A Sneak Peek at Pandora - The World of Avatar, the New Land at Animal Kingdomby Donald and Bonnie Fink, contributing writer
By now most of us are aware that there's a new land about to open at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park at the Walt Disney World Resort. It's called Pandora, and it's patterned after the moon of Pandora in the movie, Avatar. On Friday, I had the opportunity to tour this new land during an exclusive press event, and want to give you some of my initial impressions.
You may recall the movie Avatar from way back in late 2009. It was a directed and written by James Cameron, who also directed and wrote Titanic. Both films sit in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots for the highest grossing films of all time (not adjusting for inflation).
When I first walked across the bridge, representing a 4.4 light year journey from Earth to Alpha Centauri and the moon of Pandora, all I could think was, "Wow, this place is going to be special."
Throughout the day, as I walked around the land, I couldn't help feeling a bit cheated because I was never going to get to actually go to a place like this, for real. But I kept thinking, "At least there's Pandora. That's something."
The journey to Pandora takes 6.6 years. That means the ships used by the Alpha Centauri Excursions are extremely fast; approaching the speed of light for a significant part of their journey. Alpha Centauri A is about 4.4 light years away, meaning that light takes that long just to reach Earth once it leaves the Alpha Centauri system. To travel to Pandora, a ship would have to accelerate to nearly the speed of light and maintain that speed for several years, then spend time and energy slowing at the other side.
Fortunately for us, a journey to Pandora is a simple walk across a bridge.
The floating mountains of Pandora are a centerpiece for the land. They stand, or float, nearly 150 feet high with vines and trunks holding them down. There's even a waterfall from one of the mountains. Photo by Donald Fink.
There's a sign near this pool that warns guests that making sudden motions can trigger a stream of water. I saw evidence of water on the walkway, but was careful not to move too much, carrying the Nikon and all. Photo by Donald Fink.
The story of Pandora takes place somewhere from 20-30 years after the original movie, to up to 100 years after, depending on which cast member you ask. The point is that humans and the Na'vi—the indigenous humanoids that inhabit Pandora—have reached peace, and all are committed to the restoration and preservation of Pandora. You may recall in the original movie that Earth was not necessarily represented in the best light. The Resources Development Administration (RDA) was a large interplanetary company that operated in a para-military fashion. Their purpose in the original movie was to mine the moon of Pandora for a rare material known as "Unobtanium." And, no, I didn't make that up myself. Unobtanium is a compound used in magnetic levitation trains in the late 21st century and is quite rare; almost "unobtainable" on Earth.
After the Na'vi drove the RDA off Pandora, a peace was established with other folks from Earth, and scientists and other concerned people came together with the Na'vi to rebuild and restore Pandora. This is what you see when you cross the bridge into Pandora – The World of Avatar.
The Disney folks mentioned several times that Pandora is a kind of personal call to action, to inspire people to want to be involved in protecting our environment and preserve what we have here on Earth. And I can see that as I move around Pandora. I kept going back to the notion that this place was special; that it needed to be experienced, protected, and preserved. I see Pandora as a metaphor for our own environment and planet, and I think that is Disney's point in building the land.
In our briefings before our tour, Disney folks mentioned—several times in fact—that Pandora was a place to explore, and I have to agree. It's a place that you'll want to simply walk around and see what's there. You'll want to return at night and see all the different bioluminescent plants and how they transform from daytime into the night.
What to Do in Pandora
Exploration is good, but what is there to actually do in Pandora? There are two rides, the Avatar Flight of Passage and The Na'vi River Journey. The Avatar Flight of Passage is all that it's hyped up to be. If you could imagine Soarin', except that you're really riding a hang glider, you might come close. Avatar Flight of Passage is a 3D ride where you mount a device that is similar to a motorcycle, but is supposed to be the back of a Banshee. As you're sitting on the Banshee, you'll be connected to your avatar for the flight. This is important, because while the Na'vi can link up with, control, and ride these magnificent flying creatures, to the Banshee, humans are just food. In other words, never approach your banshee unless you're linked with your avatar.
Along the way to the Flight of Passage, guests walk through a lab where Avatars are made. An Avatar, if you remember, is a non-sentient being created from part Na'vi DNA and part human DNA. It's used so that humans can venture out into the mostly xenon gas of Pandora's atmosphere. The avatar also enables humans to interface with Banshees and other creatures on Pandora. Photo by Donald Fink.
At the beginning of the Flight of Passage ride, I can't tell you what happened exactly, and I rode this ride twice, but at the point where we were supposed to initiate the link, the wall in front of me turned foggy and then all-of-a-sudden I was flying in a forest on the back of a Banshee. We followed a Na'vi guide through several forest scenes and along one of the oceans. There were sensations of movement, including banking and climbing and diving through trees and other Pandoran landscapes. It even seemed like we were inverted at one point while we flew around a floating mountain. As we flew near waterfalls, we were sprayed with the mist and as we moved from one area of the forest to the ocean, we could tell the differences in just the smell. All the while, the wind from the movement was in our faces as we soared along. We could feel the Banshee breathing as we sat on his back.
