Pandora - The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom
Avatar, the top grossing film to date, came out almost 8 years ago; the hysteria has definitely died down. It also isn't even a Disney intellectual property. When Disney lost out to Universal for the chance to build the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they ended up putting a LOT of development hopes behind Pandora- The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom. In the years that it's been under construction, the expansion has been met with plenty of skepticism. The day has finally come. Pandora- The World of Avatar opens its gates to the public May 2017 and carries on its shoulders heavy expectations.
Confession: I'm one of the Pandora skeptics. I was never a huge fan of the movie. I didn't understand the decision to make it into a massive investment/expansion. I didn't understand how it fit in with Animal Kingdom. Still, as an Annual Passholder, I'm always eager for new things at the parks. I am also hoping to see Animal Kingdom get more attendance and attention (It's always had the best design and theming of any of the parks). So when I got the opportunity to join the Disney Parks Blog Meetup for an advanced look at Pandora? I leaped.
The Meetup was scheduled for the two hours before the park opened. Parking at Animal Kingdom in the dark? It's a fascinating perspective. We were escorted back to Pandora at 7 a.m. They've done a great job of keeping most of Pandora out of sight during construction, so walking up and getting your first look as the sun rises? Jaw-dropping.
The floating mountains are spectacular. The attention to detail of the land doesn't stop there; literally every inch of Pandora has been painstakingly integrated with living landscape and Pandora flora. At first neither of the rides were open, so we just got to explore. I can't wait to see this place at night and experience the "bio-luminescence" Disney has been touting.
If there were signs to point you to where the four major attractions of Pandora were? I didn't see them. There are what feels like dozens of winding pathways through which you meander and eventually find your destinations, none of which you can naturally see from what I would consider the hub of Pandora. This might feel a little tedious if you're in a hurry, but there are plenty of cast members around to point you in the right direction. If anything, I LIKED this, made the land feel more immersive. In my meanderings, I stumbled upon a pathway that was being blocked off by security. But I'm nosy, so I asked.
"Hey... does that go up to the Harambe theater?" Yes. "So... when the park opens there will be another traffic path to Pandora?" Smart. So smart. The main opening to Pandora (from near Pizzafari) has a bit of a bottleneck situation. So file this under useful information, eh?
FLIGHT OF PASSAGE - what you need to know before you ride
As I wandered by Flight Of Passage, Cast Members were waving us up to the FastPass entrance. Flight Of Passage has a 44" height minimum (same as Space Mountain). The downside to my experience with Flight of Passage was that the FastPass line doesn't contain the extensive theming and storytelling I've seen being touted all over instagram. What I will say is that the dynamic shift between the interior of the ride and the exterior is fascinating. If you're not familiar with the premise of the film, Humans have these bases on this alien planet. Outside Pandora is vibrant and lively and colorful. Once you get inside the queue for Flight of Passage? You're in this half army base half science facility space. I would have loved to explore the standby queue more, but not waiting in any kind of line to ride this seemed like too good a treat to pass up (having a feeling that won't happen again, even with a FastPass, for MONTHS).
I'd heard a fascinating array of comments from cast members and AP's that had experienced Flight of Passage during previews and I was.... nervous. I deal with anxiety that can be compounded by some mild vertigo and claustrophobia. I knew the IDEA behind the ride apparatus for Flight of Passage, that it was a 3-D simulator, but that it was unlike anything else that had come before. Reviews ranged from intimidating and nausea-inducing to spectacular and game-changing. I personally clung to a comment a friend of mine had made: the build up to the ride is incredibly intimidating, but the ride itself is fine.
I found this to be the most accurate description. First in very small groups you are loaded into a VERY small and VERY closed room to be scanned and matched to an avatar. My claustrophobia was already triggering my anxiety a bit. Then you're taken into another long, narrow room where the individual ride apparatus are. They sort of resemble the back part of an exercise bike mixed with one of those kneeling work desks if you've ever seen them. This apparatus is flush up against a wall. The opposite wall (behind you) has storage shelves for bags or loose items.
