Analysing spatial discourse in a Disney theme park: The Na’vi River Ride in ‘World of Avatar: Pandora’

disney park

THURSDAY 5 DECEMBER, 2019,  17:00-18:30

Location: UCL Knowledge Lab, 23-29 Emerald St, Holborn, London WC1N 3QS

How do discourses of colonisation in the film ‘World of Avatar: Pandora’ get transformed into ones of ecotourism in a Disney theme park?

Dr Louise Ravelli from the University of New South Wales Australia analyses these discourses as they become manifest in a theme park ride.

The complex world of Disney theme parks provides a rich source of material for investigating the limits and potential of Spatial Discourse Analysis (Ravelli and McMurtrie 2016, McMurtrie 2017). Disney’s ‘World of Avatar: Pandora’, in Florida, is inspired by James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, and includes a number of rides and experiences for visitors. The film is set in 2154, telling the story of an earth-based mining corporation which attempts to colonise the beautiful and resource-rich planet of Pandora and its people, the Na’vi.

Disney theme park’s Pandora is set another 100 years ahead, and transforms the film’s discourses around mining and colonisation into ones of ecotourism and respect. But as Roderick argues (2019), this respect sits within a neoliberal discourse which also hierarchizes the Na’vi, resulting in a view of them as both ‘primitive’ and as a ‘commodity’. This paper focuses on one of the rides, the Na’vi River Ride, and shows how a close metafunctional analysis of its communicative resources can contribute to such a reading and critique, demonstrating how Disney draws on the limits of earth-bound representations to create a world into which visitors are invited and immersed, but with which they are never fully connected.


Ravelli, LJ and McMurtrie, RJ (2016) Multimodality in the Built Environment: Spatial Discourse Analysis, London: Routledge.

Roderick, I. 2019. Neoliberal multiculturalism and the discourse of primitivism at Walt Disney World’s Pandora, Journal of Multicultural Discourses DOI: 10.1080/17447143.2019.1588898

McMurtrie, RJ (2017) The Semiotics of Movement in Space: A user’s perspective, London: Routledge.  

About the speaker

louise photo

Louise Ravelli is Associate Professor in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She has a long-standing interest in multimodal communication, across language, image and the built environment, using social semiotics and multimodal discourse analysis. Books include Multimodality in the Built Environment: Spatial Discourse Analysis (Routledge, 2016, with Robert McMurtrie), and Museum Texts: Communication Frameworks (Routledge, 2006), and she is part of the new editorial team for the journal Visual Communication (Sage).

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