If someone told me my family would be riding a banshee through the air over the mystical world of Pandora on vacation, I would have questioned the person’s sanity. But a few months ago, that’s just what we did, thanks to the amazing Disney imagineers who created Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World Resort.
Each time we travel to Disney, I’m amazed by the handiwork of the imagineers, but this new world takes imagineering to a new level. Imagineers – think imagination and engineering combined – are the creative force behind all Disney’s theme parks, resorts, and attractions. The way they turn fantasy into reality is pure magic.
We were fortunate to experience Pandora before the public opening in late May. And while there were crowds of journalists milling around, we didn’t have to deal with the usual hoards of visitors packed into the new land, which can mean waiting lines of two to six hours.
This new 12-acre area skirting Disney’s Animal Kingdom is inspired by the blockbuster motion picture AVATAR from filmmaker James Cameron. It immerses you in the world of Pandora in a timeframe one generation after the human and Na’vi (the indigenous population in the film) conflict in the Oscar-winning film.
To really understand Pandora – a moon in the Alpha Centauri system – and all that it has to offer, you have to watch the film before you visit. If you don’t, it’s fair to say this new addition to Disney will be visually stunning, but it won’t make a lot of sense. To be honest, I didn’t see the movie when it first came out, but my daughter made sure I watched it before my Disney trip. And what a difference it makes in the way you see and understand Pandora.
You’ll want to visit Pandora during the day and also at night when everything is aglow with light and color. Both times offer special sights to see.
During the day, for example, you get to appreciate the lush landscape and vegetation as well as the floating mountains in the Valley of Mo’ara. There are twenty-two mountains, and they peak at about 130 feet above the valley floor. They serve as a backdrop for the cascading waterfalls that tumble to
the ground. A team of more than sixty artisans from the United States, Peru, France, Portugal, Japan, and Ireland contributed to creating the art-scape of the floating mountains.
The mountains are surrounded by a bioluminescent rainforest that gives the land its mystical feel. The diverse ecosystem creates some rather bizarre fictional plant life, like the dapophet, which features a sort of starburst bloom resembling the live agave planted next to it. The puffball tree looks like the family of plants known as cycads with its fern-like, palm-like characteristics.
Many plants are bioluminescent with internal lighting or material that makes them glow. They combine nicely with the more than 500 trees and nearly 10,000 shrubs planted by the Disney horticulture team across the Pandoran landscape.
What makes the plants even more unique is their ability to interact through light and sound with people visiting Pandora. To make it feel like the Pandoran jungle, Disney designed a soundscape that ties into the lighting to create waves of energy that help connect you to the environment. And wow! This light and sound really comes to life at night. Even the pathways glow with sparkling bits of color – actually the lights in the pathways are charged by sunlight and reinforced by black light. If you walk through at night with fluorescent clothing, you will light up as well.
Much thought went into the backstory for Pandora. Here are the basics. The Valley of Mo’ara is undergoing a rebirth long after a human-initiated mining venture called Resources Development Administration ceased operation. Because of that, it’s been opened up for eco-tourist exploration. It may seem like a short distance from other attractions in Disney’s Animal Kingdom when you’re there, but once you step into Pandora, you are transported 4.4 light-years from Earth to the Alpha Centauri star system.
When you visit, you can explore Pandora on your own or chat with some of the roaming Alpha Centauri Expedition (ACE) guides who can explain the environmental and conservation work being done there.
Soar Through the Air on the Back of a Banshee
The world of Pandora may seem rather laid-back, but you can’t be slow in pace if you want to ride the Avatar Flight of Passage or the Na’vi River Journey. And trust me, you do! So here’s the family plan: Get to Pandora early, and once you’re there, sprint directly to Avatar Flight of Passage so you, too, can ride on the back of a winged banshee and feel the animal breathing as you swoop and soar over Pandora.
