will construct a world. Scholars such as Mark J. O. Wolf, author of the widely cited Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), have discussed this in great detail. World-building doesn’t just mean inventing a setting for a story’s events to be situated in. The way I see it, franchisers construct worlds by conceiving of at least four contexts that shape–constrain, animate, reinforce, etc.–the stories they tell:

(1) power (what kinds of struggle or socio-political hierarchies rest at the core of the society that the franchise has invented?)

(2) rules (what are the capacities of the characters that inhabit this world, given its physical and socio-political makeup?)

(3) culture (what kinds of languages, customs, cuisines, technologies, art forms, and belief systems shape the characters’ experiences of this world?)

and (4) places (where are the events of this world set, and what do these locations look, sound, and feel like?).

Franchise stories do not just recount a sequence of narrative events. They offer users access to the world a franchise’s characters must navigate and respond to.

The second aspect of franchise creativity follows from this: time-based franchise products such as movies, shows, video games, etc. will rely on a moment-by-moment process by which these “world-facts” (relating to power, rules, culture, and places) are communicated to the user–to the reader, viewer, or player. This is what I mean by world-telling.

While at Disney World, I was consistently struck by how entire subdivisions of the park and individual attractions within them are conceived as time-based encounters, as sequences of experience that allow guests to slowly piece together both a fictional world and a story set within it.

No Disney World attraction is conceived simply as a ride. To greater and lesser degrees, attractions are access-points to fairly layered narrative and fictional-world experiences. Even serial ones!

As we navigate them, Disney’s attractions encourage us to think and feel and experience as both users and characters. We become physical avatars taking in facts of plot and world. Along the way, some attractions present the stories and worlds they tell as cumulative, as elaborations upon previous fictional experiences. These worlds, and the stories they make physically manifest, have a history. The Seas with Nemo & Friends (opened in 2007) is presented as an effort to find Nemo… again. Disney World offers us a sequel in attraction form. While Splash Mountain (1992), for its part, serializes over the course of the ride itself several Uncle Remus stories, African-American folktales. Part of the pleasure of an attraction is how it forms and shapes and lends order to memory, drawing on entertainment experiences we’ve had prior to riding the attraction (Finding Nemo), or structuring the time we spend with an attraction through the storytelling principle of “continuing adventures” (Splash Mountain).

All of this is part of a consistent story- and world-telling strategy. Disney employees are called “cast members,” trained performers who interact with you in character. And in doing so, they occupy a curious liminal space. They react to the fiction and exist outside it, recounting it. Their principle role–apart from the functional ones of providing security, tending to rides, and managing crowd flow–is to define each attractions’ fictional places and cultures. They story- and world-tell to keep us in a fictional mood.

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Fig. 1. Big Thunder Mountain. 

For instance, a PA announcement of a delay on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (1980) roller coaster states that the Monument Valley-inspired rail station is experiencing “flash floods.” Holdups for Splash Mountain are attributed to the troublesome Br’er Fox, a character we later encounter on the ride.

Sound–the verbal announcements of cast members–serves a basic world- and storytelling purpose at the park. But so do the spaces we navigate as we queue up. Some might say that these functional spaces are designed merely to distract, to take our minds off the often lengthy wait. That’s certainly true. But how these queueing spaces motivate attention is what concerns me. To circle back to Big Thunder Mountain, as we wait we pick up on snatches of plot, clues as to the world that governs the fiction the attraction is seeking to recite. We soon realize that we’re snaking through the abandoned offices of a mining company, with wall art containing curious items like the diagram below (fig. 2), filling in details about the deep recesses of the mountain. We’re being immersed into a fully realized fictional environment.

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Fig. 2. Diagram of the imaginary mines below Big Thunder Mountain.

This accumulation of storyworld details during queues serves to elicit one’s curiosity, stimulate one’s imagination. Disney was building fictional universes long before it acquired Marvel and Star Wars (in 2009 and 2012).

