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Welcome to Pandora, avatars are included

Walt Disney Imagineering and James Cameron have built a whole new world

Photography by James Bareham

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The human brain isn’t accustomed to seeing mountains floating in the sky, so it’s hard to process exactly what you’re seeing the first time you step into Pandora: The World of Avatar. The latest addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom park is mostly hidden as you walk the rest of the grounds, but cross the right bridge, and you’ll see those mountains, hovering off in the distance. It’s enough to cause a moment of legitimate cognitive dissonance: are they real? Is it an optical illusion? Are they actually floating?

The mountains were a key piece of the landscape in James Cameron’s 2009 film: massive chunks of stone hovering magically in the air. The indigenous blue Na’vi would ascend them as rites of passage. But at first glance, the mountains of Pandora the park seemed small compared to the mountains of Pandora the cinematic world. Or at least that’s what my brain was telling me had to be the case.

I continued down the path, passing a drum circle as I drew even closer. Eventually I came into a clearing. Exotic purple and blue plants grew to my right, while a large totem created by the Na’vi hung to my left — marking the mouth of a sacred river I would visit later that day. But my eyes kept returning to those twin floating mountains, now in full display before me. Up close they were massive and majestic, vines swaying gently, while a waterfall spilled off the stone face and into thin air.

The breeze shifted and mist from the waterfall blew across my face. Oh, yes, I thought. They’re real.

When James Cameron directed Avatar, the film was a breakthrough in 3D technology. Rather than the bad gimmicks and headache-inducing visuals audiences were used to, the filmmaker used a refined version of the format — along with groundbreaking motion-capture technology — to create an entirely new world in Pandora. At the time, 3D was said to be the closest thing to being there — so perhaps it was only logical that the next evolution would be to give audiences the chance to actually go there, or at least to a surreal re-creation.

An important step forward in immersive entertainment

But six years after Disney first announced it would be bringing an Avatar-themed land to Orlando, Florida, the franchise has been in a strange sort of limbo. Cameron has constantly pushed back the release dates for his ever-expanding number of sequels, and with Disney’s Star Wars-themed land on the horizon and Harry Potter’s Wizarding World expanding across the globe, it hasn’t been clear whether guests would even still be interested.

After touring the land this week, it’s safe to say that Disney’s Pandora is an important step forward in immersive entertainment. It doesn’t merely give visitors the sense of stepping into the world from the film; it makes the case that a physical park may have been the perfect format for the story of Avatar all along.

The key to understanding Pandora: The World of Avatar is recognizing that it isn’t focused on events from the movie, and it’s not the kind of land where audiences will run into familiar characters. The 12-acre park re-creates something called the Valley of Mo’ara, a location not even mentioned in the original film, and is set “a generation” after the events of Cameron’s fourth and final planned sequel. “We wanted it separated from the narratives of the movie,” project writer and Walt Disney Imagineering story development executive Mark LaVine tells me during the press preview. “It's not about Jake and Neytiri and that plot. It's about you going to Pandora.”

“It's not about Jake and Neytiri. It's about you going to Pandora.”

The premise is that visitors are on a tourist trip with a company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions, or ACE. Talk to one of the many tour guides populating the land, and they’ll explain that a hundred years have passed since the events depicted in the original film, and that the mining company RDA — the corporate bad guys who tried to blow up the Na’vi — never returned. Instead, Alpha Centauri has begun shuttling people to the planet, focused on studying Pandora’s ecosystem of plants, animals, and other creatures in the name of repairing the damage done to the environment. As part of the tourist package, visitors can use the movie’s namesake mind-projection tech to take control of an avatar and fly a wild Banshee (the flagship 3D simulator attraction Flight of Passage), or take a gentle boat ride through a bioluminescent landscape and meet the sacred Shaman of Songs on the Na’vi River Journey.

From the moment you enter the park, which opens to the public on May 27th, it is obvious that Cameron and Imagineering project head Joe Rohde have focused on creating an immersive world that isn’t just beautiful, but wrapped in the story. On one hand, the natural landscape is lush and detailed; on the other, everything from the bathrooms to the local restaurant are built out of the ruins of old RDA buildings. Pandora’s exotic fauna, easily recognizable from the film, awaits at every turn, and while most if it is simply part of the overall landscape, there’s interactivity and history there, too: smack the glowing insides of a massive plant pod, set up by the Na’vi, and it spews steam and water. Walking through the queue for Flight of Passage tells the mini-narrative of how a conservation group has taken over an abandoned RDA facility, while hidden in the overgrowth on one tiny island is the wreckage of the same kind of helicopter that Michelle Rodriguez piloted in Avatar.

