This week we are doing something new, we are covering an entire land! It’s not every day that Disney opens an entire new section within one of the four theme parks, so I’m very excited to share with you Pandora – The World of Avatar.
Let’s get started with our…
Know Before You Go Essential Facts
- The land is located in Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- There are 2 Rides, 1 Quick Service Restaurant, 1 Quick Service Drink Stand, and 2 Merchandise locations
- The land is open during Animal Kingdom Hours of Operation, plus Extra Magic Hours when applicable
- The land opened on May 27, 2017.
Those are the facts, now time to journey 4 million light years away!
Kaltxi, and welcome to Pandora – The World of Avatar! You are now entering a hyper detailed alien landscape, designed to wow you at every turn. The film Avatar serves as the inspiration for this place, but the true aim of the Imagineers is to celebrate the magic of nature. They do so by bombarding your senses with the sights, sounds, and smells of Pandora. As with everything Disney does, there is a rich back story that accompanies this place. Today we will discuss that story, and see how it comes to life in the landscape, the rides, and the food of Pandora – The World of Avatar.
On September 20, 2011, Disney announced their partnership with Avatar creator and director James Cameron, and his company Lightstorm Entertainment. This news sent shock waves through the Disney fan community as it confused some and surprised all. Rather than show extreme excitement about a new land at Walt Disney World, many responded with questions. “Why Avatar and why the Animal Kingdom?” was the question many asked when plans for an Avatar themed land were revealed. While Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time, it is not a Disney movie. It is also a science fiction film with 10 foot tall blue people. Many wondered how the fictional land created by James Cameron related in any way to the true life adventure of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Well, the answer to all of those questions lies in the original announcement made:
“We believe Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a great fit for this project because it was created to give guests the opportunity to experience the worlds of animals and nature – real and mythical – in new ways. Disney’s Animal Kingdom also celebrates adventure, living in harmony with nature and environmental stewardship – themes that are deeply rooted in the story of AVATAR.”
- Thomas Smith, Editorial Content Director, Disney Parks
With Pandora – The World of Avatar now open, this statement from 2011 makes so much sense. Rather than focusing on the alien aspects of the film, Disney clearly made a decision to focus on the natural elements and themes found in the movie. There is also a bit of an easter egg in this statement, referring to the “real and mythical” animals and nature. The original plans for Disney’s Animal Kingdom included a second phase called “Beastly Kingdom.” This land was planned for the same piece of real estate that is now occupied by Pandora. Had the “Beastly Kingdom” come to life, this area of the park would have paid tribute to all sorts of mythical animals. Traces of this plan can still be seen in parts of the Animal Kingdom today. Keep a close eye out for a dragon on signs leading into the park. Dragons would have served as the main mythical animal on the planned headliner attraction.
There is a lovely rabbit hole that I would love to go down, explaining why “Beastly Kingdom” was never built, but we just don’t have time for that full story today. If you would like to learn more about “Beastly Kingdom” watch the video below.
What is too fascinating not to share is the influence Universal Orlando had on this little section of Walt Disney World. Had Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park been more successful when it opened in 1999, there is a good chance “Beastly Kingdom” would have been built shortly after in Walt Disney World. However, Islands of Adventure did not do well when it first opened and the threat of another theme park drawing visitors away from Disney did not materialize. At least not until Harry Potter World came along a decade later. When the boy wizard took the theme park world by storm in 2010, Universal’s Islands of Adventure was now a threat that Disney couldn’t ignore. Disney revisited the space for “Beastly Kingdom”, but thanks to Harry Potter, Disney knew they needed more than just a land of mythical animals. They needed a well known franchise to power their ideas. Thanks to Universal Islands of Adventure, the idea for “Beastly Kingdom” was never realized, but a new idea known as Pandora was thrust into the Disney spotlight.
Hopefully that very brief overview of park history will help you understand why Disney chose Avatar, and why Pandora looks the way it does today. While it was important to have a recognizable franchise like Avatar, the Imagineering team has worked very hard to highlight the connection to nature in Pandora. That connection in turn fits into the large theme of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The importance of nature and animal conservation has always been the central theme to this park. That has been represented in the prehistoric land of Dinoland U.S.A. and the current landscape of today through rides like Kilimanjaro Safaris. While Pandora now represents the realm of fantasy, it still functions to promote conservation and natural beauty. Like the movie Avatar, this land tells the story of the struggle between man and nature. What is different from the movie is the timeframe in which that story takes place. Now that we have a backdrop for the park history, let’s talk about the backstory of Pandora itself.
Pandora – The World of Avatar brings visitors to a time far removed from the first film of Avatar. In the first Avatar film, a greedy corporation known as the Resources Development Administration (RDA) is mining the natural resource of unobtanium at all costs. This puts them in direct conflict with the indigenous species of the planet, a people called the Na’vi. As the movie progresses, the inevitable conflict culminates in an all out war between the two sides. At the film’s conclusion, the Na’vi have successfully defended their home and the RDA is sent packing. Obviously relations between the two species are not very cordial at that moment in time so setting Pandora in that era would be problematic.
