Disney Imagineering tests flying dragon, speculation swirls surrounding ‘Avatar’ addition to Walt Disney World

in Disney, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Entertainment, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

High above the Shafter-Minter Field airport in California, an animated flying dragon has been spotted soaring through the skies. This mechanical flying beast has been linked to Walt Disney Imagineering, being tested roughly 2 hours north of their Glendale, Calif. headquarters.

The dragon is a variation on an ultralight aircraft, utilizing a fan and kite to stay afloat while an onboard pilot navigates it. According to The Bakersfield Californian, Disney intended to keep this test dragon a secret, requiring nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements to be signed by airport officials working with them. But it was still noticed, with local restaurant manager Tammy Zaninovich posting photos online (and subsequently shared by the Californian), noting that the dragon does more than fly – it “breaths fire and the mouth opens and closes.”

UPDATE (12/5/12): Disney’s flying dragon has debuted over New Fantasyland:

UPDATE (12/2/12): It seems Disney’s new dragon will be used for the New Fantasyland expansion of the Magic Kingdom. Click for details.

But what are Disney’s plans with this fully-functional, flying dragon? The first word on fans’ minds: “Avatar.”

(Photos by Tammy Zaninovich, via The Bakersfield Californian)

It’s been nine months since Disney announced they plan to work with director James Cameron to build a new land devoted to “Avatar” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Other than a few occasional references to the project, both Disney and Cameron have remained largely quiet on the details of what would be included, as much of it is still being designed and decided upon.

Video: Disney and James Cameron announce “Avatar” land for Walt Disney World

But this flying dragon identically matches a March 2010 patent filing we first shared when the “Avatar” announcement was made, detailing exactly the mechanical creature seen above, speculating that they could be related.

Disney still isn’t talking. Though it’s tempting to immediately link this flying dragon aircraft with the “Avatar” project, it could be in development for an entirely different experience, perhaps not even for a United States theme park – or not even a park at all. It may simply be one of the many tests Walt Disney Imagineering runs as part of extensive research and development into new technologies and forms of entertainment. One commenter on the original photo album stated last month the dragon is definitely Disney’s, but unrelated to “Avatar.” But Disney could simply be holding onto that secret.

Dragons have associated with Disney’s Animal Kingdom since long before “Avatar” even made it to the box office, far prior to the theme park announcement. The original logo for the park prominently featured a dragon, front and center:

Even if this particular flying dragon has nothing to do with “Avatar,” it still brings to mind the never-built Animal Kingdom concept called “Beastly Kingdom.”

This also isn’t the first time Disney has utilized ultralights. Around two decades ago, Walt Disney World rolled out shows called “Skylaidescope” and “Surprise in the Skies” at Epcot in the late ’80s and early ’90s, featuring the light-weight aircraft high above guests’ heads. The aircraft even had their own small airport on Walt Disney World property (now the site of the recently-opened Disney’s Art of Animation Resort).

The fact, however, that this dragon began as a patent filed more than two years ago, surely with much research, development, and design work prior to that filling, and now has appeared as a functional prototype above a California airfield must indicate Disney is serious about pursuing the creation. Whatever use Disney has planned for this dragon, it’s highly unlikely theme park guests would be allowed to ride on it. There’s a good chance plans involve working it into a show, with only trained experts taking control and soaring through the air. Though when pixie dust is involved, all that can be expected from Disney is the unexpected.

Will this test result in an ultralight aircraft skinned to look like an Avatar flying “Ikran” with a blue Na’vi riding on its back when Disney debuts its “Avatar” in 3-4 years? That secret remains locked behind walls at Imagineering. But in the meantime, the locals around the Shafter-Minter Field airport are keeping a close watch on the skies, all the while saying to Disney, “I see you.”


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    Andrea Somerville

    Gross go away Avatar, you don’t dont belong in WDW.

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      I find it funny that people are judging Avatar as a bad concept to include in Disney Parks based on one movie. While some may see it as a reactionary move to Wizarding World of Harry Potter, clearly the folks at Disney see something more to it. Plus, the story is not yet done; there’s more films coming. I’m sure there are plenty of people who visit and enjoy Wizarding World of Harry Potter who aren’t exactly big fans of the movies. Ultimately, what will be appealing about Avatar in Animal Kingdom will be a rich and immersive environment whose lore and characters extend into multiple forms of media. Those of you drinking the Haterade out there will probably rush to Animal Kingdom to see it come opening day.

