Prepare for an expedition into one of the best examples of themed environment immersion at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK). Journey to the planet Pandora to experience the sights, sounds, and beauty of the world of the Na’vi. Whether you are there for the rides or the sheer spectacle of it all, you will no doubt immensely enjoy your experience at Pandora. For those who may be worried that the extreme separation of time from the first Avatar movie and still a couple years from the next one(s) mitigates the full experience of this world based upon that which was created by director James Cameron, no need to fear. Whether you have seen the movie once or multiples times or even enjoyed the movie or not, the Disney Imagineers who conceived this themed land, based upon the movie, designed it to be equally enjoyed by fans of the franchise and those who may not have even seen the film. In theory, that approach works very well; however, the disconnect from the movie and perceived disconnect from the future films does little to immerse you into the story of Avatar. After previewing the land, I am left wondering if the land would have been more appropriately titled Pandora: World of the Na’vi. Personally, I did not care for the movie–found it to be Dances with Wolves meets Fern Gully meets Pocahontas; but we are here to explore this new land, not the movie. My point is, if you are looking to feel as if you are part of a story, then you may be a little disappointed in some of the important experiential factors of a themed entertainment land; however, despite the separation between this land and the cinematic franchise, the enjoyment factor is still exceedingly high. For fans of Soarin at Epcot, Pandora’s new attraction Flight of Passage will blow your mind and take flight simulator attractions to a “whole new world.”
Before we get into further details about Pandora, I want to take a moment to point out a little known rock formation that rests just above the river park guests cross over on the journey from Discovery Island to Pandora: the World of Avatar. Those who are familiar with the park’s early (pre-open) days, you may recall that what became Camp Minnie-Mickey, home to Festival of the Lion King (former CM at the Lion King show here), was originally slated to be a mythological creature land. Even more interesting, the Dragon Challenge coaster (formerly Dueling Dragons) at Universal’s Islands of Adventure was originally built and intended for this mythological land at DAK. Anyway. The rock formation I spoke of is in the shape of a dragon’s head. It was built there when the land was going to be home to dragons and other mythological creatures, but of course the theme of the land changed. With Disney’s attention to details and aversion to cross theming between lands (to avoid contamination of the experience), one might have thought that the rock formation would have been removed–not so. All through the days of Camp Minnie-Mickey and even today, the dragon head is still there. In fact, one might say that the land has come full circle, as Pandora is a mythological world and the Banshees appear closely related to dragons.
From the moment that you first enter the land, you will instantly feel transported to a far away world, rich in flora and fauna. Imagineers worked diligently to make sure the outside world–even DAK itself–was completely left behind. Those that live in Florida are no strangers to lush greenery; but for those who come from desert climates, mid-Atlantic, or northern parts of the country that are not green year-round, Pandora will serve as an escape from the dry or cold harsh world to a land flowing with crystal clear water and flowers of all shapes, colors, and varieties. There is little left of Camp Minnie-Mickey, and rightly so. However, if you pay close enough attention to walkways, you might see some of that old world in this new one. Make sure you have plenty of room on your phone or your camera’s SD card because you will want to take dozens of pictures on your first visit. There is so much to see on your first visit to this land. While many are talking about the floating mountains–and those are pretty dope–I am more excited about the exceptional lighting and forced perspective of the mountains off in the distance. Up until this point, Universal Studios always boasted more realistic forced perspective in its parks; but, this new land at DAK proves that Disney can integrate forced perspective just as well–if not better. I also appreciate the layout of the pathways. The pathways are laid out in such a way that the land feels larger than it actually is; furthermore, the different elevations also lend to the realism of the world and providing various perspectives and vantage points form which to gaze upon the exquisite design. Who doesn’t love a great water feature? There is something about moving water that is instantly refreshing, and there is plenty of moving water, water falls, and water creatures in Pandora.
Pandora: the World of Avatar offers two attractions: Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey. Each ride offers a completely different attraction design. Compered to other attractions in the Disney parks, both the new rides at Pandora have entrances that are organically woven into the environment. This adds to the natural beauty of this lush planet and the aversion to the effects of industry on the landscape. Located on opposite sides of the land, the layout will aid in crowd movement and control during the spring break, summer, and holiday seasons when the parks are at their busiest. Pandora’s Flight of Passage is a brilliant flight simulator design in the vein of Soarin and the Na’vi River Journey is a boat ride, a classic Disney design, in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean and the new Frozen Ever After.
