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REVIEW: Initial Thoughts from Inside Pandora – The World of AVATAR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

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On Saturday evening, I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend to a cast member preview of Pandora: The World of AVATAR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. While not yet open to the public, there are a series of previews for certain types of guests between now and the May 27th grand opening of the land. While I have still not experienced the Flight of Passage attraction and the Satuli Canteen (which we hope to during Saturday’s annual passholder preview), I have received a lot of questions about my experience, so I wanted to share what we saw during our 2-hour preview. Here we go…

Walking Around Pandora

We have seen lot of very pretty press photos, and the jaded theme park blogger in me was skeptical if I would care about trees and rocks. Turns out that I do.

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Pandora is absolutely stunning and evokes all of the feelings I had the first time I gazed upon the Cadillac Range from inside of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. The floating mountains are amazing, especially when you stand underneath them. They are unique in that they are in the center of the land, allowing you to see them from 360 degrees as you traverse the land and the attraction queues, each angle giving you a completely different, awe-inspiring view.

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Every inch is covered in detail with no space left unattended to. Alien plantlife is everywhere, water features abound, military base ruins are scattered throughout, and impressive rock work covers the landscape. Even silly things like cast member-only access passageways have speakers that play noises like water dripping in a cave, or various animal noises. I swear, if there was something un-themed or that showed signs that we were in a Disney theme park, I couldn’t find them.

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A few weeks back, a source told us that there was no attraction signage for the attractions, and I was skeptical as to how this would work. This is actually true in that there are no marquees for the two rides, but the ACE company has set up what look like temporary stations to guide guests into these experiences. Queues are filled with ACE branded lighting that appears to be temporary and cast members who are trying their hardest to keep you in the story at all times.

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No signs of Mickey Mouse are present on Pandora either, as it is the first themed land constructed without Hidden Mickeys. Even the FastPass+ readers have Alpha Centauri Expedition logos rather than Mickey Mouse icons.

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Beyond that, we found some fun diversions, including an interactive drum circle, a large plant creature that reacted to touch, and strange alien animals who squirt water at guests. This is what theme parks are all about. I love these little things you can do between rides and eating that are unexpected, but decidedly cool and fun.

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Despite not having the charm of a small town around Route 66, I found myself wanting to just stand or sit around and watch the world of Pandora unfold around me. Picturesque spots with waterfalls, raised observation areas, and secondary pathways offer plenty to explore and an atmosphere so pleasant that it’s hard not to get caught up in it. I can forsee a lot of days where I will be grabbing a drink at Pongu Pongu and just walking around the land, watching the flurry of activity from guests, cast members, and entertainers alike. Although, the pathways may not be big enough for the expected crowds, but we’ll see, I guess…

I did find some charm in the Pongu Pongu refreshment kiosk, but we’ll talk more about that later this week (and I’m going to yell about the missing hula skirt a bit).

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Na’vi River Journey

Initial reactions to the Navi River Journey have been underwhelming, but I found a far more positive experience than most. This isn’t a thrill ride, in fact, it’s Animal Kingdom’s first and only family-friendly dark ride.

The queue for the Na'vi River Journey
The queue for the Na’vi River Journey

The show sets are of the highest quality. There are many areas where the depth of the forest seems to go on forever, making you second guess just how big the scene around you really is.

The projected animals of Pandora are somewhat underwhelming, utilizing the projection technology developed for the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and The Seas with Nemo and Friends over ten years ago, leading to moments where you can kind-of see through the creatures. That being said, the physical sets and some of the projection-mapping effects are second to none. I found myself arguing with my friends about the first Navi to appear in the ride and if he was a moving figure or a projection. He’s a projection, but one of the most convincing I have ever seen.

The ride isn’t flawless. It could probably use a few moving figures of larger creatures for sure, but it isn’t unenjoyable. This isn’t a showstopper and it really doesn’t need to be with the Flight of Passage next door. It serves a purpose for those who can’t ride the bigger thrill ride and adds ride capacity & variety to the park.

I like to think of but as Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Navi Shaman, and yes, that AA figure is as impressive in person as it looked on video.

We have a full walkthrough of the queue and on-ride video of the Navi River Journey to share with you as well:

Flight of Passage

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Since it is currently not fully operational, very few guests at each preview event have had the chance to ride the Flight of Passage attraction, but the queue has been available for walking tours. Walking this queue, I have one thought to share: be afraid, be very afraid. The queue is long, longer than any I have ever encountered. If you thought the line for the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland seemingly went on forever, then you are going to be amazed as you weave through the 6-hours of inhabitable queue space that the Flight of Passage ride has available, if need be. Walking at a good speed through the entire queue with very little stopping took me about 10 minutes. 10 minutes to hike from the entrance to the pre-show area. That’s intense.

