Last time we introduced Pandora – The World of Avatar! This is the newest land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the most ambitious project completed to date by Walt Disney Imagineering. Inside this highly immersive alien forest lies two new rides. Two new rides! I’m so excited we get to talk about not one, but two new rides! The headliner is called Avatar – Flight of Passage, and I can’t wait to share that experience with you. However, I recommend waiting on Flight of Passage until you take a boat ride through the nighttime forest of Pandora. That’s why we are going to start our exploration with the family friendly ride known as Na’vi River Journey.
This is another in the long tradition of Disney boat rides. It utilizes all the tools of the boat rides that have come before, but adds in some dazzling new effects to keep you in awe of your surroundings. Before I float too far down the river though, let’s get started with our…
Know Before You Go Essential Facts
- The ride is located in Pandora in Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- There is no height requirement
- Fastpass+ is available
- The fright factor is 1 out of 5
- Rider switch is offered
- Guests must transfer from a wheelchair/ECV
- Audio description and handheld captioning are available
- Children under age 7 years must be accompanied by a person age 14 years or older
- The ride is 4:30 minutes long
- The ride opened on May 27, 2017.
Those are the facts, now time for the fun!
The Shaman’s Song, beckons you deeper into the bioluminescent forest as you float down your Na’vi River Journey. This simple boat ride takes you through an incredibly rich environment. The surroundings come to life through colorful plants, projection technology, and a state of the art Audio Animatronic known as the Na’vi Shaman of Songs. This won’t be the most thrilling ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but if you go in with the right expectation level you should enjoy the immersive environment. Today, I want to help set your expectations properly so you can appreciate what this ride has to offer.
When Pandora – The World of Avatar was first announced in 2011, the rides for the land were still a mystery. At the 2013 D23 Expo, riders were given their first clue as to what was to come. Tom Staggs announced a boat ride that would, “wander through a nighttime jungle of bioluminescent plants that come alive with light and sound.” In 2016 the name for Na’vi River Journey was announced, and before the ride opened, scenes from the river journey were part of the marketing campaign for Pandora – The World of Avatar. As it turns out, the initial description of this ride was pretty much spot on. Let’s look at what this statement includes and what it excludes in order to give you a good understanding of the ride.
The statement says you will wander through a nighttime jungle, which is true. The ride is located indoors, actually on the ground floor of the same building that houses Avatar – Flight of Passage above. Inside, you board small reed boats that hold 8 passengers. Your boat takes you through the forest of Pandora at night, with pops of brilliant blues, purples, greens, and more. The journey begins by entering a cave where you encounter a native Na’vi warrior. This noble looking specimen is actually a projection and your first encounter with the projection technology used on this ride.
The forest has many layers, giving the illusion of greater depth and an environment that goes far beyond the walls only 20 feet away. For simplicity’s sake, think of this ride as having a foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground and middle ground of the ride take up the first 5-15 feet. This area is made up of actual plants, trees, waterfalls, pools, and more. The background of each room is about 15-20 feet away and there you will see the projection technology at work. The Na’vi warrior in the first room, the viperwolves in the next, and the direhorses in another are brought to life with projectors. The rich reality of the foreground and middle ground frame these projected areas so they are each very convincing. The combination of layer after detailed layer makes the forest feel very real and very immersive.
This is especially true anytime you look up. The jungle does not stop at eye level. Instead, the trees, vines, and leaves extend over the river you float down. These aren’t static plants though, they are alive with bioluminescence just like the rest of the forest. In one room you can even see the shadows of the animals walking across the giant leaves overhead. If that wasn’t enough, the forest’s sky is also alive with orange flying fan lizards and glowing blue woodsprites. Just like in the film, the woodsprites appear to float through the air as if by magic. The land and the air in Pandora are both full of life, and the Na’vi River Journey does a good job of displaying this fullness.
Accompanying this dazzling display of movement and color is the other element mentioned in that original statement, sound! The forest is full of native animals howling, and bugs chirping. The cadence of wildlife produces its own type of music. The deeper you journey, the more you hear, and soon the sounds of the forest are met by the song of the Shaman. Softly at first, you hear the drums of the Shaman and then her voice comes into focus as she sings out to Eywa, the guiding force and deity of the Na’vi. As you pass a beautiful babbling brook, you will begin to see projections of Na’vi on the move in the distant background. They too are being called to the Shaman’s song. As the short boat ride progresses, the forest surroundings become more dynamic and the momentum builds to the encounter with the Shaman of Songs. Finally, you come around a bend in the river and there you come face to face with the highlight of the ride.
The Shaman of Songs is a life-size Audio Animatronic Na’vi that measures close to 10’ tall. She sits on a large stump next to the river with one leg crossed. As you float by she sings and waves her arms and body back and forth to the rhythm of the song. It is immediately apparent that this AA figure is more dynamic and more complex than anything Disney has created before. If you could stop your boat and just watch the face of the Shaman, you could see the muscles in her face moving. Even her eyelids have individual movements! The Imagineers have pushed themselves with this AA figure with the goal of creating a character capable of expressing emotion.
The result is the Shaman of Songs who is truly expressive. Her song is designed to direct positive energy back to the forest. Thanks to the complexity of the AA technology, she really does look as though she is sending this energy back into the forest. Her body sways back and forth, but does so with an impressive range of motion. Her fingers move fluidly, bending and pointing as though they are real. Everything about the Shaman of Songs looks real and there is no doubt that this is the most lifelike AA figure Walt Disney Imagineering has ever created. Check out the end of this promotional video for an up close look at the Shaman!
