The sun sets as a new floating island is raised into place. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The Engineering Awe of Avatar

The sun sets as a new floating island is raised into place. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
The sun sets as a new floating island is raised into place. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Major strides are being made on the construction of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But they aren’t without enormous effort and cost.

Over the weekend floating islands were being put in place to the exterior of the attraction. These are small pieces compared to the major segments that will largely cover the front of the building. Look up when you enter the park and you can see the tops of this attraction. It is an amazing piece of engineering, where no one beam matches the other.

A closer view shows how the island is being hoisted into place by the cranes. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
A closer view shows how the island is being hoisted into place by the cranes. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

I personally have been impatient as they have slowly erected this new attraction. I was frustrated that they closed Camp Minnie-Mickey, and then it was months later before they did a ceremonial ground breaking. It was still sometime afterwards before actual construction started.

But now that I see this incredible engineering feat in full scale, and I can see why it’s taking so long. It is perhaps as awesome an engineering feat as Spaceship Earth when it was being constructed. In fact, it’s probably the best comparison. What they’re trying to do to create this sense of another world is jaw dropping. This is not another show building going up–though it includes that as well. This is a complicated array of landscaping art that really will look like it’s floating in the air. And anyone who has taken basic science knows that there are some laws of physics that really fight against that idea.

One can see scaffolding on the island pieces on the left side. In the foreground is a smaller island ready to be lifted into place. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
One can see scaffolding on the island pieces on the left side. In the foreground is a smaller island ready to be lifted into place. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

 

It hasn’t been easy for those constructing this. Scores of specialists are shoveling, building, welding and molding. Water flooding in the show buildings a few months ago when rains were more prevalent made it difficult for many of the workers to get in and do their job. My sources say that the construction space was so bad that some were getting ring worm. Efforts to pump out the water, as well as the end to the hurricane season in Central Florida have eventually made it easier to work in those environments. But these problems slow the work.

That’s nothing compared to construction on the island structure itself. The weight that this building can take on at this point is sensitive to even a worker or two having to be up on scaffolding. You can’t take enough safety precautions in an environment like this. And all of that planning and precaution takes time and energy.

And then there was a big incident a few weeks ago when one of their four massive cranes . It simply toppled over. The thought was that it was construction worker error, but often many factors can contribute to an accident like this. The blessing is that no one was injured when it toppled over. And it fell in a way that it didn’t do damage to the ongoing construction itself. In the words of one construction worker, “I’ve never seen the under belly of a crane before.”

I am a big believer that with Disney, safety is first. With them, that’s more than words. I think they really walk the talk. But construction sites are hazard prone environments, and none more risky than this incredibly unusual construction project. I now can wait longer for this attraction to open–especially if it means that there are no casualties along the way. Avatar gives me a new appreciation for what it takes to create a world-class attraction.

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