The most impressive exercise in world-building and -telling is surely the new section of Animal Kingdom called the Valley of Mo’ara (opened in 2017). This 12-acre space took six years to complete, and the end result is a fictional world made material.

Mo’ara not only “remediates” James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), translating the spaces of the movie as physical environments one can freely interact with. No: Mo’ara also acts as a sequel to the feature film, recounting story events and a changed world only guests of the theme park can experience directly (at least for now, until Avatar 2 is released in 2020 and some of these story events are, I assume, integrated into the film series).

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Fig. 3. The welcome sign that greets you as you enter Mo’ara.

Note how the story and the world are told to us. Our sense of time–of the fictional world’s history–is managed right from the get-go. As we enter Mo’ara, we are greeted by a sign (fig. 3). On some level it simply signals our entrance into the park. But it isn’t merely functional. Resembling the displays we encounter in national parks, the sign offers visitors a series of safety tips and a map of the area. Disney wants visitors to imagine that they’re on a hiking expedition. What’s more, we learn that two organizations have facilitated our access to this remote part of Pandora, the Pandora Conservation Initiative and Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE). The attentive guest will attempt to place things in the fictional world’s timeline. Neither one of these is in Cameron’s film. Questions arise: when did these organizations arrive on Pandora? Before the events of the film or after? How has this changed the world, power-wise? Did their arrival reignite the tensions we experienced in the movies, between humans and the indigenous Na’vi? The experiences we’ve had in other parts of Disney World have primed us to expect answers–if we look and listen carefully enough, enigmas of plot and world will clarify themselves in due course.

As we follow the “well-established trails” suggested on the map, we witness something extraordinary. Disney “imagineers”–the designers of the park–have seamlessly integrated fantastic and real-world flora. Pandora is rich in exotic plants, some planted, some invented, but one is hard-pressed to tell the difference (fig. 4).

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Fig. 4. Mo’ara’s exotic plant life.

We then happen upon a large object (fig. 5) that some guests to the park are likely to simply gaze at from a distance but which holds some delightful secrets for those who linger. The world’s places come alive.

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Fig. 5. Pandora’s “Flask Reclinata” plant.

The object is in fact a gigantic plant indigenous to Pandora, a Flask Reclinata, which, when rubbed, releases “spores” (mist) into the air.

As we round the bend, we come upon some iconic sights from Cameron’s film–floating mountains, with streams of water falling from up on high and stretching out into pools down below. And through an opening, we witness some stone arches, which in the film, encircle the Tree of Souls (fig. 6).

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Fig. 6. Pandora’s floating mountains.

The lingering questions we have about the Pandora Conservation Initiative and Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) begin to answer themselves in the most elaborate display of world-building and -telling in the park, the Avatar: Flight of Passage (2017) attraction.

Avatar: Flight of Passage culminates in a four-and-a-half-minute, 4D simulated flying experience (3D plus olfactory and bodily stimuli). For this writer, it is, hands down, the best attraction in all of Disney World (the nine-minute long It’s Tough to Be a Bug (1998), also in 4D, is a close second). For the ride portion, you’re equipped with 3D glasses and invited to straddle a seat like a motorcycle (called a “link chair” because through it, we link to an avatar). As the ride begins–here’s a bootleg–you “warp” into your avatar, and the seat begins to rock and swing. You’re riding your very own banshee. 4D effects enhance the thrill. Within moments, you’re ushered on by a banshee-mounted Na’vi–it appears to be Neytiri (fig. 7), the Zoe Saldana character from the film. Like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), we’ll learn to fly at the side of a female mentor.

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Fig. 7. The first few moments of the 4D experience of Avatar: Flight of Passage.

