It's A Jungle Out There on Pandora

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Based on Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron's record-breaking box-office hit movie, Avatar (2009), Pandora opened in May 2017 at Disney's Animal Kingdom in the area formerly occupied by Camp Minnie-Mickey. It is a much different jungle than one on Earth although there are some similarities.

For the movie, filmmaker James Cameron envisioned a moon called Pandora about 4.37 light years from Earth in the Alpha Centauri system orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus, with an atmosphere on the moon un-breathable for humans without assistance from Exo-packs.

Earth personnel in the presence of the Resources Development Administration (RDA), a quasi-governmental company, travel to this distant place in the 22nd century primarily to mine a rare mineral whose superconductive properties allow it to float in magnetic fields.

In addition, scientists studying the indigenous humanoid species called the Na'vi and the unusual fauna and flora also accompany the private security contractors employed by RDA.

Cameron meant to draw parallels between the lush, tropical forests of this science-fiction inspired moon and the supposed devastation of the ecology on the current Earth where humans have turned their planet into a global urban slum where little remains of a functioning natural ecosystem.

He also wanted to make connections between the Na'vi's spiritual relationship and responsibility to their world which have allowed it to flourish.

The new land at DAK welcomes guests to this lush world of the habitable moon in the Alpha Centauri system, set generations after the human conflict with the native Na'vi inhabitants of the movie has ended, and peace prevails. According to Imagineer Joe Rohde, the premise for the new land is that Avatar was not a movie, but rather a documentary.

Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) now allows eco-tourists to enjoy some of the legendary delights of the planet, including enormous floating mountains where waterfalls cascade down the mountainsides into meandering streams and pools, a bioluminescent forest with exotic plants that illuminate with a dreamlike quality in the evening, winged mountain banshees and more.

In partnership with ACE, visitors have the opportunity to explore the values and culture of this exotic place, and celebrate the striking beauty and overwhelming power of the natural world.

A Na'vi-built drum circle, Na'vi totems, and other cultural items are scattered through the area. Tour guides from Alpha Centauri Expeditions, scientists from the Pandora Conservation Initiative (PCI), and even an occasional eclectic expatriate interact with visitors and help them understand what they are encountering.

Pongu Pongu (meaning "Party Party" in the language of the Na'vi) is the center of the expat community, and offers various liquid libations and some snacks. It is located near the shop Windtraders where visitors can purchase Na'vi cultural items, toys, science kits and more.

The quick service dining venue Satu'li Canteen (pronounced "Sa-too-lee"), a Quonset-hut-style building, was once the main mess hall of the Resources Development Administration base (the main antagonist in the film).

Now the canteen is owned and operated by the Alpha Centauri Expeditions tour company and has been redesigned into a beautiful museum-like dining room for visitors. The interior has been transformed with colorful Na'vi items filling the walls and hanging from the ceiling — hand-woven tapestries, natural Pandoran elements and even cooking tools decorate the restaurant.

Pandora is a creative collaboration of Walt Disney Imagineering, Lightstorm Entertainment, and Cameron personally.

Producer and director Cameron stated: "I think I knew (the theme park version) was going to be a pretty amazing world but I was still thinking 'movie'. You can walk around and smell the world, touch the world. I wander around with a sense of wonder myself. I had an amazing time working with the Imagineering artists as they conjured all of this. This has been a transformative adventure for me. It's certainly transformed my perception of what is possible in the real world. If you had asked me ahead of time, I would have said this is not possible. What they have created here is not possible."

Imagineer Joe Rohde told the media: "We are taking our guests on a journey to this world in an experience that's as realistic and immersive as possible. In the movie, the world of Pandora is a setting for the action and characters whose story we follow. Here, guests are the primary characters immersed in an extremely vivid, authentic experience. We've been welcomed into the culture because of our motives. We're here to learn. We're here to educate ourselves. We're here to become better stewards of our planet. The world in which the Na'vi live is in order because they care about it. They care for it. It is not enough to care about the world. You have to care for it. You have to do things. Take action."

Avatar Flight of Passage is a simulator attraction that allows guests to climb atop a mountain banshee for a breathtaking, multi-sensory flight over the moon's incredible landscape. The experience mimics the memorable rite of passage bonding scene in the original film. The journey includes a face-off with the most feared predator of Pandora, the Great Leonopteryx.

Na'vi River Journey gives guests the chance to serenely travel down a sacred river in reed boats and a brief encounter with the Shaman of Songs.

"The Pandora attractions have very deliberate emotional moments crafted into them, the way a good story does, the way a good film does," Rohde said. "It's not as simple as just coming to a place that looks realistic. It's a place that's been deliberately imbued with the emotions of awe, of wonder, of respect, of harmony."

Na'vi River Journey allows guests to sail serenely down the Kaspavan River in a reed boat gently winding through a bioluminescent rainforest in the Valley of Mo'ara on the planet of Pandora. The Na'vi, the indigenous people of the planet, are seen throughout the ride in scenes where they are hunting and gathering.

