Pandora – the World of Avatar opens at Walt Disney World

Newest Immersive Land at Animal Kingdom Theme Park Welcomes Public

The world of Pandora is 4.4 light years from earth, according to legend. Luckily, central Florida is just a quick three hour flight from New England, putting Walt Disney World's latest, newly-opened project quite a bit closer.

Pandora – the World of Avatar is the latest addition to the vacation kingdom’s Animal Kingdom theme park, and is set in the world of the Academy Award-nominated film, “Avatar.” The 12-acre landscape offers guests two new attractions, themed dining options, innovative shopping outlets, a number of interactive elements scattered throughout and some of the most eye-catching scenery in any Disney theme park.

No strangers to world-building, Disney's Imagineers have crafted a mystical environment of massive floating mountains, bioluminescent plant life and an utterly believable landscape that guests can lose themselves in. The curious need only steer themselves to Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park, take a left at the Tree of Life – the park's instantly-recognizable and centrally-located icon – and cross over into the immersive, wonderfully alien world of Pandora.

First – the elephant in the room: the film it's all based on may have had its high point in the cultural collective consciousness eight years ago. But here's the bottom line – whether you love the film, you're ambivalent about the film, or you haven't even seen it, chances are you'll love Pandora – the World of Avatar.

So why have the Na'vi set up shop in Disney's Animal Kingdom, in particular? The park's iconography hinted at the inclusion of a fantasy-based world since it first opened in 1997. A lion, an elephant, a gazelle and even a dinosaur are joined, rather conspicuously, by a dragon on signage throughout the park. The addition of Pandora, and its winged banshees, finally justifies that spot on its logo parade. And the underlying message, one of celebrating nature, transformation through adventure and a call to action, fits perfectly. And it all begins once visitors step foot into Pandora.

Cross the park's Discovery River, and a seamless intermingling of natural and man-made flora weave together to create a vividly believable world. Just steps into Pandora, it becomes clear that Disney's Imagineers are at the top of their game. Massive “floating” mountains fill the sky, as waterfalls cascade down through the grottos and into streams and pools below. Cast members (Disney-speak for its employees and workers) greet visitors in the native language of the Na’vi, further advancing the illusion that you have actually traveled to the distant world.

Wandering around the verdant, winding pathways and taking in the surroundings might be enough to eat up an entire morning, but eventually guests will find themselves drawn to the gate-busters on either side of the space: Avatar Flight of Passage and the Na’vi River Journey.

The Na’vi River Journey is a sedate attraction – a dark/boat ride through a bio-luminescent rain forest populated by unfamiliar fauna, including slightly intimidating viperwolves and several tall, blue-skinned Na’vi themselves. Look up, and outsized insects jump from leaves, which dip and shimmy, giving an uncanny sense of weight to the expertly-executed effect.

The tour de forest takes place in a small boat made to appear as if it was woven from reeds. The music is gentle and hypnotic, and it reaches its crescendo near the end, when the incredibly realistic Shaman of Songs serenades passers-by. The lyrical finale sends guests off with a positive, if not literal, message. The attraction is family-friendly, slow-moving and Zen-like. (Sharp-eyed travelers will note that the wildlife and the Na’vi are all moving in the same direction – toward the Shaman of Songs at the end of the journey.)

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the second major attraction in the new land – Avatar Flight of Passage. This state-of-the-art pulse-pounder is a complete game changer in the world of theme park attractions. At its most basic, it’s essentially a 3D simulator that gives the impression of flight on the back of a banshee – one of the aerial predators featured in the film. But describing it as such would be selling it short. It is a complete story, from the time you enter the (rather lengthy) queue at ground level. It twists and climbs up toward the banshee rookery, transitioning from natural surroundings, into cave structures, through man-made pathways near the top and eventually into laboratory surroundings. Set a generation after the events in the film, it’s easy to see how it extends the storyline, showing how researchers have taken the place of the miners who sought to strip the planet of its natural resources.

As with anything at Disney, story comes first: Flying on the back of a banshee represents an important rite of passage for the Na’vi and as visitors to the alien world, guests will have a chance to be tested and guided through the journey.

Visitors are prepped for their ride during a pre-show explanation, which details how the avatar concept works. Mounting the ride vehicles, which are lined up facing a wall, resembles getting onto a motorcycle. Participants don 3D glasses, lights flash, and riders are transported to Pandora.

The ride vehicle pitches and moves as if you’re straddling a living beast. It launches into flight, and for the next several minutes, riders are taken on a vivid tour of the Pandoran landscape from above. From forests and cliffside dwellings to beaches, oceans, caverns, plains and a finale overlooking an alien sea – complete with unfamiliar wildlife and views of nearby planets – there is more to look at than can be processed in countless repeat rides. All the while, the wind blows in your face, mists bathe you as you pass by waterfalls and oceans and the beast your straddling breathes – it’s lungs expanding and contracting beneath you, adding yet another tactile element. A projection screen 69 feet wide and more than 97 feet high all but envelopes riders, completely removing any unwanted peripheral artifacts that would otherwise take the rider out of the experience. The overall sensation is flawless and utterly convincing. It is alternately thrilling, placid, beautiful and completely breathtaking.

The attraction exits, as they say, through the gift shop. With a thatched roof and an aged look, however, it fits in well with the storyline that weaves throughout Pandora. Inside, guests can pick up items that would make them feel part of the indigenous people – Na’vi ears, tails, hooded jackets and necklaces, among many other things. Perhaps most eye-catching however, is the Banshee Rookery, where visitors can adopt their own mini banshee. An ingenious puppet that moves, twitters and wiggles through an easily-hidden controller, the banshee is sent home after an elaborate matching process.

Even the food allows guests to eat like a Na’vi. The Satu’li (Sa-too-lee) Canteen is the location’s restaurant, themed to look like it served as a mess hall for the Resources Development Administration from the film. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, hungry travelers can choose from different combinations of mixed bowls featuring beef, chicken, fish or tofu and rice or potato hash, and assorted offerings such as bao buns stuffed with beef or vegetable curry. Drinks and desserts all take on a futuristic look in keeping with the feel of the eatery. A children’s menu is also available with a few more recognizable and kid-friendly offerings.

The Satu’li Canteen is also the first Disney restaurant to offer mobile ordering – a way to order and pay for meals on-the-go using the My Disney Experience app. It allows guests to bypass the queue when they arrive by tapping an “I’m here” button on the app, notifying the kitchen that it’s time to eat.

The Pongu Pongu kiosk adjacent to the Canteen offers several concoctions for thirsty adult guests. The signature drink is the Frozen Nectar (frozen limeade with layered flavors of Granny Smith Apple and Desert Pear topped with bursting mango boba balls) that glows with bioluminescent colors reminiscent of Pandora’s flora. There’s also a Screaming Banshee Margarita and Avatar Private Label Ale. Drinks can be purchased in a tiki-inspired mug with an Avatar “juju” light-up cube.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, night falls. That’s when Pandora – the World of Avatar puts on an entirely new and mysterious face. The bioluminescent plants, walkways and natural surroundings glow with new life once the sun sets, bringing and entirely new and alien feel to the environment. A treatment added to some of the Pandoran walkways gives them a glowing quality. Charged by sunlight and reinforced by black light, the pathways become colorful, vivid routes throughout the entire world.

Bill Burke is the author of three Walt Disney World travel guides. The books, “Mousejunkies,” are available at all bookstores and all online book retailers. He is the Dad on Board columnist for Parenting NH Magazine and managing editor of custom publications for McLean Communications.

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