 

You now sense forward motion. Neytiri dips swiftly below the horizon line, and your banshee follows. As your visual field tips downward, the front of your modified cycle angles forward, too, and as you hurdle down the massive trunk of what seems to be a new Home Tree–with the original destroyed (in the film), the Na’vi have relocated–the visual and physical stimuli begin to work on your inner ear. An exhilarating–and for some, illness-inducing–sensation of vertigo momentarily sets in. You’re experiencing a scintillating free-fall, but it doesn’t last. You pull up and resume, at least for now, a horizontal flight path, mastering your banshee. You’re reminded now of the creature’s physical presence beneath you. Pads positioned on your cycle to pulsate against your inner thighs simulate the creature’s respiration.

The flight simulation portion of the attraction relies to some extent on the guest’s memories of the film–on the story and the world it told. Familiar characters and places return; and we feel the anxiety of a maiden banshee flight, acquiring the capacity to join with and fly the creature, just as Jake Sully had in the film.

But when is all of this set? Why are humans now invited to join with banshee, when in the film, many Na’vi dismissed the idea of human-banshee joining?

The queueing space once again proves to be key to the ride’s world- and storytelling, revealing that Flight of Passage, as well as the entire Valley of Mo’ara theme park, takes place years after the events of the 2009 film. But how much time had elapsed? And how has this fictional world changed?

While queueing up for Flight of Passage, we enter a space we never encounter in the film. The space reveals fresh aspects of Na’vi culture: a sacred cavern ornately decorated with “flying” wood sculptures and luridly colored wall paintings (fig. 8). Curiouser and curiouser: why are we humans being admitted to this site of ritual?

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Fig. 8. The Na’vi caves in Avatar: Flight of Passage.

The queueing space descends into what appears to be a bunker. We pass through sets of airlock doors equipped with elaborate key pads (fig. 9-10). These design choices serve to remind us of the “rules” of Avatar: humans can’t breathe Pandora’s air.

 

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Fig. 9. The bulky bunker doors in Avatar: Flight of Passage
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Fig. 10. …and their intricate keypads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bearing the mark of the RDA–the colonialist and militaristic Resources Development Administration of the film–these doors are perhaps evidence that humanity had at one point defiled this sacred Na’vi site, too, ripping up the earth below the caves in hopes of finding mineral deposits that would allow the RDA to replenish Earth’s depleted reserves.

We learn moments later, however, as we continue along the queue, that quite a bit of time had passed since the RDA had been ejected from its Pandora colony (which takes place during the film’s climax). Signs that like this one (fig. 11) are now in ruin, beginning to be strangled by vegetation.

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Fig. 11. Signs of ruin in the RDA’s bunkers, in Avatar: Flight of Passage.

We come upon a different sign–this one almost brand new (fig. 12). Bearing the logo of the Pandora Conservation Initiative (PCI), we pick up on the salient narrative development here. This bunker, once used by the RDA to pillage and plunder Pandora’s natural resources, is now being occupied by an environmental society, one that, as the logo suggests, lives in relative harmony with Eywa, Pandora’s deity. The logo shows a woodsprite, a symbol of Eywa in Avatar, being cradled by two sets of leaves curved to resemble human hands. Since the fall of the RDA, humanity has mended ways with Pandora and its inhabitants. That explains why we were permitted access to the Na’vi’s sacred caves up above.

 

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Fig. 12. The RDA’s bunker has a new occupant.

This particular branch of the PCI studies the effects of RDA mining practices on the banshee and their ecosystems. A chart bears this out (fig. 13).

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Fig. 13. A PCI chart showing the negative impact of the RDA on banshee life, in Avatar: Flight of Passage.

The queueing space now becomes richer–a wider array of world and narrative cues opens up before us. The story- and world-telling turns away from questions of narrative timeline and interracial developments on Pandora toward the intimate, as we are introduced the scientists who work in this space–through the cultures (objects, languages, habits) that define them. We ambulate past a series of workstations, and take in who these people are and what makes them tick (fig. 14). One scientist passes time on Pandora playing softball.

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Fig. 14. A PCI scientist’s desk in Avatar: Flight of Passage.

Characters and cultures emerge before our eyes, through the simple art of mise-en-scène (the placement of objects in a “scene”).