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        Adam Lavender

        I just don’t get a magical “happy feeling” from the movie avatar like i did with harry potter. Disney is all about magic and whimsy and i just dont see that with avatar, i could be wrong tho, but its gonna be a tough sell to diehard fans.

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          Kyle Marchetti

          That is why it’s going into Animal Kingdom due to it’s more nature based attitude as opposed to magic and whimsy nature and feel of magic kingdom. The real question is ,why not Hollywood Studios?

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            Um, the real question is still… Why?
            Star Wars Land is still a better fit for the Disney theme parks which has cross generational appeal. My 12 & 9 year old boys AND my 3 year old daughter all love Star Wars for different reason. The boys have seen Avatar once and have never wanted to see it again and we own the Blu-Ray. (It was a gift) They liked the movie when they saw it but have yet to want to watch it again… hmmm I wonder why?

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          What was the difference between Avatar and the Potter Movies? It was nothing but a battle against good and evil just like any movie of it’s kind. Avatar has good lessons to learn.

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          Jeff Walters

          I’m a diehard fan of Disney. I live 5 hours from WDW and am very excited about Avitar land. I should mention I’m not a huge Avitar fan, but I do like it. Of corse I am only one person and maybe my opinion is not the popular one, but I think I can see the Disney in this idea.

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    Ed H

    While this looks really cool, I think this has more of a Fantasmic! feel than Avatar. It would best be used at night when the parachute would be less noticeable. The parachute is part of the flight system and would be a lot less noticeable at night if it were done in a dark color.

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      Watch the video. They were using it at night

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    Jeff Lynch

    I really wish Disney would make a Beastly Kingdom…and I so hope that when Pixar’s dinosaur film is a hit that Disney invests the money to rip out the junky dinoland at AK and build a really, really cool dinosaur land based on the new Pixar film. There is so much potential for AK.

    But Avatar is not as great as Disney might think. Do people still care about that movie? It was very preachy to me and was just Pocahontas in space with Smurf-cats.

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      Money isn’t everything–If Six Flags did a Dark Knight (not “Rises”) ride TODAY, everyone would snicker. 😉

      That said, we have a rural airport out our way, and frequently see outboard-parasailers buzzing (literally–the motors are a bit loud) over the highway and strip mall parking lot on the right days. Always attracts a crowd, but it’s pretty hard to camouflage the big ploofy parachute.
      If Disney can make enough animatronics to bring the dragon to life, it’s more of a look-up distraction than Tinkerbell or Dumbo at the fireworks, seeing as this one’s during the day, but that’s not an implied praise of Pocahontas Blue.

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    I did the Wild Africa Trek last week an during the hike section, we saw a large tree structure being built near the trek path. The cast members brushed it off when we pointed it out, replying “oh that’s just a new habitat under construction for a new species – they are going to be out of this world!”

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    Ugh I just don’t like the idea of anything to do with Avatar and Disney. I don’t care what you say, When you say Avatar I dont think Disney! I wish that it never comes to Animal Kingdom! I get they want to out do Universal but this isn’t the way!

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      When I think Star Wars I don’t think Disney, but lo and behold, Star Tours works well. I don’t see how this would be any different. Kids would probably LOVE seeing all the crazy animals in Avatar at a Disney Park too, in my opinion.

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        That’s why an Avatar RIDE would be fun but a LAND? No thank you.

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    Yeah, but how successful IS a movie, really, in the park-adapted longrun?
    And I’m not just talking about the Dinosaur ride at AK.

    (Mad T Party….’Nuff said.) 😉

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    Clay Matthews

    I dunno – it looks more like a “conventional” dragon than something from Avatar. My hunch is that Ed H is on to something with his theory (above).

    Dang cool, regardless.

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    I don’t get why there isn’t any video? Or pictures of the fire breathing? It sounds so awesome. I don’t care what it’s theme is, I’d just love to see it for the uniqueness of it.

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      There is a video, the one at night that’s in this blog post

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    Brian English

    I bet speculation is wrong — this is almost certainly something being done for the new expansion of Harry Potter. Did the Avatar dragons breathe fire? Never saw the film, so I’m not sure. but I would guess that dragons fit better in Harry Potter. So my guess is that it’s either Fantasmic as noted above or Harry Potter.

