“This is a terrible idea. I want them to prove me wrong.”
That’s what I said to myself when Disney announced Pandora – The World of Avatar, a huge expansion that just welcomed its first guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
As groundbreaking as James Cameron’s Avatar was from a technological standpoint and despite its massive box-office success (it remains the highest-grossing film in history), it isn’t generally a common topic in the filmmaking world today. Released in 2009, it was known for its incredible use of 3D in a way no one had experienced before. But do people remember it? Is anyone excited for its repeatedly delayed sequels? Does something like Avatar have any business in Disney’s Animal Kingdom? These are all valid questions.
Surprisingly, one needn’t be very familiar with Avatar to enjoy Pandora. In fact, it’s quite possible to experience the entirety of this new Animal Kingdom expansion without ever having seen the film at all. This is a stark contrast to so many similar projects, even from Disney itself, that cater to the megafan, the person who lives and breathes the franchise. In Pandora, you don’t need to be an Avatar megafan (and few people even are). Sure, it might help to have a sense of framework, but the approach to Pandora smartly emphasizes the setting itself rather than the movie’s story. Where are the characters you probably don’t remember? They’re not here. In the same way that Disney implored guests of the 1971 Magic Kingdom to put themselves in the shoes of a princess who was absent from her own ride in Snow White’s Scary Adventures, here in Pandora, you are the character.
The difference, though, is that you’re not substituting for any fictional being: You’re playing yourself. This is your story, left for you to tell. What commentary this speaks toward the strengths and weaknesses of Avatar is illuminating and even a bit amusing, but that’s a larger conversation than this blog post (and one that could ultimately be refuted with the arrival of four upcoming sequels). In the case of Snow White, that premise didn’t hold because it wasn’t communicated well to guests (and downright terrified them). While Pandora is hardly frightening, it will face the same communication challenge of relaying this scenario to guests and presenting what exactly this planet is to those who haven’t seen or don’t remember Avatar.
Nonetheless, all you need to know is that Pandora is an otherworldly planet that you, as a traveler, are journeying 4.4 million lightyears into the future to visit. Known for its lush environment and fascinating native species, the blue Na’vi population, Pandora exists in this form as a celebration of the harmony between mankind and nature, both the kind we understand and the kind about which we seek to know more. The intrigue behind this concept—the connectedness between our lives and the natural world—is central to visiting Pandora, and the anchor that gives it relevance to Disney’s Animal Kingdom… or at least, that tries to convince you it does.
But before we tackle that beast, let’s get on to what you came for: What is there even to do in Pandora, anyway? Well…
The Attractions: A Showcase of Tech
Avatar director James Cameron, producer Jon Landau, and creatives at Lightstorm Entertainment worked closely with Walt Disney Imagineering and Animal Kingdom lead Joe Rohde to develop Pandora – The World of Avatar. This brings a level of authenticity from all parties involved to create something magnificent. Two E-Ticket attractions serve as the flagships. Essentially, they both perform the same function: Display the natural beauty of Pandora. This grants both of them the excuse to pull out all the stops to prove to us just how beautiful Pandora really is, and the result serves as a showcase of the latest and greatest in Imagineering technology. One attraction does so with a thrilling simulator, while the other employs a gentle boat ride. It could be personal preference as to which experience is best, but if we look closer one really does outperform.
Avatar Flight of Passage is the mysterious attraction we’ve been hearing about for years. “It’ll be a more intense version of Soarin’?” “Its ride vehicles will be completely different from anything we’ve seen before?” “We’ll fly on a banshee?” Yes, yes, and yes. If Soarin’ at Epcot, Tron Lightcycle at Shanghai Disneyland, and The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios Florida had a baby, this would be it. This truly is “Soarin’ Over Pandora,” and that’s not meant as an insult. (Perhaps the only discredit the attraction serves is deeming the real Soarin’ as somewhat archaic because it plusses that technology so well.) Mounting a motorcycle-style vehicle meant to resemble a banshee and flying over the sweeping landscapes of Pandora, Avatar Flight of Passage is delicately intimate yet spectacularly grandiose, wonderfully calm yet grippingly thrilling, with 4D effects that are among Orlando’s best. You’ll say “woah!” more times than you can count. You won’t be able to keep from smiling. This attraction is a star.
