This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at Six Reasons We LOVE Pandora: The World of Avatar! It seemed like just yesterday that Disney announced it was going to make a land based around James Cameron’s Avatar (it was actually 2,078 days ago, but who’s counting.) The new area would be replacing Camp Minnie-Mickey, a cute stop during a day at Animal Kingdom, but certainly not a land anyone is going to chain themselves to in protest of its leaving. Now, on the day of it’s official grand opening, we ask, was it worth the wait? In a word: YES.
For many Animal Kingdom fans, talk of the unbuilt Beastly Kingdom brings the same gritted teeth reactions that you’ll see when someone brings up the broken Yeti. However, with Pandora – The World of Avatar, we have our Beastly Kingdom. Today we’re going to take a look at some of the greatest parts of this new land, and let’s kickoff the countdown with…
# 6 – Connect With a Banshee
Before the details of Pandora were released many people – including Your Humble Author – wondered what the area would do in terms of merchandise. While the film it is based on is the biggest grossing movie in the history of cinema, ancillary sales were almost non-existent. There were plenty of Avatar t-shirts, books, and even a full action figure line to buy, but most went unsold. Would Disney, quite possibly the worldwide leader in merchandise sales, be able to develop Avatar-related items that would get guests to open up their wallet like Universal did with Harry Potter?
Time will tell on the bigger picture, but one thing we already know for sure is that Disney created a huge hit with the Connect With a Banshee toy available in Pandora’s only gift shop, Windtraders. Sharing many similarities with the Wizarding World’s the wand chooses you gimmick, the cute Banshee toys are scoring high with both kids and adults. Guests can make their Banshee move their mouth, head, and wings, not to mention roar, while perched on their shoulder. It is a great souvenir that ties into the film, delivers a personal experience, and even allows “the opportunity” to buy a stand for your Banshee to sit on when not on your shoulder. In the marketing world we call that a home run.
# 5 – The Food and Drink
With the addition of Skipper Canteen in the Magic Kingdom, Tiffins in Animal Kingdom, and the slew of great restaurants at Disney Springs, dining has never been better at Walt Disney World and Pandora continues the tradition with its venues Satu’li Canteen and Pongu Pongu. Satu’li is the land’s only restaurant, and offers a pretty exciting menu for both breakfast and lunch/dinner. We always love a menu item that you have to be 21 years or older to order, so you know we loved the steel cut oatmeal that is topped with, among other things, bourbon-soaked raisins.
For lunch and dinner, the big hit is the create-your-own bowl option. Here you can mix and match various grains and proteins (including tofu) for a unique meal. “Pod” bao buns are also on the menu, and while it might seem like an exotic option for a guest whose quick service staple has been chicken fingers, we found that the cheeseburger bao bun tasted pretty much like a cheeseburger you would get at McDonalds. The biggest hit might actually be the blueberry cream cheese mousse dessert. The colorful treat actually tastes great. However, the biggest surprise of all was that everything isn’t served on paper plates. Instead you eat out of themed bowls with real silverware. It’s the little things sometimes that really make a difference.
Pongu Pongu is Pandora’s bar with a small, but extremely unique menu. Here is where you can find the pongu lumpia, a pineapple cream cheese snack that seems to be a huge hit among guests. The signature drinks include the non-alcoholic Night Blossum, which is strikingly colorful and topped with passion fruit boba balls, and the Mo’ara Margarita, which which is topped with strawberry boba balls. Even the cole slaw in Satu’li Canteen is served with boba balls, so if you don’t like boba balls now, you better to learn to like them soon. On the heels of Universal’s Duff Beer and Wizard’s Brew, Pandora has beers exclusive to the land that aren’t just rebranded Killian’s red ale. Hawke’s grog ale is known by its green appearance, while Mo’ara high country ale is more like a traditional beer.
