Know Before You Go: Disney’s Pandora-The World of Avatar-Attractions

Disney's PandoraThere are a handful of experiences which, since I began this blog 6 years ago, I count my lucky stars, four leaf clovers, and horseshoes that I’ve been able to be a part of. Walking onto Pandora – a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system – last Friday, was definitely one of those times. Similar to witnessing the opening of New Fantasyland, being able to see this new area of Disney’s Animal Kingdom before it opens to the public was indescribable. As a local, and someone who has been to the parks of Walt Disney World Resort too many times to count, being able to see new spaces and details, is truly a gift. Any cynical ideas or jaded opinions of the parks that I know like the back of my hand, melt away and I am able to get lost (literally) in a world created just for me (and everyone else, but you get the idea). This is what Walt Disney Imagineering does best. This is why we have all become devoted fans. This was worth the wait.

I want to preface the rest of my article by stating that there will be spoilers ahead. I assume you wouldn’t click on a post like this if you want to be surprised or experience things without any information before you go, so consider yourself warned. If you want to read about what to expect and what not to miss, keep reading about Pandora – The World of Avatar!

The Environment:

I will be completely honest and say I did not have high hopes for Pandora. I thought that the two little floating mountains you could see from outside the area were it, and they would throw some bioluminescent effects on some trees and call it a day. I could not have been more wrong. As I said on my instagram story video from the day I was there, it has a similar feel to a National Park; when you see things in the distance, but then you turn a corner and boom, breathtaking vistas abound. I had no idea the level and depth of the floating mountain ranges, the mature landscaping, and the waterfalls that make up Pandora. It is vast, it is tall, and seems to go on forever. And the best part, it feels like its been there forever. It is very easy to fall in line with the story of visiting the Valley of Mo’ara on the actual moon of Pandora because it feels like an actual destination that of course people would travel to from other planets to see and learn from. When Disney was first promoting this new land during construction, I was not alone in having a slight eye-rolling reaction to the “no, really, it’s a real moon and you’re going to be able to travel there…” But having experienced it, I totally see why they were going for that vibe and immersive feel. Because you just feel it automatically. It’s just really hard to convey to people that haven’t been there, without sounding like a crazy person that doesn’t know you’re in a theme park in Orlando. But trust me, you’ll be converted too. Great, now I sound like a crazy person. Oh well, won’t be the first time.

Back to Pandora, with the exception of one map/sign when you enter, and one sign pointing the way to Africa and Discovery Island (The Africa entrance wasn’t open for us anyway), there really aren’t any way-finding signs within the Pandora area. There is not a sign that says “Flight of Passage” or “Na’vi River Journey” in front of those attractions. Don’t worry though, it’s not so huge that you will get confused. But it was created that way, for guests to truly explore and experience Pandora and become immersed in their surroundings. You will find clues to where you are headed, if you look closely. Like I said, it’s very easy to do. Your eyes don’t know where to look next; from the strange plants to the floating mountains to the creatures living in the water, to the various footprints in the ground, it is a feast for the eyes. Then you realize you are hearing unusual animal sounds in the forests around you, and soft music in the distance. Then you smell something delicious cooking nearby. It’s just a wonderful multi-sensory land, much like many other themed lands in Disney parks.

One last thing, we were told that each cast member working on Pandora has a rich backstory. There are ex-pats from earth that loved it so much they decided to live there permanently, there are those working to preserve and help restore Pandora’s land and creatures, there are ACE (Alpha Centauri Expeditions) employees that work for this eco-tourism company, and more. If you ask a Pandora cast member how they came to live on Pandora, they will have a story to share with you. I’ll report back when I experience this myself, I just totally forgot to ask anyone in my excitement to be there!

TIP: When you arrive, please make it a point to slowly explore all you can see. Walk around the mountains, cross bridges, explore pathways. Look up, look down, look all around. And yes, take photos – Disney is making a point of letting us know they’ve created spaces for “selfies” and photo ops that they know will be shared on social media. But see things first. This is just not a place to rush through with a fast pass and cross it off your list. It is a place to soak up and breathe in.

