Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Examining Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Pandora, the World of Avatar will unveil itself sometime in 2017. Now is a good opportunity to really look at what we know–or don’t know–about this attraction based on the film Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I’ve learned a few new things recently–and I have just taken a few unique shots that will help us better understand what we can look forward to. My effort today is to pull together as much as I know and what I’ve heard from others, and try to give you the most complete picture possible.

The View From the Bridge

When guests first enter Pandora, the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this is what they will see in the distance:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
View from the entrance to the new land of Pandora, the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

What you see above is the “weenie” that will draw guests into this section of the park. This is the initial floating mountain that most guests will see. It’s depicted by this original view of entering the land:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney’s rendering of Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Returning to the park, let’s back up this closeup to its full establishing shot:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
The fence next to Tiffins. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

This is a view as you see it from the fencing that is situated next to the new (and pretty good) Tiffins restaurant. If you haven’t been in a while, it’s the path next to Pizzafari. We’ll talk about some of the promises made on those fence posters. But let’s move forward with a view beyond the fence:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
The bridge leading to Pandora. Note a new rock wall being added along the bridge. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

You see the bridge that used to take guests to Camp Minnie-Mickey. The fencing is being replaced right now with a rock wall lining each side of the path. Beyond you see what seems like rock outcropping that has been added to the entrance. Here’s a slightly closer view:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Just what is sticking out in the distance. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

In the model displayed at D23, you see the very same outcropping, only it appears to be something more of a plant form:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Pandora model by Disney from last year’s D23 expo.

Perhaps this will be one of those plants that will respond to tactile interaction from guests, based on new motion sensor technology Disney has recently developed. To compare the difference, here’s the original bridge only a few years ago, leading guests to Camp Minnie-Mickey. Note that not only is the old railing gone, but even the lamp posts are being altered to some other look and feel. We have yet to enter this new land, but already we can tell that a serious financial investment is being made to attract guests to visit.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
The path to Camp Minnie-Mickey. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Joe Rohde, who leads the imagineering effort on this attraction, has mentioned his hope that people will be so stunned by the look and the feel of this attraction, that they will simply stop and look up in wonder to this other world–to these floating mountains. More about those mountains later. But first let’s step behind the mountains.

Flight of Passage

The massive mountains of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are hiding two major attractions. Perhaps the one getting the greatest attention is Flight of Passage. This has been labeled as an “astonishing flight through the world of Pandora on the back of a banshee.” This is well displayed by this poster found on the fence to the new entrance:

I have a question for you, though, about a trend in imagineering that I find discouraging, and that the more sycophantic podcasts don't address. I am excited about the new Star Wars land in DHS, but was somewhat crestfallen to read that the main attractions will be simulators, as will at least one in Avatar land. While I readily admit I am a motion-sickness sufferer and I know this fuels my opinion somewhat, I am worried that imagineering is losing it's magic as a profession by showing us movies while bouncing us around in a dark box. I think it's lazy. I know it is cheaper to design, build, and maintain than say, bringing Tony Baxter's Mary Poppins design to life. But it's disappointing. What are your thoughts? No one seems to be blogging or podcasting about it. Should I be worried?
Disney poster at entrance to the new Pandora.

This has also been depicted by this visual:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Illustration of the banshee flight simulator attraction.

What does it mean to fly “on the back of a banshee”? One reader recently wrote me and said:

“I have a question for you, though, about a trend in imagineering that I find discouraging, and that the more sycophantic podcasts don’t address. I am excited about the new Star Wars land in DHS, but was somewhat crestfallen to read that the main attractions will be simulators, as will at least one in Avatar land.  While I readily admit I am a motion-sickness sufferer and I know this fuels my opinion somewhat, I am worried that imagineering is losing it’s magic as a profession by showing us movies while bouncing us around in a dark box.  I think it’s lazy.  I know it is cheaper to design, build, and maintain than say, bringing Tony Baxter’s Mary Poppins design to life.  But it’s disappointing.  What are your thoughts?  No one seems to be blogging or podcasting about it.  Should I be worried?”

Sorry. Yes, you should be concerned–at least a little bit. You may know that this is designed as a Soarin’ type of situation. Soarin’ at Epcot has been the most popular attraction at Walt Disney World. So it is not surprising that they are using a similar setup. The good news is that most people do not have a problem riding Soarin’.

The bad news from what I have come to understand is that the seating experience is not the benches you find from Soarin’. I thought, based on many concepts described above that you would be flying on a banshee. I thought I had also heard something about Iger describing the banshee as feeling like it was alive. That may be something else. From a colleague who walked the site recently, there are seats–not banshees–that you will be riding on. But that’s where the insight ends. The seats are not like the ones at Soarin’. They will rock a whole lot more than the gentle nudges you get in the Epcot attraction. Indeed, they will dip down as you move through. So looking back at that poster shown above, think about the point of view its representing, and you may get an idea of how your perspective may be as you fly through this experience. Joe Rohde was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying that the new ride system will be “considerably more thrilling” than the original Soarin’.

In the words of James Cameron:

“You feel like you are flying. The motion-based technology, and the film software is so advanced now that you literally will feel like your flying. I know you’ve heard that before with other rides, but this is on a whole other level.”

That’s not to say pending guest response Imagineering couldn’t come up with a gentler version of this for those wanting an easier option, similar to Mission to Mars (although some can’t even handle that version). Hopefully most will be able to enjoy this attraction in some way. But again, that isn’t what you get from Joe Rohde:

“You can imagine this flying ride is going to be pretty physical, and sort of in a thrill ride category. It’s very scenic. It’s very beautiful It’s very emotional. We want to make sure that everyone who comes to this world of Pandora experiences the full range of what it has to offer.”

