You don’t have to be a fan of James Cameron’s “Avatar” to appreciate how Disney has worked its magic to make you actually care about Pandora, the sci-fi world in what’s still the world’s biggest blockbuster.
What Disney has achieved with “The World of Avatar,” the newest land inside Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park, is nothing short of a resounding creative success in the way it brings Cameron’s otherworldly cinematic vision to life in stunning detail.
Within minutes you are in Cameron's mind and seeing what he's always envisioned for Avatar.
The best theme park attractions transport visitors to another place and time. They thrill and tell a story you can only experience first hand. They leave you with memories you’ll enjoy for years to come.
Disney has done that with Pandora. Within minutes you are in Cameron’s mind and seeing what he’s always envisioned for “Avatar.”
In fact, even Cameron is impressed, saying “Literally, this is a dream come true” at the official opening of Pandora.
The film’s signature floating mountains of Pandora tower over guests as they stand in a lush landscape filled with familiar but also alien plant life that block out the rest of Animal Kingdom, fully immersing visitors in the land. At night, the land is lit up with a bioluminescence light show.
This isn’t just a movie anymore. Now you’re standing on Pandora. You’re living it.
Flight of Passage is the best ride at any of Walt Disney World's five theme parks — maybe even any of Disney's parks.
“The World of Avatar’s” two rides, “Flight of Passage” and the “Na’vi River Journey,” focus on connecting guests to Pandora in new ways, with the family friendly river ride featuring the most sophisticated animatronic character the wizards at Disney Imagineering have ever built. Watch a video of the impressive character below. An equally lifelike 10-foot Na’vi is also on display in the queue line of “Flight of Passage.”
But it’s “Flight of Passage,” for the more adventurous, that will always be Pandora’s biggest draw. To put it simply: “Flight of Passage” is the best ride at any of Walt Disney World’s five theme parks — maybe even any of Disney’s parks.
Yes, that’s a big statement. You’ll fully understand the claim, though, once you’ve spent four minutes virtually riding on the back of a Banshee, feeling it breathe as you soar over Pandora’s jungles, raging waterfalls and ocean, coming close to new creatures not seen in “Avatar,” but that will hopefully appear in its upcoming sequels.
Using the world’s largest screen, “Flight of Passage,” is an extension of the kind of breakthrough 3D technology that one would expect from Cameron, who is primarily to thank for the trend of 3D movies at the multiplex in the first place.
“In Flight of Passage, the sensation of flying is really visceral, really believable,” said Joe Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineering portfolio creative executive. “Not only do you have the more obvious aspects of flying – the swooping and curving – but we’ve put in crosswind, air density and banking.”
You can't help but say, 'Oh, I get it,' as you stand underneath one of the park's vine-covered floating mountains.
Satu’li Canteen is the land’s main restaurant, serving up food inspired by the film, including bowls of grilled meats and grains, served up Chipotle style, and desserts like a blue mousse that playfully represents the eyes of the Na’vi. Inside the eatery, there are displays of Na’vi art and culture.
Much of the storyline in the land is driven by Alpha Centauri Expeditions, the fictional tour operation created by Disney and Cameron to introduce Earth’s citizens to Pandora — both on site and online.
Representatives from ACE are on site, in lieu of Mickey Mouse and friends, to help guests on their journey through Pandora, point out sights and sounds, and help promote the land’s pro-environmental message.
During Pandora’s construction, many have questioned why Pandora belongs inside Animal Kingdom. Any doubts are silenced when you step into the beauty of the 12-acre land, or see the array of animals galloping through “Flight of Passage.” You can’t help but say, “Oh, I get it,” as you stand underneath one of the park’s vine-covered floating mountains.
For the world's biggest movie, It's the biggest hit no one wants to say they love. It's no Star Wars. At least not yet.
“Avatar” has always been an oddity. It’s reigned as the world’s biggest blockbuster since 2009, generating nearly $2.8 billion for 20th Century Fox and Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment. Only “Titanic” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” have broken the $2 billion box office barrier.
Yet you don’t see fans wearing “Avatar” T-shirts in public, or dress up as the blue-skinned Na’vi at Comic Cons across the country. Kids don’t play with “Avatar” toys. And you never hear “Avatar” referenced in pop culture. There’s no “Titanic” king of the world moment.
For the world’s biggest movie, it’s the biggest hit no one wants to say they love. It’s no “Star Wars.” At least not yet.
World building is one of those terms Hollywood’s studios are rallying around as a way to engage with moviegoers and keep them interested in their film franchises. Think “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” or anything from Marvel Studios.
Universal and Warner Bros. reimagined the theme park experience with “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” which brought the settings of the books and films to life in stunning detail in three parks in Orlando, Los Angeles and Osaka, Japan.
Now you can experience what you could only imagine on the printed page or see in the movies. Like butter beer? Now it’s real. And it’s delicious.
Disney has similarly embraced the world building concept.
“Cars Land,” at Disney’s California Adventure, in Anaheim, continues to impress with its detailed recreation of Radiator Springs, the town from Pixar’s animated “Cars” films. And fans of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films are equally at awe with Treasure Cove, at Shanghai Disneyland.
Disney isn’t done. It has new themed lands based on “Star Wars” and “Toy Story” coming to Orlando and Anaheim in the coming years.
Until then, we’ve got “The World of Avatar.”
Some word of advice: “The World of Avatar” wasn’t designed to keep your attention for a full day; it’s just one of several experiences within Animal Kingdom.
You will also likely wait awhile to ride “Flight of Passage,” with the queue line meant to accommodate waits for up to six hours. The attraction is well worth the time, however.
It will be interesting to see how popular “The World of Avatar” is with park-goers in the coming months — and years as Cameron produces his sequels, the first of which doesn’t arrive in theaters until 2020, and four more unspooling each year through 2025. The first sequel was originally planned to come out in 2017.
One hopes Disney already is planning on ways to introduce new rides and experiences for “The World of Avatar” leading up to the new film releases.
But as we wait, kudos to Disney for once again breaking new ground with Pandora. It’s truly world building in every way imaginable.
Check out a video of “Pandora: The World of Avatar” and the Na’vi River Journey below.
Where to Stay:
- Walt Disney World Dolphin
- Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center
- JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes
- Marriott’s Lakeshore Reserve
- Orlando World Center Marriott
- The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes
- Castle Hotel, Autograph Collection
- Grand Bohemian Hotel, Orlando, Autograph Collection
- Sheraton Vistana Resort Villas, Lake Buena Vista/Orlando