Back in 2009, James Cameron released his visually spectacular Avatar. The movie was fine (good, not great in my opinion). But to be perfectly honest, its very existence annoyed me because it sparked the 3D craze that I found to be quite pointless. (I think history has borne out my position. I feel the same about VR for the record. AR for the win, though!) When Disney announced that it was building the Pandora World of Avatar, it was greeted with skepticism and indifference.
Disney invited a bunch of media, including Traveling Dad, to their official Pandora dedication last week. I got the chance to visit Pandora as a guest of Disney which, in all honesty, was amazing. It still blows my mind how good Disney can be at customer service; I guarantee the cast members assigned to our team could give Etihad’s residence butler a run for his or her money. But I digress.
The question I entered Pandora with probably echoes in a lot of other people’s minds. Will this land have any impact on me when I lack an emotional connection to the IP it’s based on?
tl;dr – yes. But let’s take a closer look at why.
Pandora World of Avatar truly feels like a whole new world
I don’t think this is an overstatement. Disney redefines how immersive a theme park can be with Pandora World of Avatar. I plan on visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but I’m pretty sure Pandora takes it. No matter where you look, you cannot tell that you are in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Disney has taken painstaking detail to make you truly believe you have traveled 4 million light years to the world of Pandora. Everything your five senses experiences in the land contributes to this. As you cross the bridge from Animal Kingdom to Pandora, you start hearing the sounds of Pandoran wildlife. These change depending on what time of day you visit the park. I’m not sure what sound wizardry the imagineers used to do this, but sounds hit you from all sides – you even hear sounds coming from the mountaintops. Make it a point to visit the park at dusk, you can experience the change to the nocturnal wildlife. And even if you don’t care about these nerdy details, the sounds really immerse you in the world of Avatar.
Meanwhile, as you you enter the land, you start seeing some pretty amazing plant life.
But the moment you realize you’ve truly set foot on a different planet is when you first lay eyes on the floating mountains. The floating mountains are an amazing technological feat – since mountains can’t actually float! But beyond that, they are also incredibly beautiful and really took my breath away. And if you catch the mountains from the right angle, they truly look like they’re floating. AND HOW DO THEY GET THE WATER UP THERE? Amazing.
The floating mountains look amazing from a distance (Photo Credit | Matt Stroshane, wdwnews.com)
Pandora really deserves time to just walk around and marvel at the careful attention to detail. Disney imagineers created an immersive, believable world full of easter egg rewards for careful explorers. The cast members even add to this. Of particular note are the ACE tour guides. If you see them walking around, engage with them as you would any Tourist Information booth (though they don’t have booths) in anywhere you would visit. They have an impressive wealth of information about Pandora and it’s a lot of fun to hear how fleshed out this world truly is.
Who lives, who dies, who tells Pandora’s story?
One of the criticisms I hear about Pandora is that more attention could have been spent on creating an explicit story and emotional/narrative hooks. At first I found this criticism fair. Nothing screams a story out to you and my (and the general public’s) lack of Pandora knowledge means I can’t connect to the world via stories I’m already familiar with.
But lack of nostalgia or background knowledge doesn’t necessarily equate to lack of story. Pandora, the World of Avatar, tells its story for itself. You really only need one crucial piece of information: it’s 100 years after the events of the movie (and the movies that are yet to be released. Oh, nobody told you, James Cameron plans to make at least four sequels). All the humans trying to exploit the land have left and the land has begun to reclaim what they have destroyed.
Pandora’s story, as told by a queue
This story gets told over and over again, subtly, throughout the land. The queue for Flight of Passage, the marquee ride in Pandora, illustrates this. Now if the queue fills to capacity, the wait tops out at six hours. From what I’ve seen lines have mostly been around two hours. If you’re going to wait two hours for a ride, you could do worse than the Flight of Passage queue.
You begin outside, climbing up a mountain towards a facility that feels like the perch of a Banshee, a pterodactyl like flying creature indigenous to Pandora. Since those nasty nature destroying humans (a company called RDA, from the movie) have left, the mountain’s vegetation has come back to life.
As you enter the facility, you walk through a series of caves that tell a whole story themselves. You marvel at various cave drawings and long abandoned artifacts from native Na’vi peoples.
Finally, you enter a now defunct RDA facility that ACE Explorations (an ecotourism company, ostensibly) has repurposed. But since the entire facility isn’t in use, the land of Pandora has reclaimed much of the RDA facility as its own. Entire sections have been repopulated by native “bioluminescent” plant life. Pictures don’t do the room justice so you’ll have to experience it for yourself. Also, air conditioning!
