Review: Pandora, The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom, May 2017

Jeff's avatar

(Originally posted on my blog. See also: Facebook photos)

Disney started doing passholder previews today, and we were able to secure a reasonably early time on a school night. A few things to keep in mind... This was a limited preview so the new area at Animal Kingdom was not busy. The line for the snack/beverage shack was the only significant line. The river ride was a walk-on, and the flight simulator ride was running in 15-minute blocks of passes handed out at the entrance to the land. It appeared that the new restaurant was fully operational, but we didn't go in. Also, this was before sunset, and we were out at 7:45 p.m., before it got dark. I suppose there are spoilers here, if you're worried about a ride being spoiled, so avert your eyes if you don't want to know what's in there.

I have never seen Avatar, the movie. I remember when it was released, people made a big deal about it, but between moving cross-country, starting a new job, looking after a pregnant wife and otherwise having a full plate, I didn't see it. When I finally bought a Blu-Ray player, it was offered as a free mail-in, but I forgot about it. So going into this new thing, my full understanding of Avatar is that people somehow projected themselves into blue cat people living on some amazing planet that was going to be strip-mined. Or something. Mostly, I heard the movie was really pretty.

Crossing the bridge to what used to be Camp Minnie-Mickey and the theater for Festival of The Lion King, a little bend and foliage hide the area for a big reveal. Or at least, it would be a big reveal if you couldn't see the back of it from the parking lot. The floating rocks are impressive, but not quite the gravity defying thing shown in the artist renderings. You definitely can trace the load-bearing elements, but it's still visually very cool. It's also very windy. I'm not sure if that's intentional, or just something that happens (it's like that walking under Spaceship Earth at Epcot most of the time).

From the central area under the rock island things, the Na'vi River Journey is off to the left, as well as a restroom, while Flight of Passage is to the right. They appear to be in the same building, which has an impressive series of queue paths that mix the alien plants with real plants and probably the most expensive rock work ever made. Even the hand rails have a custom finish and custom lights and such. Further to the right is the bigger counter service restaurant, a gift shop and a beverage stand.

You'll notice that cast members are happily shouting alien words at you, which is kind of weird, and maybe a little awkward. When someone at Epcot in the France pavilion says, "Bonjour!" to you, you get it, because it's a French person, and you have a frame of reference. The people in Pandora are just saying some made up stuff to you that isn't real anywhere else. It comes off as corny, and maybe it's worse because I didn't see the movie.

We started by boarding the Na'vi River Journey. Most of the queue is in the shade or under cover, but I imagine that even on a busy day it will move pretty quickly. The ride seems to have a lot of boats running very closely to each other, and it loads in pairs, four rows total at a time. Dwell time is very short. Drop in, sit down, and off you go.

If there's a story to this ride, I don't know what it is. The first turn has some small glowing things that look like... uh... let's say adult novelties hanging from the ceiling. Then you see a blue cat person that says something, and off you go into a jungle forest thing. Each scene uses some brilliant and convincing effects, and some of the 3D video projection is convincing enough that you have to look hard to even see that it's video. While there are some places here and there where you can see lights, they're probably the most hidden of any dark ride I've been on, so you need to look hard to be taken out of the moment.

I'm just not sure what the moment is. Every scene has some new bioluminescent plants or critters. I can tell that the "native" music gets louder and more layered as you go, and culminates in a blue cat person that is easily the most fluid animatronic character I've ever seen. I don't know what he's singing, or why, or where all of his buddies are, but he definitely seems to stare into your soul.

Then it's over. I mentioned that people described the movie as being "eye candy thin on plot." If that's what they were going for in the river ride, then mission accomplished. I did it twice, and while certainly magical and beautiful, I had no frame of reference and wasn't sure why I should be emotionally invested in it. This might be confirmation bias here: Since Pandora was announced, I wondered what the viability of this IP-made-themepark strategy was, because it's not like people have been talking about Avatar for the last seven years. It's not on T-shirts and lunch boxes or generally a part of the public consciousness.

Is this harsh? Maybe. Fortunately, it's not the only attraction in Pandora.