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That being said, it might be the most well-thought out and immersive queue ever constructed for a theme park. The outside portion winds beautifully through the mountain range before taking you into the caverns where you’ll find massive cave paintings of Banshees. The queue then goes through the remnants of an RDA facility before entering the active research facility of the Pandoran Conservation Initiative.

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You can walk through the entire queue in our video below:

Shopping at Windtraders

One thing Pandora is not short on is unique merchandise. I can’t express the excitement I felt to walk through an entire store that carries merchandise I have not seen anywhere else at Walt Disney World. Every inch is covered in unique offering you’ll only find here, making a shopping trip to Pandora something very special.

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With how hard it is to find merchandise not shared between the Disney Parks around the world these days, a shop with items that can only be found in the land (and apparently will never be offered through the Shop Disney Parks app or DisneyStore.com) is incredibly refreshing.

You can have yourself turned into a Na'vi action figure inside the Windtraders shop
You can have yourself turned into a Na’vi action figure inside the Windtraders shop

Despite my hatred of the film, I was quite enamored with a fair amount of the merchandise. I’ll honestly need an entire post just to talk bout how cool some of the items were. That being said, for every cool item, there is probably something that will never sell, but hey, that’s a much higher success rate that we expected.

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There is also a face painting station called Colors of Mo’ara, if you are so inclined.

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OVERALL

While I still need to ride the Flight of Passage and dine at the Satuli Canteen, it is clear that Disney and Cameron have succeeded. Disney took a movie franchise with almost no fandom and little affection from the general public and built something very special with it. In many cases, we complain that some movies don’t work well as theme park attractions because you have to try and tell the story in a very truncated format (because, let’s face it, very rarely do we get original stories based on movies rather than film retellings). In this case, we have a film with very little substance that honestly seems like it was made for an in-person experience rather than a near-3-hour film. I recall riding the Haunted Mansion or seeing the Country Bear Jamboree and thinking, “How are they going to make an entertaining movie out of this?” With AVATAR, If the theme park land had come first, I would have wondered the same thing.

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Disney Imagineering has honestly made their critics of the last 6 years look pretty silly, providing an experience at a level seldom seen in many theme parks. The Harry Potter lands at Universal Orlando and Cars Land come to mind, and this project has all the feel of those. The size, the scope, the level of detail, the number of different types of offerings available to guests, they’re all there. Provided Flight of Passage delivers and Satuli Canteen is at least edible (both big “IF”s, trust me), I think this is an incredibly important addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom that may make it the premier park at Walt Disney World (at least until 2019 and the opening of Star Wars Land). Don’t get me wrong, the Magic Kingdom is wonderful and amazing, but it lacks a large-scale experience with this level of immersion and detail, something that audiences seem to crave at this point in time.

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Pandora: The World of AVATAR does more to connect audiences with this franchise than the movie’s 3-D gimmickry ever could.

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Stay tuned as later this week we review the drinks and snacks of Pongu Pongu, the Banshee Rookery experience, and I talk about seven things we like and dislike (so far) about Pandora: The World of AVATAR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

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About the author

Tom Corless

Tom has been regularly visiting the Walt Disney World® Resort from the time he was 4 months old. While he has made countless visits in the last 28 years, he did not become a truly active member in the Disney fan community until the summer of 2007, when he decided to launch the WDW News Today website and podcast. Tom has since become an Orlando-local and is a published author on Walt Disney World.

28 Comments

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  • I agree! Not only was the subject fascinating, but the review itself was well-written and a pleasure to read!

  • Very good….I look forward to the reviews of the other ride and the eatery. I’m not a big fan of the movie either, but the land looks interesting.

  • Ugh. I still need convincing. My hatred for the movie with its ‘shame on you for being human & shame on you even more for begin American’ message and lack of excitement for the upcoming films has really got me in a bad mood about this. Like the rest of AK, I’m sure it will be beautiful but it just seems too fake to me by the pictures especially in the river journey… Looks as if some imagined head a full hallucinogenic trip and barfed it up on the blue prints. And one actual navi character in the full ride after six years of dayglow painting and putting in color changing light bulbs? Again… I’m sure it is just my predisposition and I’ll be pleasantly surprised but I need convincing for sure. I just wonder if 10 years from now we’ll be looking at this thinking too bad they can’t just replace this ride…. But it’s a full heavily specifically themed land and the is no way to replace parts of it to shift its direction.

