This week the SATURDAY SIX Presents: The Definitive Guide to Pandora – The World of Avatar! Welcome everyone to the very first of our new DEFINITIVE GUIDE series, where we are going to take some deep dives into our favorite lands at Disney and Universal. This weekend is debut of the highly anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water movie, so we figured the best way to start off this series would be looking at a land which was launched from the Avatar franchise.
# 6 – The Valley of Mo’ara
Theme parks have been around since Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955, and for the first half century pretty much everything followed the Disneyland formula. Sure, there were changes in technology and improvements in many areas of operation, but by and large theme parks revolved around various themed lands featuring a collection of rides, restaurants, and gift shops. When Universal Studios Florida opened up in 1991, it ran under the tagline “ride the movies.” Guests were encouraged to step into a world that featured their favorite movies including Jaws, E.T., and Back to the Future. For the next 20 years, both Disney and Universal began incorporating fan favorite movies into theme park environments, whether it was adding The Curse of the Black Pearl‘s Jack Sparrow into Adventureland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, or creating a whole land inspired by a franchise like Jurassic Park in Islands of Adventure.
When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade Village opened in 2010, everything changed.
Guests walking into Hogsmeade Village were given a level of immersion never before seen. Until this point, rides featured various elements from movies, but you always knew you were in a theme park. In Hogsmeade Village, you felt like you were in Harry Potter’s world. The rides, the restaurants, and the gift shops were all part of the “story.” The mere fact that Coca Cola wasn’t sold inside the Wizarding World seems almost unfathomable, but Universal did it, along with making sure even the merchandise bags inside Hogsmeade Village were different from the stores in the rest of Islands of Adventure.
Pandora – The World of Avatar opened in 2017 in Disney’s Animal Kingdom and it followed the Hogsmeade Village playbook. In some ways, Pandora even improved upon the immersion concept because the land doesn’t directly border two other completely different lands (unlike Hogsmeade Village, which is connected to the Lost Continent and Jurassic Park in Islands of Adventure.)
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 in from moments before. The “floating mountains” – despite being clearly anchored to the ground – are so outrageously large that it does feel like you are looking at something that is 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. 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 Pandora’s biggest strength and the entire valley feels alive.
Like the best storytelling, Pandora tells a story without beating guests over the head with it. Storyline-wise, we are walking onto a different planet. The reason we are able to breathe on this planet is because of plants like the large Flaska Reclinata that you pass when entering the land. The Flaska has an interactive element, “producing” oxygen when guests rub it.
No expense was spared in Pandora. Even though most guests will only pay attention to one side of the Flaska plant, the other side is just as intricately detailed.
Further walking into Pandora reveals the “wow” moments, seeing the floating Hallelujah Mountains. Like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the fire breathing dragon atop Gringotts Bank in Diagon Alley, this is a jaw dropping moment for theme park fans of all ages.
A walk around Pandora is like no other walk in ANY theme park. It is truly transportive.
There is a wide array of alien plants throughout the land.
Many times you will see real Earth plants mixed with the alien Pandora plants.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the many stories being told throughout the land. You’ll see in this tree that there is a purple sap that is running down the tree past some plants…
…well, further down the tree you’ll see marks from where animals clawed their way into the holes of the roots. The sap has dripped down the root. If you stick your hand inside the holes, sensors go off and loud chirping/barking can be heard and the flowers light up! Essentially it is the animals saying “Hey! Get out of my home!”
Pay close attention while walking through Pandora and you’ll see claw marks from much larger animals as well.
Speaking of animals, you may see several creatures while walking in Pandora, including these Pluropoda Sagittaria.
Pandora has two forms of lighting throughout the land. These include the usual type of lighting above us, so we can see where we are going at night, but also a black light system that highlights the “glowing” ground of Pandora (we’ll get to that later in the article.) The lighting fixtures are completely in theme with the land.
Even the manhole covers are themed!
# 5 – Merchandise
Before the details of Pandora – The World of Avatar 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 know for sure is that Disney created a huge hit with the Banshee toy available in Pandora’s only gift shop, Windtraders. The Banshees sit on an elaborately themed Rookery. When kids are “adopting” a Banshee, the Rookery Cast Members have them repeat a pledge. First they ask the child to hold up their left hand and fold one finger. This is because Na’vi only have 4 fingers and are all left handed. The pledge is reciting like this: “By carrying my banshee on my shoulder I promise to protect and respect the natural world here on Pandora, and back home on earth.” The CMs also have the kids say “Sivako!” and every CM in Windtraders shouts it too. Sivako is the Na’vi word for rise to the challenge.
Sharing many similarities with the Wizarding World’s the wand chooses you gimmick, the cute Banshee toys score 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.