Flight of Passage is the simulator ride. More on that in a moment, but let's talk about the queue and pre-show. The stand-by queue is really long, and transitions from outdoors, to a cave with paintings, to an airlock sort of thing, to some interior bioluminescent environment, to a lab (which has a lot to look at), and finally the Avatar "interfacing facility" that let's you plug into a Smurf. This is explained in a poster in the Fastpass queue in three easy frames. It shows you sitting in the seat, "clearing your mind," then you psychically connect to your avatar (are these basically brainless blue-meat people for your use?), then you ride a Banshee. Got it, let's ride!

They were still feeling out loading and training, so with the scheduled times and no standby for the preview, it still took about a half-hour to get through the ride. I don't think they're running at full capacity, so I'm not passing judgment there. The first room piles in 16 people, though the first two seats were apparently broken. A screen on the wall blacked out the #1 and #2 positions. What follows is a far too lengthy explanation about matching your DNA to an avatar (again, are these soulless, brainless meat-people?), and they blow some parasites off of you and suck your DNA into the walls or something. In the next room, they explain the ride system to you, which has seats and restraints similar to a Zamperla Disk-O with the outward facing seats. There is also more story explanation about connecting to your meat-person, as told by Dr. So-and-so, which might be a woman posing as Sigourney Weaver. It probably doesn't matter.

Once we were seated, we ended up being there for awhile because of a disability load. I'm OK with that, but since my 7-year-old was a little anxious, I was worried he'd freak out. There's a little screen on the front of the seat to create some distractions. The 3D glasses are the best made of any ride, and are the best of any 3D movie or ride I've ever seen. The room goes dark, there are some flashes and the shield in front of you opens to reveal a gigantic screen. What follows is a flight simulation that moves you up and down, and each seat pitches and rolls individually. Along with wind and water effects, it's the most convincing flying sensation of any simulator I've ever seen. It raises the game. The world of the blue people is visually interesting, and has some "gee whiz" moments, even for someone who doesn't know the film. It's a bit more aggressive than, say, Soarin', or even Star Tours, but the movement is more precise because of the nimble, individual seat. It also has nice touches, like the ability to feel the Banshee "breathing" between your legs.

I'm torn. I was completely underwhelmed with the river ride, but really impressed with the flight ride. Again, the problem here is that I'm not in any way invested in the IP. There are other examples in town where this matters. For example, I don't care about The Mummy, but it's a damn fine roller coaster anyway. To me, that's why the thrilling flight simulator here works, but the boat ride is frankly not more interesting than Pirates of The Caribbean. At least I can relate to pirates.

We'll be back, but probably only to see it at night, which I imagine is spectacular. If Disney wanted people to have more to do, they've succeeded. I'm just not sure that the emotional connection that people have with it will be very strong.

Last edited by Jeff,

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Lord Gonchar's avatar

Jeff said:

...the ability to feel the Banshee "breathing" between your legs.


This is exactly the report I was waiting for. An honest write up of what a regular park fan thought of the experience. Thank you. So far everything I have read has been nothing but fanboys who are dismayed at the fact that anyone would have reservations about this not being "OMG it's the best thing ever."

What you experienced is about what I expected and what I expect the new area will do for me. I have never seen Avatar and haven't had the desire.

A question I hadn't thought of until recently. Did your park experience make you want to go out and see Avatar? I had never seen a Harry Potter movie prior to the Wizarding World, and it got me to at least check out the first one. With all of these Avatar sequels in the works, it will be interesting if the park helps draw more attention to them.

Interesting read. We are going to WDW the week of Memorial Day. We have FP for Flight of Passage but not for the river journey. I have seen Avatar but wasn't overwhelmed with it. I have never seen a Harry Potter movie (or read any of the books) but enjoyed both HP lands at Orlando.

Jeff's avatar

Like I said, I imagine that the throughput for the river ride will be solid. I wouldn't use a FP for that. Flight... hopefully they've got it figured out in time for general availability. I'm sure it's because of the theme, but they don't have a test seat for it, and I can already tell that they desperately need one. They do have some laminated photos of a guy's backside sitting on the ride to show people, which is what sold my kid to think it was OK for him to ride.