The simulated flight apparatus resembles a competition motorcycle you straddle and lean forward to operate. The multi-sensory, wind-in-your-face experience is unlike anything Disney has created before. My daughter and her fiancé were so thrilled with the ride, they opted to ride as many times as possible before they left the park. “One of the things people said they wanted to do was to be a banshee and fly – and we listened,” says Walt Disney show programmer David Lester. “Our goal was to truly make you feel like you are flying on the back of a banshee.”
The imagineers used a host of different technologies to create the ride. “We methodically went through and chose elements that would make your body feel like you were on a banshee – elements that would make you say, ‘I was there! I was flying in Pandora!’” Lester says.
Setting up the storyline, the ride’s queue starts outside, crosses a bridge, and snakes through the landscape, as well as the bioluminescent belly of the mountain and then through the research lab, complete with sleeping Na’vi avatars. It is the longest queue in Disney, and anticipated wait-time is up to three hours during peak times, thus the need to get there early, or get a FastPass.
The state-of-the-art theater in the ride is equipped with a projection screen that’s nearly a hundred feet high. If you get motion sickness easily, make sure your eyes don’t wander during this 6-minute experience. Keep focused!
Pandora also features the Na’vi River Journey, a boat ride that drifts down a sacred river and winds through a bioluminescent rainforest. This is a ride for every member of the family; there are no dips, hills, or scary moments – although you will want to stay focused here, too – but on the beauty! At the end of the journey, you’ll encounter a nearly ten-foot-tall Na’vi shaman of songs. You’ll be astonished by his facial expressions. The audio-animatronics is the most advanced at the park.
Pandora is also home to the Satu’li Canteen, a fast-casual restaurant in an old Quonset hut with lots of lean meats, protein, and vegetables served in a bowl, a la Chipotle or Mezeh. And check out the unique-looking blueberry cheesecake mousse inspired by the eye of Na’vi.
Windtraders – think gift shop – stocks Na’vi cultural items, toys, science kits themed around conservation and the environment, and more. One of the most unique features of Windtraders is the Banshee Rookery, home to some of the winged creatures. You can select your own banshee to care for. You can also take home a replica avatar figure of yourself. Not a low-budget item, this purchase starts with you sitting in a futuristic transformation booth and ends with a 10-inch figure of you as an avatar.
Let the Fireworks Begin
While Pandora is a world of nature, light, and color, it’s not the only new light-centered spectacle at Disney World. Disney has created a new fireworks show called Happily Ever After at Cinderella Castle to replace the long-running Wishes in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. “Wishes is my favorite firework show,” says show director James Silson. “When I was given the opportunity to reimagine the show, it was exciting, but a little scary because I was replacing something I love.”
This isn’t your typical firework show, but then what is typical at Disney? It incorporates lasers and state-of-the-art mapping technology to create a vivid, colorful firework spectacle that focuses on the themes of dream, friendship, and love from the songs of Disney’s films. Nearby trees and fountains change color with the show to create an immersive experience.
Show creators wanted the new display to empower visitors to pursue their dreams and find their happily ever after. “Often inspiration is shown in a passive way,” Silson says. “In this show, we want to change that and make the show more about empowerment.”
The music, recorded by a 75-piece orchestra in London, is half the spectacle, he adds. “We went through every Disney song and picked key songs that relate to what the characters in the movie embody.”
The 18-minute show features moments from classic Disney films such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin to newer favorites, Moana and Zootopia. During the show, Quasimodo from Hunchback of Notre Dame swings from the turrets of the castle. Woody and his pals from Disney Pixar’s Toy Story recreate the castle entirely out of toys. And Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty envelops the castle in her signature green flames.
Disney keeps upping its game, and I can’t wait to see the rollout of the next two new lands featuring Toy Story and Star Wars. But that won’t be this year. Toy Story is scheduled for next year and if all goes well, Star Wars will follow in 2019 – just two more reasons to go back to my happy place in the future. In the meantime, I recommend putting Pandora at the top of your list of reasons to visit Disney World with the family this year.
Photos:David Roark, Steven Diaz, Kent Phillips, WDW