Standing across form the entrance to Flight of Passage (FOP), I nursed a Mo’ara High Country Ale in the shadows of the magnificent floating mountains. I was waiting on a comrade who would walk me on to the decidedly e-ticket attraction FOP.
As I surveyed the faces of guests wandering through Mo’ara Valley – taking in the canyon walls, waterfalls and flora – I spotted a guy who looked very familiar. “Damn!” I thought to myself. “That’s Jon Landau.” Mr. Landau, the producer of Avatar, Titanic and compatriot of director James Cameron, had been a frequent visitor to the Pandora site during its construction. To see him strolling through the park was just an added thrill to what would be a remarkable three hours at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
When I arrived at Mo’ara Valley I had a couple of hours to kill before I would be meeting my friend. Plenty of time to explore.
I concur with so many reviewers who have said that photos and videos do not do justice to the floating mountains. They are enormous – towering above the rivers and alien flora that surround visitors. The forced perspectives are spot on. The water tumbling into pools add to the magic. Considering the size of the mountains (the tonnage), I always say a quiet prayer – hoping the engineers that designed them remembered to carry the one while doing their math. :o)
Although I would have to wait to experience FOP, I was allowed to wander through the attraction’s queue. When Pandora finally opens to guests, the new gate-crasher attraction will likely have wait times in excess of two hours. The beautiful design of the queue will help make the time pass.
Guests traversing the queue hike up into the high country – along the valley’s canyon wall, past waterfalls and strange rock formations. The path takes visitors into caves – their walls covered in Na’vi petroglyphs and paintings.
Eventually the route reaches an airlock chamber that transitions into an abandoned Resource Development Administration (RDA) facility – parts of which have been converted into an Alpha Centauri Expedition (ACE) research center. As guests approach one of the labs they see massive root systems and other evidence of the planet reclaiming the RDA facility. Entering the lab guests encounter equipment, small indigenous creatures, active experiments and work stations – drawing us into the idea that we are participants in a scientific exercise integrating visitors with the native culture.
In that same lab guests encounter a Na’vi avatar – suspended in a clear cylinder, recreating a scene from Mr. Cameron’s film. It could have been set up as an easy effect – a static prop suspended in liquid. But the figure moves in a deliberate manner. Watching it will certainly make the wait time more interesting.
I ventured as far into the queue as cast member hosts would allow. I backtracked out and into the land. The landscaping, waterfalls and other atmosphere are extraordinary. The level of immersion is worth the price of admission. At this point, the preview reports (print and video) on line seem to be limited to day time excursions. When night falls and the bioluminescent effects kick in, Disney will boast an attraction that will be the equivalent of the Osbourne Family Lights from Disney Hollywood Studios – the difference being that Pandora will be available every night of the year rather than seasonally.
Having plenty of time to play I walked over to the Na’vi River Journey (NRJ). I had been so excited about the possibility of experiencing FOP I had actually forgotten about the second attraction.
I was able to walk on to the ride – a situation few people will enjoy in the months to come. But what was extremely cool was that when I arrived at load, there were no other guests at the attraction. Not once, but TWICE I was able to experience NRJ alone – no one else in the boat or on any of the boats around me.
The attraction is exactly what a themed entertainment fan assumes it would be. Quiet and colorful. Subtle and elegant. I was initially disappointed that the first animatronic figure was so motionless and static. While I applaud WDI’s commitment to physical effects, some of them seemed a bit cheesy. I get the purpose of the attraction in the larger scheme of a theme park experience. A few minutes to settle and re-energize. Air conditioning and darkness. Okay. NRJ is a nice break from the hectic pace of a Central Florida theme park.
That’s not to say that the beginning of the ride is disappointing. I like the moment where the leucomelas viperwolf appears with its pups – the ground illuminating underfoot. It’s a sleek effect. But still NRJ begins (emphasis on the word “begins”) as a C-minus experience.
But then the ride starts to build. As the boat comes around a turn we see waterfall behind a fallen tree limb. Strange creatures scurry across the arched branch. Beyond it, and atop the waterfall, a group of Na’vi are walking together or riding on direhorses. Moving in a common direction.
And then the Shaman comes into view … and she is MAGNIFICENT!
