I recently had the pleasure of visiting Walt Disney World on a family vacation. In totality, it's actually a very exciting time for sci-fi at Disney World. With the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge coming next summer alongside the recent opening of the Pandora: World of Avatar expansion to Animal Kingdom, sci-fi fans have a lot to look forward to on future trips to the "happiest place on earth."
While I just missed the opening of the Star Wars expansion (cue tears of sadness), I was able to experience Pandora: World of Avatar for myself on this last trip. Spoiler: it's incredible.
To preface, the Pandora expansion to the Animal Kingdom Park opened in May of last year and, as the name implies, is based on the home world of the Na'vi from the 2009 smash hit Avatar, which also happens to be the highest grossing film of all time. Even if you haven't seen the movie, this new area will stun you.
Let's start with walking in. My family and I arrived about an hour and a half before park opening to be able to get in Pandora. We managed to snag a good spot in line, but the people who arrived even not long after us did not fare so well. The crowds attempting to enter Pandora are staggering, and Disney even opens the area early to help alleviate the onslaught of people scrambling to get in. (Yes, this is almost two years after its opening.)
Immediately upon entering, you're transported to an exotic planet. Everything down to the landscaping is made to feel otherworldly. A giant, flowery "plant" mists you as you enter. The sound of waterfalls cascading through the rocks gives the feeling of a serene natural getaway rather than a theme park. But the main attraction here?
The frickin' floating mountains.
Immediately, I was blown away by these. No, there aren't any visible "pillars" or columns holding these monsters up. As if by Disney magic, they appear to be actually floating, in thin air, just like in the film. Now, obviously, there's some kind of engineering that goes into those wooden supports, but the illusion is extremely convincing and adds another layer of realism to this stunning addition.
Unfortunately, in the flood of people, there's little time to admire it before I was in line for the most popular ride in Pandora: Flight of Passage. By midmorning, wait times will easily reach 180 minutes on this attraction, so my family had to stake our claim in line. Upon my arrival, the line snakes far away from the ride's entrance.
However, as I slowly progressed, I was eventually welcomed by a sign plastered with "Alpha Centauri Expeditions." This is a subtle introduction to the premise of the ride, which is that you are offered the opportunity to connect with your own Avatar and ride on a Banshee (Ikran in Na'vi) through the fictitious Alpha Centauri Expeditions (aka ACE) and the Pandora Conservation Initiative.
Winding up the long path into the ride, I was again astonished with the beauty Disney had managed to achieve through a seamless mixture of artificial and real exotic flora. The overall effect is alien while remaining altogether strangely familiar. In any case, the views and landscaping are breathtaking. Cascading waterfalls abound here. You can also catch another glimpse of those floating rocks in the left picture, to give you more of an idea how mind-boggling they are.
Further along, I wandered into a spacious cavern, complete with Na'vi cave paintings. This is another brilliant representation of the primitivity of the Na'vi meeting an industrialized humanity, which becomes especially distinct in the next section of the queue area:
This is actually supposed to be something like a research center for the Pandora Conservation Initiative/ACE. In fact, shortly after crossing over from the cave, I passed by a lab in which a full Avatar body can be seen amongst other sciencey gizmos. It's rather plain, but then again, it's really supposed to be pretty bare bones. The realism obviously outshines the decor.
Soon, I and several others were escorted into a room where we were given some backstory and were "decontaminated" of our dangerous parasites (i.e., we had gusts of air blown on us). We were then genetically matched to our Avatars. This is probably one of the more entertaining preshows I've seen at Disney, and uses a variety of sensors to enhance the experience (pressure-sensitive numbers that light up when you stand on them, computer vision, etc.). Overall, it truly brings the sci-fi feel of Avatar to life.
After receiving some additional safety information, I boarded my Banshee and donned my flight visors/3D glasses. You mount it like a motorcycle, straddling the seat and scooting all the way forward so that the back and leg restraints can close in tightly behind you. Not for the fainthearted claustrophobics to be sure, but I didn't find it uncomfortable.
What follows is stunning. A panoramic screen unfolds before me, and my Banshee dips, tilts, and stops with the video encompassing my vision. Again, the realism is, well, unreal. Wind whistles past my face, and water spritzes me from every angle as I soar through waterfalls or narrowly miss a giant ocean wave. Between my knees, I can feel my Banshee breathing as two flaps on the seat pulse in and out at intervals.
When the ride comes to an end and I am sucked back into the real world, I'm left awestruck. It is truly unlike any ride I've ever experienced. The attention to detail in the technology used for this ride is I daresay unprecedented.
And that isn't all there is in Pandora: Na'vi River Journey, of which I unfortunately don't have any pictures, took me on a dark. slow journey down a Pandoran river teeming with life. In fact, the whole area is beautiful to look at in the dark.
In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to visit Pandora in Animal Kingdom, do it. The avid sci-fi fan will find plenty to enjoy, as will the casual parkgoer. And if you go, take my advice and get a Fastpass for Flight of Passage.
You won't want to miss it.
I like talking about sci-fi, Star Wars, tech, outer space, and other science-y stuff every Monday. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my other "Real Life Sci-fi" blog posts here.
I'm a sci-fi/fantasy lover & writer who especially likes talking about Star Wars and futuristic tech. I like finding new things & finding the beauty in old things, especially in my "Everyday Snippets" series. I hope you'll join me on my blog and unleash your imagination!