Animal Kingdom/Pandora September 2017 Trip Report From a Disney AND Universal Fan

Edited: September 21, 2017, 1:39 PM

My family and I just got back from a Saturday, September 16th visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom and I wanted to offer my honest opinion of our visit. For a little background, we stayed at Universal's Cabana Bay for two nights and spent the day at Universal's Volcano Bay the day before. For Animal Kingdom, we were in it for the long haul, as we stayed from park open to park close (9am-9pm). The crowd levels were light, excluding Pandora, with the longest wait for "Expedition Everest" at 30 minutes. My usual itinerary for Animal Kingdom with someone new, my mother-in-law in this case, is to start at "It's Tough to be a Bug" with its up close introduction to the Tree of Life through its queue, and then work counter clockwise from Dinoland USA to Asia, Africa and then the new land of Pandora. Enjoying attractions with air conditioning early and often, like "It's Tough to be a Bug", "Dinosaur" and "Finding Nemo the Musical", is top of mind as Animal Kingdom is one of the hottest parks in the Orlando area. A couple of quick notes from our morning:
"It's Tough to be a Bug" is still a great 3D show in the perfect setting inside of the Tree of Life.
"Dinosaur" is a great ride when all the effects are functioning and in sync.
"Finding Nemo the Musical" is a fantastic 45 minute show with wonderful musical numbers and at the 11am showtime, fantastic A/C!
"Expedition Everest" is still an enjoyable coaster even without all the effects, like steam from the train, mountain mist and of course a fully functioning yeti. We rode "Expedition Everest" twice, once during the day and once as a reride at night. It's better a night as the backward section has zero light intrusion inside the mountain and it seemed to move faster especially at the brake runs as Disney was running with one less train on the line at our 8pm ride time.
At 12pm, we had a fantastic and very filling table service lunch at Yak & Yeti. Without reservations, it was a 30 minute wait for a party of 8. Nice! The menu had just enough variety for everyone in our party and all the food and drink we ordered was delicious. Yak & Yeti is a Landry's restaurant, like Rainforest Cafe and T-Rex Cafe, but the food was better and not as heavy as Rainforest or T-Rex, and the portions were still very large.
After lunch, we decided to give into anticipation and skipped Africa for the time being in favor of Pandora. A couple of notes from Pandora:
"Flight of Passage" is very well done. This attraction will become a must do in all our future visits to DAK, along with "Expedition Everest". And the floating Mountains - WOW! Now, with that being said, the design of Pandora has some glaring problems and one of Pandora's biggest problems, as well as Animal Kingdom's for that matter, is that for an area that is supposed to be teaming with life it is in fact rather lifeless. Walking into Pandora and a few other parts of Animal Kingdom is like walking into a beautiful landscape painting. Yes, the landscape is beautiful, but it's static. There seemed to be very little energy in Pandora. Where are the animals, where are the Na'vi, where is the energy? We spent almost four hours in Pandora, waited in line for "Na'vi River Journey" for 90 minutes and waited in line for "Flight of Passage" for another 90 minutes, and we encountered one Na'vi and one Avatar. For four hours, that was our interaction with the inhabitants of Pandora. To put it another way, it was like going to a four hour long stage show with beautiful set designs but only 10 minutes of actual show. Where was the show? Unfortunately, much of Pandora's show is background noises of animals hidden from view and moments of grandeur from "Flights of Passage", a fleeting five minute attraction. Other parts of Animal Kingdom are very similar to Pandora - beautiful landscapes and set designs but very little show. Animal Kingdom has a steam train as an attraction, but it's hidden from view, same as DAK's raft ride "Kali River Rapids". These are attractions that add show and energy to the lands that they're in and should be front and center, not tucked away in the back corners of Asia. In comparasion, Cars Land at Disney's California Adventure, Disney's best and most comprehensive immersive environment the Imagineers have ever created, has beautiful landscapes and set designs with TONS of show and kenetic energy moving about. Also, compared to Cars Land's, Pandora at night was a little underwhelming.
After Pandora, we finished the day in Africa followed by a couple of rerides on "Expedition Everest", "Dinosaur" and "Flight of Passage". "Kilimanjaro Safari" at our 5:30pm ride time was active with many animals roaming about, though I miss the story line of racing poachers to save Little Red, the baby elephant. The Safari attraction just seems a bit off simply driving through the savana and pointing out the animals and some of their characteristics.
In the end, the highlights of our Animal Kingdom visit were our night ride on "Expedition Everest", lunch at Yak & Yeti and our two rides on "Flight of Passage". "Tree of Life Awakenings" and "Finding Nemo the Musical" also stood out as nice memories. We skipped "Rivers of Light" in favor of some rerides. After a long and hot visit to Animal Kingdom, we felt like we needed a big ending to the day and even though I heard "Rivers of Light" is a pleasant enough show, it's not necessarily a showstopper. Of other notes, all of DAK's attractions were open and we saw very little damage of notice from Hurricane Irma.