# 4 – Na’vi River Journey
Everyone loves a boat ride and the Na’vi River Journey is another one of our favorites with a spectacular use of screen technology, projection mapping, and three-dimensional set pieces. While the one drawback to the ride is the lack of a compelling story, the stunning visuals are going to have guests finding new things on each ride through. The star of the show is the Shaman of Songs, a figure so advanced it redefines what can be done with an audio-animatronic. The fluidity of the surprisingly large Shaman’s motions are actually better than my own (I really need to get into Yoga.) Another character in the ride appears to be so real that many think it is an audio-animatronic, so the overall quality is there across the board.
# 3 – Pandora at Night
One great aspect of Pandora, and one that could completely transform the average guest’s experience at Animal Kingdom, is that the entire land transforms at night. The “bioluminescent” plant life is everywhere, including the ground you walk on. In the movie Avatar there is a wonderful moment when the character Jake begins to understand what happens on Pandora when the sun the goes down. Pandora at night is completely different than the rest of Animal Kingdom as the creative use of black light throughout the area will have you looking at the larger-than-life structures in a whole new way.
#2 – Flight of Passage
Disney put a lot of time, effort, and money into creating Pandora – The World of Avatar and for the land to truly succeed the Flight of Passage attraction needed to be a true E-Ticket. Not only did Imagineering create one of the best rides on property, they also built a queue that can go toe-to-toe with Universal’s Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts, which is no small feat!
While the queue is astonishingly long, it is so unique and has so many things for guests to look at and interact with that even during extremely long waits people will be entertained by their surroundings (as compared to the queue for Soarin’ Around the World, where every minute in the queue feels like five.) The queue starts as guests are still enjoying the Na’vi world of Pandora, with gorgeous views of the outside plant life mixed with inside design features such as Na’vi artwork telling the story of their connection with Banshees. Further into the queue brings you to a wild jungle experience until you final reach the research lab. The lab itself features tons of details that make it feel like a legitimate work environment, including drawings from the researcher’s kids. The lab also features a show-stopping moment featuring a Na’vi in suspended animation. This floating animatronic has one of those how did they do that qualities that is true Disney magic.
The ride itself can best be described as the love child of Soarin’ and Star Tours, but it is better than that. Despite being loaded onto what looks like a stationary bike, it is not long before you feel like you are actually riding a Banshee. The sounds, the smells, and the movement of your ride vehicle mixed with the amazing 3D visuals on the screen before you combine to deliver a truly remarkable experience and one that is not to be missed.
# 1 – The Valley of Mo’ara
It is not often that the greatest part of a theme park land is the land itself. The Valley of Mo’ara is a stunning achievement in theme park design. While you are in Animal Kingdom, it does not feel like you are in the same theme park you just walked from moments before. The “floating mountains” – despite being clearly anchored to the ground – are so outrageously large that it does feel like you are in something truly out of this world. It works. Meanwhile, the mixture of real plant life along with the Pandora plant life is seamless and just gorgeous to take in. We mentioned the details in the Flight of Passage queue, but that is nothing compared to what you will see and take in while walking through the valley. The exotic plant life, waterfalls, alien species, Na’vi artifacts, and various sounds of the environment make it a sensory overload in the best possible way. The depth of the land is its biggest strength and the entire valley feels alive.
So there you have it: Six Reasons We LOVE Pandora: The World of Avatar! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the E-Ticket Report podcast. You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to crack staff photographer Brandon Glover, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Mr. ‘Ohana Tim Grassey, hot shot Michael Carelli, the only man who walks through Carsland with BTTF auto-lacing shoes Guy Selga, crazy cat lady – and our Fearless Leader – Laurel Stewart, and blogger to the stars Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. Be sure to also check out Brandon on The Park Blogger podcast with goofballs co-hosts Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde , while fellow Potterheads may enjoy Meg’s work on the Central Florida Slug Club.
FINAL PLUG! Did you know The 2017 Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando has a special edition of the SATURDAY SIX in it? Finally, someone came up with an actual reason to read a book. ORDER this baby now!