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    Pandora - The World of Avatar

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When Disney announced in 1994 that it was building the Animal Kingdom, one of the lands it was supposed to contain was called Beastly Kingdom. The brainchild of a young Imagineer named Joe Rohde, it was envisioned as a land dedicated to mythological creatures, from unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster, to flying dragons, all seen from hedge mazes, roller coasters and elaborate river voyages. Besides continuing the ‘animal’ theme, Beastly Kingdom was going to be how Disney built traditional rides here, without having to worry about how to incorporate living things into the mix.

Rohde’s plans for Beastly Kingdom were too ambitious to fit in the park’s construction budget. The entire idea was quietly axed by 1996. When the Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, the area that was to be Beastly Kingdom was called “Camp Minnie-Mickey.” Instead of thrill rides and fantastic beasts, visitors got an elaborate Festival of the Lion King stage show, a modest amphitheater production about wildlife and nature featuring Pocahontas, and a jungle themed meet-and- greet area. Joe Rohde’s dream got put in the warehouse of unbuilt Disney attractions.

Unbeknownst to Joe, halfway around the world, a single mother in Edinburgh, Scotland named Joanne was putting the finishing touches on her first book. Along with making her a billionaire, that book – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – was to bring back the core of Joe Rohde’s Beastly Kingdom idea.

Other parts of this site tell how Universal Orlando – Disney’s direct competitor - opened Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade Village in 2010 and Diagon Alley in 2014. Together they were the most ambitious, elaborate, and detailed theme park environments anyone had ever seen. To say that these lands, Harry Potter’s devoted fans, and J.K. Rowling’s prodigious output put the fear of God into Disney executives is to undersell just slightly their more immediate concern of lost tourism revenue.

The problem that Disney faced was that only a handful of writers like Rowling can produce globally beloved stories worth billions of dollars: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron are on the short list. With Spielberg and Lucas nearing retirement, however, and Peter Jackson reportedly non-committal, Disney signed Cameron to a theme park development deal for his Avatar film franchise in September 2011.

That Avatar deal puzzled many Disney theme park fans, including us. Yes, Avatar is the second-highest grossing film of all time (Gone with the Wind is #1), earning more than $3 billion in inflation-adjusted ticket sales since its release in 2009. But it did so because of its then-revolutionary 3-D digital effects, not its writing. Avatar, we joked, was the film everyone saw about characters nobody liked. For Disney, whose motto had always been “It all begins with a story,” building rides based on Avatar was going to be its own kind of alien experience.

Disney tapped Joe Rohde, now an industry legend, to bring Avatar to life at the Animal Kingdom. Camp Minnie-Mickey was demolished to make way, its Festival of the Lion King stage show moved to the park’s Africa section. Five years of construction ensued – long enough for Universal to build a couple more hotels, several new rides, and an entire water park. Disney’s $500-million gamble on the Avatarfranchise seemed riskier by the day.

Is Pandora Better than Diagon Alley?

With Pandora – The World of Avatar now open, the obvious question is “Is it better than Diagon Alley?” We think the answer is “Yes, for some people.” And that’s as good as Disney could possibly have hoped for.

Let’s start with Pandora’s best feature – the environment. What Joe Rohde and team have built here is more beautiful than nature generally produces on its own. (Anyone who’s ever driven through Kansas knows what we mean.) The colors in Pandora are a bit more vibrant, the landscaping entirely more interesting, the sounds more alive, and the details more … detailed, than what you probably see out your window right now.

Pandora is intersected by perfectly placed waterfalls, too. And in the middle of it is a giant, floating mountain just like the ones you won’t find outside Topeka.

These literally otherworldly features are grouped into views that are postcard-ready from any angle. There’s always something stunning to see in the immediate foreground, in the middle distance, and far away. And that’s true from anywhere you look inside the land. Diagon Alley is,without a doubt, a very detailed, visually rich urban setting. But it’s space-constrained because of Universal’s limited amount of land – so it doesn’t have much visual depth. In contrast, Disney has the space to build a giant, multi-plane viewing platform from every square foot of Pandora.And they did.

The exquisite detailing extends into the ride queues: the one for Na’vi River Journey displays the weaving skills of Pandora’s indigenous peoples, while the seemingly endless line for Avatar Flight of Passage goes through cave dwellings, nocturnal jungle scenes, and high-tech laboratories on its way to the ride experience. We’ll be surprised if James Cameron puts polar ice caps on Pandora in Avatar’s film sequels if only because the encyclopedic terrain samples in Flight of Passage don’t already show them.

It’s the End of the World as We Know it

Whether you think Pandora is the most immersive theme park environment ever created will depend on how much you like Harry Potter. Even modest fans of the boy wizard are likely to prefer Diagon Alley’s rich story lines and characters. But if you’re not emotionally invested in Potter, or you prefer nature to city life, you may find Pandora the more appealing place to spend an afternoon and evening.

One thing is certain: the opening of Pandora marks the end of 20 th -century Imagineering. The days of “state of the art” meaning “passive rides,” even with cutting-edge technology and all the creative decorative techniques ever known, are over. The next generation of blockbuster theme park attractions, including what Disney is building for its Star Wars land over at Hollywood Studios, starts with Pandora’s scale and detail as a given.

On top of that, future rides are supposed to bring never-before- seen interactive effects: you’ll be able to steer the Millennium Falcon in one ride, and if you crash it, the characters you interact with outside the ride will know that and make fun of you for it. It’ll be a hyper-personalized, hyper-detailed adventure game, in a setting more lifelike than life itself. What Disney’s done with Pandora is told Universal that they’re playing that game to win.

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