Like most of the Disney fans I’ve talked to, I have been anticipating Pandora at Animal Kingdom with trepidation. I remember seeing the movie when it first came out. We saw it in 3D because that was “new” technology at the time. I can hear James Cameron saying, in an interview, that seeing it in 3D was the only way to see it. And he was right. It was beautiful and incredible. Immersive in a way James Cameron seems to do gracefully. I remember thinking that the movie was incredibly progressive. So rooted in environmentalism, with notes of cultural appropriation and native slaughter. Issues we still have yet to really deal with as a country, and will likely not be able to deal with for many years due to political gridlock. Since much time had gone by, and I knew my annual passholder preview was coming up, my husband and I watched Avatar this past week to reacquaint ourselves and I was pleased that the movie still holds up. As does the CGI.
But I still had concerns. I know Disney is trying to develop their own “Harry Potter” like IP. I know that the Harry Potter lands are their goals in terms of this new era of theme park land immersion. And I know they know we think they fell short with New Fantasyland. I didn’t really understand how Avatar could be held up against Harry Potter, and even after rewatching it, I still didn’t care about Avatar like I care about Potter. I had similar feelings gearing up for Carsland. I don’t like the Cars movies really. They do nothing for me. But I loved the land. Immersiveness and detail really go a long way in real life.
One would think that would lead me to have low expectations. But I didn’t. This is Disney we’re talking about. They are the leader in themed design. They set the standard. We know what they are capable of when they do something right. So with high expectations from what I expect from Disney in terms of a new land, this is my experience in Pandora at Animal Kingdom. There are obviously many visual and ride spoilers ahead, so please don’t read further if you’d like to discover it yourself.
Pandora is located where Camp Minnie and Mickey used to be, to the left as you enter the park. As you cross the bridge into the new land, you notice the bridge is made of military barricades and they are aged. The pavement begins to change to specks of color and outlines of plants and as you enter the land, it’s like someone turned up the saturation on real life. Everything is green and lush and the land begins to unfold in small ways before your eyes. A pond here. A pod there. Colorful plants. Carved out trees and animal sounds in the bushes around you.
With the floating mountains looming in front of you, you begin to take in the different plants and try to figure out what’s real and what’s alien. The depth here is overwhelming and as we did a quick walk around, I felt my jaw growing tired from being locked in a shocked position. It’s beautiful. The colors are rich, the depth is incredible and there is so much to look at and listen to.
We hadn’t had a chance to eat yet, so we headed right to Sa’li Canteen. There is also a walk-up window that sells drinks and has a rotating snack. Having watched the movie recently, it’s clear that these buildings were part of the militarization that happened in Pandora.The Satu’li Canteen was actually once the main mess hall of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) base located in the Valley of Mo’ara. Now the canteen is owned and operated by Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) tour company and has been redesigned into a beautiful museum-like dining room. The buildings are covered in Na’Vi grafitti and art. It’s a perfect story setting because as you look around you, you’ll see rust and metal that has aged, but you know this is a preview and it’s brand new. And THAT is the beginnings of good story telling.
My husband I are vegan, so we ate the one option they had available. This is common for vegans and we were thankful our options were more than a side salad and french fries. What we were able to get, was chili-spiced fried tofu with a sweet and red potato hash with chimi-churri sauce. This was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in a theme park. Flavorful, filling and delicious. The Canteen also has open drink fountains where you get your drink yourself (like backlot express at Hollywood Studios). The fountains do not currently have the technology installed to count your refills, which makes me really happy as water refills are plentiful. And speaking of water refills, there are many water fountains in Pandora that have water bottle refill stations on top, which is very welcome addition that I hope spreads to the rest of the parks.
There is one shop in Pandora, Windtraders and it’s the only shop at Walt Disney World that sells merchandise from Pandora. So don’t expect to find merchandise at the main shops or in Disney Springs. It’s all very exclusive! There is also a merchandise stand near the entrance to the land, and a face painting place that features Na’Vi inspired face painting!