BrettV: My interest in the movie has not changed, which is to say I still wouldn't pay money to rent it. I might watch it for background if it's a stream I'm already paying for.

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The "story" (in quotes because it is a very loose concept of a story) for the boat ride is that you're journeying down a path that young Nav'i take to "find themselves" or something like that, and the shaman is your spiritual guide (though I forget exactly why she's at the end of the ride specifically). She is a very impressive AA, though. Flight of Passage is an amazing experience from entering the queue to getting off the ride. The music is especially moving at the end of it (I think the soundtrack was better than the movie), and it is easily the best simulator attraction I've experienced.

Personally, I'm probably going to enjoy the visuals of the land more than the attractions, as I already had a ton of fun with my camera yesterday. I can't wait to see the area at night, because if it can get across even half of the impact the night scenes in the movie had, it will be stunning.

Original BlueStreak64

slithernoggin's avatar

There was a review on MiceAge today that had the same takeaway for River Journey. Pretty to look at, but no discernible story.

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I was very disappointed that Disney took the easy way out and did a raft ride and simulator for this world. One thing about the Avatar world is that many plants are interactive, and in certain areas of the world, when a character would take a step, their steps would light up. It would have been SO much better to have some sort of nighttime interactive walk through N'avi territory. The Banshees would have made for an AMAZING dual flyer through the floating rocks as well. Heck, those scenes from the movie were practically MADE for a flyer.

I WILL say it sounds like the simulator is pretty neat. I don't have anything against well-done simulators, and it allows a little more family-friendly experience. Maybe people will get into this quite a bit. Wishing Disney good luck with this.

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Jeff's avatar

Well, there is interactive stuff all over the place, including the strange drum things. I can assure you that Flight of Passage is better than any flying roller coaster. A roller coaster of any kind out in the open would have been awful, even for a theme I'm not that interested in.

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I'm still content to wait until the summer crowds and heat are gone and check this out sometime in the fall.

For those who have been, do you think the two major attractions will be "enough"? Or could they have benefited from a C or D ticket attraction as well (sort of like Wizarding World has the holdover junior coaster)

bunky666 said:

One thing about the Avatar world is that many plants are interactive, and in certain areas of the world, when a character would take a step, their steps would light up. It would have been SO much better to have some sort of nighttime interactive walk through N'avi territory.

Maybe I misunderstood, but I remember hearing that some part of the new area has pathways where your steps light up.

Screamscape has had a couple of doom and gloom posts the last few days about Flight of Passage having major technical issues that are resulting in reduced capacity and significant downtime. Everything about Disney is pretty doom and gloom at Screamscape these days, so take it with the appropriate grain of salt.

Great review. This was exactly the kind of accounting of the new land that I've wanted to read. We were thinking about a trip at the beginning of June, but it's looking more like fall or early next summer.

Last edited by bigboy,

Jeff's avatar

They'll work out issues with the ride I'm sure. Right now it's more the issue of how to load it efficiently. It's clear that the previews exist in part to figure that out.

To ask if the two attractions are "enough" isn't the right question, to me. It's just another part of Animal Kingdom, which has a ton of stuff to do overall, including a lot of huge capacity things like Finding Nemo: The Musical, Festival of The Lion King, Kilimanjaro Safaris and two huge walk-through exhibition areas. I bet the river ride easily does 2,000 pph, and if I'm guessing the floor plan and number of theaters right (4 at 48 seats each), Flight could hit that in theory. It adds a lot of capacity to the park and spreads people around more via Fastpass.

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ApolloAndy's avatar

bunky666 said:

The Banshees would have made for an AMAZING dual flyer through the floating rocks as well. Heck, those scenes from the movie were practically MADE for a flyer.

I really don't think this would work at a Disney park. Even if the ride were fantastic, the tracks looming in the background of everything would really spoil the illusion. At least on Everest, the tracks can be built into the side of a mountain. On any sort of "under the rails" type of coaster, the track will be sticking out like a sore thumb.