    Personally, I am hoping against hope the Avatar land never develops. Terrible idea.

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      Well, the idiot has a point. 😉 This IS being tested at California, and there’s no Avatar at California. (Yet.)
      They might be testing a Maleficent/Fantasmic dragon for the West coast, until they work the bugs out, but seems to be the same aerodynamic design.
      That said, Avatar is still too corny and expired to have a longer than five-minute shelf-life.

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        Yeah, it’s expired just like any other movie out there. Don’t forget it was the highest grossing movie of all time.

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    Copy and past “Journey to the Center of the Earth ride” from DisneySea and all problems would be solved. Disney is making WDW decisions harder than what they need to be. I’m just not understanding it at all. Even the new Dumbos already have a defect on them with the Dumbo knees being scrapped. I really just have to scratch my head with wdw at the moment.

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      You can scratch your head while they make money hand over fist.

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    what a waste of money and time to put into the air some make me up flying dragon which never existed in the first place, this is mans imagination running wild.

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      Pretty much nothing Disney has done has been real idiot.

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    I wonder just how many fans of the films coming out of Disney/Pixar since the passing of Walt D are true Christians.
    To be honest, Avatar is a fightening movie that takes people beyond the scope of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. It goes into the realm of something horrible that is to be foisted on us in a few short years. I’m talking about the experimenting with animal/human DNA. This is stuff that will come back to bite us in the butt(no pun intended).
    So what’s next on the list from the great James Cameron? Kids with real wings flying to school?
    If any Christian reading this disagrees with me and thinks this is all innocent entertainment – please get off the fence and speak up. We will be judged for silent acceptance of this brainwashing that is called “Disney magical motion pictures.

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      The peoples lack of imagination and acceptance of new fantastical ideas are what led them to execute Christ in the first place. Oh and by the way, happy zombie Jesus day!

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      As I can only say, Avatar is only a fantasy movie. I am a Christian also but I don’t believe that we as Christians shouldn’t be brainwashing people. By believing that your in put is the only one that matters because you follow what you believe is the “true god.” You are the only one brainwashing people. Our religion doesn’t matter nor does anyone body’s. We are just people who believe in what we want to. It should impact or harm anyone. Christians like you are the only people that don’t understand the concept of being human.

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      “Disney magical motion pictures?” Sarcastic brainwashed closed minded idiot. I think being attacked by a witch with a poison apple (Sleeping Beauty) and I think being forced to work to death for my sisters and neglecting mom would make me more frightened. I think Avatar is much less frightening, it has very beautiful Earth like creatures. Pandora is quite a beautiful planet. Very Earth like. And on that planet the people can actually get along and not try to brainwash each other with different religions. And people like you call everyone else the problem. Disney could be Christian or not I couldn’t care. Disney has helped almost everyone living today get through childhood. Christians like you are obviously the corrupt people on this Earth. Go hide in a cave. And ponder upon your religious thoughts that obviously don’t work out.

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    The speculation that the dragon will fly over the crowd is folly. The FAA reg’s and insurance would make it unfeasable. The best that could be hoped for would be to fly 1000 feet above and/or 2000 feet to the side of the open assemblage of persons below.

    This aircraft does NOT fit within the Part 103 ultralight rules because it would be prevented from flying for commercial purposes.

    If Disney is able to get sufficient exemptions from the FAR’s to fly this dragon close enough to folks for it to be impressive, the FAA will be opening the skies for many more such flights. I like that idea, but there are a whole lot of whoffo’s that would be a problem to appease.

    As far as that goes, getting commercial usage for experimental aircraft is no small exemption permitting ordeal. There’s little chance that Disney will get this full Part 23 certified.

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    Gretchen Camp

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – they are setting up a long-term relationship with James Cameron, same as they did with George Lucas. Give it 10-15 years and I will bet you’ll see Disney buying James Cameron’s movie assets too….just think Terminator, Alien, Avatar alone would be great franchises to own. I believe Terminator reverts back to him 2019 so maybe it’ll happen sooner.

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    Thank you for including a link to my Walt Dated World Surprise in the Skies page. The site now has a new address of waltdatedworld.com/id178.htm. If you could update the link, I would appreciate it. Thank you!

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