Replies (12)

Edited: September 17, 2017, 3:46 PM

Thanks for the report! Interest note about the lack of liveliness in Pandora. Waterfalls add some motion to the land, but you're right - plastic and plaster plants just don't deliver the same vibe as living ones. I guess that Disney's not staffing as many "story guides" as it was earlier, when the line stretched out of the land?

September 17, 2017, 4:23 PM

Carsland has a lot of flat rides that add motion in the land and many meet and greets and shows with the cars characters. Avatar can add a parade and meet and greets. A flying Banshee coaster will help and a new flat ride. Rumors is there's an extra expansion spot that can fit a spinning flat ride. Could be a relocated and redressed Dinoland spinner.

September 18, 2017, 4:54 AM

Did you see Pandora at night? I found it to be a little more lifelike in the dark.

Edited: September 21, 2017, 1:44 PM

Don't get me wrong, Pandora is close to being a really great land and I look forward to its expansion. Though, Pandora needs more of a Na'vi presence and actual physical Pandorian animals on display outside of the attractions. The shaman in the "Na'vi River Journey" would have been better served if she were placed within the land for guests to have more interaction with that does not require a 90 minute wait to see her for approximately 10-15 seconds. Her movement and her size were very impressive! I needed more interaction with her to feel like my four hours in Pandora were worth it. The Imagineers could have placed her on a high platform with a protective cover so that many people could view her at once for as long as they want. And having a few Pandorian animals on display with a bit of animatronics mixed in should have been doable as well. It was odd walking back into a lifeless Pandora after coming off of "Flight of Passage". The last scene of the attraction was filled with various Pandorian animals and Na'vi in action enhanced by Avatar's beautiful musical score that really pumped up my energy. It was a huge letdown to walk away from that and back into a static Pandora.

Edited: September 18, 2017, 11:41 AM

"90 minute wait to see her for approximately 10-15 seconds."

Reportedly, she was taken off display for a few days, so some people waiting over an hour to ride never even got to see her at all.

Pandora was billed to have all of these interactive elements, particularly at night with bio-luminescent effects that were supposed to "react" to guests. Other than looking pretty at night, did you see any of these advertised interactions, or was it simply lights flickering and pulsing on a timer (like the sidewalk fiber-optic lights at EPCOT)?

I'm guessing that the lack of actual animals was that they didn't want it to seem fake with unnatural moving figures that just sit in one place all day, not like real animals that would hop around from place to place. I think it would seem too Jungle-Cruise-y if they had tons of fake animals sitting on branches and on display going through pre-set motions. The sounds and moving branches are supposed to give you that feeling without having to actually show you the animals. It's certainly an interesting view of Pandora, and not a unique one as I've seen this complaint from many other guests that spent more time in the land than just walking between the rides. The lack of Na'vi has been explained by Disney that it's consistent with the time period where PTWoA exists (after the first movie, and somewhere during the time of the sequels still in production), where the inhabitants have left. It seems that Pandora does an amazing job of giving you that first big WOW moment, but there's little substance beyond that to keep you in the land for an extended period of time or needing to come back for a return visit. In a way, it's not unlike "Hamilton" as TH has been lobbying for nearly a year, where many theater goers spend hundreds of dollars to see the hit show just to check it off their "to-do" list. While the show is really good, it's not something people feel the need to spend hundreds of dollars to see again. Maybe future additions will change that, but it does seem like Pandora as a land is not quite as interactive and groundbreaking as initially billed.

