Pandora, Arguably the Biggest thing to Happen at Walt Disney World in Nearly Two Decades

Floating Mountains at Disney's Pandora

Back when he was a teenager, a man who would become one of the most influential filmmakers of all-time used to daydream. Like most teens, he’d get bored in class and let his mind wander to faraway lands. The difference between that man and the rest of the world is that he remembered with clarity some of these visions of a different realm.

Later, this auteur created an entire movie based on those concepts. It would become the most successful movie that the world has ever known, earning roughly $2.8 billion dollars. That’s more than double what any Harry Potter movie has earned. It’s also $700 million beyond even the most popular Star Wars movie. In fact, the only film that has approached in in popularity is a different film from the same director. If you haven’t guessed by now, the teenager who dreamed big and then brought an entire fantasy into reality is James Cameron, and the movie is Avatar.

Disney's Pandora at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Photo Courtesy of Tom Bricker

On Memorial Day of 2017, Disney will finally introduce something that they first announced in 2011. Pandora – The World of Avatar will transport Walt Disney World visitors to the faraway land shown in Avatar, the one that almost single-handedly caused people to fall in love with 3D filmmaking. Here’s everything you need to know about Pandora, the greatest (and possibly most important) themed land expansion ever at Walt Disney World.

The Basics

Let’s call a spade a spade here. The Walt Disney Company had the opportunity to license J.K. Rowling’s creation, the collected works of Harry Potter. The parties couldn’t come to an agreement, a turn of events that fundamentally altered the fortunes of the neighboring Universal Orlando Resort.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Disney’s acquisition of theme park rights to Avatar was a direct response to this mistake. Once they saw how popular The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was, Disney execs felt the need to keep up with the joneses. Pandora is an attempt to remind the world that Disney invented themed lands, and they’ll always remain the best at it.

The first thing to keep in mind about this endeavor is that it’s taken a loooooooooong time. I wouldn’t rush to blame Disney for that, though. James Cameron famously delayed Titanic when he felt it wasn’t good enough to match his high expectations. Movie analysts called that film a debacle right up until it entered theaters and became the most popular movie ever up until that point.

Then, history repeated itself with Avatar. Cameron first tried to make the film during the early 1990s before deciding that the technology wasn’t good enough to match his vision. Circling this conversation back to Disney, Space Mountain took a decade to complete for similar reasons. In 2006, Cameron tried again, and the project still took a year longer than he’d expected.

Disney's Pandora

Photo Courtesy of Tom Bricker

James Cameron is quite possibly the world’s most demanding perfectionist. As he mentioned during a recent interview on ABC’s The View, Pandora is a literal case of his fantasies becoming a reality. He would expect the best possible representation at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and that likely made him problematic to deal with at times during construction.

For those of us who love all things Disney, however, Cameron’s exacting nature is to our benefit. Pandora’s going to amaze people. We know this because Disney CEO Bob Iger is already bragging about it in the press. He shows no signs of fear that it’ll disappoint. Similarly, a select few people have already enjoyed some of the attractions, restaurants, and other accoutrements from the World of Avatar. The praise is universal, which is almost an impossibility on the internet these days. Everyone involved with Pandora believes that it’ll set a new standard in theme park design. What does that mean to you? Well…

Pandora: The Basics

As a Disney Vacation Club member, you’re probably always looking for any excuse to visit Walt Disney World. A new show or event is more than enough for you to plan a vacation there. What’s different about Pandora is that it’s a legitimate reason to visit. This is a HUUUUUGE deal, arguably the biggest thing to happen at Walt Disney World in two decades.

Model of Disney's Pandora

Photo Courtesy of Tom Bricker

Think about the situation from this perspective. Disney last built a new Walt Disney World gate in 1998. At the time, the expectation for that park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, was that it’d have a quick expansion soon after its opening. The park famously lacked one of its promised themed lands, Beastly Kingdom. Michael Eisner delayed construction on this project, and it never wound up getting built. Since 1998, the closest Disney has come to building a new expansion at any of the four Orlando gates is New Fantasyland, a repurposing of current land at Magic Kingdom.

