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

May 24, 2017, 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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Replies (23)

May 24, 2017 at 11:07 PM · Good to hear overall. From what I gather, the flight ride is the big one, the boat a bit less than promised. But it does sound great overall and worth the price.

That's a key thing, how much it pays off. I do remember how blogs went wild on Sea World's great detail for the Antartica section...and then it did pretty much nothing for business. Disney and Avatar should work better and hard to bet against them.

May 24, 2017 at 11:15 PM · Pass...
May 25, 2017 at 12:12 AM · Thanks Robert for the video walking tour, your footage made it more realistic and tangible ,than some others whereby Disney's attention to detail comes across as a movie set (because Disney has done such a great job) I'm astounded how they have created such an amazing place. This should keep the Avatar haters quiet as this new "Planet" can be appreciated by everyone.
May 25, 2017 at 12:58 AM · Robert, thanks for the great report and the well made walk through video.

Although Disney spend great money on this addition and a lot of work and attention to detail went into building it, I cannot say it creates the need for me to come visit.

I think the area looks neat, but during daytime never evokes the feeling of being on another planet. To me it somehow looks like the expensive environment of a well made zoo, not an alien planet. The floating mountains appear bulky and heavy. Since this is an outdoor area, a lot of the vegetation used is known to us, the various alien additions look forced and don't blend all that well with the real plants in my opinion. Surely at night it will look different, but most of the visiting time will be during daylight.

For the two rides, I watched some onride videos of this expensive Tunnel of Love Ride and the next screen based Soarin' like attraction and was left with the feeling: that's it? I am sure the experience of Flight of Passage will be amazing, but it doesn't convince me that this is something new and never before seen or experienced.

I always questioned the decision to use a foreign planet as a metaphor to point at the environmental issues here on earth. Does that come across at all when you are in this new area? The idea feels forced and fakey. It works well on screen because everything there seems real and can be made to fit the storyline. In the real world I think I'd rather visit the other areas of Animal Kingdom and experience real animals and learn about their habitats and endangerment than trying to imagine how bad the people behaved on Pandora towards nature and the Nav'i.

So I am glad you had a great time and I am sure this new area will draw a lot of visitors. However, I won't be one of them in the near future so I am happy to leave my place in the queue to someone more enthusiastic of Pandora ;)

Keep up the good work and maybe you want to take a look at the change Disneyland Paris made in their press releases about what the planned investment will be spend on. Now it looks like till 2024 there will be no new additions in the park …

May 25, 2017 at 11:59 AM · Writing as someone who has visited PTWOA on multiple occasions the RN blogflume is spot-on. Well done, sir!
May 25, 2017 at 2:52 AM · Great review Robert as always.
May 25, 2017 at 4:13 AM · Looks and sounds fantastic. I am glad I booked a trip to visit Pandora later this year, and I cannot wait to get there!
May 25, 2017 at 5:03 AM · This is a nice review. But who is the source behind Disney's "reported" spending of $1.4 billion on building Avatarland? You should be highly skeptical. Avatarland is a collection of plastic plants and a boat and simulator ride that are not technologically groundbreaking in any way. Unless it was part of a mob racket, it shouldn't have cost Disney nearly that much to build.
May 25, 2017 at 5:22 AM · Thanks for the great walkaround video and review Robert. I'm curious though as to why you think $1.4 billion. I've read several online articles and regularly participate in 2 Disney discussion forums (fora? :-)), and even those who seem to be 'insiders' keep stating $500 million or a bit north of that figure.
May 25, 2017 at 7:18 AM · You walked right past James Cameron and didn't even say anything.
May 25, 2017 at 7:19 AM · I can't reveal my sources on the cost of the land, but they were involved in the development of the land and would have that information, first-hand.
May 25, 2017 at 7:40 AM · $1.4 Billion is eye popping. I thought it was $400 to 500 million. Sort of makes me wonder why didn't more money go to the river ride and add a few Banshee spinners and a kiddie playground area. A table service restaurant with prime views of the floating mountains will put it over the top.
May 25, 2017 at 9:52 AM · Perhaps Robert could detail whether the $1.4 billion that he was quoted included the cost of licensing Avatar from James Cameron/20th Century Fox. That license by itself would probably constitute a HUGE cost, and I would assume that it's included in the $1.4 billion figure. If it's not, then I could see criticizing the cost of this single theme park land.
May 25, 2017 at 9:31 AM · Even with licensing, $1.4 billion as the cost for Avatarland seems highly unlikely. A far more technologically advanced ride going into Six Flags Magic Mountain this summer, Justice League Battle for Metropolis, also uses licensed intellectual property. Although there are similar (but not the same) Justice League rides at other Six Flags parks across the U.S., the costs of this excellent dark ride is in the tens of millions per unit, rather than the hundred or so million Disney and Universal are willing to shell out for their most advanced attractions. Neither of Avatarland's new rides employ the same technological sophistication as Justice League. And the more tech that's packed in, the more it costs to build. So, I'm sorry, but whomever your source was for that information, it sounds an awful lot like fake news.
May 25, 2017 at 12:57 PM · I'd be interested to hear about guests reactions who have no clue what Pandora is. I've never thought the floating mountains looked like they were floating. I was hoping they could've used a few hot air balloons to give the illusion of floating instead of the fixed stationary rocks that are supported by curved water pipes that are supposed to resemble vines! Also, I heard that larger sized guests won't be able to ride the "Flight of Passage" attraction. Hopefully, Disney will address this issue soon!
May 25, 2017 at 3:04 PM · $500m, $700m, $1.4b, who cares? If you want to build the most beautiful and immersive new land in the world, you gotta spend the big bucks to do it. Besides, it's a drop in the bucket for Disney. One quarter's profits. When you can urinate in an ocean of money who cares about fiscal responsibility? Personally, I am glad to see Disney splurging in this fashion. It bodes well for the future.
May 25, 2017 at 4:28 PM · Robert your cinematic skills are exceptional. This new land looks even more stunning after your careful and thorough reporting.
May 25, 2017 at 8:56 PM · I have no doubt that in just two years, Star Wars Land will succeed Pandora as Disney's most expensive land ever built ;)
May 26, 2017 at 5:02 AM · The flight of passage looks awesome .. the outdoor theming in my opinion doesn't entice me however, I prefer real to fake plants whose color and look will fade in a few years with the Florida rain and sun .. Star Wars will money well spent, this will probably not be a long term winner
May 26, 2017 at 5:54 AM · "Even with licensing, $1.4 billion as the cost for Avatarland seems highly unlikely. A far more technologically advanced ride going into Six Flags Magic Mountain this summer, Justice League Battle for Metropolis, also uses licensed intellectual property."

