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When to visit Disney World's Pandora and what you need to know

By Robert Niles
Published: May 28, 2017 at 5:34 PM
Planning a trip to see Walt Disney World's newest and most expensive land, Pandora - The World of Avatar? Here are some tips you'll want to know.

1. Get a Fastpass, or get there early.

Pandora opened to hours-long waits for its two rides, plus waits even to get into the land. But if you have a Fastpass+ ride reservation time, using Disney's website or smartphone app, you can bypass the line to get into the land and head straight for the Fastpass+ entrance at the ride you've reserved. That could cut your wait time from hours to minutes.

If you can't snag a Fastpass+ reservation (and here's more about Disney's Fastpass system, if it is new to you), then it's best to rely on the time-honored advice of arriving at the park before it opens so that you can be in position to get to the land before the crowd fills it. For Pandora, that means arriving at Disney's Animal Kingdom at least 90 minutes before its schedule opening time. And don't bother with the park on a day when it has "Extra Magic Hours" scheduled for Disney resort guests... unless you are staying at a Disney resort. Resort guests looking to take advantage of their extended hours in the park will just make it even more crowded.

2. Come back at night, too. (But don't skip the day.)

With its bioluminescent forest, Pandora take on a different feel at night, creating a unique experience.

That said, visiting at night isn't a better experience than seeing Pandora in sunlight. It's just different. The glowing plants don't illuminate the land so much that you can see all the detail you can during the day, so you miss something if you visit only after sundown. But I think you miss something if you see it only during the day, too.

3. Flight of Passage isn't for everyone.

Pandora's top attraction is Flight of Passage, a flying theater experience that simulates being linked to an avatar in order to ride on the back of a Mountain Banshee through the moon's Valley of Mo'ara. The ride provides the most enjoyable simulation of acrobatic flight that I've ever experienced in a theme park, even better than Bolliger & Mabillard's flying coasters.

But like a roller coaster, it's not for everyone. You will ride on individual seats that look a bit like motorcycles, where you must straddle a seat and lean forward, with restraints holding your legs and back in place, but not your shoulders or head. The seat's not on a track like a coaster, but it will roll and pitch to simulate flight.

Wheelchair users must transfer and be able to straddle the seat, sitting upright without support. And larger riders might not be able to fit into the seats. A test seat is provided at the attraction entrance so that you can see for yourself if it is accessible and comfortable before getting into the line.

Test seat

The land's other ride, the Na'vi River Journey, also is not wheelchair accessible, as it requires transferring from your chair into a boat.

4. Pandora's the place for eating veggies.

The land's restaurant is the quick-service, Satu'li Canteen. This is Disney World's first restaurant to offer mobile ordering, so use the official My Disney Experience app to navigate to the Satu'li Canteen page and place your order before arriving at the restaurant, to save you some time in line.

At the media preview for the land, Disney set up a buffet so invited reporters could sample everything on the menu:

Buffet plate
Sample plate of a Vegetable Steamed Curry Pod, plus Salmon, Sliced Grilled Beef, Wood-Grilled Chicken, and Chili-Spiced Crispy Fried Tofu, over brown rice and Crunchy Vegetable Slaw.

For me, the clear choices for flavor were the vegetarian options: the Chili-Spiced Crispy Fried Tofu ($11.49) and Vegetable Steamed Curry Pods ($10.99). It's just bowls and Bao (steamed buns) on the menu, so if you're looking for more traditional burgers, chicken strips, and such, you're better served elsewhere. But if you've been craving some flavorful vegetable-based meals on your Disney vacation, visiting the Satu'li Canteen should become a priority.

Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse
Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse, with Passion Fruit Curd, meringue, white chocolate, and raspberry sauce. ($5.29)

And the blueberry dessert's a winner, too, with its complementary passion fruit and raspberry flavors.

5. Get a guide

Disney's Imagineers have filled Pandora with details that will be lost on the vast majority of guests. So if you want the inside scoop on the land, find a guide. Disney is offering a virtual assistant to guide you through Pandora, via the My Disney Experience app, or you can ask ACE [Alpha Centauri Expedition] employees in the land (i.e. Disney cast members) to point out their favorite details. And take the time to read everything in the queue for Flight of Passage, especially in the lab section of the queue. (You will miss the lab if you have a Fastpass+, however.)