The same can’t quite be said of Na’vi River Journey, a mixed bag if only judged by the standards of what guests have come to expect from a twenty-first century theme park attraction. No doubt, it has twenty-first century influence. As a boat voyage through bio-luminescent Pandora jungles at nighttime, it dazzles in visual wizardry. Lighting, foliage, Audio-Animatronics… in this regard, Na’vi River Journey is impressive. However, being impressed is different from being amazed. We can acknowledge that Na’vi River Journey displays some beautiful visuals, but I’d argue that just “pretty things to look at” doesn’t hold up well when deeming the success of a modern theme park attraction. It must tell a story, and prompt an emotional response from the guest who is involved in that story, whether heartwarming or exhilarating. The guest must care in some way, and in Na’vi River Journey we don’t quite care because there isn’t any story to be involved in.
Granted, Avatar Flight of Passage could be held to that same description of “pretty things to look at,” just with a drastically different ride system and thrill factor. Does this mean that both attractions are equal, and their success merely lies in the eyes of their intended audiences? Maybe, but there’s more to this dichotomy. In creating a land that exists to display a harmonic peace between mankind and nature devoid of any conflict, Pandora might send an inspirational message, but it limits itself from any sophisticated storytelling. Conflict drives story, and here there is no conflict. Avatar Flight of Passage is still able to achieve a guest response because of its thrill. Na’vi River Journey struggles to do the same under the same parameters because of its lack thereof. Certainly Pandora needs a family attraction that everyone can enjoy together regardless of age or adrenaline, but I fear that the long waits that Na’vi River Journey will inevitably command will leave some disappointed when they experience a similar sensation for far less wait time over in the Mexico pavilion.
The Land Itself
The best element of Pandora is undoubtedly its landscape. It’s breathtaking in a way few theme park areas are, even by today’s high standard. The towering stature of the floating mountains and the intricacy with which they were designed are nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’m the kind of person that likes to sit on the mountaintop at the end of a hike and soak in the view for a long time. That’s why I was thrilled that the navigation of Pandora includes open spaces to do just that: Observe, soak in, and appreciate the architecture for as long as you please. It’s no exaggeration in claiming the floating mountains are only bested by Cinderella Castle and Spaceship Earth in grandeur and wow factor of a physical structure in a Disney park.
Dotting several winding pathways are plants and, yes, animals (all fabricated) that give Pandora a level of believability that has come to be expected in the post-Harry Potter era of theme park design. Some elements even respond when interacted with by a guest, whether from touch or motion. And yes, it’s true: the ground glows when the sun sets. The detail here cannot be overstated.
Adding more layers to the setting are aspects we’ve come to expect as standard in recent years, but are still appreciated: themed greetings from Cast Members (here in the Na’vi language), a specialized menu at the area’s restaurant, and the addressing of all guests as “travelers.” Of course, there’s also the explosive amount of themed merchandise, to the point of wondering if anyone will really want to buy all this. No doubt they will, it’s just a bit strange to see such devotion given to a property whose fandom is currently in such a questionable status.
Optimizing Your Visit
I attended a preview of Pandora prior to its official opening as the guest of a Cast Member. With the area being completely void of crowds, it took us two and a half hours to experience everything, including doing our fair share of roaming around, riding both attractions, and grabbing a quick dessert at the counter-service restaurant. With the gargantuan crowds expected for Pandora, I’d imagine it will be easy to spend a significant amount of time in the area.
Thankfully, there are ways that should make touring Pandora a little easier than it would first seem. For starters, there’s a single-rider line for Avatar Flight of Passage, a rarity for a Disney attraction and a major help here. Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey both offer FastPass+, with the former typically running out sooner. They are in the same “tier” of FastPass+, meaning you can’t get FastPasses for both of them. A good strategy is to rope-drop whichever attraction for which you don’t retrieve a FastPass. If you are unsuccessful in getting a FastPass for either, rope-drop Na’vi River Journey and then enter the single-rider line for Avatar Flight of Passage. (There is child swap available on Flight of Passage, as well.)
To fully appreciate the detail in the area, visit the Wilderness Explorers stations throughout. Yes, Russell’s troupe has traveled the 4.4-million lightyear trip with you and is eager to explore Pandora‘s wonders. (We can talk later about how this singlehandedly, hilariously connects the cinematic universes of Avatar and Up.) Additionally, there are Cast Members whose sole job the entire day is to roam the area and inform guests, whether by answering questions or sharing fun tidbits you might not have noticed. If you see a Cast Member walking about, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation. That’s what they’re here for… you might even find where the locate some sleeping Pandoran Bats.
