After making over three billion at the box office, James Cameron’s Oscar-winning Avatar created a global fan base. One fan had slightly more pull than most.
When Bob Iger calls, you answer. Iger is chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and when he called Cameron to ask if he’d be interested in bringing Pandora to life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, FL, Cameron did just that. After several more conversations, including one with Walt Disney Imagineering, the director decided to partner with Disney to make Pandora – a world he first imagined when he was 19 years old – a reality.
After six years of development, Pandora: The World of Avatar has officially opened as a new 12-acre section inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom, part of the Walt Disney World Resort. The Valley of Mo’ara is home to two new rides, a quick-service restaurant called the Satu’li Canteen, and a bar called the Pongu Pongu Lounge (set behind an old RDA amp suit) adjacent to the Windtraders gift shop. But the majority of the new area is dedicated to walkways, bridges, and paths through lush alien foliage blended with living Earth plants, cascading waterfalls, and mountains that seem to float in the air.
It even managed to blow away Cameron, who visited the park for the official grand opening with several cast members from the first film, including Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Stephen Lang. Cameron was still walking around the park long after the early 8AM opening ceremony, showing his wife every nook and cranny of the world’s colorful foliage, and beautiful waterways.
An imaginary world made real
“This is a surreal day for me,” Cameron said on stage during the opening. “I think back to when I was 19 years old, and I had a dream of a bioluminescent forest, and I sketched it and painted it. I remembered it years later when I was writing the script for Avatar. And now years later that dream has literally become a reality.”
Flight of Passage, the most advanced ride Walt Disney Imagineering has ever created, serves as the park’s centerpiece. It’s a flight simulator that links you with an Avatar riding atop a powerful Banshee (just like Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully did in the movie). Using 3D glasses, motion simulation technology baked into a motorcycle-style seat, 4D effects like water, wind, and aromas, and a massive screen that fully envelopes your field of view, you’re tricked into believing you’re soaring through the skies of Pandora and surfing through waves while avoiding monsters, before taking a brief break inside a bioluminescent cave. All the while, you can feel the heartbeat of your Banshee through your legs.
“I never got to see the movie the first time because I’d seen every part of the movie 10,000 times,” Cameron said. “When I walk through here and I go on the Flight of Passage ride, it’s like seeing it all for the first time.”
Now, anyone can visit Pandora in all of its majesty.
Flight of the Passage has a queue line that stretches for five hours, which is the expected wait time during the early months of the park’s opening. Most the line will be used to help tell the story of Avatar, so even those few who haven’t watched the movie will understand what’s going on. Even fans might need to catchup, as the park’s timeline is set two decades after the events of the movie.
“The Na’Vi and humans in the first film are in conflict, but we are a full generation past any film that James Cameron will make in the Avatar franchise,” Stefan Hellwig, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, told Digital Trends. “What that does is allows our storytelling to have the Na’Vi invite humans to Pandora. We are now working together to restore the planet to its former glory after all of the destruction that the RDA brought. So that opens up a whole new series of places that we can visit, flying over the floating mountains in Flight of Passage and going into the bioluminescent forest in Na’Vi River Journey.”
Shifting time forward also means the introduction of new organizations and characters, like the Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) travel company, which transports humans to Pandora, 4.4 light years from Earth. There’s also ex-patriots, humans who have left Earth forever, and have found new lives on Pandora. And there’s the Pandora Conservation Initiative, which is working with the Na’Vi to restore the planet. This being Disney World, there are cast members in character from all factions.
The theme of visiting a distant planet comes to life in many ways. There’s a deep pre-show element in the queue for Flight of Passage that has you walk through Na’Vi caves with paintings on the rocks, into a former RDA laboratory that comes complete with a full-sized Na’Vi inside a water tube (just like the scene in the movie). Scientists walk you through the process of linking to an Avatar inside an anteroom, which scans your body to rid any bugs clinging to you before actually link to your Avatar.
“If you’ve never seen the movie Avatar, we need to tell our guests that story,” Hellwig said. “What is a Banshee? What is an Avatar? How can humans link to Avatars? How can Avatars fly on the back of Banshees?We do that in a very purposeful way through that queue so by the time you finally sit in your link chair and link to your avatar you understand you are experiencing this story first-person.”
Plan to stay all day, and all night
Hellwig said this world is the result of a true collaboration between WDI and Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment. “We’ve brought this world to fruition together,” he said. “This project is not about Avatar the movie, this is about the world of Pandora. All of the elements that make up Pandora, the flora, the fauna, the experiences that the Na’Vi have, the spirituality of the indigenous people the Na’Vi, riding on the back of a banshee, going into the bioluminescent forest.”
The second ride inside this land is the Na’Vi River Journey, a four-and-a-half-minute boat ride through a bioluminescent river. It’s here that many of the creatures from the film come alive through the magic of 3D animation and projection screens. The highlight of the ride is a fully functional, life-sized, and lifelike Na’Vi Shaman, who sings and chants as your boat slowly floats by.
The highlight of the ride is a life-sized and lifelike Na’Vi Shaman, who sings and chants.
“The animatronic figure that we have in Na’Vi River Journey is the state-of-the-art animatronic figure,” Hellwig explained. “Walt Disney himself has a huge history and legacy around animated figures. This is by far our most sophisticated animatronic figure.”
Pandora, itself, offers two very different experiences. During the day the world is beautiful to take in, and likely very hot given the Florida sun. But once the night comes, the Pandoran fauna glows in the dark. Everything from the pavement to the trees and plants come alive in neon colors. It’s a refreshing change, along with the cooler night air, that ushers in nighttime shows involving drums, singing, and chanting.
“Anyone can now visit Pandora in all of its majesty, and they can learn about the Na’Vi culture and their values,” Cameron said. “They have a spiritual connection with their world, and that makes this park the perfect place to connect this world with our own.”
For those who still want to see the on-screen action, Cameron has promised Fox four sequels coming in December 2020, 2021, 2024, and 2025.
- Disney+ and Max will stream Avatar: The Way of Water in June
- Avatar: The Way of Water’s ending explained
- James Cameron on pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in Avatar and Super/Natural