6. If you can wait to visit, go ahead.

While Pandora's a wonderful addition to the attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort — whether you remember James Cameron's 2009 hit Avatar or not — it's going to be here for a long time. If you don't need to be able to say that you were among the first to visit it, aiming for a trip later this summer or beyond likely will get you much shorter waits to visit the land and its attractions. Initial crowds will dissipate and Disney will get better at running Flight of Passage at its full capacity, allowing the ride to handle more visitors with less wait. We've seen the same thing happen with other wildly popular new attractions, including Universal's Harry Potter lands. Pandora should be no exception.

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Pandora, Guardians welcome huge crowds on their opening days

By Robert Niles
Published: May 27, 2017 at 10:53 AM
Pandora - The World of Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout opened this morning to four-hour-plus waits at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida and Disney California Adventure.

Disney's top new attractions for 2017 previewed for reporters earlier this week, but neither attraction offered extended soft openings to the general public. Pandora offered reservation-only previews to annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members for a couple of weeks and a very brief public soft open yesterday. But Guardians offered only a hard-ticket, after-hours preview last night.

At Walt Disney World, visitors faced waits up to two hours just to get into the new Avatar-themed land, plus multi-hour waits for its two rides. The queue for Mission Breakout in California winded through Hollywood Land on to Buena Vista Street, hitting a five-hour wait by 11am.

Meanwhile, back in Orlando, Universal's Volcano Bay headed into its first weekend of operation with multi-hour waits for almost all of its water slides. Volcano Bay hard-opened to the public Thursday after a media preview Wednesday and a couple of days of team member service testing.

Volcano Bay is using an innovative park-wide virtual queuing system for all of its attractions, which Universal marketed to potential visitors as eliminating lines in the park. But getting rid of physical lines isn't the same thing as eliminating waits, as visitors faced waits of up to six hours for the park's most popular rides.

Remember that wait times equal the number of people in line versus the rides' hourly capacity. I have been told that Guardians can put through about 2,000 people per hour, while I estimate that the Flight of Passage in Pandora might do up to 1,200 per hour. But if Flight of Passage loads as slowly as it did on its preview day, its capacity easily could drop below 1,000 an hour.

And Volcano Bay's water slides have hourly capacities in the low hundreds for single-rider slides and slightly higher for multi-person rafts.

Universal has installed a manually-updated wait time board so that guests can compare wait times around the park.

And I've been told that the Aqua Coaster is "off the grid" and allows visitors to claim a place in its virtual line while also waiting for another ride elsewhere in the park. (Update: Volcano Bay hit capacity and Universal closed access to the park by mid-day. Universal also is no longer selling one-day, walk-up tickets for the park and expects to close for capacity each day during the Memorial Day weekend.)

Were you at any of these attractions today? Please share your stories in the comments.

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Universal discovers the challenges of a park-wide virtual queue system

By Robert Niles
Published: May 26, 2017 at 11:19 AM
Universal Orlando's new virtual queuing system got its first large-scale, real-world test yesterday as Volcano Bay visitors pushed the park's new TapuTapu system to its limit on its first day of public operation.

TapuTapu is a wristband with a screen that Universal is using to manage virtual queues on each of the park's water slide attractions. Visitors tap their TapuTapu on stanchions outside the attraction they wish to ride, which claims the visitor's place in a virtual queue. The TapuTapu screen will alert the visitor when it's time to return and go on the ride. Each tap station has large display screens that show what the estimated wait time for the ride will be, so visitors who are paying attention can make an informed decision about which virtual queue to commit to as the decide what to ride.

That's all great in theory, put theme park operations is where theory goes to die.

Volcano Bay visitors yesterday found wait times up to six hours, with that top wait for the Krakatau Aqua Coaster. (Surely everyone read my endorsement?) And many visitors didn't understand that they could wait in only one virtual queue at a time, meaning that people who tapped into that six-hour wait were locked out of going on anything else that required TapuTapu before that time passed.

So here are the issues facing Universal as it implements a "no lines" virtual queuing system for Volcano Bay — issues that will face other parks considering such systems as well.

1. Universal doesn't have any real-world ride capacity data.

Hard opens are bad enough. A hard open with an untested virtual queuing system is the theme park equivalent of entering the Indy 500 just after getting your driver's license. Manufacturer data on their rides' theoretical capacity is nice, but from experience, let me tell you that theoretical capacities don't tell you squat about what's really going to happen in live ops. Without an accurate count of how many people a ride can handle in five-minute period, Universal doesn't have an accurate number of "taps" it can assign to each return window before moving visitors into the next. That lead to long actual queues of people waiting to get on after their return time — defeating the whole purpose of the virtual queue.

