Theme Park Insider

Public previews begin for Disney World's Pandora - The World of Avatar

May 15, 2017, 10:37 AM · LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — This past Friday I was able to gain entrance into a preview day for Pandora - The World of Avatar. Because the area’s new attraction had not been opened to the general public yet, I was blessed with the opportunity to explore the expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom among a sparse crowd.

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.

Valley of Mo’ara

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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Replies (31)

May 15, 2017 at 11:32 AM · Very nice!

How are the seats in FOP? Are they plus size friendly or could there be a Forbidden Journey issue?

May 15, 2017 at 11:46 AM · Good review. I thought the river ride was going to be Shanghai Pirates equivalent, but ended up much less. I will be glad to experience the night version of the park.
May 15, 2017 at 12:14 PM · Shanghai Pirates is an E Ticket. As long as the river ride is good, it will complete the land.

Thanks for the review, TH. You're one of the lucky few so far. I will have to wait til October.

May 15, 2017 at 12:29 PM · Sounds very good, am looking forward to the boat ride for a classic bit and the FOP ride sounds terrific. Looks like Disney may be proving the doubters wrong with a new land.
May 15, 2017 at 2:33 PM · I confess I had to skip much of your spoiler filled review, TH, but what I read was magnificent. Pandora appears to be well worth the many years we have waited for it to be brought to life! To prove my sincerity of belief in that statement, I am currently in the final stages of booking the Rao Family's trip to DAK's incredibly immersive new land for later this year. I thought I could put it off for a year or two, but the glowing praises and bioluminescent reviews are too much to resist! Pandora here we come!!!!
May 15, 2017 at 3:04 PM · So the land is open to the public for soft openings now?
May 15, 2017 at 3:16 PM · I couldn't resist and looked at the land on YouTube in its preview. A couple that lives in Florida that reviews the rides, lands, attractions, and food of various places inside and outside the parks had special access and showed the land. I agree with them as well as TH in that the land looks beautiful and interactive. The person said that the rivers ride was short and you can tell what was screen and what was animatronic. The flight ride was basically Souring 2.0 and that it was a D ticket. He was kinda let down by the fact that he heard people were crying after they rode and he did not feel that way. His wife on the other hand really enjoyed the ride. Everything in the que looks outstanding though and they thought so too for both attractions. Disney did step things up to meet the immersive feel like Universal. I presume long lines at both attractions for awhile.

I'm planning a future trip to Universal/Disney in 2019/2020 for my family and will make AK a stop on our list. This will die down once Star Wars opens (Hoping that Star Wars looks as good or better than this!) Keep up the good reporting TH and those two and many others on YouTube down in Florida for giving us Yankees some good info.

May 15, 2017 at 5:44 PM · Just you wait TH! Oh scratch that....the waiting is over ^_^

Thanx for the detailed report!!

May 15, 2017 at 7:43 PM · I went to Pandora today and Flights of Passage is NOT friendly to people of size. My friend was not able to ride and was removed due to her size 5'5" 285 pounds. Needless to say, she was devistated. I road the ride and felt it compared more to the now defunct Body Wars than the oft compared Soaring. Flights of Passage is NOT Soaring. The experience does not bring the effects that your feet could actually touch the water or a mountain.I am not prone to motion sickness, however, this ride (while smoother than Star Wars and Body Wars) induced it. I really wanted to enjoy this new experience, and like so many, waited years for it to be developed. In the end, the disappointment was overwhelming.
May 15, 2017 at 7:55 PM · I always enjoy the content on this website, but this guy really cheapens the quality of your industry coverage and analysis. Is it really not possible to review Pandora without taking thinly veiled shots at Universal? Enjoying Disney and Universal parks doesn't have to be a zero sum game.
May 15, 2017 at 8:11 PM · FOP is a modernized Back to the Future/Simpsons ride in a very pretty, but small, ride facade (calling it a land is generous).
May 15, 2017 at 8:41 PM · Banshee pets are 50 dollars and it's remote control by hand
May 15, 2017 at 10:02 PM · Update: it's official! I'll be in Pandora later this summer. So psyched!
May 16, 2017 at 6:32 AM · 73.86.160.52 Said:

"I always enjoy the content on this website, but this guy really cheapens the quality of your industry coverage and analysis. Is it really not possible to review Pandora without taking thinly veiled shots at Universal?"

Yes, TH is the most articulate Universal Troll on the internet :-D

May 16, 2017 at 7:30 AM · This still does very little for me. Once again I couldn't care less about Avatar.
May 16, 2017 at 7:46 AM · I was there on Sunday. Without any spoilers, I will say that the land is top-notch. I have been very pessimistic about Disney development for the past 10 years (and rightfully so), but Pandora has silenced my doubts. The land itself is beautiful (pictures don't do it justice), NRJ is serene and gorgeous, and FOP is breath-taking.

