Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Florida
25 June 2017
"He [James Cameron] does the impossible again and again and again, merging wonderful storytelling with mind-blowing technology to create experiences that no one has seen before. And Avatar is definitely one of them."
Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger
as reported in Variety, 24 May 2017
The Back Story
Pandora opened on May 27. It's a new part of Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, an extravagant recreation of the world seen in the movie Avatar that reportedly cost somewhere around $400 million.
The 20th Century Fox movie was released way back in 2009 and broke all sorts of box office records. Disney rushed to get the park rights. That's after they had acquired Pixar and right around the time Marvel rolled into the mouse's house. And it was before the Lucasfilm deal. Between Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, there's a treasure trove of marketing, merchandising and theme park possibilities.
Was Pandora worth the effort? Well, at the very least it's a sample of what's to come as Disney builds out its Star Wars attraction, which is anticipated to bring a whole new level of interaction between the rides and the riders. Besides, Pandora should have legs; four Avatar sequels are scheduled to be releasd between 2020 and 2025.
In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't think Avatar was all that great of a movie, but I'm always up for trying out the "new." Hence, I visited Pandora out of pure curiosity and an interest in see the state of the technologies being implemented.
Even though it covers 12 acres, Pandora isn't a particularly large section of Animal Kingdom in terms of on-foot exploration by visitors; perhaps this truncated sense stems from the large footprint of the Flight of Passage ride, nestled away in the showcase mountainscape. (Putting it in some perspective, the Disneyland Star Wars world set to open in 2019 is being scoped out over 14 acres.) Nonethelesss, enough to create a sense of place and of the other-worldly. The centerpiece is a massive mountain with a waterfall, along with some of the crazy "natural" formations seen in the movie.
There's also a sort of public square, in which a formation of natural drums takes center stage (literally). At regular intervals, a trio of drummers come out to perform. The music leaves quite a bit to be desired; it tries to evoke an extraterrestrial ambience, but it can be more crassly described as three white guys boucing around from one set of skins to another, all the while outwardly exhibiting enthusiasm even as they sweat bricks under Florida's summer sun.
There's also a canteen, serving surprisingly good food, and a drink station that serves both alcoholic and non-alcoholic refreshments. Of course, there's also a gift shop.
The Rides: Flight of Passage
There are two rides.
The one getting all the attention is Flight of Passage. With FastPasses hard to come by, a cast member over at Hollywood Studios advised me to arrive early, then it'd be only a 10-minute wait instead of 2 hours.
Well, apparently word's gotten out. It sounds like people are now camping out in the parking lot in order to be the first of the first. Even so, I arrived at 8 a.m. on Sunday and what was anticipated to be a 110-minute wait actually turned out to be "only" 75 minutes.
It's really not that bad of a wait, either. While waiting, visitors are surrounded by Pandora and the experience gets even better once inside the mountain, wherein the line continues to loop around various rock formations and cave paintings. Then there's a recreation of the Alpha Centauri Expeditions lab, complete with an Avatar tank.
In April of last year, I went out to Disneyland for the first time since I was 12 years old. There, I found a ride called Soarin' in California Adventure Park. It's an immersive version of an IMAX-sized screen, offering the sensation of flight (riders are lifted into the air, with feet dangling). In this case, the flight highlights numerous California Attractions. I thought it'd be a heck of a thing to combine with a Star Wars scenario; it'd create something like the next generation of Star Tours.
Well, largely, that's what Flight of Passage is; it's largely the same setup, this time with riders straddling a bike-like device. The rider is in actuality landlocked, but Disney's Imagineers have taken great strides in mastering the power of playing with the human mind.
The experience is exhilirating. That "bike-like" device is intended to be the banshee you ride after connecting with your avatar. It leaps into the lush, high-def scenery of Pandora. There's a rush of wind hitting your body as the banshee dives into the forest; there's a spritz of water as it flies over waterscapes. And, when it takes a perch for a rest, cushions between your legs expand and contract, giving the sensation of the banshee breathing.
It is spectacular.
I rode it twice. Once in the morning, then once again as a night cap — the park was staying open until 1:00 a.m. every morning through July 4 to accommodate demand. Supposedly, the park's only open those extra hours (11:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m.) for visitors staying at Disney resorts, but I didn't see anybody checking for magic bands and confirming people's lodging arrangements.