So, the Disney Imagineers decided to fast forward the story a full generation ahead. After more conflict, which will be explored in the sequels to Avatar, a time of peace comes to Pandora. The Na’vi and humans have learned to live together, and even welcome human visitors to their home. Travelers can visit Pandora through a company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions or A.C.E for short. A.C.E. has partnered with the Na’vi to make Pandora a place for ecotourism and scientific research. In addition to bringing visitors to the moon of Pandora, A.C.E. has created the Pandora Conservation Initiative to study native Pandoran species. This initiative is what allows guests to fly on the back of a banshee in Avatar – Flight of Passage; more on that in just a bit. Throughout the land there are clues to the time frame you are experiencing. Remnants of the RDA remain, but are now covered in years of growth from the native plants. The one place this is most evident is the main restaurant, called the Satu’li Canteen.
Satu’li Canteen is a quick service restaurant that serves as the main dining option in Pandora. The theme of the land is on full display here, as this was a former RDA mess hall, but is now covered with Na’vi artifacts and art. There is a distinctive juxtaposition of aesthetics at Satu’li Canteen. The exterior and the main dining room are full of organic shapes and natural colors. Quite the opposite, the far interior, where you place your order, is compromised of metallic walls and ceilings. The colors are blues and grays, the lines of the structure hard and straight. This dichotomy helps tell the story of what came before and what lives here now.
As for the food, the flavors of Satu’li Canteen are designed to seem somewhat alien, while not too alienating. Travelers can create their own bowl from a variety of options. First, you choose your base. Options include a quinoa and vegetable salad, a red and sweet potato hash, mixed whole grain rice, or a kale and romaine salad. Next you choose your protein. This can be wood-grilled chicken, slow-roasted beef, fish, or chili-spiced fried tofu. Finally, add a sauce of either charred onion chimichurri, black bean vinaigrette, or creamy herb dressing. The creation of your choosing is topped with boba balls.
If a bowl doesn’t have your mouth watering you can opt for the steamed pods of bao buns. Here you can choose between the cheeseburger or vegetable steamed curry pods. Both are served with a side of root vegetable chips and a crunchy vegetable slaw topped with boba balls. You can wash all of this down with a variety of soft drinks or alcoholic beverages including a Dreamwalker Sangria or Banshee Chardonnay. For dessert, you can have a blueberry cream cheese mouse or chocolate cake.
Just outside of the canteen is Pongu Pongu, a drink stand offering the land’s signature beverages. The stand is run by an expat that fell in love with Pandora and never left. The name Pongu Pongu means “Party, Party.” The drinks are inspired by the Na’vi and feature a rainbow of colorful concoctions. The Night Blossom is a speciality drink, available in adult or non-alcoholic versions, which is a mixture of limeade with apple and desert pear flavors topped with passion fruit boba balls. You can even order one with a glowing unadelta seed to give your drink the same look as the bioluminescent plants surrounding the stand. The same drafts and ales found in Satu’li Canteen are also available at Pongu Pongu. If you need something sweet to go with your sweet drink you can order the Pongu Lumpia. This is a pineapple cream cheese spring roll which comes in a pack of two.
Connected to this drink stand you will find Windtraders, the merchandise shop you pass through when exiting Avatar – Flight of Passage. This shop has just about everything a Na’vi lover could dream of. Apparel, plush animals, a Na’vi bow and arrow, pins, jewelry, and even personal banshees are part of the selection at Windtraders. Many of these items are designed to celebrate the bioluminescence found in the land by lighting up at night. Die hard fans can even pay to have their likeness turned into their very own Na’vi action figure. A facial capture scanner is used to scan the subject which is then turned into an Avatar. After selecting their Avatar’s body style, eye color, facial striping pattern, and hair style an ACE technician begins building the action figure. It takes about 30 minutes for the figure to be completed, but guests can return after this period to pick up their own figure and take it home.
For those looking for more immediate gratification, head over to Colors of Mo’ara. This stand located on the east side of Pandora transforms guests with Na’vi inspired face painting. Kids of all ages can have their face painted blue to look like a native Na’vi. Apparel and accessories are also sold here to help complete the look.
But what’s the use of getting all dolled up in blue face paint with nowhere to go? Well, that brings us to my favorite part of Pandora, the rides! There are two rides at Pandora: the family friendly Na’vi River Journey and the thrilling Avatar – Flight of Passage. We will be devoting a full episode to each of these rides in the next couple of weeks so we won’t go into much detail here. Of course, I have to tell you just a little about these two great rides!