Native wildlife can be seen on the nearby banks including the dangerous viper wolves and gentle woodsprites as well as mysterious glowing fauna.

According to Executive Creative Director Stefan Hellwig, "the queue begins on a path that winds its way around various textiles created by the Na'vi as well as their totems of the magical Shaman of Songs. The pieces are intricate works of art and give you a taste of the fascinating people you are about to see. Above the queue is another intricate hand-woven piece that actually serves as a map of the river that winds through Pandora. The blue ropes represent the river, and the other areas represent the rest of the bioluminescent forest. At night, this piece takes on new life as it is illuminated with light that moves, showing where various life forms are as they journey down the river."

Na'vi River Journey gives guests the chance to serenely travel down a sacred river in reed boats and a brief encounter with the Shaman of Songs.

All of the activity seems to be heading in the same direction and the lazy river journey culminates in the appearance of a figure who has a deep connection to the life force of Pandora and celebrates that connection through her music. Music is central to the culture of the Na'vi.

This is the Na'vi Shaman of Songs, who is radiating positive energy into the forest. The rough translation of her song basically thanks the Great Mother for the many gifts that allow the Na'vi to live well in the forest.

All of the other creatures have actually been presented as realistic projections on layers of screens that are positioned inside the magnificent scenery.

The Na'vi Shaman of Songs is the most complicated audio-animatronics figure ever created by Walt Disney Imagineering. Despite its sophistication and many functions, it is not a creation of Garner Holt Productions who have supplied many intricate audio-animatronics to the Disney theme parks.

During a robotics event in Boston, Disney provided a glimpse at the inner workings of the Na'vi Shaman, which is larger so it can hold more mechanics to provide more realistic movements and expressions.

"The shaman is even more extraordinary than we expected," Rohde said. "Her facial expressions, little movements in the cheek, tiny movements in the eyelid – each one of these carries an emotion she's capable of conveying."

In the event of a malfunction of the Audio-Animatronics figure, a hidden scrim can be rolled down and then an image of the shaman projected onto it. Above the figure, where guests rarely if ever look, is a circular ring indicating how a screen curtain can be lowered and hide the actual figure.

Disney did not want to have to do a "Disco Shaman" if the complicated Audio-Animatronics figure had difficulties like the Yeti figure in Expedition Everest so a back-up plan was created.

"Na'vi River Journey is a very sweet, lyrical adventure through a spectacular visual environment that just becomes more and more spectacular as you go on," Rohde explained. "The bioluminescent activity of the plants around you unfolds in richer and richer scenes in really just a very uplifting, wonderful kind of journey. It is a ceremonial forest. We're bringing to life everything from the largest creature you might encounter to the most microscopic. Animals will appear out of the underbrush – big Pandoran animals will appear at the edge of the forest and you'll hear the very complicated calls they issue back and forth."

In the Animal Kingdom's version of Pandora, the Na'vi people make appearances only in the two attractions and in artwork throughout the area. Disney claims this is to have guests see the area from the Na'vi point of view as well as the more probable reason of the difficulty in creating realistic costumes for the unique creatures.

The Na'vi people, according to Disney, "possess humanlike consciousness and intelligence. The average Na'vi is three meters tall with cyan-colored skin and bioluminescent markings. They have large almond-shaped eyes, long torsos and a prehensile tail."

Cameron utilized a team of expert advisors in order to make the various examples of fauna and flora in the Pandoran jungle as scientifically feasible as possible. The Pandoran ecology is inter-connected from the floating mountain ranges to winged banshee predators.

For a 2010 interview in the Los Angeles Times, Jodie Holt, chairwoman of the department of botany and plant sciences at UC Riverside talked about her contributions to the plant life on Pandora.

All of her degrees were in botany and she taught general botany for twelve years where she challenged her students to analyze plant morphology and anatomy to explain plant adaptations to the environment

Holt said:

"After being briefed on the plot and being shown early images of the plants on Pandora by (film producer) Jon Landau, I met with Sigourney Weaver [who plays botanist Grace Augustine in the film] and set designers to talk about how a field botanist would study and sample plants to learn about their physiology and biochemistry.

"We also talked about the idea of communication among plants, and between plants and the Na'vi, and how that might be explained. Subsequently, I worked with a set designer to ensure that his designs for the field and lab equipment were credible.

"Since life on Pandora was intended to adhere to our known laws of physics and biology, it was not credible to me to suggest that the plants had any kind of nervous system. Instead, I suggested that communication among the plants could credibly be explained by signal transduction, an area of research that deals with how plants perceive a signal and respond to it.

"Jon Landau called to ask if I would be interested in writing descriptions of the plants, including fabricating Latin names, to be included in the games and book that were planned

"For plants that resembled Earth plants, I gave them similar names, such as Pseudocycas altissima for a plant that looks like a tall Earth cycad. Others I named for their appearance, such as Obesus rotundus for the puffball tree.

