Pandora: The World of Avatar, Disney’s newest land located in Animal Kingdom, opened to the masses on May 27, 2017.
It’s is a lush 12-acre expansion that features two new attractions: Na’vi River Journey, a family friendly boat ride, and the E-ticket centerpiece attraction, Avatar Flight of Passage. As the story behind Pandora goes, a generation has past since the events from James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Avatar, and specifically since the Resource Development Administration (RDA) nearly ruined Pandora with its harsh mining practices. Now Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE), working in conjunction with the Pandora Conservation Initative (PCI), has started to transport humans to the Valley of Mo’ara on Pandora to highlight the natural beauty of the alien world and showcase the work being done to preserve and hopefully enhance Pandora’s natural resources and species.
The Dis Downlow team traveled to Pandora for a visit on Day 3 of public operation which happened to be Memorial Day. Pandora and its two attractions had been open to Disney annual passholders (AP) for most of the month of May. The early reports were good: Na’vi River Journey was described as a quaint river ride featuring the bioluminescent scenery of Pandora and the most lifelike audio-animatronic figure that Disney has ever created – the Shaman of Songs – a ten-foot tall avatar who makes a stunning appearance at the end of the ride. Even better, people seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Avatar Flight of Passage. Some APs were quick to call it Disney’s best new ride in years and perhaps even a contender for best ride on property period. We knew we had to experience it for ourselves and ASAP!
W e plan to write more about about Pandora and Na’vi River Journey in future posts, but we’re going to focus our thoughts today on Avatar Flight of Passage (FoP) and let’s just cut to the chase – the hype is 100% warranted. FoP is an instant can’t-miss attraction for your next Disney vacation and frankly, it’s right up there with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey as one of the very best rides in any theme park, anywhere! Yeah, it’s that good. And the kicker is that it’s not just the ride that delivers – it’s the entire package from fully-immersive storyline to the massive, jaw-dropping queue to the state-of-the-art ride vehicles. It’s all of that wrapped into a package that is just exhilarating and will leave you wanting to immediately get back in line no matter how long the wait is.
And for the foreseeable future, that wait will be very long. Disney Imagineers have said that the queue for FoP can hold up to 6 hours’ worth of visitors which would be unbelievable on most accounts but when you see the details that went into this line and the size of it, you realize it’s an attraction unto itself. One thing you won’t find before you enter the quere is a gawdy attraction sign outside FoP. As this is an alien planet not accustomed to our theme park ways, Pandora rides do not have elaborate signage like most Disney attractions. Instead, you pass through a simple entrance with three lanes (Standby, Single Rider, FastPass+) and start the queue which at first has the feel of a nature walk in Pandora. There are majestic sights all around you including the famed “floating mountains” which look AMAZING in person. The line will bring you through a mountain pass and into a cave adorned with Na’vi drawings. The detail is just stunning. You’ll wind your way through the cave and into the old RDA mining facility that has been transformed into a conservations reserach facility. As you can see in the pictures below, the different “scenes” in the queue flow right into one another and we were blown away by the craftsmenship. If you’re going to wait 3 hours to ride FoP, the silver lining is that you’ll always have something to look at in the queue!
The story to the ride is admittedly complicated, but feels organic as you’re making your way through the queue. In addition to transporting humans to Pandoar, Alpha Centauri Expeditions and the Pandora Conservation Initiatvie are also providing guests with a once-in-lifetime opportunity to ride a native dragon-like creature called a “banshee”. As the story goes, banshees were once prevalent on Pandora but have seen their numbers diminish in recent year, thanks in part of the destruction caused by RDA many years ago. Banshees are notoriously skittish towards human beings, but they do allow Pandora’s native inhabitants – the Na’vi – to ride them. Fortunately for us, ACE has invented a way to link us riders to a Na’Vi avatar so that we can experience what it’s like to fly on the back of a banshee. Whew. That’s a lot. And don’t worry if it sounds like gobbledygook – the story doesn’t feel as cumbersome when you’re making your way through the queue and the various situation rooms prior to boarding the ride. Just roll with it and it’ll be fine.
In order to “link” to an avatar and ride on the back of the banshee, riders must wear 3D “flight googles” and board a state-of-the-art “link chair” – a ride vehicle that most closely resembles a motorcycle seat! As you can see in the photo below, these ride vehicles are unlike anything you’re used to at a Disney park. Once the rider is seated, restraints automatically engage with one restraints resting on the lower back and two restraints that spring out from the side of the vehicle and lock in place behind the rider’s calves. Admittedly, we had read that some “Pooh-sized” riders were turned away from the ride because the safety restraints could not lock into place. We are happy to report that we did not run into any such issues and did not see anyone unable to ride! [In an upcoming, we’ll share some insider tips about Avatar Flight of Passage including best times to ride and how bigger guests can deal with the link chairs]
So after all of that – entrance into the Valley of Mo’ara, the massive queue that takes you through many amazing locales, multiple pre-show rooms, and finally boarding the link chair – it’s time to experience Avatar Flight of Passage! And what an experience it is. Somewhere between Soarin’ and Star Tours, FoP is a 3D flight simulator that utilizes a massive (70 feet wide and 100 feet tall) high-definition screen and gives riders a rollicking, fast-paced, and exhilarating ride on the back of a banshee as it soars over cliffs, dives over oceans, and even faces off with some unsavory beasts. By way of logistics, there are 4 screens operating simultaneously in the building and each theater seats 48 people at a time arranged in rows of 16. If you look around durin gthe ride, you’ll get a good glimpse at how the ride vehicles operatate, but frankely, we were immediately pulled into the ride and didn’t spend a lot of time looking around! In fact, I found myself holding onto my banshee for dear life and gasping for air as we soared over this strange alien land. It wasn’t until halfway through the ride, when your banshee enters a dark cave filled with beautiful Pandora bioluminescence, that you realize that you can actually feel your banshee breathing between your legs. As the beautiful score to the ride played in the background and we sat in that cave momentarily catching our breath, I found myself literally patting my link chair and saying “good boy” to my banshee. Yeah, it sounds ridiculous but just wait until you try it – it was a genuinely moving experience and one that I found to be the highlight of the 4-minute ride.
When this Pandora project was announced way back in 2011, even hardcore Disney fans scoffed at the idea. The men and women at Disney Imagineering nonetheless persisted and what they came up with – and specifically this signature attraction – has put Disney in a position to reclaim its title as the absolutely leader in theme park attractions. Avatar Flight of Passage is a special ride. Yes, first and foremost, it’s a legit world-class thrill ride that marries cutting-edge technology with solid storytelling and Imagineering. But more than that, and in keeping with the themes and motifs of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Flight of Passage serves as a testament to conservation and treating our world, whether earthly or alien, with respect. I’m hopeful that those themes will resonate with riders long after they step off their banshee.
Take a look at our galley of Avatar Flight of Passage pictures below!