Putting the situation in the proper perspective, Pandora – The World of Avatar is the first truly new land at Walt Disney World in the 21st century. Now think about that from the Imagineering point of view. Consider all the technological innovations that have occurred since the last time Disney broke ground on a new project. Imagineers has infused the themed land with all of those advances in technology.

Small touches that Disney veterans have enjoyed in places like the line queues for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Peter Pan’s Flight are now intrinsic to all parts of Pandora. It’s quite simply the most innovative Disney creation to date. Now, Star Wars Land will in all probability take that title in a couple of years, but that’s theoretical. Pandora is tangible right now and only days away from being ready for your visit.

In addition to technology, Pandora brings something else, a trait that hearkens back to the original vision of Walt Disney himself. The inventor of the Happiest Place on Earth loved to keep the themed lands separate. He wanted each place to feel authentic. One of the most famous stories (or possibly urban legends) about Uncle Walt is that he once grew angry when he saw a cowboy walking through Tomorrowland. His belief was that such situations ruined the illusion.

Pandora is the high water mark in transporting guests to a whole new world. Disney cares so much about honoring Uncle Walt’s vision that they’ve broken a couple of conventions of theme park design. Pandora won’t feature huge signs or flashing lights alerting guests to their location and potential destinations. That’s not authentic to the world of Pandora. Instead, Disney uses small, thematic indicators to let visitors know where they are in the park. Imagineers correctly presume that anyone who gets lost can get directions from their cellphone. That liberates the design of Pandora to remain true to the movie on which it’s based, albeit with a key exception.

Something you should know about Pandora is that it’s not set during the time of the first movie. It’s not even positioned during the timeframe of the four sequels that James Cameron is currently writing. Instead, it’s set centuries later, at a time when mankind has ended its conflict with the Na’vi and become tourists of the alien world.

Visit Pandora Sign

Photo courtesy of Tom Bricker

The Resources Development Administration has long since given up in its quest to mine Unobtainium. Now, Alpha Centauri Expeditions operates a touring company in the former location of the scientific/military installation. You won’t take part in any space battles here.

Instead, you’re welcomed as a friend of the Na’vi people. Disney even sells a Na’vi translator that teaches guests 90 words. The device sells for $19.99 and even lights up at night. With the translator, you can speak the language as you board the rides at Pandora. Speaking of which…

Pandora: The Rides

Disney has trumpeted two new attractions at the World of Avatar. The one they’ve discussed the most is Avatar Flight of Passage. It recreates one of the most memorable scenes from the movie, the sequence when Jake Sully jumps on the back of dinosaur…bird…thingy and eventually makes it his flying space horse. These creatures are called Mountain banshees (ikran in Na’vi), and the ride system simulates the experience of forming a symbiotic relationship with one.

The big selling point is that it’s basically Soarin’ on an alien Pegasus. The rider will feel like they’re flying as they soar across, around, over, and through the flying mountains of Pandora. Notably, several Disney execs including CEO Bob Iger have stressed that this is not a virtual reality attraction. Instead, they use the term “augmented reality”, something you’re going to hear a lot from Disney in coming years. They’ve done a lot of work with a local Florida company, Magic Leap, and apparently have several other augmented experiences in the pipeline.

To a larger point, Disney has repeatedly referred to Avatar Flight of Passage as an E Ticket attraction that rivals anything that they’ve ever done. While there’s always a danger in creating unrealistic expectations with customers, their confidence is more than enough reason to believe that this is going to be a special ride.

Entrance to Pandora

Photo Courtesy of Tom Bricker

The less heralded attraction is the more interesting one to me. Na’vi River Journey looks like the alien version of It’s a Small World. The attraction is both a boat ride and a dark ride that takes place along the gorgeous waters of Pandora.