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Jeff's avatar

Wait, so the singing blue thing is not a dude?

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Jeff said:

Wait, so the singing blue thing is not a dude?

Nope. She's actually one of the "main" characters from the movie. She's "the one who interprets the will of Eywa," the spiritual guide of the Na'vi clan in the movie and wife of the leader. Basically, the queen, I guess.

Also (to bunky's disappointment), there really hasn't been a true test/reveal of the nighttime experience for the land yet for guests, as the previews have all ended just as it starts to really get dark enough for that. Folks have seen a few of the plants lit up leaving the late previews, but obviously no one has been in there past nightfall yet. While it doesn't seem like the plant life will be as interactive as I hoped, it seems there will certainly be some aspect of that. We just have to wait a bit longer to see what that will be and look like.

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eightdotthree's avatar

Is it part of the circular path through the park or is it a branch off of it?

As someone who wasn't a big fan of the movie this new area probably won't be a must experience my next trip down to Orlando but I will probably still check it out. To be honest I was confused as to why Disney chose this IP to use because despite it being the highest grossing movie of all time its not a movie that is part of pop culture like a Star Wars or a Harry Potter.

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Jeff's avatar

If you remember the spur next to Pizzafari (southwest part of the loop) that led to Camp Minnie-Mickey and the old location for Festival of The Lion King, that's where Pandora is. One way in and out, over a bridge.

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ApolloAndy said:

bunky666 said:

The Banshees would have made for an AMAZING dual flyer through the floating rocks as well. Heck, those scenes from the movie were practically MADE for a flyer.

I really don't think this would work at a Disney park. Even if the ride were fantastic, the tracks looming in the background of everything would really spoil the illusion. At least on Everest, the tracks can be built into the side of a mountain. On any sort of "under the rails" type of coaster, the track will be sticking out like a sore thumb.

I'm sorry about the editing, guys. Not sure how to do it on my phone without destroying the whole quote.

Anyhoo, while a coaster wouldn't be completely concealed, Disney could certainly do their magic to make the track and trains look as seamlessly blended as possible. While I agree with Jeff that flyers are not great coasters (comfort level: none), I think at least a dueling wing coaster could have been brilliant. I diss Disney a lot, but it's mainly because I KNOW they can hit stuff out of the park, and I haven't been impressed with their offerings for decades now. Other than Animal Kingdom, when I'm in Florida, Disney parks are the last parks I think of to visit.

I can't really complain about "more" since I haven't seen it, but Avatar was SERIOUSLY gorgeous on the big screen, especially in IMAX 3D. I guess I see the movie in my head and cannot fit Disney's Pandora to make the pieces lock together.

"Look at us spinning out in the madness of a roller coaster" - Dave Matthews Band

Avatar Flight is definitely hands down better than the River Journey. We went over to Animal Kingdom on Tuesday evening (in time to take a just after dark safari tour -- which was better than I expected it would be). First time we saw Pandora was at night. Seems tailor made for night time. Glowing etchings in pathways, plants that are really large lanterns and neon everywhere. Harder to see the support structure of the "floating" mountain during the night (though you obviously know gravity still applies so its really not floating).

Standby wait for river journey was a little less than an hour (for much of the day looking at the Disney app it was about 2 hours but rain/thunder shortened it). Queue is filled with real and Avatar plants. Open area of lines would normally be back and forth runs but here its more of a snowflake pattern. Ride itself is just another Disney boat ride. Enjoyable with more neon and glowing bioluminescence all around. But nothing I would wait more than half an hour or so to ride again. To me, Pirates is more interesting and the Mexico boat ride is less interesting. Talked to a guy in front of us in line who asked us (jokingly) if the journey would change his life. Answer is an easy no.

We had fast passes for Avatar Flight on Thursday morning (8:25 am). My hope was to get their at park open, ride once in standby line and then again with fast passes. Headed straight to Pandora at open. Standby line was outside the formal queueing area. We kept walking. And walking and walking. Down a pathway along the river towards Africa area. Right before the path entered the Africa area, the line was doubled back. We stood in that line for 10-15 minutes debating whether to stay in. Line moved in jumps because it had to cross a crowded walkway near the ride entrance so cast members would allow the line to move (halting the walkway) and then stop the line and let the walkway move. In the end we decided to head to the fast pass line.