2. No one has a tested strategy for visiting the park

At Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida (or anyone major theme park), fans with experience or solid research know exactly where to go first in the park, and what to do when, in order to minimize their wait times. But with a hard open at Volcano Bay, no visitors had any real-world experience to lead them through the park. For fans conditioned to following a plan when visiting a theme park, the lack of guidance just lead to chaos.

3. Many people don't realize that they need to research which queue to commit to

The TapuTapu system tells you the estimated wait time you're committing to when you tap in. But too many people yesterday didn't realize the commitment that tapping makes. It's not that you tap into one thing then go ride another. You tap in, then hit the beach, bar, or river during your wait. That beats standing in a physical queue, but it isn't the carefree, just go ride on anything experience that many people envisioned when they heard that Volcano Bay would have "no lines."

4. The park really needs wait time boards and to include wait times on the app

Volcano Bay is not a small water park. If you take the time to walk around and look at the posted wait times on all the TapuTapu check in stations, all those virtual queues are going to blow up while you try to make up your mind. Universal needs to add real-time wait time data for Volcano Bay attractions to the park map on its official app, the way to does for its other two parks. And with many people not carrying cell phones around a water park, Universal should add real-time wait time boards next to each TapuTapu station, telling people the estimated waits at other comparable attractions so that people can decide whether to make the walk over elsewhere to tap in.

5. Universal needs to address cultural challenges with virtual queuing

The most interesting observation I heard from first-day visitors to Volcano Bay was that it was British quests who were freaking out most. Britons are the world champions of queuing, so a boarding-time allocation system that doesn't let them do that isn't going to sit well for many. Several visitors from Britain didn't understand that they actually were queuing when they used TapuTapu, but they just didn't have to stand in the actual line. To those visitors, that's kind of like saying that while you are eating fish and chips, you're just not putting anything fried into your mouth and chewing. What's the difference? queuing is such an ingrained part of the theme park experience for many visitors, so Universal is facing an immense education challenge in teaching people another way to wait to get on a ride.

That said, virtual queuing eliminates a ton of problems, including line jumping, guest discomfort, and the need to time meals and bathroom visits around queue waits. Not to mention the engineering, construction and maintenance expense of creating physical queues that are accessible to all. So I applaud Universal from taking a step in this direction.

But no worthy journey is completed in just one step. What Universal does in addressing the Day One issues with TapuTapu either will provide the rest of the industry with a map to a successful virtual queuing implementation, or cast a chill on others thinking about this important switch.

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Disney California Adventure opens its Guardians of the Galaxy ride

By Robert Niles
Published: May 25, 2017 at 9:16 PM
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The director and stars of Guardians of the Galaxy joined Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek to open officially the first Marvel-themed ride at a Disney theme park in the United States, Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout.

Director James Gunn welcomed Guardians actors Pom Klementieff, Michael Rooker, and Zoe Saldana (pulling double duty after appearing at the Pandora opening yesterday in Orlando) before an interruption by The Collector himself, Benicio Del Toro, who declared open The Tivan Collection on Earth.

That collection, of course, is the newly rethemed former Hollywood Tower Hotel in Disney California Adventure's Hollywood Land, which Chapek dropped yet another hint will continue to transform into a Marvel-themed land in the years to come.

Tonight's opening concludes two jam-packed days of theme park debuts, here in Anaheim and in Orlando. We were on both coasts for all events this week, so if you missed any of our reports, here they are for your reading enjoyment. (And if you didn't miss them the first time around, thanks for reading! Theme Park Insider readers are the best!)

I've been up for 40 of the last 43 hours. I'm going home to bed now!

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Ride Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout

By Robert Niles
Published: May 25, 2017 at 6:50 AM
ANAHEIM, Calif. — If I live a fortunate life, I never will see a superhero.

Don't get me wrong — I enjoy watching Spider-Man, Batman, or the Avengers just as much as many fans. But think about when those guys (and gals, thanks Wonder Woman!) show up someplace. It ain't when everything's all sunshine and happiness. When the superheroes arrive, you know it's a paws-up, oh-my-God, run-for-your-life, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?.

Like draining your checking account at a casino ATM, eating instant ramen noodles on a daily basis, or realizing that the social media app you use most often is Tinder, watching a superhero actually show up in front you would be a sign that your life ain't turning out the way you should have hoped. You've become one of those poor fools whose greatest moment in life was when they got a call to come on the Dr. Phil show. Something, somewhere, has gone horribly wrong.