The ride apparatus: this was the where my anxiety started to peak, because getting loaded in and waiting for the ride to start was completely nerve wracking for someone with my triggers. You mount the seat sort of like a bike, then you have to scoot your stomach up flat against a pad and lean forward to grasp the handlebar. I was feeling paranoid that I'd feel like I was leaning WAY forward, but really you sit up pretty straight, very little leaning. Once you're scooted where you're supposed to be and you press the front of your bent legs up against their pads, a back support comes up and basically locks you into place. This also happens to the back of your legs. The good news is that your chest and head have free movement, so that helped me not have a full blown panic attack, but it is very awkward feeling and confining at first. Once everyone is loaded in (maybe 9 people in a room?) and you've got your 3-D glasses on (initial reviews on these, that they are strangely wide, are accurate. I think kids or people with more narrow faces might find them not fitting well at all.), the cast members exit and you're just locked into this tiny room together. I didn't know anyone else who was with me, and I remember between trying to take calming breaths making a joke about wanting to know where the panic button was that was met with plenty of awkward chuckles of agreement.
After what felt like forever of me sitting there, trying not to panic, desperately worrying that this would be Mission: Space all over again (NEVER AGAIN!), the room went dark and I was bombarded by flashing lights as we each "linked up" with our Avatar. The ride apparatus, awkward though it may be to get into, is what makes this ride so very different from what has come before. You will FEEL the tingling in your lower back where your Avatar's tail might be. You will feel your thighs flex to steer your Ikran. You will feel mist from waterfalls splash into your face. Once the ride started, my anxiety and claustrophobia disappeared in a few startled gasps of awe. I had gotten myself all worked up, wondering about the physicality of the ride, but it's honestly VERY mild. It feels like the next step of evolution for Soarin'. It's been a LONG time since I felt such a sense of wonder on a ride. Even once it was over and I was back in that confining room, the claustrophobia didn't return (just going to show that it really is the anticipation of the unknown). To give you an idea how smooth and mild the ride itself felt, I've actually been avoiding Star Tours recently since it's been aggravating my anxiety, but I can't WAIT to ride Flight of Passage again. I would say if you and your kids can handle Soarin' and Star Tours (and meet the height), it's totally worth doing.
OH! One more piece of advice that I think might be why some people have been struggling with the ride itself more than others, and it's just the nature of 3-D technology. It's just not designed to work on a curved screen the way it does on a more flat one you have at a theater. What that means? You need to PICK a focus point with your glasses and STAY focused on it. Your periphery will have some double vision. If you get distracted by that, that can create more discomfort, but I found that if I maintained my focal point it was fine. I don't know if everyone is experiencing this, it might also have to do with the awkward-feeling size of the glasses design. I have a feeling that in the next couple years the technology will be refined and this issue will be straightened out.
I'll be taking my daughter on this with FastPasses in the next month. She's almost 5. I'll let you know her thoughts.
Exit through the gift shop applies to Flight of Passage. You can also reach what is currently the only shop in Pandora from the outside. The Pongu Pongu bar is situated between Windtraders and the Satu'li Canteen.
Inside the shop, you'll find plenty of Pandora/ Avatar themed merchandise and souvenirs for adults and kids. The main attraction (that already has a queue set up) is the Rookery.
Here, Cast Members can help you find a baby Ikran best suited to you for future bonding. You can have the experience without purchasing and taking it home (not unlike the wand ceremony at Wizarding World). The Ikran's run around $50.
NA'VI RIVER JOURNEY
First, a warning: I saw the temporary queue they are already setting up for this ride and it is STAGGERING. The permanent queue inside is NOT short, so if you find yourself in the rope line outside? Hope your phone is fully charged and you have a wealth of patience.
The Na'Vi river journey will, at least initially, see the larger crowds since there is no height limit. You take a boat via bioluminescent river and forest at night to explore the nature-spiritual world of Pandora.
Unlike the ride queue for Flight of Passage, there's very little attempt to integrate that modern/ science facility theming into River Journey. It's full Pandora.
