When Walt Disney World’s restless brain trust gets nearly half a billion dollars, 12 acres and a popular action-movie premise to play with, I know what to expect: the blitz of ingenuity, the visual bacchanal, the mercantile barrage. Check, check and check.
What I didn’t expect was serenity.
And darned if that isn’t how those sneaky imagineers found a completely unforeseen way to blow my mind at their newest effort, Pandora: The World of Avatar. With its trippy, tropical take on James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Disney has created an authentically immersive terrain that soothes even as it dazzles. Pandora is a bizzaro Zen garden of otherworldly waterfalls, alien birdcalls and floating mountains that imparts a minor Zoloft effect unlike anything I’ve experienced in other patches of Disney.
Maybe this won’t be so true in the humidity and humanity of a crowded Orlando August, but Pandora in May made me want to stand and stare and breathe mindfully. Oh, to be centered in Central Florida!
The five-year collaboration between Disney and Cameron’s production company opened last month as a new land in Animal Kingdom, one of four major parks that make up Walt Disney World. Cross the bridge from Discovery Island and the habitat shifts to a Day-Glo rain-forest setting that will be familiar to “Avatar” fans as the faraway utopian moon that was threatened by a rapacious Earthling mining corporation, RDA.
The Disney iteration, though, takes place generations after the miners have been driven out (hopefully with ample job-retraining for these victims of the War on Unobtanium) and the peacefully gigantic blue Na’vi of Pandora are busy restoring it to space-age splendor. That ingenious conceit allowed planners to combine dystopian ruins (the colossal exo-armor battle suit from the movie’s climax sits rusting outside the gift shop) with lush streambeds and flowering vines.
Manhole covers, for example (working portals to Disney’s real-world, secret underground infrastructure), are hearty relics of the RDA occupation and they sit in the gauzy shadows of a sparkling waterfall. The tiki-steampunk vibe gives a dedicated detail-spotter like me lots to look at. You could cover every inch of the place at stroller speeds in about 15 minutes. But the point is to linger, and they’ve made that an easy pleasure to do.
There are only two actual rides in Pandora, the Na’vi River Journey, a family-friendly boat trip through a luminescent Na’vi forest, and the Avatar Flight of Passage, a spectacular mock ride on the back of one of the dragonlike banshees that figured so prominently in the film. More about them later, but know that both are already drawing epically long lines. (The winding queue for the flight ride — dubbed an instant classic by some early riders — was reportedly peaking at four hours.)
That gift shop, the Windtrader, hawks Pandora-specific tchotchkes that include a clever banshee puppet to squat and squawk on your shoulder. And in an update on the cartoon caricatures that visitors have been buying at theme parks for years, you can have yourself Avatar-ed in this shop. Sit in a booth, and a 3-D printer soon will deliver an action-figure likeness of yourself — as blue, nose-less and pointy eared as Zoe Saldana ever was.
Disney’s march to better eats continues, and the food in Pandora is as good as I’ve had in any Disney park except for some of the around-the-world options at Epcot. And, like Epcot, Pandora has its alcohol license, thanks be to Eywa! (That’s the Na’vi goddess; you can look it up in one of the online dictionaries dedicated the Polynesian-inflected Na’vi lingo that is scattered around the park.) The Pongu Pongu drink stand and the Satu’li Canteen feature a couple of custom ales ($9.50 for 22 ounces) and a Banshee Pinot ($9). I thought the build-your-own Satu’li bowl of salmon and quinoa and sweet potatoes was exceptional for $12.99. My companion pronounced the steamed cheeseburger bao bun ($10.99) “very cheeseburger-like,” and he meant it as a compliment.
Pandora, naturally, deploys all that is new and cool as material sciences, projection technology and theme-park trickery continues to catch up to their frenzied imaginations. Most of this the designers won’t talk about. One engineer I talked to did acknowledge that he didn’t think the neck-craning centerpiece of Pandora — the massive, water-shedding boulders that seem to float weightlessly against constraining vines — could have even been built a decade ago. Likewise many of the effects great and small, down to the patches of lichen that not only have to pass for living but survive the poking and prodding of millions of sticky fingers a year. At night, the entire habitat glows with bioluminance that transforms a stroll into a light show.
Among the many advances here is the seamless blend of horticulture and stagecraft. The designers have planted bromeliads and aloes and every kind of spiked floral oddity alongside Avatar-inspired fakes such that they are impossible to distinguish. This may be the final answer to the challenge Walt Disney set himself seven decades ago: giving visitors a “real” cinematic experience when they enter his theme parks. Cameron and Sigourney Weaver, who were both at the ceremonial opening I attended, have spent years working on this story and creating this setting, but only experiencing it via green screens and CGI. Walking around a physical version reportedly brought them both to tears.
For all that is original and aglow at Pandora, its two chief attractions are new models built on old chassis. If you’ve ridden Soarin’, the immersive flight-motion simulator at Epcot and California Adventures, you know basically how Flight of Passage works. And the lineage of the Na’vi River Journey runs back through Pirates of the Caribbean and earlier. (Add a few nine-foot blue humanoids and it’s a tall world after all.)
But hey, Shakespeare used the same template for his sonnets, too. And the leaps forward here are staggering. The river ride uses holographic projections, synchronized robotics and more black light than a Spencer’s gift shop to create a moody forest night of skittering critters and airborne jellyfish. And the climax, a chanting Na’vi priestess of eye-popping dimensions sings and drums with a fluidity that relegates most previous animatronics to wind-up-toy status. It’s enchanting, but too short. Especially after a wait that may give you enough time to watch “Avatar” on your tablet, five-and-a-half minutes of ride may leave you wanting more.
You’ll wait even longer for Flight of Passage, but the payoff is greater and the line easier to endure. That’s because Disney has reached new heights in the design of the queue, which succeeds as an attraction unto itself. Essentially, they’ve built a mountain-hiking path that switchbacks up and up through a fantastical watershed. You ant-line past waterfalls and cliff walls, eventually entering a network of painted caves with ample (and how!) time to decipher the ancient history of the Na’vi. The tunnels give way to an abandoned RDA bunker and then (not there yet!) to a lab much like Weaver’s HQ in the movie, including a floating Na’vi avatar bubbling and breathing in a tank. Even when the line moved ahead I lingered here, which is akin to sitting on the plane for bit after landing in Australia.
Finally (finally!) in the simulator, the sensation of actually piloting a giant pterodactyl through the Uncanny Valley of Avatar was so credible that I was actually queasy by the end — and thoroughly enchanted. I could feel the beast breathe, smell the mulchy loam of the forest and wince at the spray as we skimmed the wave tops, and these were literal effects produced by Disney trickery. My emotions took me even deeper into the blessed illusion of soaring. This time, the ride didn’t feel too short.
You could hack the experience if you like, take off the 3-D glasses, look around for the strings and mirrors of illusion. And if you a chance to ride it more than once, go ahead. I did. But for that first time, let yourself go. Don’t try to figure it out, don’t take a selfie.