So why do we love superheroes? Maybe it's the "call of the void," or maybe the daredevil's creed that we feel life only when we risk its loss. A superhero tale allows us to bundle all our fears and insecurities and then project them onto the screen or page — where a superhero can rescue us from them. It's our secular faith in a savior who will protect us from our sins, as well as those who sin against us.

Such as intergalactic jackass Tanleer Tivan.

According to Walt Disney Imagineering's Joe Rohde, the creative director on Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, Tivan, aka "The Collector," decided that he wanted to show off his latest acquisition — the Guardians of the Galaxy — by bringing them to a high-profile, well-visited location on Earth... which just happened to be Disney California Adventure.

In my head canon, Tivan decided to plop his museum on top of the Hollywood Tower Hotel because he's a giant turdbucket who enjoys making people mad. Let's call that one "Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Accomplished."

But the Hollywood Tower's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is gone now and no amount of online wailing will return it to the park. So how should we judge its replacement?

While Disney has decorated the tower with pipes and conduits that draw power from the alien world of Knowhere, the actual structure of the building, its queue and ride system has changed little from its Twilight Zone incarnation. That's the main reason why Disney was able to convert the attraction to its new theme in less than six months. With its now-garish detail and golden statue of Tivan himself at the entrance, the Tivan Collection — as the tower is now known — sticks out horribly in the formerly coherent Hollywood Land of the park.

As it was designed. The Guardians ride is a literal disruption of Disney California Adventure — the first step toward the establishment of a Marvel-themed land that will transform the eastern side of the theme park. The superheroes are here, kids. Stuff's about to get real. Not everything you love will survive. That's what happens in a superhero tale.

Let's follow Rohde as he sets up the backstory, then leads us through the queue and into the preshow room.

In the preshow, Mission Breakout flips the script on our superhero tale. This time, it's the superheroes who need saving and we are the ones who must come to their rescue. Sure, we don't have to do much — just put up our hands so that the escaped Rocket Raccoon can get security clearance in the tower to reenter and wreak havoc. (And if you don't do it, the ride will proceed as if you did — just like the "don't look into the eyes of Mara" bit on Indiana Jones Adventure. We're just going to assume that someone in the crowd did what the script demands.)

Once in the elevator, Mission Breakout does its best to make you forget all about the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. To start, unlike the old version, Mission Breakout provides an answer why this elevator has seats. (We are guest being taken by gantry to view the Guardians, who are being kept at the top of the tower.) And Mission Breakout wastes no time in getting to the action. We raise our hands, Rocket pulls the power that contains his friends in their cells, he plugs in Star Lord's Walkman instead, and we blast away. There's no slow build as we climb up the tower. The ride starts with a blast upward and barely pauses along the way.

Mission Breakout features six randomly selected ride profiles, each with a different rock song accompaniment and screen vignettes of the Guardians battling their way out of the tower. Disney brought Guardians stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Benicio Del Toro to reprise their roles for the ride, and they command every moment on screen here just as effectively as they did in theaters. Director James Gunn participated in every step of the attraction's production, Rohde said, creating a seamless integration for the ride into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Rohde joined Brian Crosby from Marvel Themed Entertainment and Vice President of Character Integration for Marvel Studios Dave Bushore after a media preview last week to talk about the development of the attraction.

With the six ride profiles, fans will want to circle around and reenter the queue to sample the rest — seeing what other props and Easter eggs from the MCU they can find in Tivan's collection along the way. Back to my head canon again: I'll just assume that the ride is caught in one of those time loops we discovered in the MCU's Doctor Strange, where the Guardians here are forever escaping, returning to their cells, then escaping again.

That way, the Guardians can remain perpetually on their mission... until the next time Disney decides to change this park.

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Universal Orlando officially opens Volcano Bay to the public

By Robert Niles
Published: May 25, 2017 at 6:16 AM
ORLANDO — The Universal Orlando Resort opened its new water theme park, Volcano Bay, to the public this morning with a South Seas-inspired ceremony.

Built next to the Cabana Bay Beach Resort on the southern end of Universal Orlando property, Volcano Bay is the home of the seafaring Waturi people, in Universal's backstory. That South Seas influence was felt in today's opening ceremony.

Volcano Bay effectively replaces Wet n Wild as Universal's water park, though the theming, rides and service - including all virtual queuing - take Volcano Bay to another level. Tickets are $67 a day, with lower prices available in multiday ticket packages with Universal's other parks. And with its first real load test today, we will find out how Volcano Bay's TapuTapu virtual wait system holds up under a full guest load.