I have been told that the Abraham Lincoln figure at the Magic Kingdom Park’s ‘Hall of Presidents’ has 16 servo motors in its entire body. Publicity literature regarding the Shaman reports that this figure has 55 in its face alone. The Shaman moves with grace. When you get a chance to see her watch the fingers. They float in an almost angelic motion. Make note of her ambivalence to the presence of the guests in the boats – she knows we are there, but we’re not in any way a priority. Occasionally she locks eyes with you – and I can assure you, the effect is infinitely more powerful than the moment you exchange looks and nods with Jon Landau. Trust me – been there, done both.
With a few minutes left before meeting my friend, I dropped into Windtraders to check out the merchandise available for purchase. The shirts, jewelry and other accouterment are nice enough. The “make your own Na’vi action figure” is pricy, but still sort of cool. But the item that is going to (literally and figuratively) fly off the shelves are the personal banshees. About the size of a small parrot, these pick-your-color pals sit upon your shoulder and operate with a small remote control. Knowing in advance how popular they will be, there is a queue line set-up just to reach the display. You know you are experiencing an exceptional level of success when one of the retail outlets at your theme park finds a need to post wait times related to the making of a purchase.
Departing Windtraders I dropped in to take a few photos of the interior of the Satu’li Canteen. Again, because it was a preview day there were not many people inside. I didn’t spend much time at the restaurant as my chance to experience FOP was at hand. Satu’li Canteen is beautifully decorated with Na’vi touches and artwork.
I met up with my ticket into FOP. He ushered me through the single rider queue. I was grateful that I took the time to walk the entirety of the regular queue, as the single rider option detours away from the elaborate cave and lab experiences.
After being assigned a number and provided with 3D glasses I entered the first of two pre-show chambers. On a monitor, a scruffy young researcher welcomes our party to the experience. Without giving too much away we are scanned for parasites (we all got ‘em) and then are matched with an avatar that will allow us to link to our banshee. In the second chamber ride protocols are explained. There are a lot of instructions. One of the things I thought was clever was the intensity of the musical soundtrack. It’s a sort of quiet, low note drone that instilled a sense of urgency to the situation. I was already anxious about what was about to happen – like the way you feel that moment when the coaster pulls away from the load platform (“I’m screwed.”)
Sitting upon the ride vehicles are like striding a motorcycle. There are leg and back restraints. I got tucked in and put my glasses in place … It’s time.
In front of me are what appear to be an iron shield/door. The light fades to a dark star field as I transition and connect to the banshee.
And then … I felt the damn thing breathing beneath my legs.
I find myself atop a cliff or fixed to a mountain wall (I forget), surveying the world of the Na’vi and what seems like the entirety of Pandora. And with little or no warning … I’m off.
Gliding and turning – rapidly descending and rising. Around me are forests, canyons, waterfalls and riverbeds. Wind in my face, gleefully catching my breath whenever I can. I feel the water as I rocket across a Pandoran beach – thousands of Na’vi below that are waving and whooping as my banshee races past.
I looked to my right and my left and yes, I could see other riders – reminding me that this was a theme park attraction. But I remember thinking, “why would I waste my time trying to find problems?” This extraordinary vision was spread in front of me. A five-story image that was immersing me in another world.
The quality of the presentation is extraordinary. The experience is exhilarating and glorious. The panorama seen from atop the banshee is a demonstration of grandeur.
I disembark and walk down the exit. The expressions on the faces of the other riders are unanimously gleeful. This is just one hell of a theme park production.
Looking back, what’s interesting is that FOP’s great success – as well as the success of Pandora – will be as one adventure that operates in support of what is (unquestionably) the single greatest theater in themed entertainment history – Walt Disney World. To be clear, with the exception of the Shaman figure, I don’t regard Pandora or FOP to be a technical or theatrical “game-changer.” That cliché has no direct relevance in this assessment. Rather, I evaluate it in the context of how it supports the entirety of a visit to Walt Disney World. From where I sit, Pandora maintains the quality commonly associated with a visit to a Disney theme park. That commitment – demonstrated eighteen ways to Sunday at Pandora – to elevate the guest experience certainly assures the resort’s continued dominance in the Orlando market.
So while some might claim that the technology on display in Pandora: The World of Avatar is not a “game changer,” I would respond (because that’s what I do) by asking, “Why would Disney want to change a game that they are already dominating?”
Regardless, Flight of Passage, bioluminescence and an awe inspiring, breathtaking level of area development makes it all too evident that Disney has met the expectations of its fan base as well as its own historic standards – standards that other themed entertainment productions inherently aspire to match.
Pandora - The World of Avatar is now in reservation-only previews for Walt Disney World annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members. The land opens to the public on May 27.
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