Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s newest land has already had some public previews, and photos and opinions are starting to be published everywhere. The question many folks have been asking since the project was announced (three years ago!) is whether this new land will be a “Potter Swatter” – something impressive enough to get tourists to stop talking about Universal’s Harry Potter lands and talk about this one instead. My answer? No. It comes up short in that regard and will not fire up travelers to rave once they get back home, the way they’ve done about Potter for some time.
But Pandora is spectacular eye candy. It overwhelms the senses, and its sheer bulk will intimidate you when standing below those “floating” rocks (not the world’s best illusion, but I give them points for trying). More to the point, the attention to small details is right up there with the best Disney has ever done, and as a fan of Disney’s famous immersive details, I was giddy when walking around and exploring. It does impress on this level.
So why isn’t it a “Potter Swatter?” Because it’s not enough. DAK’s new Pandora is like the filet mignon you eat at Victoria & Albert’s: it’s succulent, juicy, and oh-my-god amazing in your mouth. You let it wash over your taste buds and do not hurry anything. You linger and let it slowly spread its magic, and it’s hard to NOT smile (even now at the memory).
But you don’t serve filet mignon as a one-course meal. I think V&A has something like seven courses, and it’s the entire meal that leaves you feeling sated (even feted!). A single dish, however transcendental in its initial bite, leaves one wanting more. The problem, in other words, is scope.
Pandora has got “scale” right: you are small, and the landscape is huge and intimidating. Job done. I think it will elicit the desired emotional reaction from anyone who visits.
But “scope” is not the same thing as scale. Scope is how big of a job is being attempted. Scale is about numbers, but scope is about variety. For all the glorious grandeur of the land and its external details, it is really only a few things: a quaint boat ride (more on this later), a Soarin’ Around the World-type ride (which in all honesty is MUCH more thrilling than Soarin’), one shop, one restaurant, and one quick-service bar. From the perspective of themed elements and visual treats, it roars magnificently. But from the perspective of variety, it feels like half a land.
Compare Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land to Pandora. There is one signature ride in Cars Land and a couple of small ones, so that part feels comparable to Pandora. But Cars Land has a variety of dining options – including the amazing Flo’s V8 Cafe with its panoramic view of the Cadillac mountain range – and three shops. It has more areas that feel integral to the experience. Mind you, I really like the stuff you discover in Pandora just by wandering: the electronically-enhanced drums to bang on, the Inspiration Point-like mini waterfalls, or the crashed Samson gunship half reclaimed by the jungle. But the restaurant and shop feel inadequate and marginalized, tucked in the corner almost like an afterthought.
Let’s try a different comparison. If The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade/Hogwarts) had opened with the same sense of scope as Pandora, it would have the tourist trap store after the big ride, but not the wand store or the candy or clothing stores. It would have the Three Broomsticks, but the adjoining bar would be a counter-service window. It would have the reskinned attractions (Hippogriff and Dragons coasters), which to my mind are about similar in “newness” to the Na’Vi River Journey, so that part is comparable. (And for that matter, the attempt to have a “wand chooses the wizard” type experience with baby banshees bonding with kids of all ages strikes me as likely to succeed).
Is Pandora a “Potter Swatter” when it comes to appealing to the core audience of rabid fans? As many have said over the last several years during construction, people love the Potter characters and feel an affinity for them, whereas no one can even name the characters in Avatar. So that’s an uphill slog right there.
I think the Pandora land does try to tell a story. It’s set years after the Avatar movie, and naturalism/conservation is prized much more than the regretful time humanity tried to strip-mine the Pandora moon (this is a clear fit with DAK’s overall mission, by the way). You can see this not only in preshow movies for the big simulator, but also in details like the Cast Member podiums being on wheels – whatever CAN be portable in this world is shown to be portable (at least in theming), to minimize the impact on the environment.
That brings us to the rides. The big simulator ride, Avatar Flight of Passage, is breathtaking in its beauty and amazing, crystal-clear 3D. It delivers in every respect…albeit it as a screen and motion-seat ride only. By comparison, the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride has a Kuka arm on a motion base vehicle that moves through real sets. There’s a theatricality and “wow” factor in Forbidden Journey which has echoes in Flight of Passage just in regards to its technology, but I’d still give the edge to Forbidden Journey. As you might expect, Flight of Passage celebrates the environment and the natural world, again in alignment with DAK’s mission.
Na’Vi River Journey highlights nature with equal single-mindedness. The ride is physically gentle, but its only purpose is to showcase Pandora’s flora and fauna, which will be confusing for some visitors, who by now expect most Disney attractions to tell a story. There’s a very impressive animatronic in the form of an Ewya tree shaman, but the ride has no storyline to speak of. Nothing in preshows, and not even really a transition into the nighttime version of the land (even though it’s daytime outside). It many ways, it’s the embodiment of my original assertion about the entire land: exceptional and ground-breaking eye candy, but not enough story and leaves you wanting more (the ride was also a bit shorter than I expected). I liked the Marc Davis-era Disneyland attractions that focused on atmosphere more than narrative, though such attractions weren’t always billed as E-Tickets.
Before we write off the land as a missed opportunity, we need to remember two things. First, when the Avatar movie came out, it gripped the entire world. It broke every box office record and the planet was awash in people who wanted to live on Pandora. This land could represent their chance to at least visit it. But they don’t just love the idea of crops grown in a harsh atmosphere we can’t breathe. What people wanted to live in was NIGHTTIME Pandora. The River Journey offers some hints of this, but it’s over too quickly. The land itself needs to be nighttime Pandora….and that’s the other thing to remember. We haven’t seen it at night yet. There are blacklights everywhere, and the pavement will look amazing when illuminated. What will the plants do? Many of them around the walkways are alien-looking creations that surely will light up, and the results could be breathtaking.
Astonishing enough to run home and tell your neighbors that they, too, simply MUST visit? If so, then it will have become a “Potter Swatter.”
Or will the limited nighttime hours of summer prevent enough people from seeing this land in its optimal state? Will people flood into this land at dark, ignoring the rest of now-open-late DAK? That seems likely. Will the crowds overrun the one restaurant and shop? Assuredly.
Bottom line: it’s not a “Potter Swatter” from my Saturday daytime visit. We’ll see what the real nighttime experience looks like. It might end up getting all they way there. For now, though, the jury is out.