The ride only lasts four and a half minutes, but seems complete. I could have enjoyed more, but make no mistake about it, this ride is one to not be missed if you come to Animal Kingdom. I would recommend that you get Fastpass reservations for this ride because it's sure to be an instant success when the land opens.
Disney does a great job of making their ride queue lines interesting. Here, you walk through a cave system with Na'vi rock art as you make your way to the Na'vi River Journey. The air conditioning was nice too. Photo by Donald Fink.
The second ride in Pandora is the Na'vi River Journey. This is a floating tour of the Na'vi River as it wanders through a rain forest. You'll see many of the animals that inhabit Pandora, and, at the end you'll see a Na'vi Shaman of Song. This is one of the most lifelike animatronics creatures I have ever seen. The fluid movements are absolutely lifelike. Aside from being 10 feet tall, it's easy to believe the shaman is real.
At the end of the Na'vi River Journey, you'll encounter a Na'vi Shaman of Song. This animatronics creature is believable. Video by Donald Fink.
When we were briefed before our press tour, we were advised to not video the complete Na'vi River Journey. The point Disney was making was that they wanted us to actually experience the journey rather than fidget with our technology. I took their advice. I didn't come back with a complete video of the experience to share with readers, but I personally enjoyed the experience. I rode it twice and I'm still wondering at some of the things I saw. Not only am I pondering what the creatures were, but I'm not sure how Disney managed to make it all look so real.
The boats used in the Na'vi River Journey are smaller than those used in other Disney floating rides. They are two rows of seats per boat, which will typically hold four people, or maybe six if seated three across. These seemed more intimate than other rides in other lands. There were no waterfalls, no splashing, and no thrills. Just a slow ride through a rain forest on a moon 4.4 light years from Earth.
Dining in Pandora is at Satu'li Canteen. This is a stepped-up quick-service restaurant featuring food from Pandora. After all, with a distance of 4.4 light years, it's not realistic to expect a Sysco delivery at the back door every morning. While 100% Pandoran, the food did resemble beef, chicken, fish, and vegetarian meals from Earth. The meals at Satu'li Canteen are on par with the offerings you might find at Harambe Market. I expect that once the land opens later this month, it will be a hit.
One interesting way to pick your meal at Satu'li Canteen is the Create-Your-Bowl. In this meal, you first pick your protein from a selection of Pandora foods that resemble beef, chicken, fish, or tofu. From there you select your base from quinoa and vegetable salad; red and sweet potato hash; mixed whole grain and rice; or romaine and kale salad. And, finally, you select a sauce from a choice of charred onion chimichurri, black bean vinaigrette, or creamy herb dressing. My favorite, hands down, was the black bean vinaigrette. Photo by Donald Fink.
This is a Pandoran Sunrise, one of the non-alcoholic drinks available on Pandora. It resembles fruit juices from Earth, blended with lemon, also from Earth. No idea what that stuff is on top, but it was good in my salad at lunch. Photo by Donald Fink.
Steven Miller, merchandise and communications manager, discusses some of the merchandise available in Pandora from the Windtraders store. Video by Donald Fink.
Marketing and merchandising at Pandora comes from Windtraders. This is where you can buy all the things related to Pandora. It even houses the Rookery, where you can connect with a young Banshee. Pandora Naturalists will meet with guests and help them determine the best match for a Banshee to go home with them. Banshees are carried on the shoulder or cradled in your arms and have movements that are controlled by a hand controller. They even make Banshee sounds that were created with the assistance of Lightstorm Entertainment. Once a Banshee is selected, the Naturalist will encourage you to make a pledge to protect the natural world on Pandora and to continue that pledge once you arrive back on Earth. This is part of Disney's "Call to Action," by inspiring guests to become aware and active in protecting our world and its environment.
A cast member demonstrates the young Banshee perched on her shoulder. The controls are hand operated with a cable. Video by Donald Fink.
I walked away from Pandora knowing that this new land at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park is going to be a big hit. It's not a particularly large land in terms of rides, restaurants, and merchandise. In fact, there are only two rides, one restaurant, and one store—but the overall pretense is one of exploration. There are scenes from another world everywhere you turn. There's a nice blend of local tropical plans with totally alien bioluminescent forms with waterfalls, cascades, and pools. I haven't been to Pandora at night, yet, but it's high on my list as soon as it opens. Our June photo tour will feature Pandora, and we plan to make several trips at night to capture as much as we can of its unique bioluminescent flora.
Because there are so many opportunities for great pictures in this land, my prediction is that the most popular Disney cast members will be the Disney Photopass photographers.