Click to enlarge photos in the gallery below:

The Attractions:

There are two attractions within Pandora: Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey. Both attractions will take FastPasses but also have a standby line. Based on the types of rides that they are, I’m sure Flight of Passage will be much more difficult to secure a FastPass for, and the standby line will probably be quite, quite long. So plan ahead, but if you can’t, be prepared for a wait. Luckily, the queue area for Flight of Passage is gorgeous with stunning views everywhere, so it won’t be a wait in misery.

Flight of Passage is set off on the right side of Pandora, with the queue extending outside near the floating mountains, and inside, through decorated caves, then moving into the laboratory spaces before reaching the load area. Most of the outside portion is nicely shaded, and the parts that aren’t have powerful fans to keep it cool as you move along. Inside, detailed paintings adorn the caves, showing the relationships and story of humans and the Na’vi as well as the mountain banshees, which is what you are about to take a ride upon the back of. It’s hard to choose my favorite part of the queue, but I really loved how the cave area transitioned to the lab area, with bioluminescent flora growing over the buildings and making the switch from the history of the caves to scientific research much softer.

Once inside the labs, you are able to deduce a lot of the story about avatars and the human study of life on Pandora. There is a 10 foot tall avatar floating within a capsule, which is jaw-droppingly realistic in person. I had seen photos and video of it prior to walking in, but you don’t realize how huge it is until it appears in the room before you. This leads you closer to the pre-show area, where you learn much more about the research into Na’vi culture and study of mountain banshees, and just how this ride experience will work.

I won’t give away anything else about the ride specifics, but I did want to go over some details about the “ride vehicle” and the motion of the ride, since before I rode, those were my two biggest concerns. I am a bigger girl, and I was really, genuinely concerned that I would not fit the way I needed to to be able to ride. I heard there were guards that came up behind your calves as well as one behind your back. I have always had big calves, even at my skinniest, so I was full of anxiety as we approached the area (I know there is a test vehicle somewhere, but we didn’t see it on our way in, so I didn’t try it out ahead of time).

Accessibility: As we approached the load area, I was expecting cast members to give me a once-over and maybe take me aside and warn me that I may not fit. But that didn’t happen. As I walked in, I saw people larger than myself walking in ahead of me. My fears lessened a little. Then, I saw the vehicle; a motorcycle-looking seat, but not up high enough that you have to “climb” on, you just sort of walk onto it. (And I’m 5’2″ so if I did that, most of you will probably have to sit *down* to get on). I think my 8 year-old will have to climb on, but definitely not as strenuous as climbing onto a carousel horse. The calf area I could see being an issue, if you can’t move your legs up or down in that area. Since I’m short, I had plenty of room to be able to do that. But my 6′ husband, might not (luckily he has skinny legs so it wouldn’t be an issue for him). The back restraint wasn’t an issue at all for me, but those carrying more weight in their mid section may have a problem. I just don’t know because there aren’t any specific measurements, so you just have to try it out and hope for the best. It is confusing as to why the calf restraints are even a thing, but I’m not an engineer, so I clearly have no idea! I am not sure what purpose they serve, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney was currently working on a work-around for that restraint, based on the online buzz about people being unable to ride. It is unfortunate that some people may not be able to ride based on size or ability, but I hope that Disney will add an accessible version of the experience similar to Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage in Disneyland.