The queue ends in a fascinating biological laboratory that has an amazing attention to detail, all the way down to random post it notes scientists wrote as reminders to themselves. And of course, the full blown, lifelike, slightly creepy animatronic avatar in suspension.
The ride queue ends with a briefing that gets a little bit hamfisted with the conservation message. I could have done without that, because the queue told the story just fine. And the ride…
Learn to Fly on Flight of Passage
I mostly love theme parks for the rides. So it says something that it has taken me this long to get to the main event for thrill ride lovers: Flight of Passage. I will avoid major spoilers here, but there will be some light ones. Basically, ACE, the ecotourism people, have brought the avatar program back to life. Short version: you merge your consciousness into a life-sized Na’vi and control it.
In Flight of Passage, you get to perform one of the Na’vi most sacred rites: riding a banshee. The ride vehicle is like nothing you’ve seen before. You essentially climb onto a bike and braces come up behind your back and behind your calves, so take note if you’re a little claustrophobic.
The crazy flight vehicle is in service to creating the most immersive ride I have ever been on. This ride is a simulator but assaults you using all of your senses except taste. You completely feel like you are riding a majestic beast and flying through the beautiful landscapes of Pandora. Quite simply: the ride is spectacular and likely a game changer in the industry.
At this point in my life, I won’t wait longer than 15 min for a ride (by myself) or 30 min (if my children really want to go). I’d gladly wait for this ride for an hour by myself – 4 times my normal tolerance. The immersiveness of the ride, from queue to finish, makes it worth it.
Take me to the Na’vi River Journey
Flight of Passage is the show stopper, but it won’t be for everyone. Luckily, Na’vi River Journey stands tall as a good, but not great, ride on its own. While I feel like Flight of Passage tells a good story, albeit indirectly, I’m not sure I’d say the same for Na’vi River Journey. You take an intimate boat ride deep into Pandora’s bioluminescent forest to find the Shaman of Songs. The visuals on this ride really wowed me – there’s so much going on you can’t take it all in on the first ride. Come to think of it, that rings true for Flight of Passage too.
The ride culminates with the Shaman, who probably is the most impressive animatronic you will ever meet.
Na’vi River Journey will be great for young children and people who want to take a chill ride. While it won’t blow your mind like Flight of Passage, it keeps you immersed in the wonder that is Pandora.
Eat it: food in Pandora
Disney took some big risks with the food in Pandora, but I think they will pay off in the long run. You won’t find spaghetti or chicken fingers here (though there are hot dogs wrapped in pastry for the kids). Instead, Disney went for a distinct feel on the food, with a big dose of Asian influence. Let’s start with the quick service snack shop, Pongu Pongu. You can get frozen drinks with boba on top, both non-alcoholic and alcoholic. I’d say these drinks were my least favorite part of the food – too sweet for my taste and I can’t get over boba being on the top of a drink. It looks pretty, but so weird to me!
Pongu Pongu does feature the food highlight of Pandora. Pineapple. Cream cheese. In a lightly fried egg roll! The pineapple lumpia is a party in your mouth and everyone’s invited (Simpsons).
Satuli Canteen offers a variety of bowls. Think Chipotle bowls but no wraps. They also sell bao buns (pronounced bow, for the record, unless there is some native Pandoran accent I don’t know about). Supposedly the cheeseburger bao bun tastes like a Big Mac but I didn’t get a chance to try it. The best part of Satuli Canteen, again, is the dessert. The blue cheesecake is simply spectacular – don’t be afraid of the weird color.
Pandora belongs to the night
One last thing to note. If your kids can stay up late enough, check out Pandora at night. As the night progresses, it lights up more and more. The floor responds to where people are walking. It’s crazy, I’ve never seen anything like it in a theme park. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. (Photos by Allen Hou. If you like beer, follow him on Instagram!).
To kick off this post I asked the question, “Will this land have any impact on me when I lack an emotional connection to the IP it’s based on?” If you’ve read through this review, you’ve no doubt realized Pandora made a huge impression on me. The land isn’t perfect by any means, but it is simply unforgettable. I love theme parks because I can be a kid and because I can let loose in a different setting. Pandora: The World of Avatar makes me feel like I’ve entered an entirely different world. From start to finish, I felt like I was visiting a different planet as a tourist, and that was so cool. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an Avatar fan or not – the world Disney created in Pandora stands tall on its own. I can’t wait for a repeat journey.
Have you visited Pandora: The World of Avatar yet? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought. If you haven’t visited yet, do you have plans to go soon? Let me know in the comments!