The ride itself is very simple. Slow floating boat. Look at the scenery. If you keep your eyes closed, it could be Living with the Land or even It's a Small World sans migraine-inducing music. So don't close your eyes, or you'll miss the whole reason for checking out the ride, ok?
Yes, it's a blacklight extravaganza of bioluminescent nature. BUT look closer: there is some great work with 3-D projections (think the end of the Nemo ride at Epcot), animatronics, plant life, and more.
Don't forget to peek over the side of your boat into the water, too.
The piece de resistance, of course, is the shaman who will sing you off back into reality. She is absolutely awesome.
The Na'Vi River Journey is beautiful, low-key, and appropriate for people of all ages. Will it knock the socks off seasoned theme park skeptics? Probably not.
As part of the meetup, we were all given windows and vouchers to go check out the food at the Satu'Li Canteen. Brace yourselves, I'm about to fangirl so hard, y'all. But if this isn't your first visit to this site, you shouldn't be surprised that FOOD IS MY THING.
To strip it down to it's most basic form, you could almost think of it like Chipotle goes to Pandora. Except I don't really care for Chipotle (BRING ON THE HATE MAIL), and I LOVED Satu'li.
So why am I so obsessed with Satu'Li? If you've ever been on a restrictive diet (atkins, whole 30, keto, paleo, etc etc etc) or tried to eat vegetarian, you know the struggle of eating at theme parks. How about some chicken caesar salad? How about some MORE chicken caesar salad? Sure, you can eat all my fries. And my bun. NOT ONLY does Satu'li have REAL and not just "leave all that stuff off" options, it has MULTIPLE and DELICIOUS healthy and fresh options. For breakfast AND lunch/ dinner. It almost brought tears to my eyes.
The theming for the canteen shows a real melding of the industrial science facility and native Pandora design. The order stations are full science facility, but the seating area feels less industrial and more natural.
What did I get to order? A mixed veg frittata that comes with sliced med-rare steak and a chimichurri and some mixed greens. Helloooooo protein. The steak, greens and chimicurri werenothing less than sublime. I would have loved the frittata, but I just don't like bell peppers.
BTW, breakfast was a MASSIVE spread for only around $10. The lunch bowls? You can get them with a starch OR you can just get a protein (including seasoned tofu!) over a mixed kale salad. Or, according to the Cast Member I asked, if you're not so hungry? You can just get some beef and chimichurri.
One more perk? You can now use the My Disney Experience App to order your food ahead.
If I had to give it a down side? I'd say that the kid offerings are slightly limited for picky or unadventurous eaters. But too bad for my kid if she doesn't want this food, she can eat pop tarts from the snack backpack while I gorge myself at the Satu-li Canteen.
So, with a not-too-crowded Pandora, I was able to explore all of it (even the new bathrooms! Lovely and clean!) in less than 2 hours. So that could potentially be the downside: for all the hooplah and hopes being hung on this place, it's 2 rides, a shop, and a restaurant. The ambience outside is definitely designed to encourage exploration and meandering (I noticed literally dozens of benches integrated into the design).
If you're the sort of park goer that's just in it for some rides, you will probably be a bit underwhelmed. Or be able to knock this out with a single tier 1 fastpass for Flight of Passage by ditching the river journey entirely. BUT if you want to feel immersed on another planet? You like walking around, taking your time, picking out fine details?
You could probably spend half a day here.
And how does this skeptic feel about Pandora? I'm not sure I'm over-the-moon enough to brave 4 hour waits, but I feel like on one of my questions, I've been effectively shut down: Pandora makes perfect sense with Animal Kingdom. Not because there are animals, but because of the vibe. Pandora (especially once early crowds die down) has this incredibly chill vibe that I've found to be unique to Animal Kingdom. This is the park we go to when we went to relax, and Pandora totally fits into that atmosphere.
Not enough, you say? Feel free to explore my full Flickr album from my trip to Pandora HERE
Or enjoy my instagram story from the meetup! @minkflamingos