    • I agree, one actually animatronic & the rest were projections. It was LAME! I’m still scratching my head as to how it took Disney that long to create something so little. Save your time

  • The question is why spend all this time on Avatar… can’t find anyone who likes the movie.

    This is not Harry Potter….Disney relies on repeat visits…anyone going to want to see this twice?

  • Thanks for the review Tom, can’t wait till this July. One thing that comes to mind, with adding Avatar to Animal Kingdom I wonder if there will be a different security entry system to the park as they should expect to see the crowds increase at AK. Will they move security out further, i am sure there will be growing pains with this at first.

  • I’m fairly certain the Alpha Centauri Expedition logo on the FastPass+ readers ARE hidden Mickey’s!

    Also, it’s somewhat ironic (comical) that you refer to the fact there is no signage and the themeing is second to none…however in your one photo–front and center–there are two custodial workers wearing white, holding brooms and pushing a trash can.

  • Awesome review. Absolutely love the pictures and can’t wait to experience everything. Anyone that said anything negative about this will definitely be eating their words and feeling incredibly stupid for questioning Disney.

  • I’m glad you enjoyed it, and it does look technically impressive. But this attraction has “targeted primarily at foreign tourists” written all over it. I can only hope it diverts some of the crowds from the things I actually want to see.

  • great write up…while you say there are no Mickey’s in this land…the ACE emblem on Magic Band reader indeed looks like a Mickey of sorts…

  • Agreed with the comments above. Top-shelf stuff. Super excited to see that someone who hated the film as much as I did still enjoyed Pandora.

  • Avatar has little fandom and no public support? It was one of highest grossing movies ever. What planet are you living on ;-) ?

    • Rich, true-but I think it what made it so popular were the special effects, beautiful scenery, etc. The story line, however, kinda stunk. I admit I am not a techie, but if I’m correct, I think what made this movie so popular when it came out was the technology that was considered very high-tech when it was released in 2009, but in 2017, it seems like old-hat now. The storyline itself really was never loved by all that much by audiences, but if the new Pandora land is just as aesthetically pleasing as everyone seems to think it is, then we’ll be looking at 2 hour+ waits for years to come. Maybe I’ll change my mind after I see Pandora for myself, but until then, I’ll just continue to sit here and stew over the fact that Disney spent so much money on an attraction based on a movie I was totally mad that I wasted hours of my life watching! ;-P

  • Thanks for the review Tom. It kinda reinforce my own feelings on Pandora. I’ll see once I get there

  • I was very unimpressed with Pandora. Was it beautiful to the eye, yes! But that’s it! Should it really have taken Disney as long as it did to create, no way! For 2 lousy rides!!!! The Navi river was very underwhelming! Pirates, a 40 year old ride, is BETTER! There is no bit of excitement, just a colorful boat ride. The Flights of Passage apparently isn’t actually ready for opening. Only 4 of the seats work, and they need time to cool down after each rider….I think Disney overstretched on technology that wasn’t ready for Disney crowds. We waited for over an hour & a half in the “FastPass” line & still didn’t get to experience the attraction.
    We did have lunch at the Saluti Canteen, and it was alright. The best part of it all was that you actually received your food on real plates with real silverware. The kids cheese steam burger already has ketchup, pickles & mustard in it. They don’t advertise that & as a non-pickle/mustard eater, it was a gross surprise.
    I’m throughly unimpressed! Luckily I did not set my expectations high, so the let down wasn’t too harsh. But I would not waste my time or money to make this a priority on my Disney to-do list. Go enjoy some Disney classics & save your time!

  • I was just there and I don’t know if it changed in the last week or this person just hates Disney. First the boat ride was amazing it felt like you had gone to a new world. I have traveled a lot and it was breath taking. The animals move flawlessly and there are a thousand little things from bugs to the bigger animals all over the place, I road it 3x’s and each time I found something new moving around in there. Just breath taking. I like the Universal rides but they didn’t take my breath away. I also got to ride the Banshee ride I will say this it is very similar to Soarin and Star Tours like if you took the best of both and thru them on this new ride. The smells the feels is amazing, I still wish it had been more like Harry Potter ride or even ET, vs yet another big screen but the idea and the hook up to the machine and vibrations and even the way you come off the ride makes it seem like this was the best fit. You get on a bike and you “become one with your avatar and banshee” and you literally connect and fly over the world and it is again breathtaking, Then just as sudden as it started you are pushed out and back to earth. Even if you hated the movie the beautiful and stunning designs are worth it.