The Rookery is pretty amazing when looking at it from afar, but a closer look reveals even more details…
…such as other animals carved into the Rookery. This is very much in the spirit of The Tree of Life, also in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
There is also an AMAZING piece of artwork found near the Rookery that features various creatures on Pandora.
You’ll find several other options for Banshee toys in Windtraders as well, including Banshees on a stick.
Let’s check out some other items available in Windtraders, including these cute plush featuring a baby version of the Na’vi.
I remember taking one of our kiddos to Animal Kingdom years ago and told them they could pick out any piece of merchandise they wanted. They ended up choosing a baby gorilla plush. Something tells me if I brought them today they’d be asking for a baby Direhorse plush.
Many items available in Windtraders “glow in the dark.”
Lots of shirts are available, but I love this Pandora design featuring the floating mountains.
Another nice touch with select items in Pandora is that they are separately branded with the Pandora logo. This is a little touch rarely scene in the theme park world and reserved for prestige brands like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the Wizarding World.
One toy on my bucket list is the Utility Suit action figure. If I was a kid this would be the item I’d be kicking and screaming until my parents bought it for me. There is a walkaround character in Pandora featuring the Utility Suit, but sadly it has not returned since the Covid Shutdown of 2020.
Items featuring Woodsprites are popular at Windtraders.
Like most Disney gift shops, Pandora has snacks available, but these are presented with a Pandora twist. The “crisped rice cereal treat” (who talks like that?!) is purple and called Lionberry.
The Na’vi Translator toy features a fun Easter Egg for fans of the movie Avatar.
The back of the box features the character of Marshall Lamm. Storyline wise, Lamm is the person who basically fostered the relationship between the Na’vi and humans after the disastrous effects of the first Avatar film. Thanks to Lamm’s efforts, the Na’vi and humans can be around each other in peace.
The character of Marshall Lamm is played by a producer of Avatar, Jon Landau.
One item you’ll see in Pandora is no longer available to purchase. The giant Toruk Makto kite. It would seem these were too big for guests to travel with back home.
So you better believe I bought one when they went to the Disney Outlet Stores!
# 4 – Food and Drink
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.
Stationed right outside Pongu Pongu is a lifesize model of the Amp Suit from Avatar.
Pongu Pongu is pretty much the only option in Pandora to get breakfast.
I appreciate a beer that’s exclusive to theme parks, but I like it even more when it is served from an E-Ticket beer tap.
Mo’ara High Country Ale also features an incredibly designed beer tap.
For the most part, drinks in Pandora are very colorful, much like the land itself.
For the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, Pandora introduced some new menu items into the land, including the Ilu Splash Margarita.
Satu’li Canteen is the main restaurant in Pandora, and this modern counter service restaurant is a fan favorite thanks to its fresh food and healthier alternatives than traditional quick fare like burgers and sandwiches. According to over 500,000 surveys from TouringPlans readers, Satu’li Canteen has a 96% thumbs up rating, and is number 3 out of 107 other dining options at Walt Disney World. I’m not a “math guy” like Len Testa, but even I know that’s pretty good.
The menu at Satu’li Canteen primarily focuses on customized bowls. The bowls are full of flavor and are a healthier food option. For each bowl you can choose a protein, a base, and a sauce, so you’ll have plenty of options. There’s also a plant-based tofu bowl, which is quite tasty.
Cheeseburger Pods are a creative take on a fast food classic that has a great flavor, and is a great alternative to other Disney quick service burgers.
Here is one of the items released with Avatar: The Way of Water.
Kids who might be scared away by some of the unique options at Satu’li also have options.
Satu’li shines with its desserts, including the chocolate cake.
Pandora’s iconic Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse was featured in a drawing by one of our favorite theme park artists, SonderQuest.
Here is the dessert option which made its debut with Avatar: The Way of Water.
Satu’li Canteen will have seasonal variations on its desserts, such as this Pumpkin cream cheese mousse that is only available during the week of Thanksgiving.
There are a lot of cool design elements in Satu’li to check out, including this display of Na’vi arrow.
Lots of photos in the area as well, showing the story of Marshall Lamm and bringing his company ACE to Pandora.
The picture below features Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde on the far right.
# 3 – Navi 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.)
The boat journey in Na’vi River Journey may be brief, but it the visuals are spectacular.
The Shaman of Songs to end the ride is straight up E-Ticket. Flawless. No notes.
# 2 – Flight of Passage
We mentioned some of the game changing elements that made their debut with the introduction of the Wizarding World, and for the first time in theme park history Universal built an attraction queue which guests wanted to spend more time in. Think about that and how much all parks have invested in programs to give guests the opportunity to purchase a way out of theme park line. In many ways, when Imagineers were designing the queue for Flight of Passage they had a much tougher hill to climb than Universal did for the amazing queues of Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts. Most people have experienced Hogwarts Castle and Gringotts Bank through the Harry Potter movies, so we had a feeling of familiarity with the queues. Pandora’s Flight of Passage queue was taking us to places we had never seen in the movie Avatar.