Not really anonymous poster. Justice League is piggy-backing on a license that is already bought and paid for (though there was probably an additional fee for each new application of the license across the chain). Disney had no relationship with 20th Century Fox/James Cameron, so licensing costs are likely pretty significant to secure Avatar and to also provide Disney the creative and financial freedom to profit from the licensing deal.

Also, as far as more "technologically advanced", I'm not sure about that. Oceaneering dark ride vehicles are pretty much industry standard these days and have been around since 1999 when Spiderman debuted at IOA. The combination of the dark ride with shooting gallery has been around for over a decade now developed by Sally, so there's very little technology on Justice League that's truly new. Not only that, there are already 3 other versions of the ride open around the country (including a 4th in Mexico), though I will note that supposedly the SFMM version is to be slightly longer. The projection technology on Flight of Passage is nothing out of the ordinary, but from what's been revealed about the ride vehicles, they employ technology never before incorporated on a theme park attraction. Add to that the advanced animatronics (Avatar in the queue of FoP and Shaman on River Journey), and there's no way you can argue that Justice League is more advanced technologically than the PtWOA attractions.

May 26, 2017 at 9:29 AM · "Jiggly-seat" simulator rides like Avatarland's Flight of Passage have far less technology powering them than advanced dark rides like Justice League. Justice League is akin to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in that it combines ride vehicles that not only pitch and roll but move through movie-like sets in physical space along a track. The vehicle movement is married to images projected onto large screens, along with animatronics, moving props and physical effects including smoke, fire and even holograms projected onto fog screens to deliver a fast-paced story to guests. Everything has to happen at just the right moment to pull off a seemless guest experience. Thus, these types of dark rides will always be more technologically sophisticated than flight simulator rides.

According to a Six Flags press release, the Justice League ride going into Magic Mountain will be different than the other similarly-named rides in their other parks. Although not longer in duration, a third of its scenes will be different than other versions of the ride and there will be at least one additional animatronic character involved in the adventure.

May 26, 2017 at 11:53 AM · @173.169.245.219 I'm not convinced. The Justice League attraction I rode at Sux Flags St Louis was just one (small) step above a traditional Sally dark ride shooter, and worlds away from what I have seen of Flight of Passage. Don't get me wrong, it was a solid ride for Six Flags, but nothing that felt or looked like a technological breakthrough.
May 26, 2017 at 12:24 PM · I would trust Robert's sources when it comes to the cost of Pandora. Who would know better than people who actually worked on the project? Building themed rides and lands is far more expensive than coasters, for example. Remember that the DCA expansion cost $1.1 billion, and most of that was for Cars Land. They started that project about eight years ago, and costs have only gone up since then.

I find it very encouraging that Disney is now willing to spend whatever it takes to create something great. I applaud them for heavily reinvesting in their parks, and it will be worth every penny in order to stay on top of the family friendly parks business.

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