There are two attractions in Pandora. The Na’vi River Journey and Flight of Passage. During the annual passholder preview we were able to ride River Journey four times. It is a beautiful ride, but It is disappointing in its length, depth and lack of excitement. The boats seat 4-6 people and they seem to get backed up easily. The ride is not very long, and there isn’t much of a story line. Welcome to Pandora. Here’s what it looks like in the dark. Bye. Hopefully there were some effects off? Something that will make it cohesive to me? I don’t have high hopes. But what the ride lacks in story and thrills, it makes up for with beautiful visuals.
Flight of Passage is a different story. The queue (what I saw of it, we had to use a fastpass and were not allowed to go in the regular queue) is impressive. It’s also huge. It takes 10 min to walk through if there is no line. Think Indiana Jones. At least the majority of the queue is inside when the wait gets up to 300 minutes.
Not much had been revealed before this attraction opened. We knew it was a simulator and I’d heard it was like Soarin’. It IS like Soarin’ in that it has a screen and you fly. But the important differences are that it’s in 3D and you straddle your seat. The 3D is more about depth than it is about poking you in the face like Muppets 3D. And the seat choice is interesting. Everyone can’t help but think Tron, and having sat on a similar ride vehicle at Knott’s, I agree. Once you straddle your seat, locks come up behind your calves and your back to keep you in place.
You are then whisked to your Avatar that is on a banshee (dragon like creature) and you fly through Pandora. You can feel your seat react as your fly, your banshee is living and breathing on your legs. As he tugs and plummets, it feels real. The visuals are crystal clear and incredibly gorgeous. There are also wind and smell effects.
This ride got to me. There is a beautiful part in a cave, and that’s where I started crying and couldn’t stop. I was not prepared for how beautiful and fun this ride was. And the technology is incredible! I can’t wait to ride it again.
Many people have asked me if this area “feels like Disney”. And I’m really happy to tell you that it does. We spent about 8 hours there (You’re welcome) because we wanted to be there when they turned on the lights at night, but sadly, they aren’t doing that until it opens on May 27th. OH WELL.
Since we had so much time to kill, we explored every nook and cranny and while I was impressed with the visuals, I was more impressed with the details. From water that smokes and creatures that spray water, to animals nestled up in the floating islands and endless moss, Pandora is incredibly detailed.
There are a few caves scattered around the island and they all go to Cast Member areas, but each one has it’s own distinct soundtrack. One cave is just fierce wind. Another is cave sounds like dripping and bats. Another is more ominous and has creepy music.
There are also a lot of photo opportunities in Pandora. And we even have another star wall on our hands. #MossWall is the new #purplewall so get your photos ready. Thankfully Pandora has PLENTY of moss.
These details are the things that Disney does to create a sense of space, and especially now that I’m reviewing attractions a lot, I can say with full confidence that the other parks aren’t doing stuff like this. They didn’t HAVE to install speakers in 6 foot long caves and give them unique soundtracks, but they did. One of the bridges by Na’Vi River Journey has succulents built into the side and again, they just didn’t have to. There are so many unique plants and little areas to explore, our day went by fast. There a queue overflow for River Journey and the soundtrack over there is intense. Stampedes, Animal fights, Na’Vi rustling around and running and talking, wind… it really sucks you in.
I really feel strongly that this is a welcome addition to Animal Kingdom. It’s a product from one of the greatest imagineers of our time, Joe Rhode, and one of the greatest directors of our time, James Cameron. I can’t wait to experience it more and to see how it grows with the park.
I have a feeling that nighttime is going to be the best time to be in Pandora. We only got to see the blacklight effect the ground, but honestly even that was incredible. It lights up in such a subtle yet bright way.
Thanks for joining me for this journey to another planet! Are you making a special trip to see Pandora? Are you looking forward to seeing it on your next trip? Let me know in the comments! And keep watching MiceChat for more coverage and opinions from Avatar Land.
See you in the parks!!
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