"The movie is only about 150 years into the future, which is not a lot of time for major evolutionary advances. The real question I dealt with was how the environment on Pandora (eg. atmosphere, gravity, soil) would have selected the many unusual, bizarre plants found there, as well as some that look very much like plants currently found on Earth.

"For example, the atmosphere is thicker than on Earth, with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, as well as xenon and hydrogen sulfide. Gravity is weaker. And there is a strong magnetic field.

"Given the role of the environment in plant evolution, one would therefore expect to see gigantism, less of a gravity response (which makes stems grow up and roots grow down), and possibly a response to magnetic fields, which I named 'magnetotropism'."

Throughout the DAK area are examples of some of Pandoran plants from that research.

Disney published a flyer explaining what they were for guests to identify when the area first opened: "The diversity of Pandoran plant life and its range of size and complexity suggest that the environment of Pandora acts as a strong force for natural selection. The environmental factors that plants experience on Earth – radiation, water, atmospheric gases and gravity – are present on Pandora, although their characteristics differ profoundly."

The plants that Disney identified were:

  • Spiny Whip: The cup-shaped top of this plant collects raindrops and many species of birds use the plant as a source of water.
  • Panopyra: This plant captures water and minerals from dew and fog. The Na'vi collect the liquid and use it as a healing drink.
  • Vein Pod: The pods produced by these trees help to detoxify the atmosphere on Pandora, maintaining stability in the environment.
  • Flaska Reclinata: This plant absorbs, condenses and purifies atmospheric toxins on Pandora.
  • Dapophet: The leaves at the top of this plant have healing properties used by the Na'vi, while the leaves along the stem store water and are used as portable hydration.
  • Puffball Tree: This tree is an important plant on Pandora for purifying the atmosphere. The Na'vi also harvest its leaves for salt.
  • Grinch Tree: This tree grows in a hunched shape with a twisted trunk and bluish bioluminescent leaves.

To maneuver through the thick jungle and toxic atmosphere, Disney added a demonstration of the Pandora Utility Suit.

This human powered suit helps demonstrate how technology is being used to restore the ecosystem on Pandora. The Pandora Utility Suit is inspired by the iconic Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suits of power armor from the original film.

The first military exoskeletons in the mid-21st century evolved into the Mitsubishi MK-6 Amplified Mobility Platform (or "AMP" suit) that could be used in different environments from arctic to jungle to desert. The human-operated multi-purpose mechanism amplifies strength and mobility while providing protection in toxic environments. It was designed to mimic the form of a human with two legs, two arms and dexterous hands.

In the original film, the suits were used primarily to defend the base and for patrol duties, but also appeared in the battle at the Tree of Souls scene and Colonel Quaritch's final attack on Jake Sully.

The Pandora Utility Suit is the next evolution of the AMP suit, and was created to assist in the restoration of the environment. It has a streamlined design with no protective cockpit, unlike the AMP suit. Its sleek structure and technical upgrades make it the perfect tool to collect plant samples, study flora and survive Pandora's wild terrain. It protects its operator from Pandoran hazards while doing ecological research for the Resources Development Administration and its Pandora Conservation Initiative.

Perched 10-feet high, a human pilot straps into the cockpit of this exo-carrier and controls its powerful, yet agile movements. The giant walking suit was designed with articulated hands and a shoulder span of more than five feet. It also bears claw marks and battle scars from a Thanator – an alpha predator on Pandora that apparently attacked it.

As the suit traverses the land daily, its pilot interacts with guests, sharing details about the land's otherworldly landscape, and highlighting the importance of preserving nature.

The Pandora Utility Suit is a collaboration between Disney Parks Live Entertainment, Michael Curry Design Inc. (that previously supplied the 120 towering puppets for Epcot's Tapestry of Nations parade, and the puppets for DAK's Finding Nemo – The Musical), WDI and Lightstorm Entertainment (Avatar director James Cameron's film production company). The suit made its official debut on April 22, 2018, the anniversary of the opening Disney's Animal Kingdom, and appears twice daily, usually in the area outside Satu'li Canteen.

Show Producer for Disney Parks Entertainment Tony Giordano stated: "We knew when the land would be opening there would be some great opportunities for entertainment. Lightstorm suggested a suit that would fix the environment rather than the one in the film that destroyed the environment. They drew this amazing drawing of a scientist picking a piece of fruit out of the tree. Our partners at WDI looked at that drawing and made it into a reality. And then the Michael Curry Designs actually built the suit. The final product is a great partnership between those three groups."

One of the things that makes a Disney theme park experience so memorable and so different from other entertainment venues is the elaborate, detailed back stories that helps immerse guests into a new world. It is these back stories that are used as a reference to keep everything consistent and with a sense of realistic fantasy.

Pandora is yet another example of how Imagineers can transform a small section of the familiar topography of central Florida into something quite literally out of this world.