The bioluminescent artistry of Disney’s Imagineers is on full display as guests sail down the path. The belief is that it’s a longer ride by ordinary Disney standards, probably five to seven minutes. And it may offer views Avatar Flight of Passage at certain points. That’s just speculation right now, but the placement of the rides seems too close to qualify as coincidental.

Whatever tricks Na’Vi River Journey has up its sleeve, it’s an indoor water ride at the hottest theme park in Florida. That alone justifies its existence. It’ll function as a wonderful escape on summer days, something that Kali River Rapids has never done as well as Disney had intended. Na’vi River combines the artistry of the greatest work of Mary Blair with the utility of air conditioning in 100-degree weather. What’s not to love?

Pandora: The Food

If Epcot features the World Showcase, it’s fair to say that the World of Avatar offers the Otherworldly Showcase. Its restaurant will all feature official Na’vi cuisine and dishes inspired by the movie Avatar. Nobody knows what any of that means yet, but Disney has released some pictures that all look delicious. The plates are all bright and colorful, just as you’d expect of delicacies from Pandora.

The Satu’li Canteen is a quick service restaurant with a twist we’ll discuss in a moment. The conceit of cuisine in the World of Avatar is that it’s all representative of a merged planet. The Na’vi craft the dishes, but they’re tasty to humans. It’s also farm-fresh and healthy, with plenty of proteins and fresh veggies.

What’s important about Satu’li Canteen isn’t the food, though. Disney has announced that it’s the first fast-casual restaurant at Walt Disney World where guests can order their food online. A person pulls up the My Disney Experience app on their phone, chooses the food they want at Satu’li Canteen, and then submits the order. Then, they alert the servers when they arrive for the meal. The chefs will cook the meal, and a server will bring it straight to the table.

Disney calls the process Mobile Order, and it’s going to become the standard sooner rather than later. More than a dozen other Quick Service restaurants will adopt this food delivery system over the next few months. From the guest’s perspective, it’s a dream come true. Nobody has to wait in those madcap line queues simply to order food. Since they handle the order, customers also know that they’ll get exactly what they want. There’s no chance for a cashier to enter the wrong order into the system.

The other restaurant in the Pandora section is Pongu Pongu. It’s actually a bar hosted by an expat. It offers the finest beverages on the planet, many of which are illuminated. Disney hasn’t offered a lot of other details about this place other than this description: “featuring a design that is as eclectic as its Expat owner.” Also, Pongu Pongu apparently means Party Party.

Pandora: The Shopping

The new themed land even adds a wrinkle to Disney merchandising. The items for sale at the primary shop, Windtraders, won’t go on sale anywhere else at Walt Disney World. Anyone who wants Pandora products must travel to Pandora. Disney promises “exotic merchandise and souvenirs celebrating the flora, fauna and culture of Pandora.”

Kids can also have some unique fun in the World of Avatar. Colors of Mo’ara is a face painting service. It lets children add the facial characteristics of Na’vi and other inhabitants of Pandora. While face painting isn’t new at Walt Disney World, the distinct characteristics of James Cameron’s creations will cause some double takes as Face Paintees walk through the crowds at Animal Kingdom.

An Extra Benefit of DVC Membership

Finally, something you should keep in mind is that you have an advantage when you stay onsite as a DVC member. Anyone booked at a Disney hotel can explore the World of Avatar during Nightly Extra Magic Hours from May 27 through July 4th. Disney’s Animal Kingdom will host special hours from 11 PM to 1 AM on these nights. So, if you don’t mind staying at the parks after midnight, you can enjoy the festivities without having to fight the crowd as much.

What’s great about this strategy is that Pandora is by all accounts that much better after dark. Guests can better appreciate the bioluminescent plants, many of which are actually audio-animatronics programmed to seem real. With those extra two hours, you can ride both the attractions and have time to appreciate the genius of the Imagineering that makes Pandora – The World of Avatar such an amazing expansion


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