Disney's foundation may have been built on animation, but these days, Disney is powered by franchises. That's especially true in the theme parks, where major expansions have recently been announced based on some of Disney's newer, blockbuster franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel and... Avatar. And while you may have no feelings about James Cameron's 2009 mind-bogglingly successful film, I think you'll feel very differently if you enter the world of Pandora at Disney World.
In recent years, the joke with Avatar has become that it's the biggest movie ever that no one talks about. That's mostly true; eight years ago, the film grossed almost $US3 billion (around £2.3 billion) worldwide, a feat that has yet to be broken. And yet it hasn't really stuck to popular culture in any meaningful way. You don't see many Na'vi cosplayers; no one quotes the movie in conversation. It's just this weird, James Cameron-driven anomaly, which got even more bizarre when the filmmaker delayed his first of four planned sequels five times (and counting) from 2014 to, now, 2020.
Back when Avatar 2 was scheduled to open in 2017, Disney announced it'd be making a park in the Orlando Animal Kingdom based on the film. Later named Pandora: The World of Avatar, the 12-acre land opens to the public on May 27. We got a first look, and I'm here to tell that no matter what you, or history, think about Avatar, the park is a truly magnificent sight to behold. Here's just some of what I learned and saw during my trip to Pandora.
The main thing you notice when entering Pandora is that it feels like you're leaving one theme park to go to another. Pandora feels separate from everything else in Animal Kingdom and, while you're inside, the flora — even the land itself — differs to create the illusion. Every single employee working in Pandora is in character. They greet you in the native language; they swear you are on another planet, not in a theme park, and they refer to James Cameron's Avatar as a documentary and tell you detailed stories about the animal life, plant life, and mostly, how the wars that raged on Pandora finally gave way to peace and understanding.
Even though Pandora will be open as Cameron continues to pump out Avatar sequels, the park has very little to do with movies other than the setting. The film's main characters, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), are relegated to the gift shop because everything you are experiencing is set about a generation after the movies. The evil company from the films (the RDA) is long gone and most of the destruction they brought to Pandora can no longer be seen. There are remnants here and there but, for the most part, the planet's native race, the tall, blue Na'vi, have become harmonious with the humans who remain. A company called ACE (Alpha Centauri Expeditions) now provides travel from the Earth and when you get arrive, the Pandora Conservation Initiative allows you to do wondrous things.
These wondrous things mainly consist of the two rides Pandora has to offer. There's the Na'vi River Journey, which is a very beautiful ride through a nighttime Pandora forest. It's insanely gorgeous, and the only place you will see a "live" Na'vi in the park, but it definitely more of a calm, family experience that could strike some as kind of boring. The real attraction is the second ride which is called Avatar Flight of Passage. It's a massive, thrilling ride that puts you on the back of a banshee and allows you to fly all across Pandora. Really it's you, sitting on a bicycle-like-structure by yourself, in front of a massive, immersive screen with 3D glasses on, but the illusion is excellent. That ride is worth the price of admission alone.
From the second you decide to get on Flight of Passage, it tells a cohesive, crucial story that echoes throughout the park. The line starts outside, among the mountains. It then goes into a cave, covered in drawings detailing the history of Pandora. Next, you're in a bioluminescent walkway marking a change from nature to technology. That leads into a lab where wondrous little experiments are everywhere as you explore how Pandora's researchers live their day to day lives, as well as an Avatar used by the humans to interact with the Na'vi:
Even before you get on the ride, the narrative explains everything else going on in Pandora. How humans link with Avatars, what happened in the past, and who restarted the Avatar program, so many years after the events of the first movie
Like in the movies, before the ride can start, everyone has to be matched to an avatar in order to ride the banshee. A good chunk of time is spent creating that illusion and setting you up for the experience, which I won't spoil. Then, in the attached gift shop called Windtraders, for $74.99 (£58) you can have your face scanned and actually have an Avatar of yourself made. This may sound weird and random, but it actually links back to the ride and everything else in Pandora.
As the employee scans you (an employee who, again, is totally committed to the idea you're all on another planet) they explain that these scans help collect data that will improve link connections on the ride, making them stronger and faster. Obviously, this isn't true, but the fact Disney has linked a little experience to the bigger one just enriches the whole thing.
Walk out the door of Windtraders and you'll see an old AMP (above), the huge mech-suits used by the bad guys in the movie. However, this one looks different. It's rusted, old, with some local accessories dressing it. The actor walking around it will gladly explain that this is here to remind the humans on Pandora that they turned a former RDA base into a paradise.
That's the vibe you get everywhere in Pandora: Paradise. It's a peaceful, fully-immersive experience driven mostly by the drop-dead gorgeous design. Everywhere you look, alien plant life mixes in with traditional plant life. Each and every walkway provides something new and weird to look at, and employees will gladly answer any questions you have about them all (they live here on Pandora, after all).
At one point during my trip, I heard some very weird noises coming from the woods. Next to it, two employees suddenly got very, very excited about the noises, which was weird because there weren't any guests around them. They were just talking and geeking out by themselves. So I walked up to them to ask what was so exciting and they giddily told me those were Hammerhead mating calls, which are very rare, and that we should be careful we didn't get trampled. Again, I'm sure they aren't rare, they probably happen every 10-15 minutes or something, but that total commitment to transporting the guests into this experience was incredible, especially when there was no guarantee any guests would have noticed their excitement!
And there, sitting in the middle of it all, is the visual centrepiece to all of Pandora: The floating mountains. The engineering behind this feat is truly remarkable and almost totally invisible. You simply just can't take your eyes off them no matter where you go in the park.
Then, if that wasn't enough, the whole park changes at night. Every nook and cranny illuminates for a wholly different, and possibly even more beautiful visual experience. It's a black light extravaganza that stretches from the ground to the sky.
As I left Pandora, I couldn't help but think, "Disney doesn't own this property. They're sharing it with 20th Century Fox, who distributes the movies." If Disney is putting this incredible amount of detail and care into Pandora for Avatar, a franchise that history put a pin in and the company doesn't even own, can you imagine what they could have in store for Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars? I cannot. And more than anything, that's why Pandora at Disney's Animal Kingdom is so damn special — because of what it portends for the parks that are still yet to come.
Pandora: The World of Avatar opens Saturday, May 27, at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. Get more information here.