Flight of Passage was epic! The suspension of disbelief was incredibly real. Disney Imagineers have really outdone themselves this time. It’s no secret that Soarin is one of the top draws at Disney World and that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is still one of the top attractions at Universal Studios. Essentially, Imagineers took the ride platform of Soarin and combined it with the feel of Forbidden Journey and threw in some Spider-Man (Univ/IoA) to create an amazingly innovative ride experience. Only suffering from high demand, low capacity, sluggish turnaround time (hmm, now that I think about it, that’s kind of a lot), this attraction will convince you that you are flying on the back of a banshee (the English name for the ikron in Na’vi language). Matched with an avatar that allows you to move about Pandora as a Na’vi, you then make your way into the flight chamber to board a jetski like device that allows you to maneuver your banshee throughout the skies and caverns of Pandora.
If you allow yourself to breakaway from the 4D simulation (4D because there are aromas, wind, and water effects), you’ll notice that the ride design is similar to Soarin in that there are multiple levels of these ride stations in front of an IMAX screen. The big reveal is done exceptionally well because as the screen is revealed, there are several busts of bright white LED light that conceal the movement of the wall in front of you. Unless you are looking for the mechanisms that create the magic, you’ll not notice the wall ascending or descending. One of, if not the, longest rides at Walt Disney World, this attraction lasts several minutes and each second is filled with high-flying adventure. Honestly, it is the most incredible simulator style attraction that I have ever been on–and I’ve been on a lot. Prepare yourself for a wait time of up to 4hrs standby (standard queue) or 6hrs (extended queue) for this attraction when it opens. If you are in the standby queue, the research facility that you get to walk through is certainly a site to behold as well. And don’t miss one of the most lifelike animatronics in aqua suspension as you make your way through the line to the launch facility.
Perhaps you’re afraid of heights or even the most organic-feeling flight simulators make you not feel the greatest. Then, make your way over to a classic Disney ride design reimagined for Pandora. The Na’vi River Journey is a serene, gently moving boat ride along a tranquil river surrounded by plants and animals bursting with bioluminescence. If you’re lucky, you may even catch rare glimpses of the Na’vi along the way, hidden in the foliage. Featuring some of the technology first debuted on Epcot’s Frozen Ever After, this boat ride offers a time to relax and simply absorb all the gorgeous plant and wildlife of the planet Pandora. While most of the non-plant life is clearly rear mapped projection, there is an impressive animatronic Na’vi shaman chanting as you glide by on your boats. Everything from the smells, to the sights, and sounds of the Na’vi river will convince you that you are in fact traveling down a mystical river. With no height restriction, this attraction is perfect for a family or group with young ones who may not meet the height restriction on Flight of Passage.
Pandora also offers two quick/casual service restaurants with robust menus of food and drinks. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to experience the restaurants because they closed about 15mins before the preview ended. I’ll definitely have to go back and try the food and drinks as they looked absolutely scrumptious.
Over all, I was impressed by DAK’s newest land! Was it worth a nearly five year wait? That is certainly up for debate. But, the end result is beautiful and provides Animal Kingdom with a new draw that will hopefully figure into the next set of movies in Cameron’s Avatar universe to be released in a couple years. Whether you choose to see it as a botanical garden or Rainforest Cafe on steroids, or the most amazing experience you have ever immersed yourself in at a theme park, you are definitely going to enjoy everything that Pandora: the World of Avatar has to offer. I highly recommend booking FastPass+ for the rides as soon as your 30 or 60 day window opens (30 for passholders and 60 for on-site hotel guests) as the lines for both these attractions will be incredibly long. Hopefully the Cast Member and Passholder preview weeks will aid in mitigating the initial flock to the attractions and not force the rides to use the extended quests right out the gate or close the lines before park close. Ordinarily, Disney does not offer previews in the same manner that Universal Studios, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens do, so this is a welcomed sign of the growth of passholder and Cast Member appreciation.