As Jeff noted, the ride is an amazing flight simulator. Sights, sounds, smells, wind and breathing banshee are incredibly well done. Ride tech is better than Soarin but they also have a made up world to fly through while Soarin is flying through real life.

During the day, the Disney app generally showed a 3 hour wait for Flight. We decided we wanted to fly again and would endure that wait to do it (helped that we had already done what we wanted at AK that day and spent several hours at Blizzard Beach to cool off/recharge batteries). When we got back to AK we saw the Lion King. Was raining lightly when we entered the theater. Could tell it rained during the show but didn't know how much. After the show we decided to hit Flight (rather than waiting for extra magic hours at 11 which was also a possibility). Standby wait time was listed at 3 hours. But we timed it perfectly because when we got there, the standby line was inside the formal queuing area. We walked all the way up to the entrance to the building/cave without seeing anyone in line. And walked further inside the building still not seeing anyone. Passed a cast member walking the other way through the line who said the line was not 3 hours long. Didn't seem like it could have been because we breezed through what had to be at least 2-2.5 hours of wait time with a full queue.

Eventually, we saw other people in line and had to wait. There is some Avatar art on the walls inside the building. And a video which tracks flights and shows the matching process to an avatar. They seem to be working kinks out in terms of lining up groups of 16. Cast members appeared to be giving a lot more thought to the process than I expect they will give once the ride has been up and running for several weeks.

Total wait time was about 45 minutes. Hope was to get into the line and ride again but as we walked out, we could see the queue was full. At exit, standby line was listed at 50 minutes (about what we waited though at that point it was clearly longer than that). Within a few minutes, the standby wait time was listed at 110 minutes. I would expect they need to gather a fair amount of data to reliably post accurate wait times. At this point they do not have that.

Ride position was somewhat uncomfortable (or maybe really just unnatural) the first time through. But when the ride started that went away quickly. Second flight it wasn't an issue at all.

First ride in a long time that doesn't exit into a gift shop. But that should just be temporary as the line to get into the gift shop is so long that riders exiting the ride are directed around the gift shop. I heard tales of people waiting an hour to get into the gift shop. We were not that curious so we passed on that. Big item appeared to be electronic mini banshee that sits on your shoulder with hand trigger controlling certain motions. Saw a lot of people carrying them in boxes around the park (and at the Orlando airport). Saw a few walking around the park with them on their shoulder. Many people with long blue tails under the back of their shirts. One guy had both and was very proud. Not sure how you are supposed to react when you see that. Its a piece of plastic which you are controlling with a trigger in your hand. And you have a cloth tail hanging out the back of your shirt. LOL

Woman who rode with us on Dinosaur had the banshee box and Avatar ears. She said she totally loved the area and thought Disney did a great job. I overheard two people talking behind me who said they were disappointed but didn't hear much in terms of the reason why.

To me, Pandora exceeded expectations. Mainly because Avatar Flight is that good. And visually, the area is very interesting. Both at night and during the day.

The pathway to Africa can be used to enter and exit Pandora (in addition to the main bridge). But when we were there, they were only allowing it to be used to exit Pandora. Exiting Lion King, we hoped for a very short walk to the line. But were told it was only an exit and we had to walk around towards the tree and back out across the bridge. Once crowds die down, I expect the pathway will be available to enter as well as exit Pandora. Though that pathway has zero theming.

As to whether Pandora will make people want to see Avatar (either again or for the first time), I have seen the movie (though I remember little about it other than seeing it as another version of Dances with Wolves) but my wife and daughter have not. We talked about renting Avatar before our trip but never did. Now that we have been to the park and ridden the rides, we have talked about seeing the movie. Not sure we will (seems unlikely though as with a due date (our trip dates), we didn't and now we have no due date). Amazon is making it less likely right now because you can only buy the online version rather than rent it. So I guess our interest in seeing the movie is worth at least $3 but less than $14.

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