How We Got to Pandora
The success of Universal’s Harry Potter lands – Hogsmeade Village at Islands of Aventure and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios – put the fear of God into Disney’s theme park management. The idea that their closest competitor could turn a worldwide film franchise into an immersive, immense tourist draw probably caused more sleepless nights than a warehouse full of wool pajamas. What Disney wanted desperately was to make sure they got the next big franchise for their own parks.
The problem that Disney faced was that only a handful of writers like J.K. 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 gamble on the Avatar franchise seemed riskier by the day.
Is Pandora Better than Diagon Alley?
With Pandora – The World of Avatar now in previews, the obvious question is “Is it better than Diagon Alley?” I think the answer is “Yes, for some people.” And that’s as good as Disney could possibly have hoped for.
Before I explain why, remember that I’m on record saying that Disney charging $120 for admission to Hollywood Studios is “petty larceny with better marketing.” Here’s me quoted in the New York Times, saying Universal’s a better choice right now. I’m perfectly happy to criticize Disney’s theme park decisions when warranted.
Valley of Mo’ara
That said, let’s start with Pandora’s best feature – the environment of the Valley of Mo’ara. 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 I 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. I’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.
Na’vi River Journey
The Na’vi River Journey is a 4 ½-minute boat ride through the Pandora jungle. You begin by boarding one of two small, hewn rafts joined together. Each raft has two rows of seats, so four people go in each boat. That might seem small, but it’s more likely a nod to authenticity – the Na’vi are unlikely to have invented technology like fiberglass to make larger vessels as in, say, It’s a Small World.
Off you go into the nighttime jungle, past glowing plants and exotic animals. To create these, Disney has used traditional, three-dimensional sets for the flora, coupled with video screens showing the movement of the fauna. Escape from Gringotts, the one ride at Diagon Alley, uses video screens for its action, too. But here again Disney has done Diagon Alley one better – the screens directly in front of you in Na’vi River Journey are semi-transparent, so you can see past them. And what’s past them are more screens, with background scenes that also move. That means you’re seeing action in the foreground and background simultaneously, all surrounded by densely packed landscaping.
Another bit of technology put to great effect is video projection mapping like that used in the Magic Kingdom’s nighttime show Happily Ever After. Here it’s used to project three-dimensional bugs crawling on tree trunks in one of the ride’s middle scenes.
The ride’s big star, however, is the Shaman of Songs, displayed in the ride’s culminating scene. This shaman is easily Disney’s most life-like animatronic ever created. Its arms move with such grace that the only reason to suspect it’s a robot is because you don’t know any real people who’re that coordinated. (Disney has a history of building advanced but somewhat unmaintainable animatronics for the Animal Kingdom. Expedition Everest’s Yeti was built in a way that repairs to it require much of the surrounding ride’s infrastructure to be removed. The Yeti hasn’t run properly in almost a decade. We’ll give River Journey an extra half-star next year if the shaman stays running.) Yet another nice touch is that the shaman’s voice is off-pitch; Disney didn’t make it sound like a professional singer.
The problem with Navi River Journey is that you go in with no real emotional interest in the character, and there’s not enough story told during the ride to get you interested in meeting the shaman. (If that doesn’t make sense, imagine the same level of detail just described, for a boat ride showing Obi Wan Kenobi performing some heretofore unknown Jedi ritual that’s officially part of the Star Wars canon. The line to get in would stretch to Endor.)
Despite that, there’s enough to see in Na’vi River Journey that it’s worth re-riding. Disney seems to think that lines will not be too long once the initial opening hype dies down – the queue for the ride doesn’t seem built to handle massive crowds. We’d ride it again if the waits are 20 minutes or less. Na’vi River Journey offers Fastpass+, but we don’t yet think it’s a good use.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5
Flight of Passage
Avatar Flight of Passage is Pandora’s headliner ride, and one of the most technologically advanced attractions Disney has ever produced. It’s a flight simulator in which you hop on the back of a winged, dragon-like Pandora banshee, for a spin around the planet’s scenery.