About That Theming
Here’s a theory: Considering Pandora was announced in 2011 and Disney purchased LucasFilm in 2012, I’d go as far as saying that if the latter came first, Pandora would never have been built. Certainly Disney wouldn’t have put a Star Wars property inside Animal Kingdom, but I think if the company already had LucasFilm in its stable, it wouldn’t have ever looked at an outside studio to partner with in the first place, and it would have built something completely different for Animal Kingdom. However, that is neither here nor there, and whether we’ve warmed up to the idea or not, Pandora is here, and that’s not changing.
So now that everything is all said and done, does this land live up to what it promised to be? Does it fit in this park, as it has so desperately persuaded us to believe for the past six years? The answer, whether we readily agree or begrudgingly concede, is yes. As we explored in a recent blog post, the entrance plaque of Disney’s Animal Kingdom welcomes guests to “a kingdom of animals… real, ancient, and imagined.” Now, nearly twenty years after the park opened, the last tier of that promise is fulfilled in Pandora. Additionally, in assessing the park’s primary themes—namely nature and conservation through a call to action—Pandora fulfills all requirements. Pandora fits within Animal Kingdom‘s purpose. However, it’s understandably difficult to detach all of that from the fact that an entire land based on a non-Disney film exists in a park where not even a Disney franchise inhabits such a wide footprint. There’s extra baggage here, and it’s hard to say if that will ever be completely absent.
Just in case you aren’t able to see the forest for the trees, the explanation of Pandora‘s connection to the park comes from a surprising source: the pre-show for Avatar Flight of Passage. It is here that, quite blatantly, we are seemingly hit over the head with Disney doctrine that implores us to make the connection between what we’re experiencing right now and the rest of our day in the park. Seeing as pre-shows seem a bit traditional for modern park attractions, it’s interesting that Pandora would insists upon not one, but two pre-shows for Flight of Passage, least of all this being where the guest finds the area’s purpose explained.
The 2017 park-goer views everything with a magnifying glass, examining not just its relevance to today, but its potential longevity to remain special in a theme park that has already established an esteemed legacy. Therefore, we pick apart every inch of Pandora -The World of Avatar in a way we might not as intricately scrutinize attractions with similar shortcomings that we’ve always deemed as exemplary. Pandora is a case worthy of this acknowledgment.
At the same time, the expansion backs itself into a corner from a storytelling standpoint. In its current state, it clearly lacks any form an explicit narrative, but still presents an abstract message that the entire land encompasses: appreciation for the connectedness we have to nature’s beauty. This means there is no fluid story within the attractions themselves because there is no identified conflict, and the guest is left to put the pieces together themselves. However, had the attractions employed characters from the Avatar film to tell a cohesive story, they would’ve been ridiculed for guests not recognizing the characters. (I mean, can you name even one character from the movie off the top of your head?) It’s a precarious situation, and much of the assessment of Pandora is honestly found in what type of theme park experience you, as a guest, prefer. The good thing is that even if you don’t like all of it, you’ll definitely like some of it, and that can’t be said for every themed area in Orlando or even in Walt Disney World.
Within Pandora‘s own framework, as stated earlier, the guest is the main character, and again, this could be a challenge to readily communicate because it certainly was for poor Snow White. While impossible to follow layered stories are hardly a foreign concept to Animal Kingdom, (Dinoland, anyone?), the difference is that there are resources here to assist guests in piecing together the purpose. By means of Wilderness Explorers, the pre-show for Flight of Passage, or simply strolling around, Disney makes an effort to communicate the intricacy of what it’s trying to do here in ways that will hopefully have more success than Walt’s inaugural princess.
As my friend Viv said aloud as our group crossed the bridge to enter the area, “We’re about to experience a part of Disney we never have before. Isn’t that so cool?” There’s excitement in that idea, of not just riding a new Disney ride, but exploring a new Disney place. If nothing else, the sheer beauty of Pandora is worth a visit, whether as a frequent traveler or a passing visitor.
(Images belong to author’s personal collection. Special thanks to Park Arrival Cast Members Christine and Ryan for the Preview invitation.)
To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for WDW Radio, visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post.