I was recently given the opportunity to experience the newest addition to Walt Disney World: Pandora – World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I had been less than overenthusiastic in the recent past about the heavily-themed land that debuted last month mostly because I didn’t feel like it fit into the idea of “Animal Kingdom” and because it felt like a weird, intellectual property grab on the the part of Disney.
But, the main reason I was uninspired about Disney bringing James Cameron’s alien world to life was simple: I have never seen the movie.
I’m considerably anti-hype when in comes to such things and no amount of people telling me it was a visual wonder could get me to check it out. People saw it 5, 6, 10 times in the theaters. It’s all anyone talked about that summer. I heard rumors of people who dealt with depression after seeing the movie because they realized they could never actually visit the enchanting vistas of Pandora for real. I rolled my eyes and moved on.
Fast forward 8 years and I started hearing similar accolades about Disney’s newest venture. People I trust who have known Disney inside and out for decades…were blown away by Pandora. That is to say, by one ride, in particular.
Avatar Flight of Passage stormed out of the gate to staggering crowds. Within its first week of operation it topped out at an astounding 400+ MINUTE stand by wait. That’s over a 6 1/2 hour wait…for one ride. There were hour-long lines JUST TO GET INTO that part of the park. It was instantly popular and the hype started rolling out. I started seeing quotes like “Best Disney ride ever” or “I’d wait in line for 12 hours just to ride it again.” My anti-hype defense went up and I wrote it all off with a “someday, I guess I’ll ride it” nonchalance.
Well, “someday” came a lot quicker than I expected and, less than 3 weeks after it opened, I found myself entering Pandora for the first time – in ANY form. My plan was simple: Hit up Na’vi River Journey first while the line was relatively short and utilize the Single Rider Line for Flight of Passage and be on my way. Well, by the time I got there, the Stand-by queue for Na’vi River had ballooned from 25 minutes to 90….and the Single Rider Line wasn’t operating at Flight of Passage. So, figuring that the morning crush would wear down and Na’vi River would become more manageable in a little while, I stared down the 180 minute Stand-by time for Flight of Passage, took a deep breath and flung myself into the throng.
The initial confusion – I was standing in a park at Disney World…but had NO idea where anything was or where any path led – was muddled by the constant yells of Cast Members warning that if the people in front of you stop to take pictures…just pass them. Despite a few, over-zealous teenagers who took full advantage of this direction, the chaos soon drifted to a surreal calm as we wound our way up the mountainside. It was cloudy and not too warm. “This might not actually be that bad” I thought to myself.
The outdoor part of the queue is nice. Alien and domestic plants scattered around waterfalls and native Pandoran craftsmanship dot the way. There are fans at every turn to keep the air moving. And the line moved, as well.
Soon enough, we entered a cave – a point which we were told signaled roughly the halfway mark of the queue. At 45 minutes in, I found that hard to believe. But, we moved on. The cave portion reminded me of the queue for Under the Sea over at Magic Kingdom…only riddled with alien graffiti. This, too, moved fairly quickly and we eventually found ourselves in one of the fabled glowing forests that were not only landmarks of the movie, but are the entire point of the other Pandora ride – which I’ll get to.
The bio-luminescent forest ultimately gave way to the Pandora Conservation Initiative (PCI) laboratory that serves as the home of the ride itself. Within the lab are numerous artifacts and creatures to look and marvel at, ranging from a Banshee skull to a suspended “Avatar” presumably awaiting you, the rider, to be psychically linked to him.
In fact, the queue is so engaging throughout, I barely noticed that nearly 100 minutes had flown by. From the lab, the line enters the realm of the grouper and we were broken up into 6 different ride vehicle lines.
From that point on, I’ll leave the details to your own personal experience. Suffice it to say, Avatar Flight of Passage is Star Tours and Soarin’ (with a little Test Track and MuppetVision 3D thrown in just for good measure) wrapped into one, spectacular adventure. It’s well worth the wait…which, in the end, thanks to the fantastic queue set up and high-capacity, isn’t that bad. I was onride in just under 2 hours. A full hour less than the original posted wait time. My only nitpick was that my 3D glasses were on the loose side and I felt compelled to hold them to my face at various parts of the ride. But, that’s as far as the negatives go.
Na’vi River Journey doesn’t have the same, flawless queue structure, unfortunately. By the time I made it back to this ride, any ideas I had of the Stand-by line dropping were gone. What was 90 minutes, was now 110. But, when in Pandora…
It’s still a lovely queue. It’s just a LOT more of the cattle pen variety with very little to distract from the minutes ticking by. But, as with Flight of Passage, take the posted time with a grain of salt. I went from the start of the line to boarding the boat in 72 minutes…which is decidedly NOT 110 minutes. So, no complaints about that.
The ride itself is standard boat-y (Pirates of the Caribbean/it’s a small world) trip through a zen-like, glowing forest replete with alien flora and fauna. The whole thing is just one, beautiful highlight after another, but to me, the music sold it. Not joking, after waiting in a combined 3+ hours of lines that day, I was COMPLETELY mellowed out after this 3 minute boat ride. It has its own special brand of soothing magic that you don’t often expect from an theme park attraction.
In short, it’s the PERFECT compliment to the rousing and soaring Flight of Passage. One flings you into the breathtaking world of Pandora, the other holds your hand and guides you in while whispering “Just relax. Enjoy the view.” Two sides of one really, really great experience.
I refer to this as a “partial” review because, there is more to Pandora: World of Avatar than just the two rides. I did not get to experience the food offerings at Satu’li Canteen or Pongu Pongu. And I didn’t really spend much time browsing merchandise in Windtraders (though I did notice that the super-popular shoulder Banshees were in ample stock.) But, judging by the number of kids I saw running around with either a Na’vi spear or drum, the reaction is just fine. I also did not get to experience the area at night when it lights up, which I’m told is something to behold. That’ll have to wait until next time. For now, I’m beyond happy to have experienced what I did. As I quipped after exiting Flight of Passage: “If this is how people felt after seeing the movie, then I should have watched it a LONG time ago.” Whether you love the movie or have never seen it, Disney has made something pretty special that you’re sure to enjoy.