We invite you to check out our review of the park and to rate and reviews the attractions at Universal's Volcano Bay.

Previously:

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Update: Our friend Sandra at the Orlando Sentinel reports some opening-day glitches, but a lot of satisfied fans, too, at the first day. Without soft-opening ridership data, it seems that Universal has some algorithm tweaking to do with TapuTapu to eliminate creating backlogs of fans waiting to ride because the return times weren't properly spread. And there's still construction to be finished on the periphery of the facility, even though pretty much all rides were open for at least part of the day.

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Walt Disney World soars to new heights with Pandora - The World of Avatar

By Robert Niles
Published: May 24, 2017 at 10:44 PM
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Pandora The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom achieves things no one in the theme park industry has ever accomplished before... at prices that Disney's never paid before to do it.

Announced several years ago, following the success of rival Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Pandora draws upon what was then the biggest box office draw in American movie history — James Cameron's science fiction epic, Avatar. Cameron's working on multiple sequels for the 2009 hit, raising hope that the movie will become the franchise that Disney would love to inspire a generation of fans to visit Disney's Animal Kingdom. We'll see.

So why Avatar? And why in Animal Kingdom? Essentially, Avatar uses fiction to try to send a message that Animal Kingdom has been trying to deliver since its opening: Protect our environment, because if you just try to use it for your own good, you'll lose it for everyone. And everything.

So thematically, Avatar works in Animal Kingdom, even if the practicality of getting us from Earth to a moon in the Alpha Centauri system is dismissed with a simple walk across a bridge next to Tiffins.

Once through that portal, Pandora greets visitors with a (reported) $1.4 billion display of the most ostentatious decor in the history of the theme park business. This is nature, amplified and filtered to capture the attention and interest of even the most jaded traveler.

Dive deeply into the land, and you will find all the ways that Creative Director Joe Rohde has devised to educate us on the challenges facing Earth's ecosystem. Skim this land superficially, and you will discover the most awesome spots for vacation selfies in Orlando. (Those fake plants look amazing, don't they?!? It's like visiting Tom Sawyer Island on acid.)

Like so much in life, you get back what you put into it.

And Disney's investment in this land paid off with Flight of Passage, a flying theater-style ride that accomplishes everything that fans of Soarin' long have pretended that experience did. No other theme park attraction so wonderfully recreates the feeling of flying than Flight of Passage does. I'd long adored Bolliger & Mabillard's flying coasters as the maintainers of this standard, but Flight of Passage exceeds those rides by supplying a delightful menu of visuals that heighten the thrill of cutting through the air.

Supposedly, we've been linked with an avatar that's actually doing the flying atop Pandora's Mountain Banshees. But the conceit of that linking is that the physical experience seems real to our consciousness. It's all earnestly explained in the queue, but — again — you can take or leave it as it is given. Either way, the experience of straddling your ride vehicle, feeling it breath between your legs like a horse, and gliding through the air in front of leaves you giddy. As the Pandoran sunset burst into a light stream that broke the connection and brought us "home," I felt something I hadn't in a long time upon the conclusion of a theme park ride — sad and disappointed that the experience was over. I wanted more. So I rode again.

The land's other ride is the Na'vi River Journey, a family boat ride that features what might be Disney's most expensive Audio Animatronic, the $10 million Shaman of Songs.

While I love to see Disney, or any other park, build a new family boat ride, I hate to see parks forget to include the very necessary story element in the process. Na'vi River Journey is an exercise in aesthetics — a voyage through Pandora's bioluminescent forest, following the path of the Na'vi. It's visually amazing, but there are no conflicts, no stakes, nor even a well-defined journey for us to follow. Nothing to bring the wonderful sights in the ride fully to life. If the rest of Pandora advances theme park design, Na'vi River Journey returns us to the world's most expensive Tunnel of Love ride.

Ironically, Pandora the land also falls short of accomplishing one of Avatar the movie's grand thematic goals — empowering those with physical disabilities to find a way to feel as physically able as those around them. In the film, Sam Worthington's Jake Sully did that through his connection with an avatar. In the land, however, those in wheelchairs are required to transfer from them in order to experience either of the rides. In Disney's idealism for a better world through understanding of nature, it missed its opportunity to create that better world for some of the fans who support it.

That's a shame, because what Disney has done with Pandora can be exhilarating. Everyone should get the opportunity to share in that. Disney has reached great heights with Pandora. But the problem with raising your game is that you raise your audience's expectations, as well.

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