While the queue for Flight of Passage 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 ten minutes.) 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 cave 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.
An overall theme of the Flight of Passage queue is that researchers, the Na’vi, and even Pandora itself, are fighting back against the damage the RDA (Resources Development Administration) inflicted upon Pandora through the events of the first Avatar movie.
Once past the jungle, we approach the former RDA research facilities.
When you reach this point of the Flight of Passage queue, you’re almost there. This area leads to the pre-shows and link chairs.
# 1 – 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.
One thing to note when walking around Pandora is to look for the remains of a crashed Scorpion aircraft. This leads us to our next section…
HONORABLE MENTION – The Details of Pandora
Pandora – The World of Avatar is one of the most popular lands built in any theme park, but the vast majority of guests walk by a lot of details that are easy to miss.
Former Disney Imagineer Brandon Kleyla shared some behind the scenes photos of when this impressive aircraft was put into Pandora.
If you look closely, when walking around Pandora you will notice other remnants of RDA being reclaimed by the environment. You can see the rusted out security cameras on this pole while Pandora lighting has “grown” to replace them.
In a world dominated by social media, pretty much any themed wall inside a theme park will soon become the backdrop to many selfies, but the walls you’ll see in Pandora are meant to also evoke a feeling that nature is fighting back against the RDA.
Even the bathrooms of Pandora are expertly themed to this design aesthetic.
Pongu Pongu is another great place to see one of the most amazing things about Pandora, and that is the amount of items that have been repurposed from the former RDA facility. From a distance the signage looks completely normal, but the closer you get you’ll see that the news signs are remade out of other signs or weapons that were once utilized in the facility. It is a great attention to detail which ties in with the theme of nature reclaiming its former home that you will see all around the land of Pandora and into the first section of the Flight of Passage queue.
The area in Pandora where Satu’li Canteen and Pongu Pongu are located is themed as if the Resources Development Administration (RDA, the main bad guys in Avatar) had abandoned the facility and left a lot of their stuff in the area. In the movie Avatar, characters wore RDA Identification Tags, which are similar to our military’s dog tags. These tags would include a person’s picture along with some information about them. At the Pongu Pongu bar you will see a bunch of Identification tags hanging up, and if you look closely you may even see lead Imagineer Joe Rhode himself.
Disney has been playing “tricks” on theme park guests since day one. Through the use of things like forced perspective and clever design, Disney has us seeing things that “feel real” even if they are not. When walking around Pandora, one of the things everyone will fall in love with are the amount water features. From alien creatures spitting water, to water falling off a “flying mountain,” it is just a remarkable area. However, if you look really closely you’ll see that not all the waterfalls are the same. In fact, some of them are actually fake. While we’re not 100% sure how they accomplished the illusion, these faux waterfalls simulate the effect of rushing water by what looks to be a spinning wheel of some sort. It is an effect done so well that your mind doesn’t even question it while seeing it. It’s only until you zoom in and study it do you realize it’s not the real deal.
After you have finished riding Flight of Passage, on the ground floor of the exit corridor you will find three more handprints. These particular handprints are from James Cameron (the director of Avatar,) Jon Landau (the producer of Avatar,) and Disney Imagineer Joe Rhode.
In the Flight of Passage queue, right before the bioluminescent forest section, you will see a very weathered signage for JC Shoring with the numbers 08.016.54. James Cameron’s birthday is August 16, 1954. The “CAN. 52787527.484” are also a special reference. Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Canada. Using the letters associated with the numbers on a phone, 52787527484 spells out “Kapuskasing.”
So there you have it: The Definitive Guide to 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 THEME PARK ENJOYMENT INDEX, giving a monthly recap of all the theme park news you need to know (and a lot more you don’t need to know, but we’re gonna tell you anyway). You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
If you enjoyed this article, you will surely like the following:
Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, Digital Maestro Scott Walker, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, artist @SonderQuest, the mighty maven of merchandise Hedgehog’s Corner, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and “the Dadalorian” Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, charter member of the Universal Four @Nitro230, the permit princess Alicia Stella, master cartographer Tommy Hawkins, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. Absolutely no help was added by SeaWorld Influencer @SuperWeenieHtJr. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.
We can’t close without mentioned that not all merchandise created for Pandora – The World of Avatar. In fact, far from it. In fact, Pandora has its own section in our Disney Merchandise Hall of Shame. One of the most bonkers items sold in the land was this large plastic creepy looking monkey (Prolemuris.)