Ride Motion:  Let me again preface with my personal experience. I don’t really enjoy motion-simulator rides. I never rode Sum of All Thrills for that reason. However, I find that things like Star Tours are doable if I’m in the front middle vs. back of the ride. Forbidden Journey at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal’s Islands of Adventure is definitely a “one and done” kind of ride for me. I can do it, but I may need some recovery time. It’s mostly an equilibrium thing for me. I can’t do California Screamin’ anymore sadly, without laying down on the ground for about an hour after to recover. 😛 I love Space Mountain in Disneyland, though, so it’s really just an issue of shaking my brain around I think, along with just not liking the stomach-dropping feeling of rides like Tower of Terror. Anyway, I was worried this would be TOO crazy a simulator, with so much new technology and ability to take us anywhere in Pandora via virtual reality. Again, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but I had ZERO problems with motion sickness during or after the ride. In fact, I LOVED it. It was such a seamless transition, that I didn’t feel like “oh no, I’m falling 100 feet down a mountain!” because the motion of the vehicle itself was minimal. Again, immersive is the keyword here. I really felt like I was IN Pandora, on a banshee. It is a multi-sensory experience and unlike Soarin’ where I get off and think, “aw, I wish that was longer,” with this attraction, I felt satisfied. It was just wonderful. I immediately wanted to ride again which I have never said about a thrill ride haha. I cannot wait until I can ride it again, and take my whole family on. It was definitely a home run by Imagineering for the attraction experience. I was just saying today, though, that even if you walked the entire queue area and didn’t ride, I think you will experience an amazing “attraction” in the queue alone. It’s so well done, I know I’ll discover something new each time I visit.

Na’vi River Journey is over to the left side of Pandora, and there is just as much to explore on your way to that ride entrance. There are many native Na’vi works of art as you travel closer and enter the queue. This queue is much less grand, but still has lovely vantage points and waterfalls to view along the way. The last half is outside but under cover, so you aren’t in the direct sunlight. There are many more “arts and crafts” type things in the queue, like woven basket-type things and the entire roof is thatched. I haven’t seen the movie in a while, so I’m not sure if the objects in the queue are related to anything in the film or not. Unlike Flight of Passage, once you enter the inside portion of the queue, there really isn’t any “story” told to you. You are loaded onto a boat (two boats with two rows each are connected, so it has a capacity of 12 loading at once) and sail away and that’s really it.

The scenes unfolding around you are lovely to look at, full of creatures, music, and of course, bioluminescent wonder. There is a nice mix of scenery close to you, and then projected action beyond, with more creatures from the movie, with some fun special effects above as well. As you wind around the river, you begin to hear a song sung by a Na’vi shaman. Then, you turn the corner and see the shaman seated on the riverbank, singing. The movement is so fluid, you would swear it was a real, living, breathing creature before you. My one complaint is that I wish we could see this amazing scene for a little longer. In fact that was my only real issue with the entire ride, that it needed to be a little longer, but I understand there are many things that go into designing a new attraction and time does have to be taken into account. As of our visit, we did not see any wheelchair loading boats being used. I am not sure if they will be added when the area opens officially, or if they are being worked on for the near future. As I discover more information about accessibility, I will update this post.

The overall feel of the River Journey is one of relaxation and appreciation of the wonder that is Pandora. I would’ve loved to hear a little more about what this area was, or what we can/should do to conserve it, since that is a main story point to the land, conserving and preserving Pandora and its inhabitants. My advice would be to do this attraction first if possible, before Flight of Passage, and – and this is very important, watch the first time without a phone or a camera. Just enjoy the experience and drink in the details. It truly is a different ride when looking through a camera or at a phone screen vs. seeing it appear before and around you. 

The two attractions really cannot be compared, in that they are apples and oranges. On their own, they are both unique, wonderful experiences. I cannot wait to go back and see them both again, or to just wander around the Valley of Mo’ara and enjoy life on Pandora. Kudos to the teams for all their hard work and creative talents creating this new reality!

I am going to continue my discussion and sharing of my Pandora experiences in separate posts covering the food and merchandise, so stay tuned. There’s just so much to explore, I didn’t want to overwhelm in one long post (and this is long enough as is!). Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions or comments about the land, feel free to ask in the comments below, or on any of my social media channels listed here. 

 

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About Suzannah Otis

Boston girl living and blogging in Walt Disney World's backyard. Wife, Mom of 3, coffee addict, lover of travel and adventure.