Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to experience a preview expedition into Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. While I have been anxiously awaiting my first Pandoran experience for many, many years, I’m still a little surprised the land is finally here.
In this post, I’m going to talk about the land itself, what Pandora is, the theming, and my overall experience as an ‘explorer’ on this ‘planet’. Keep an eye out for future posts about the food, the rides, and the merchandise on offer in this new world.
Please note: this is not a review. Since Pandora is still in previews and not open to the public, not everything was open or working properly. As such, it would be unfair to give you more than my initial thoughts at this time.
For those who don’t know, Pandora is the planet from James Cameron’s Avatar movie(s) with crazy flora and fauna. The planet is filled with breathtaking vistas, rare minerals, and giant blue humanoid aliens. If you’ve never seen Avatar, don’t worry; I think Disney understood that not everyone likes, or even saw, the first Avatar movie, so they’ve made this land friendly and encompassing for all guests.
The story so far…
Pandora is a land recovering from a long period of war. For many years, a paramilitary company named Resources Development Administration (RDA) mined Pandora for the rare minerals found within. As a species, the Na’vi have deep connections to nature and all living things, so this destructive mining was seen as an affront to everything they held dear. Years and years of war ended with a victory for the Na’vi people and the humans who opposed RDA and their destructive practices.
As time passed, the inhabitants of Pandora began to rebuild their home and repurpose the buildings and machinery left behind by the fleeing RDA troops. With the help of Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE), a human run scientific research group, and the Pandora Conservation Initiative, the Na’vi and humans have developed a partnership to help Pandora thrive after the horrors inflicted upon it during the war. Now, because of ACE, travel between Earth and Pandora is open for “those seeking the ultimate in adventure”.
The main bridge into Pandora, also the only one open during previews, takes guests across the river near Tiffins, straight into the Valley of Mo’ara. Surprisingly, upon crossing that bridge, I actually felt like I had entered a whole new world. Everywhere I looked something new caught my eye. I heard the cries of foreign animals and birds, and I could reach out and touch alien plants and flowers. It seemed as though the entirety of Animal Kingdom had disappeared behind me.
One interesting thing I noticed as well; on the way into Pandora I smelled something odd, kind of a fresh bell pepper smell with a few other plant-like notes mixed in. I truthfully don’t know if this is intentional or a fluke because of all the new landscaping, but it was an interesting sensory addition.
Simply put, walking into the Valley of Mo’ara and seeing the floating Hallelujah Mountains in front of me was pretty breathtaking. I know it’s been said endlessly in the online Disney community, but Pandora really outdoes itself with theming and atmosphere.
The initial fork in the path leads left, towards restrooms and the Drum Circle/Na’vi River Journey area, or right, towards Pongu Pongu and Satu’li Canteen. This rightmost path took me up a rise towards the best overview of the floating mountains and the land itself. This vista was, during the preview at least, being used by Photopass photographers taking pictures of guests with the mountains as a backdrop.
As a whole, Pandora fits in perfectly with Animal Kingdom; I think it even surpasses the rest of the park for theming and atmosphere. Every inch of Pandora is covered with rich detail. The plants, both real and fake, add color and texture to the world around you, blanketing every surface inch with greenery, while the Cast Members themselves really sell their roles. I was greeted by every Cast Member with an excited “Kaltxi, travelers!”, and then frequently engaged in a discussion about the world of Pandora or questions about my travels on the “planet”.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that every inch of Pandora was planned to add a layer to the story of Pandora as Disney imagined it. Many typical theme park accoutrements are entirely absent while exploring Pandora. The land features no attraction signs, opting instead for large “totems” to show guests what lies ahead. Additionally, Disney created Pandora with no references to themselves or Mickey Mouse. Even the Fastpass touchpoints, shining Mickey shaped beacons, only feature the ACE logo.
Paths in Pandora tend to follow the flow of the land, winding under and around the floating mountains, offering spectacular views (and pictures) of the rockwork and water features. On the right side of the land, I found crumbling military ruins, rebar poking up from moss-covered bricks. In this corner of Pandora, you’ll find Pongu Pongu (a hole in the wall bar), and Satu’li Canteen, Pandora’s main eatery.
Pongu Pongu, guarded by a full-sized mechanical exoskeleton, combines the culture of the Na’vi with the culture of humans. Natural braided decorations adorn the thatched roof of the building while the signage comes from repurposed military license plates. The mech out front, ostensibly a tool from past wars, bears a woven armband as a blessing from the Na’vi people.
When I finally left Pandora, I discussed our preview event with my boyfriend who spent the day in the park with me. I commented that, for a few hours at least, it seemed like I actually was somewhere different, somewhere new. He thought for a second, looked at me, and said “You’re right. It’s really boring now that we’re back on Earth”.
Disney profits on building worlds for guests to get lost in. With Pandora, were able to make us, two admittedly cynical theme park fans, feel like we were on another planet for an evening. That isn’t something I can recall happening for many, many years now. While I have some problems with parts of Pandora that I’ll explore in future posts, I can say that the overall look and feel of Pandora is a complete success in every way.
Now, go have a day!