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Fig. 15. An avatar incubating in Avatar: Flight of Passage.

Still in the queue, we circle past a full-sized avatar in incubation (fig. 15), and moments later discover an antechamber, a genetic matching room, where our attention is drawn to a video wall. One of the lead scientists, Dr. Stephens, reinforces the timeline–how Flight of Passage acts as sequel to the original film. He explains in a direct-address video feed (like the film, the fictional scientists of the ride rely on the technology of desktop-recorded video logs to document their thoughts and communicate with peers):

Over a generation ago, this enormous company called the RDA created a lot of damage to the area through their bad mining practices and conflicts with the Na’vi. Just like on Earth it can take decades for ecosystems to recover. One way to understand what’s going on with an ecosystem is to study what are called keystone species. 

Moments before we are fitted for our very own avatar, and link with a banshee for our rite of passage, the 4D attraction confirms and refines the intuitions we’d formed while in the queue. Since the events of Avatar, relations between humans and the Na’vi have warmed. Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) now transports humans like us to Pandora, allowing us to explore its natural environments and cultures. Thus, while on the ACE’s Valley of Mo’ara hiking expedition, and exploring the Na’vi caves and the old RDA bunkers and the new PCI facilities housed there, we’re been experiencing the world of Avatar from a vantage point later in time–twenty to thirty years removed from Cameron’s 2009 film.

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What’s the ultimate takeaway here for those of us interested in the modern media franchise? First, that Disney World’s Valley of Mo’ara and Flight of Passage form a vital piece of Avatar’s developing transmedia narrative strategy. (A new comic series, recounting the events that transpired before the 2009 film, is slated for 2019.) To experience Avatar in its entirely, as a “complete” entertainment, one must now migrate to Disney World–to a different medium (i.e., the theme park and its attractions)–to piece together “the whole story.” The plot of Avatar, and the world the franchise seeks to immerse us in, is no longer just on movie screens.

Second, Flight of Passage is a sequel that reveals that world-telling follows some of the same principles as, and is often intimately connected to, a product’s story-telling. As we enter the Valley of Mo’ara, a sign that greets us creates anticipation around a set of interconnected narrative enigmas–namely, what is the PCI, and when are the events we’re going to participate in presented in this version of Pandora set? World-telling fuels our search for answers.

As we navigate the theme park, the driving narrative enigmas become tied to the fictional world we’re experiencing from moment to moment. Answers to major enigmas are delayed as we take in the park’s many attractions (ones that involve queueing, like Flight of Passage, and ones that do not, like the Flask Reclinata). More localized enigmas draw our attention–why are we humans being permitted to trespass on the space of a sacred Na’vi cave? why are the RDA’s constructs now in ruin? who are these scientists and what are they up to? We become attuned to the world’s way of informing us about world-“facts” and relations (power, rules, culture, and places). By the time we reach the threshold of the Flight of Passage 4D experience, the driving narrative enigmas behind the entire Valley of Mo’ara theme park have been resolved (i.e., brought to closure). World-telling–the process of connecting visitors with new and old aspects of Pandora’s hierarchies, political history, character capacities, cultural norms, and the stimulating qualities of its various settings–enhances the park’s effort to implicate our journey through it in narrative.

Worlds, whether in movies, comics, TV shows or theme parks, don’t just appear fully formed. If they did, franchise products would hold much less interest for us. No: fictional worlds are told. They are recited. We experience them in time, as sequences of cues. As a temporal experience, where we follow the paths (entrances, “open” walkways, queues) Disney imagineers have set out for us, the Valley of Mo’ara emerges as a fictional or “sub-created” world that elicits the same sorts of affect–such as anticipation, curiosity, and a sense of fulfillment when we pick up on salient patterns and “callbacks” and discover answers to enigmas–that form the foundation of our pleasure in chains of narrative events.


 

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Yours truly, attacked by a prolemuris while on expedition. I received no warning of such a contingency in the ACE brochure.
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