The Rides: Na'vi River Journey
The other ride — with significantly shorter wait times — is of a totally different nature. It's a casual river ride in search of the Shaman of Song. There are some nifty visual effects creating the illusion of frog-like creatures on lillypads overhead, or other forest creatures running through the foliage. Lots of flourescence.
The Shaman of Song represents the latest and greatest in animatronics; it's cool see it sing and bang the drums (more interesting than those dudes outside). But it is a tame experience.
I dare say Pirates of the Caribbean is still, ultimately, the superior water ride.
I was impressed by the quality and variety of the goods for sale. The whole idea is Pandora is trying to create an experience and the merchandise should reflect that. To a large degree, it does. Some of the T-shirts and pins and other products reflect a continuation of the experience rather than merely serving up unimaginative products about the ride.
The 3D-printed Action Figure
The cornerstone product is an opportunity to have your likeness placed on the face of a 12-inch Avatar action figure.
I did it to take in the experience and the technology. A certain amount of it is smoke and mirrors, a certain amount of it is legitimately cool and a bit of it still needs some polishing.
The first step is to set up an appointment, perhaps needing to come back in an hour or so, depending on demand. Once the appointment is set (and the money paid), you're given a plastic Avatar card. It was explained to me that it's like my Social Security card. I need to hold onto it because I'll need it to store the data from my scans and to generate my action figure likeness. Cool! And I get to keep the card!
But, when I came back, some of the smoke started to appear. The young lady assisting me with my scan was careless with Avatar Social Security card (ASS card?). She dropped it and made a wee bit of a production out of having dropped it. Then the card was placed on the counter. Hmmm... Why not — even if only for the illusion of it — have a slot in a console, creating the illusion, when the card is placed in the slot, that it's actually serving a purpose?
(Afterword, I went back and observed others getting their scans done. Same thing. Card dropped, misplaced. Sloppy. It cracks, if not altogether shatters, the illusion they're supposed to be creating.)
I'm not convinced the "scan" is real. The young lady moved the mulit-light, curved scanning device past my face a couple times. She then seemed to be checking, via a small microphone, with the "avatar" in the lab who's overseeing the creation of my action figure. She was allegedly checking to make sure the scans were good enough; she had said we might need to do it again. But, this time, it was "good enough." All I really saw was a digital photo of my face and a representation of how my face would morph with my avatar.
In a word: Sexy.
Once the quality was confirmed, on the iPad-like device, I selected the body type (okay, there's only one male adult body and one boy body; the other six are three women bodies and three girl bodies — the primary difference was in the base clothing). Then I selected the hair style from four options, as I recall, as well as the eye color (I went with the standard Avatar yellow; there were three or four others to choose from).
Come back in a couple hours to pick up the avatar, but be sure to bring the ASS card!
So I go about my business in the Animal Kingdom. Safari. Curry at the Yak and Yeti. A water/light show (sadly, cut short by an incoming storm). Then I went back for Round Two of Pandora.
Picking up the avatar, a cast member takes you and your ASS card to a vending message. The card is tapped against a mobile device (apparently it really does have information on it!), then I'm advised to place my hand on the designated spot on the machine. Ummm... This doesn't make sense. During my appointment, only my index finger was scenned, so the whole hand request breaks the illusion. My face appears on the vending machine's display. Then, sorta magically, a black space clears to reveal my packaged action figure in the machine.
Then it goes low-tech. The cast member opens a little door and pulls the action figure out the machine, just like getting a bag of chips.
Don't forget, Pandora is only one part of Animal Kingdom. I've included photos from the safari and reserve as a reminder of some of the awesome — and very real — sights on hand.
That said, Pandora is certainly worth a visit. Given the state of technology, it should be easy enough to update the flight ride with new aspects. (I've been told, by questionable sources, Star Tours has 50 different missions; in Disney World I was "treated" to an adventure involving characters from Episodes I-III while in Disneyland last year, I enjoyed a mission involving characters from Episode VII.)
Also, at night Pandora is illuminated in flourescence as plants and patterns in the pavement glow. It's rather dark at night, but the effect is interesting. It's a different experience, at the very least, making it worthwhile to do both a daytime and nighttime visit.
This article is part of the Mattopia Jones and the Cuban Quandary travel journal.