LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Pandora The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom achieves things no one in the theme park industry has ever accomplished before... at prices that Disney's never paid before to do it.
Announced several years ago, following the success of rival Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Pandora draws upon what was then the biggest box office draw in American movie history — James Cameron's science fiction epic, Avatar. Cameron's working on multiple sequels for the 2009 hit, raising hope that the movie will become the franchise that Disney would love to inspire a generation of fans to visit Disney's Animal Kingdom. We'll see.
So why Avatar? And why in Animal Kingdom? Essentially, Avatar uses fiction to try to send a message that Animal Kingdom has been trying to deliver since its opening: Protect our environment, because if you just try to use it for your own good, you'll lose it for everyone. And everything.
So thematically, Avatar works in Animal Kingdom, even if the practicality of getting us from Earth to a moon in the Alpha Centauri system is dismissed with a simple walk across a bridge next to Tiffins.
Once through that portal, Pandora greets visitors with a (reported) $1.4 billion display of the most ostentatious decor in the history of the theme park business. This is nature, amplified and filtered to capture the attention and interest of even the most jaded traveler.
Dive deeply into the land, and you will find all the ways that Creative Director Joe Rohde has devised to educate us on the challenges facing Earth's ecosystem. Skim this land superficially, and you will discover the most awesome spots for vacation selfies in Orlando. (Those fake plants look amazing, don't they?!? It's like visiting Tom Sawyer Island on acid.)
Like so much in life, you get back what you put into it.
And Disney's investment in this land paid off with Flight of Passage, a flying theater-style ride that accomplishes everything that fans of Soarin' long have pretended that experience did. No other theme park attraction so wonderfully recreates the feeling of flying than Flight of Passage does. I'd long adored Bolliger & Mabillard's flying coasters as the maintainers of this standard, but Flight of Passage exceeds those rides by supplying a delightful menu of visuals that heighten the thrill of cutting through the air.
Supposedly, we've been linked with an avatar that's actually doing the flying atop Pandora's Mountain Banshees. But the conceit of that linking is that the physical experience seems real to our consciousness. It's all earnestly explained in the queue, but — again — you can take or leave it as it is given. Either way, the experience of straddling your ride vehicle, feeling it breath between your legs like a horse, and gliding through the air in front of leaves you giddy. As the Pandoran sunset burst into a light stream that broke the connection and brought us "home," I felt something I hadn't in a long time upon the conclusion of a theme park ride — sad and disappointed that the experience was over. I wanted more. So I rode again.
The land's other ride is the Na'vi River Journey, a family boat ride that features what might be Disney's most expensive Audio Animatronic, the $10 million Shaman of Songs.
While I love to see Disney, or any other park, build a new family boat ride, I hate to see parks forget to include the very necessary story element in the process. Na'vi River Journey is an exercise in aesthetics — a voyage through Pandora's bioluminescent forest, following the path of the Na'vi. It's visually amazing, but there are no conflicts, no stakes, nor even a well-defined journey for us to follow. Nothing to bring the wonderful sights in the ride fully to life. If the rest of Pandora advances theme park design, Na'vi River Journey returns us to the world's most expensive Tunnel of Love ride.
Ironically, Pandora the land also falls short of accomplishing one of Avatar the movie's grand thematic goals — empowering those with physical disabilities to find a way to feel as physically able as those around them. In the film, Sam Worthington's Jake Sully did that through his connection with an avatar. In the land, however, those in wheelchairs are required to transfer from them in order to experience either of the rides. In Disney's idealism for a better world through understanding of nature, it missed its opportunity to create that better world for some of the fans who support it.
That's a shame, because what Disney has done with Pandora can be exhilarating. Everyone should get the opportunity to share in that. Disney has reached great heights with Pandora. But the problem with raising your game is that you raise your audience's expectations, as well.Tweet
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