What a time to be alive, friends. Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, Pandora. Soon to be Star Wars. Potentially Nintendo and Ministry of Magic. We are spoiled theme park fans thanks to Univeral's persistence.

May 16, 2017 at 7:48 AM · I feel disappointed by the lack of good news coming from the River Journey. It looks like a very expensive tunnel of love that offers few reasons to ride over and over again. However, that's coming from someone who is sitting and watching it and reading about it online, so I could be mistaken. Overall, the land looks beautiful and immersive. I look forward to experiencing it in person!
May 16, 2017 at 8:24 AM · i have heard from insiders that the rides are not accessible to those in wheelchairs- any information on that?
May 17, 2017 at 3:28 AM · As a key player in the theme park industry, I am hearing poor reviews for FLIGHT OF PASSAGE. It is basically a rip off of Soarin.

It is good for an hour's wait, but I wouldn't go to Animal Kingdom just for that ride. In fact, why does anyone go to Animal Kingdom anyway? Are there no other zoos in Florida?

For me, Disney is about Magic Kingdom. None of their other Kissimmee parks are...complete, if you know what I mean.

Thankfully we have Universal just down the road to keep us interested.

May 17, 2017 at 5:17 AM · Does TH Creative work for Disney? His review reads like a Disney press release. The word sycophant comes to mind.

Questions: How long until Shaman breaks? And how long before Disney stops trying to fix broken Shaman and puts up strobe lights?

May 17, 2017 at 12:07 PM · My brother-in-law is taking his wife / daughter in September. They somehow think getting into Avatar alone is going to be a breeze (remember 9 hour waits for entrance to Hogsmeade) and wait times will not be that bad.

From the descriptions of people who have already been in Avatar, both rides sound OK, but not especially groundbreaking in any way.

Lastly, if you expected TH not to take shots at Universal, you obviously do not know him.

May 17, 2017 at 12:41 PM · From experience, I would expect lines to be far more manageable in September. It won't be a "breeze", but they won't be like WWoHP opening level. Even September/October after both Hogmeade and Diagon Alley opened lines had significantly declined to reasonable levels, even though both e-ticket rides were still dealing with extended bouts of downtown in their first year of operation.

If you were going next week or anytime through the beginning of August, I would say bring your patience and prepare for lines just to get into Pandora, but September should bring a welcome relief to the new area, just as it did with both WWoHP lands.

May 17, 2017 at 2:54 PM · Absolutely stunning. I have 0 interest in the IP but total interest in visiting this themed land. Awesome job Disney!
May 18, 2017 at 4:28 AM · if your tall you will not fit on FOP
May 18, 2017 at 7:33 AM · I don't think that acknowleging Disney's strength in the Orlando market can be regarded as "thinly veiled shots at Universal". By virtually any economic standard (attendance, revenue, capital investment, volume of construction, labor force, etc.) Disney dominates the market. After spending three hours visiting its latest theme park/attraction expansion I offered my evaluation of how it would impact the WDW model. Specifically, that it would sustain Disney's current prominence in the market.
May 18, 2017 at 7:32 AM · You can't help it, TH. Your behavior is predictable and you lack the self control not mention something about Universal in every Disney post. We are going to UOR in August.. HRH Club Level, and I am going to be smirking when I opt for the more expensive valet parking option.
May 18, 2017 at 8:50 AM · I didn't? mention Universal in the article.

And thanks for coming back to Orlando. Hope you and your family have a great time at Universal. It's been really hot down here. Dress appropriately.

May 18, 2017 at 4:48 PM · Can you edit the post, and add a couple more photos? One picture is such a tease!
We love to hate you, TH. You know that. :)
May 19, 2017 at 9:14 AM · I rode on the FOP this week, and YES, it's amazing. Expect VERY long lines on this one. There is a 'Soarin'-esue' quality to the ride, but it's far more fun and exciting. Closest experience to flying I've ever encountered. My husband is not a fan of 'rides' but even he says he was impressed and it was great fun. I am a woman of size- 5'5" and about 250, and had no issues on the ride, nor, did anyone look at me twice. Disney seems to be investing in their parks again and I am enjoying all the new attractions.
May 19, 2017 at 2:01 PM · Hey park junkies ... just try and NOT watch it.

May 21, 2017 at 7:53 PM · Previewed land today. Both attractions completely functional, although quite underwhelming, to put it kindly. Crowds should drop significantly within a year at most as word of mouth edges the PR machine trying to make every one think these are attractions worthy of the Disney name. They aren't. FlOP is an okay simulator, but not great. Nothing wrong with slow boat rides, but this one has about as much story as the movie. For the time and money spent, imagineering should be ashamed of themselves.

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