He then goes on to explain what constitutes that full range of offering. And it includes what has been described as a “D-Ticket” attraction known as the Na’Vi River Journey.

Na’Vi River Journey

Conceptual art gives an exciting glimpse into a water-based attraction where guests set out in canoes and venture down sacred rivers lit by the glow of bioluminescent rainforests. Romantic, beautiful, lyrical, and fluid are descriptors imagineers give to this experience.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Depiction by Disney of Na’vi River Journey.

My colleague walked this space recently and agrees that this attraction will look pretty cool. He has also seen the animatronic of the Na’vi shaman, and that animatronic is fairly amazing.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney’s depiction of the scene experienced on the Na’Vi River Journey.

Other exotic animals from the world of Avatar are a part of this attraction–no surprise–it’s Disney’s Animal Kingdom, after all. We were shown some of these in model form at D23:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Sculptures of animals found along the way. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

To grasp what this might look like indoors as an attraction, the best example of what Disney has achieved to date is the new Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland. This attraction is staged in front of a digital canvas. It is stunning and creates a very real experience–far better than one gets looking at those bubble screens on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction at Universal. This isn’t a replacement for a scenic setting made of plaster, wood and paint like in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact much of that is part of the total experience. But it does do what you could never do with a static scene.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Pirates of the Caribbean at Shanghai Disneyland. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

In short, I’d like to think this attraction will be bigger hit than most will expect. I hope that the only reason this is a D-Ticket attraction and not an E-Ticket attraction is because it isn’t a thrill ride. Otherwise, I’d like to suppose it will be as beautiful as Pirates in Shanghai Disneyland, but with a track layout about the length of Gran Fiesta Tour.

The Land of Pandora

I also don’t think the experience will rest with two attractions. Much of what will make or break Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the environment in which all of these attractions, shops and restaurants will reside. The theme here is that you are on a conservation vacation tour with Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE). You are visiting the planet after the war that was played out in the movie. It is a time of celebration, a time of coming together, and an opportunity to explore the beauty of this planet and its creatures.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
The floating mountains. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

That means you’re not just visiting a couple of rides, but a whole new land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Consider what Joe Rohde stated the real challenge of building this new land called Pandora:

“When we build a world, you are the protagonists. And all of a sudden a floating mountain that went by for 3-4 seconds [in a film] you can stand and look at for a whole hour. And it has to stand up to an hour’s worth of scrutiny. And to get that much detail, yes indeed, you have to go back and look at rocks and look at trees and look at vines and look at tribal buildings and make sure you are holding up to a level of scrutiny that is like a microscope.”

Mountains still under construction. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Mountains still under construction. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The ability to examine the details during the day is a challenge in and of itself. But beyond this is the concept of how the land will be rendered at night:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney’s rending of Pandora at night.

Beyond the details that can be seen during the day, “the land will take on new life at night with bioluminescent flora and special nighttime immersive programming that’ll add a magical tough.” Done correctly, this means seeing Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at night will be as unique as having seen it during the day.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Image from Disney Parks Blog.

This is making the experience of putting it all together quite a challenge. It is also creating greater demand for seeing the park at night, which is why the nighttime additions made to the park this year have been so critical to prepping the park for thousands and thousands of visitors who will want to come and check it out after the sun goes down. Just last week I was surveyed about the nighttime offerings at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It got down to details about where I was sitting for the Jungle Book show or my impressions of the Tree of Life Awakening show:

They want to know the impact of the show based on where you sit.
They want to know the impact of the show based on where you sit.

Disney’s success will be measured in part by how long people stay in the parks, and how many take advantage of night time offerings. So there is a lot to do to make Pandora, the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom succeed, beyond even just the land itself succeeding.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Construction on the exterior side of Na’vi River Journey. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Still, returning to this new addition, what else will this land specifically entail? The best way to get a sense of this land is to see the model and how much pedestrian area there is for guests to explore:

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
D23 model of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

As you see there are lots of trails, vegetation and water ways. On one end of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a counter service restaurant using quonset huts previously occupied by military forces. On the other side, standing toward the right as you exit Pandora, is a gift shop.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Back of house for retail area. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It’s hard to tell what will sell in this land. Will native-looking items really sell? Does it seem right to sell t-shirts when you’re supposed to be way out in space somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system? Could you sell an exotic, upscale Pandora bracelet in Pandora? It’s not so far-fetched, especially with Pandora already a major sponsor at Disney. What is certain, however, is that Disney retail has its work cut out for itself.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Retail samples/ideas shown at D23. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

This land is huge, and really very much on the scale of Radiator Springs when it was added to Disney California Adventure. That land and its attractions changed the face of that park. Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom could change the face of this park–and even the Walt Disney World resort.

Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom–My Prediction

So will Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom be worth seeing? The final verdict will come after opening, but my prediction is that it will be. Investment in this is huge. Disney is using it as a 1-2 punch back at Harry Potter (the second punch being Star Wars) and I think they are going to provide an experience that will truly be unique.

Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Construction is full on in opening this new land  in 2017. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

I think this new major addition will blow the attendance of Disney’s Animal Kingdom potentially by several million, likely surpassing three other parks world wide (including Epcot) to become the third most popular park in the world (behind Magic Kingdom and Disneyland). Even if you don’t like the movie (which was the highest grossing movie of all time), you’ll be intrigued by the experience of seeing this uniquely developed attraction. And the Avatar sequels that eventually will come to your local cineplex will help to continue refueling its popularity–something Harry Potter’s films cannot currently do for Universal.

What do you think? Whether or not you liked the movie, are you excited for Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

2 thoughts on “Examining Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

  1. I wish Rohde’s attention to detail also applied to ” a kind of warehouse, fortress, power plant” ; but, we know his heart really isn’t in that project and his hand is being very much forced.

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