Your journey begins with a long walk from the base of Pandora, up an inclined path, and into abandoned cave dwellings. Wall paintings and markings inside the caves tell the story of the Na’vi who first used them. From there, you walk through jungle and more rocks, until you reach the research laboratory of the humans who’ve settled on Pandora.
Inside the lab are various experiments showing how the study of the planet’s wildlife is progressing. Some of the effects are clever little engineering tricks – small, black, amoeba-like creatures scurrying about in the lab are probably made of ferrofluids (bits of metal suspended in a liquid) moved about by specially-shaped magnets. Even if you know how it’s done, it’s a joy to see the idea used this way in a ride queue.
The star of the pre-show, however, is a Na’vi avatar in suspended animation inside the lab. Encased in a giant, water-filled tube, the sleeping Na’vi floats gently, its rest only briefly touched by the occasional finger twitch or leg movement. The people we toured with said it was either mesmerizing or vaguely unsettling.
Once through the queue, you’re brought to a 16-person chamber room to prepare for your flight. A video plays, explaining the concept of an avatar – a way for you to project your consciousness on to another being, in this case a Na’vi riding a banshee. Your preparation includes a parasite decontamination procedure – Pandora is filled with critters, in case you hadn’t noticed. The second part of the video seems to be chosen randomly from a few different scenes, so you’re likely to get a different pre-show experience the first few times you ride.
That done, you’re led into an enclosed room with what looks like 16 stationary bicycles without pedals. You’re handed 3-D googles and told to approach the “bike”, swing one leg over, mount it, and scoot as far forward as you can. The reason for doing this is that padded restraints will be deployed along your calves and lower back, ensuring you don’t fall off during your flight. (The snug restraint system, coupled with the confined space of the room, causes some claustrophobic guests to exit before riding.)
The room goes dark, there’s a flash of light, and suddenly your brain is “linked” to the Na’vi surfing a banshee. You swoop up and down, left and right, on this flying dragon, going over the Pandora plains, through the mountains, and skimming its seas, all through a high-definition video projected on to a giant screen in front of you. As you fly, air bellows at your legs pump air in and out to simulate the banshee’s breathing below you.
The flying effects are very well done – you can turn your head almost 90 degrees either way to survey the Pandora landscape while you’re flying, and about 45 degrees up and down. Riders toward the middle of the room (seats 4 through 8 in one group and 9 through 12 in the other, we think) have better range of vision. At any given time, Disney says, there are 3 levels of 16 riders flying with you. We didn’t see anyone other than our immediate neighbors, but people at the far ends said they could see almost all of the riders when their heads were turned.
If you’ve experience Soarin’ at Epcot, it’s similar technology at work here, with the individual “bikes” replacing the grouped seats. The ebb and flow of the flight, too, reminds us of the Soarin’ film pacing, right down to the finale over the Pandoran beach.
The video is clear and synchronized well with the ride vehicles. We heard no reports of motion sickness during our day-long visit, and that’s uncommon for most screen-based motion simulators. There are two problems with Flight of Passage: One is the convoluted ride vehicles, which more than one person described as “over-engineered” (and that’s coming from theme park nerds).
The other problem, like that of the Na’vi River Journey and the Avatar film, is that we’re not really invested in the story of the banshee or the avatar. Technically, the ride is brilliant, and the visuals get your heart racing. Disney’s Imagineers squeezed every bit they could out of the one Avatar movie completed so far. But it’s got the emotional depth of a Pac-Man video game.
Touring Tips We’re told that if the entire queue is full, the wait to ride Avatar Flight of Passage is between 4 and 5 hours. It’s not worth that much time. As we wrote this, however, Fastpass+ reservations were available for Flight of Passage for almost any time of any day we checked. We think Flight of Passage is a good use for Fastpass+.
Rating: 4 to 4 1/2 stars out of 5
Final Thoughts: 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 20th-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 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. What Disney’s done with Pandora is told Universal that they’re playing to win.
(We’ll review Pandora’s food and merchandise later this week.)