We’ve all seen Avatar. I know this because it’s the highest-grossing film of all time. But you haven’t seen the world of Avatar until you’ve checked out Disney World’s new Pandora theme park.
Nestled in Disney’s African-themed Animal Kingdom, Pandora is a breathtaking experience. When you step in, the air is dewy (that’s Florida humidity for you) and the sounds of animals are powerful, even though you won’t see any crawling around. But there are creatures very much alive and larger than life. On the 12 acres that is Pandora, there are exotic plants from the movie, including ones that look like jellyfish, palm trees, octoshrooms, vein pods, warbonnet ferns and more. There is also a massive “reclining flask” plant that when you rub it, lets out a loud burp of steam that’s actually cool water. It’s both a delightful treat along with a necessary one on a warm day. And there are the floating mountains high up that defy logic and physics. It’s a gorgeous place.
But as lovely as the scenery is during the day, it truly comes to life at night. Walking through the valley of Mo’ara a second time around, everything is bio luminescent. And when I say everything, I mean everything — even your clothing. The pods, ferns and flowers that already caught your eye during the day stand out in the night. And the floating mountains? Well, pictures don’t do them justice. They’re literally purple as they sit above the park.
The greatest thing about Pandora though, as with most Disney theme parks, are the rides. There is the Na’vi River Journey, an attraction by boat that takes you through a manmade rainforest. As you sit in a reed boat and move through a dark tunnel, everything lights up. When you look up, lizards and other creatures make their presence known while moving on bioluminescent organisms. Plants hang from the ceiling and Na’vi people even make an appearance, including the massive Na’vi Shaman of Songs. The figure actually moves and sings, but is not a person in a costume. The Shaman is another figure constructed by the Disney “Imagineering” team to make you feel like you’ve truly been dropped in Avatar.
But what really will drop your jaw is the Avatar Flight of Passage. Getting to it is a journey within itself, as you move through rock-covered tunnels with Na’vi drawings and more before coming into an old Resources Development Administration facility that has a laboratory where avatars are created. One is literally sitting in a large glass tube when you walk into the lab. There are so many cool things to see on the way to the attraction, which gets you excited for the actual ride.
However, the experience itself can’t be beat. After being matched with an avatar, you sit on a small motorcycle-type vehicle while wearing 3D glasses, and before you know it, you’re in another world. It’s like taking Disney’s Soarin’ ride to the next level. You dip through trees, over mountains, and even under massive tidal waves while on the back of a banshee. You interact with other Na’vi people, and even with the scary creatures they have to contend with in the air, water and on the ground. While simulator rides can often be cheesy, this is perhaps the greatest one I’ve been on. You’re literally immersed in Pandora. Disney Imagineers made sure to even include spritzes of water when you deal with the ocean, wind for when you’re in the sky and different smells to represent the land. The vehicle your legs are wrapped around even breathes in an out like an abdomen on a real banshee. By the end of the ride, you walk away saying, “WOW!” until there is a better description for the whirlwind of things you’re feeling.
Along with those sights and sounds, there is a pretty cool gift shop that allows you to buy everything from mini banshees that you can control on your shoulder to avatar ears, tails and war weapons. You can even get an an avatar doll made in your likeness! And there’s also a watering hole where guests can get a whole host of treats, including Banshee wine, vegetable curry bao buns, cheesecake, wood-grilled chicken, and a Na’vi Frozen Nectar that’s a frozen limeade with flavors of Granny Smith apple, desert pear and topped with mango boba balls. It’s quite an experience. Just ask the stars of the actual 2009 film.
“I’m blown away,” said Laz Alonzo, who played Tsu’tey in Avatar. He, along with Avatar director and writer James Cameron, producer Jon Landau, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and C. C. H. Pounder, showed up for the media preview of the park last week. “When I first got in, it was like, ‘Ok, I’m taking everything in.’ But after doing the rides, the banshee ride is hands-down my favorite ride ever! You know you weren’t moving, but your mind thinks you are. People always talk about virtual reality, VR, but I would say this is the closest that I’ve seen it play out in real life. You’re literally stimulated. You look all around you and you’re in this world.”
“For two years while we were working on the film, we had to imagine it,” he said about shooting, which was done in front of green screens. “We had to figure out what things were and pretend. But now to see it come to life, I really am proud of this team. We got off the ride and Sigourney Weaver was crying. She was that moved by it. We were all just silent. For a minute, we just had to take it in because we didn’t expect that. I personally did not expect that level of detail.”
The ride opened at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on May 27 and is already getting rave reviews. And while your summer travel plans likely include some beaches and sightseeing, I would also encourage you to let your big kid out and head to Orlando. Pandora is truly a wonder to see, and if you’re a rollercoaster or theme park aficionado, then you can’t miss out on the attractions this park has to offer. Even if you aren’t, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Images via Disney