Unfortunately, your boat doesn’t slow down to give you any more time to take in this breathtaking scene. Your journey continues and you soon find yourself leaving the forest and returning to the cave walls that surrounded you as you began the trip. As the song of the Shaman and the sounds of the forest fade into the distance, you can again see the loading dock. The short boat ride seems over almost as quickly as it began. There is no doubt that this was a memorable journey through the nighttime forest, alive with light and sound. That part of the original statement definitely lives up to its promise.
Now, let’s take a minute and talk about what is missing from the original description of the ride. That would be any mention of a story associated with your journey down the Na’vi River. Like the greater landscape outside of the ride in Pandora, your time here is all about the beauty of the surroundings. You won’t find any of the well known characters from the film, or any storyline about the battle between the humans and the Na’vi. Like Pandora, this ride is set a generation after the timeline of the film Avatar. Pandora is now at peace and is welcoming visitors to explore and appreciate the connection to nature found on their exotic moon. There is about as much story here as you would find if going to explore a cave or nature trail in your own backyard.
This lack of story has been one of the biggest criticisms of the ride in its opening days. Disney fans have grown accustomed to the detailed stories of other boat rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or Frozen Ever After. Well, Na’vi River Journey is very different from those rides in this way. When comparing it to other Disney boat rides I would liken it more to It’s a Small World. That classic boat ride has a simple message of global unity, but it doesn’t tell a story from one room to the next. Instead, It’s a Small World is about conveying its message through art, design, and music. The same can really be said of Na’vi River Journey. It has a simple message of connecting with nature and delivers this message with its own style of art, design, and sound. The experience is about taking in the visual feast in front of you and listening to the sounds all around you. Of course, one key difference between these two boat rides is duration. It’s a Small World takes you on a 10 minute global journey, more than double the amount of time you spend on Na’vi River Journey. This shorter ride time is one of the main reasons some are disappointed when they finally get to ride Na’vi River Journey. Plus, when opting for the standby queue, you may spend an hour or more in line waiting for this 4 1/2 minute boat ride. Imagine you waited more than an hour to ride It’s a Small World. How would you feel about that experience? Probably not great! I like It’s a Small World as much as the next person, but I will skip riding if there is more than a 20 minute wait posted.
Someday, when Pandora – The World of Avatar is not the newest, shiniest toy in the toy box, I think the wait times for Na’vi River Journey will come down to a reasonable level. When that happens, I suspect this ride will be one families enjoy doing each time they visit Walt Disney World. When you are on the ride, there is almost no break in the illusion that you are floating through the bioluminescent forest at night. The plants come right up to the water of the river and the lush vegetation covers any sign that you are inside a two-story building. This dense cover creates an immersive environment and also provides you more to see than you can possibly take in during a single journey. Once you know what to expect and you can enjoy this ride without a long wait I think many will begin to appreciate the tremendous amount of work that has been put into this ride.
Of course, I’m talking about the future when the vast majority of visitors to Disney’s Animal Kingdom aren’t all holed up in Pandora – The World of Avatar. So, let’s talk a little about the now. Should you add this to your next trip or wait for the wait times to come down? As of today, I would recommend riding Na’vi River Journey with a Fastpass+. While I did appreciate the beauty within this ride, I utilized a FP+ and I certainly understand how some would be disappointed if they had waited a long time for the short 4 1/2 minute ride. The only issue with obtaining a FastPass+ is that this is currently a Tier 1 FP+, meaning you can only select one ride from Tier 1. As you might have guessed, Avatar – Flight of Passage is also a Tier 1 FP+. So, you can’t get a FP+ for both rides on the same day. As we will discuss next week, I highly recommend riding Avatar – Flight of Passage if you meet the 44” height requirement. Oh, and you definitely need a Fastpass for Flight of Passage! So, the only way to ride Na’vi River Journey with a FP+ would be to visit the Animal Kingdom on more than one day and split up your Pandora rides.
If you don’t have a Fastpass for Na’vi River Journey, you should head straight there at rope drop if you really want to experience the ride. That’s assuming you do have a Fastpass for Flight of Passage, or you just aren’t planning to ride the more thrilling of the two Avatar rides. That reminds me, I think you will enjoy the Na’vi River Journey more if you ride it before Avatar – Flight of Passage. A gentle family friendly boat ride has a hard time living up to the extreme thrill of a simulated adventure like Flight of Passage. So do the boat ride first and then climb the mountain for Avatar – Flight of Passage.
That brings me back to my overall impressions of the Na’vi River Journey. I think this is a good, not great, ride. I had heard several complaints about the short length and lack of story before I took my first ride. With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised at how much the Imagineers packed into the short 4 1/2 minute time span. Everywhere I looked there was more to see. The layers upon layers of different techniques within the ride give it a life unlike anything else in Walt Disney World. There is one scene where a very real log runs over a pool just off the river. In the far background there are projections of the Na’vi moving through the forest. However, if you look closely in the foreground, there on the log, there are also projections of bugs scurrying across the mossy bark. The combination of real, tangible elements with digital projections allows the Imagineers to provide a depth of detail that is truly amazing. The AA Shaman of Songs is also more advanced than anything I have seen on another Disney ride.
If the boat ride lasted 8-10 minutes with the same level of detail I think everyone would give this ride high marks. As we will discuss next time, the 4 1/2 minute length is actually the same as that of Avatar – Flight of Passage. Of course there is a big difference between a faster paced 4-minutes of flight aboard a banshee and a slow moving 4-minutes of floating on the river. So, keep that in mind when you think about adding the Na’vi River Journey to your touring plan. This should be a great choice for very young kids and older adults. It is a ride the whole family can do together which is always a plus in my book. Just make sure you don’t wait a long time for this ride and take in everything you can once aboard, and you will have a nice relaxing experience.
I hope you will come back next time when we sit down to take flight on Avatar – Flight of Passage. Thank you again for tuning in today. Wherever you are listening from I hope you have a great week, and let’s all make each day a ride worth taking!
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