The Na’vi River Journey is a pleasant boat ride with no height requirement. Reed boats take you deep into the jungle within the Valley of Mo’ara. Inside, the forest comes to life in brilliant bioluminescence and the journey concludes with a 10-foot tall Audio Animatronic Na’vi shaman.
Avatar – Flight of Passage is the headliner of the land. It offers guests over 44” the opportunity to link with an Avatar and take flight through Pandora atop a banshee. The 3-D simulation is a total sensory experience that immerses riders unlike anything Disney has done to date. This is the one ride you don’t want to miss, and the one you definitely want to have a Fastpass+ for. I look forward to telling you more about this amazing experience in its own podcast episode.
So, that covers the rides, the merchandise, and the food of Pandora – The World of Avatar. What we haven’t talked about is the land itself. Disney Imagineers were faced with a daunting task when trying to bring the completely digital world of Avatar to life in a very real and tangible way. Through years of hard work, research, and creative thinking they have managed to cultivate a land unlike anything else.
When you cross over the bridge into the Valley of Mo’ara, you can immediately sense the change in atmosphere. The sounds of the native animals and wildlife fill the air with chirping. The smells of the jungle penetrate each pathway. The beauty of the flowers, the streams, and the mountains is evident in every direction. To help maintain the illusion that you have traveled 4 million light years to the moon of Pandora, you won’t find any Mickey Mouse heads on the Fastpass+ stands. For that matter, you won’t even find a big marquee showing the entrance to the two rides. Instead, everything looks like an extension of the natural surroundings. When a structure is necessary, like a FP+ scan stand, the round emblem is stamped with the ACE logo. The only thing signifying the entrance to the rides are the digital timers displaying the wait time or FP+ return time. If it weren’t for this you could easily pass right by while staring up at the floating mountains above.
The floating mountains are the centerpiece of the Valley of Mo’ara. Disney uses the old trick of forced perspective to give the illusion that the mountains go higher into the atmosphere than is actually the case. The supporting structure for the mountains is covered in roots and vines, making the entire construction look as natural as possible. The mountains are bursting with life through the use of water all around. Some of the rocks have waterfalls starting high up above and falling down to pools below. The paths within the valley take you under the mountains and weave you though the different pools of water. The alien plants of Pandora have been carefully sculpted into each of these landscapes and surrounded by live plants from Earth. The result is a vibrant realistic landscape with a subtly alien feel.
At night, the valley takes on a completely different character. As the sun sets, the sounds of nocturnal animals awakening in the forest can be heard. The bioluminescent plants begin to glow, providing the main source of lighting for the valley. What looked like a familiar, but exotic landscape during the day, transforms into something completely alien at night.
This transformation makes Pandora – The World of Avatar a great place to visit multiple times, even on the same visit. Roaming the paths of the valley during the day provides a bright, exuberant experience. Returning at night delivers an enchanting, magical feeling, different from any other Disney park after dark.
I will say that I visited Pandora at night before seeing it during the day. If I had it to do over again I would switch this order. I think seeing the land during the day and getting a feel for the overall landscape is helpful for navigating at night. In the effort to create a very real and natural environment, the Imagineers have installed very little lighting outside of the bioluminescent plants. This makes the overall land very dark at night, and somewhat disorienting when you don’t know where the different paths lead. However, if you have the lay of the land from visiting during the day I think your time here at night will be that much more enjoyable.
Overall, Pandora – The World of Avatar is the most immersive and hyper detailed land created in a Disney theme park to this point. Whether or not you are fan of Avatar, this place is worth exploring. The sheer beauty created by the Imagineers will be appreciated by most visitors. If you happen to be a big fan of the movie, this will be a dream come true for you. The one word of caution for big fans of the movie, don’t expect to see a lot of characters from the film. While there are some impressive Audio Animatronics located within the two rides, there are not Na’vi walking around Pandora – The World of Avatar. Right now there isn’t even a character experience where you can take a picture with a live Na’vi. I hope this is something that will change in the future, as it was the one aspect I felt missing from Pandora.
Well, I’m sure I could go on and on, but I will save some of my thoughts and impressions for the next two episodes as we take an in depth look at the Na’vi River Journey and Avatar – Flight of Passage. I want to thank you so much for joining me today and for tuning into the WDW Ride Guide. If Pandora – The World of Avatar sounds like a place you can’t wait to visit I would love to help you plan your next Disney vacation!
If you have questions or would like me to help you personally plan your Disney vacation, we can get started as soon as you are ready. My planning services are 100% complimentary when you book your Disney vacation with me. There is no additional charge to book with a Disney travel agent and I’m really here to make sure you get the best deal possible! E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or just call me at 210-853-2488 and we can get started today!
Thank you again for tuning in today! I hope today has helped get you excited about traveling to Pandora. Wherever you reside in the galaxy I hope you have a great week and hope you make each day a ride worth taking!
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