Pandora - the World of Avatar has finally opened in Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World resort. As the weeks pass, you will likely hear much about the floating mountains and the two signature attractions of this new land, and rightfully so. But what you may fail to hear about, is the immense detail and care that went into creating the immersive atmosphere highlighting the power of nature that makes you feel like you traveled light years from Earth.
Let's dispense with the popular notions – this is a beautiful themed environment unlike anything you've likely seen in your life. You do not need to have seen James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster film Avatar, but it certainly helps. Whatever you think of Avatar, it is the top grossing film of all time, and used innovative technology and visual effects to tell its story. Similarly, Avatar producer Jon Landau collaborated with the Walt Disney Imagineering team in order to tell stories within Pandora, the World of Avatar utilized with ground-breaking technology.
There are two major attractions (rides, if you will). The Na'vi River Journey and Flight of Passage. The Na'vi River journey is a relaxing boat ride down a Pandoran River. There are no drops or hills making this a mild adventure for the whole family. The end of the ride contains the most spectacular audio-animatronic figure Disney has ever created. The beautiful Na'vi Shaman of Songs, singing a haunting tune is a site to behold (and you can purchase your own Shaman to take home in the gift shop).
Avatar Flight of Passage is a thrilling adventure that can be intense for some riders. On this attraction, you will be matched and connect to an Avatar. This Avatar is riding on the back of an Ikran (i.e., mountain banshee). You can feel your Ikran breathe underneath you as you swoop and soar through Pandora in a breathtaking adventure. Many riders exit tearing up – moved – as if they have had a sort of soulful experience. Be warned, there is a size requirement for Avatar Flight of Passage, and larger guests may not fit on the attraction.
Some guests may venture through both attractions and be done with Pandora. But they would be missing so much that this themed land has to offer (and I'm not talking about the shop and restaurant). In fact, the entire land is more than its visuals, Pandora - the World of Avatar has a story that blends with the ideals of Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Joe Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineering portfolio creative executive, explained how the design of Disney's Animal Kingdom is set around three ideas: 1.) the supreme value of nature, 2.) transformation through adventure, and 3.) a personal call to action.
“It’s not the movie Avatar that we are portraying,” said Joe Rohde. “It is the planet Pandora where you can come, you can visit, and have your own unique adventure. Rather than reliving the adventures of characters from the film, you’re going to come to the planet where those things happened — and have your own set of adventures you can own.”
In that way, Pandora - the World of Avatar fits perfectly with Disney's Animal Kingdom's design. Disney Imagineers created a land where nature trumps all. The adventure of traveling to this "planet" 4.4 light years from Earth transforms families. Once immersed in the nature of Pandora, families will act on behalf of nature because the adventure has transformed them. Lofty goals, did Walt Disney Imagineering pull it off?
The huge expanse of "floating mountains" look better in person than any photo you are likely to come across. There are many little trails, bridges and steps wandering to-and-fro different destinations. One staircase leads to a pond of strange creatures, where a sign warned they may shoot water to target and stun smaller creatures thus ripe for eating - an alien archerfish if you will. And yes, you could get wet.
Listen to Pandora. There are strange sounds all over the land. Some Pandoran animal experts can distinguish the difference between mating versus hunting calls.
Even the flora has a story. The blue feather plants are called puffball trees, and they get larger by absorbing toxins from their environment. Be careful as they will burst once they are filled.
And don't take my word for it – I learned all this by talking to the field guides (actual walk-around actors) that inhabit Pandora. They're costumed as explorers and/or archeologists and love talking to guests about the nature of Pandora. Definitely take the time to chat them up on your adventure in this new world.
At night – everything changes, and it's not just that lights come on. Oh no, no, no. The entire area goes through an evolution. Animal sounds heard during the day are different at night as daytime animals go to sleep and nocturnal creatures emerge. The lighting changes slowly in a wave as the plants, mountains and even the floor begin to glow with a brilliant bioluminescence.
So yes, Walt Disney Imagineering did create an immersive environment that transports guests on an adventure. One downside is the upkeep of this level of immersion may prove a daunting task. Already, one can see places where visitors have peeled back the "moss" from the rocks, or left their marks and initials on walls (in that sense, it's not so different than visitors on Earth I guess). Walt Disney World will need vigilance and constant maintenance to keep the fantasy of Pandora alive in order to truly transform the guest.
I am sure there is much more to discover about this place, and I can't wait to spend more time on Pandora. The land itself is an actual attraction, it is interactive, and transports you to another world. I am so thrilled the Disney Imagineers and creative team have showcased the land in this way. Pandora - the World of Avatar is a physical demonstration of the power of nature, and our impact on the world around us. Pandora - the World of Avatar serves as a metaphor for the issues we face here on Earth, and my congratulations go to the teams of creative people that brought Pandora to life.