    • Universal’s Harry Potter attractions are incredible! I’m with you there. And since you actually got to ride Flights of Passage, would you do it again if you had to wait in a 6 hour long line? Would you do it again standing in a 2 hour long line?

  • My husband and I visited Pandora this week and it’s beautiful The river ride is beautiful, quiet and slow- as it’s meant to be, a break from real life. The Flight of Passage was amazing! As close as you can get to flying. Yes, similar in technology with Soarin’ but so much more. I too, describe it as breathtaking! We visited on Tues May 16, and experienced no issues with the ride and all available seats were working fine! Expect long lines for FOP. Right now, it’s my favorite ride in Disney.

  • Experienced the preview today with both rides fully functional. Might ride again if 10 minute or less wait, but not worth more than that. Underwhelming puts it mildly. Rivers ride = small world without the catchy tune. Simulator okay, gimmicky, but seems like Disney hired queue designers from Universal, with all the money spent there instead of in the attraction. Definitely not an Avatar fan anyway, but Disney should have saved the licensing fees and let the Imagineers do mythical beasts instead.

  • I was not impressed myself and I’ve been waiting for this since they announced that Pandora would be coming to Animal Kingdom. I feel like it was too small. The River ride was a major disappointment. I haven’t been on the Flight of Passage yet, but hoping to go back on Friday to ride it. The other thing that was not fun to experience was the lighting at night. It looks beautiful but it messes with my eyes and made me very dizzy, I’m not sure I want to come back at night. I don’t know what “new” technology they had behind this, because the floors were just painted in luminescent paint and everything else was just lights. As much as I did enjoy the movie, I think Disney has enough movies that they could’ve turned into reality.

  • I will confess to agreeing with some of the posts here of being underwhelmed. The park was no where near as big i imagined it to be. It was basically one center piece holding up two separate rides. I was expecting to walk through Pandora and experience the world of Avatar.

    Major disappointment.

    Now the Flight of Passage … WOW. Just WOW. First of all, this is the best organized queue system in any park. While we queued for 2hrs, you were always moving, no stop-starts. The queue system is long with lots of different themes along the way. The actual lab theme where the floating avatar is stunning, and a great reward for queuing so long.

    The ride itself was Sorin x 10. Truly wonderful and well thought out. Well done Disney.

    But overall, this will not save this park. The nighttime show is the weakest of all the parks and the water rapid rides is painfully short and a complete waste of time. The only thing I regularly enjoy with Animal Kingdom is the Lion King stage show. Finding Nemo needs replacing – it has run its course.

    Pandora .. nice addition, but somewhat out of place here, would have served better in my view, in Hollywood given the resulting size of the ‘park’.

  • We went to Magic Kingdom this morning, before 9 (when it opens). It usually closes at 10 after the fireworks, but today we had no discount but we’d have to pay more 80 dollars or leave at 7 watching no show. Ridiculous. So they suggested us to go to visit animal kingdom and Hollywood studios today, because we would do it tomorrow – so we would switch the two days we had planned. Stressed up and now facing a 30 minutes trip between parks, we got the line for the bus. So guess: it took one entire hour to arrive. We woke up 7 in the morning, went to magic kingdom before 9 and then we were in the second inspection of bags at 11am. Our plan to know Hollywood studios at the same day was ruined. So I went to guest relation, because Disney is not satisfied if we have an experience less than magic… and so they gave us 2 fast-tracks tickets, to skip 2 lines. But they were not valid for Pandora attractions, which have the longest lines. So we had to use the tickets to skip 2 ridiculous 20 minutes lines and – again – face a long wait. Ah, and don’t believe in the fake line time previsions, you’re gonna spend from 30 to 60 minutes more in the lines, most of it under a killing sun. I never though I’d say that, but Disney had REALLY disappointed me. Absolutely NOTHING was magic on the first day bringing my girlfriend and a friend on Orlando. If you want to visit some Disney park, be ready to expend an extra fortune in fast track tickets to wait in line the actual time that Disney should make a human being wait. Or else try praying to snow over Orlando so you can visit an empty park. Or, the best option!: forget about it!!! Go to Universal where the lines are fast or maybe North Korea where they should respect you more!!!