September 18, 2017, 4:44 PM

I remember feeling the same way when we opened the Jurassic Park island at Islands of Adventure. Triceratops Encounter was short lived, but gave people the most up close interaction with a "real live dinosaur" short of riding River Adventure. Everywhere you looked around the island there were the iconic animal enclosure fences with electrical wire tops and warning lights, but nary a dino to be seen short of the figures on the ride.
It's a shame Disney didn't learn a lesson from this and try to include some alien life form in Pandora. Still looking forward to seeing it myself someday.

Edited: September 19, 2017, 6:19 AM

I know a lot of the early press for PtWoA was centered around the absence of the Na'Va in the world. Many fans were excited when the land was first announced that Disney would create lots of walk-around characters in the vein of DiVine (stilt walkers), but Disney and Cameron squashed those notions by stating the new land would be set after the original Avatar film during a time when the natives had fled Pandora. Clearly visitors to DAK are currently in the dark, because they don't know why there are no Na'Vi (aside from those on the attractions) since no one except for James Cameron and his team know what's happening on Pandora in the sequels. I think it is a potential lost opportunity, much like Disney's choice to set Galaxy's Edge on some random planet on the Outer Rim instead of a location(s) already featured in a movie. It certainly lets Imagineers off the hook, because they don't have to be as exacting in their detail to satisfy hard-core fans and don't have to worry about filling the land with real and/or lifelike mechanical characters. However, I wonder if forcing guests to be the only inhabitants of the world is the way to go for Pandora (might work perfectly for Star Wars though).

Edited: September 19, 2017, 7:26 AM

Well, then like Pandora, the Imagineers should have done their Star Wars land on planet Hoth, not during the Rebel occupation but years after the Empire chased the Rebels from their hidden base. Guests can explore the ruins of the hanger with remnants of a snow speeder and the possibility of running into a working snow beast animatronic.

September 19, 2017, 8:46 AM

"Star Wars land on planet Hoth"

Yeah, but then you'd have all the little girls wondering where the Anna and Elsa meet and greet was.

Actually, I kinda think that's what they're going for in Galaxy's Edge, but they're instead using a planet grounded in the current trilogy (perhaps The Last Jedi or Episode IX will feature it) to appeal more to current audiences. I see the benefits of being generic with the setting as well as trying to be as authentic as possible, and there's no way of knowing how good it's going to be until it's done. The exacting precision Universal showed with WWoHP is the one end of the spectrum that is obviously immensely popular. So far, the more generic location of PtWoA has been extremely popular too, but being so early it's difficult to tell whether it's popular because it's new, in a park that was in desperate need of more attractions, or because people really like it. I can tell you that FP+ reservations are still impossibly hard to come by (I was only able to get an early evening Na'Vi River Journey FP+ 30 days out, and Fight of Passage has been consistently unavailable, even to some resort guests attempting to book 60 days in advance), and I will see the new land for myself a month from now.

September 19, 2017, 4:58 PM

I agree Russell; FP+ is a real bear at the moment. Another impossible one is splash mountain, and the 7 dwarfs mine train is almost as bad. I'm seriously considering holding off until January, although I did get a Na'vi river journey at 3:45 so I took that for 10/3, but I may cancel and wait until 2018. I get online within minutes of the 7am changeover time and that's how I dropped lucky with the river journey. If I go on 10/3 I'll be there around 8am to make sure I'm towards the front for a mad dash to flight of passage. Not ideal.
I'm looking forward to seeing Pandora though. Keith's write up has been a great source of information ...

September 20, 2017, 5:59 AM

"Another impossible one is splash mountain"

Splash Mountain is only impossible right now because it's undergoing rehab for the entire fall, so nobody is going to be riding it. Agree on 7DMT - could not get it this morning 30 days out of our MK day on 10/20.

September 20, 2017, 2:51 PM

Thanks Russell ..... I had no idea. I see Nov. 16th is the scheduled reopen date so I'll push back my MK visit till after it opens. Good luck with getting your fast passes... there's only a few 1000?? of us trying everyday at 7am !!

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