You may not know this valley, the park seems to be saying, but things happened here. This place has history.

The Florida humidity (and a flash rainstorm) during our visit lent the entire park the feeling of being in a true rainforest, but it was at night that Pandora really came alive as an alien landscape. Black lights are hidden everywhere in the park, and after the sun sets, the entire place glows with purples, blues, and yellows, evoking the haunting bioluminescence portrayed in the movie. It’s gorgeous unto itself — climbing the mountain that serves as the entrance to Flight of Passage provides a breathtaking view of the valley below, with the floating mountains framing the rest of the park in surreal shades of color — but it’s also undeniably Avatar, and unlike anything I’ve encountered in a Disney park.

It’s all part of the extensive world-building effort, but ultimately landscaping and design can only do so much. To really sell the idea that you’re visiting an alien world requires, well, people that inhabit that alien world, and Pandora’s population is one of the most engrossing aspects of the park. There are two basic types of “streetmosphere” — the cast members that hang out, in character, in Disney’s parks — in Pandora. There’s a kind of chill, stoner archetype: the type of person you suspect came out to Pandora on vacation and just never left, and then there are the tour guides.

Guides in the employ of Alpha Centauri Expeditions teach visitors about the flora and fauna of Pandora.
Guides in the employ of Alpha Centauri Expeditions teach visitors about the flora and fauna of Pandora.

The guides are ostensibly all employees of Alpha Centauri Expeditions. (There are no “Disney employees” within the world of Pandora; every person you run into is a character from the world of some form or another.) They’re ready with facts about Pandora, the ecology, and the similarities (and differences) to plant life here on Earth. But I also found them to be wonderfully adept improvisers with a massive amount of backstory at the ready, adding a different level of immersion to the park. I asked one guide some basic questions about the events in the original film to get my general bearings. It led to a 10-minute conversation about the Na’vi, their response to the destruction RDA brought upon Pandora, and how human-Na’vi relations had evolved in the 100 years since. It wasn’t just a bunch of canned talking points, either; it was a full-on conversation, with a tour guide character that I found to be utterly believable.

Unfortunately, the tour guides were largely added just for the press event, and it’s not clear how much of an ongoing presence those characters will have during the park’s normal operations, if any. Given how vital their presence was during our visit, it would represent a tremendous missed opportunity should Disney not incorporate them heavily into Pandora moving forward, handicapping the ability of visitors to lose themselves in the story the world is telling.

Immersive theater meets the big-budget theme park world

Imagineering has spoken at length about how it wants to turn the upcoming Star Wars land into an immersive world with an interactive narrative for guests. This aspect of Pandora — merging immersive theater with the big-budget theme park world — points to impressive possibilities, particularly if Disney decides to push things further on the narrative front.

“It's all about being real, and putting depth to that,” LaVine tells me. The park and its inhabitants need to work for those guests that know the movie and want to deep-dive into the mythology. But the characters also serve as a touch point for those who might not be familiar with the film, or are too young to have even seen it. “If you don't know any of it, it still feels like it's a real place. I really feel like it's going to a national park on an alien world.”

Perhaps the most magical bit of alchemy is the way the rides themselves affect the overall experience of visiting the park. Obviously, a theme park land could never capture the size and scope of the world in Cameron’s film — hence setting the park in its own standalone valley. But the breathtaking Flights of Passage effortlessly links the experience and visuals of the film, in all its CG glory, with the tactile reality of the physical park. I’ll dive into the experience in further detail in a later piece, but not only does the ride fold in the Avatar mind-projection concept, but it allows visitors to soar through the planet’s vast landscapes in 3D sequences that could have been pulled straight from the film. Walking back into the Valley of Mo’ara after a four-minute ride on a Banshee gives the entire landscape more immediacy and context, tying the disparate pieces together into a cohesive world.

The attractions tie the movie and theme park together

As impressive and immersive as it is, however, the landscape of Pandora does have its fair share of things that will pop guests out of the illusion. The plants are wonderful, until you make the mistake of touching them and realize they’re hard and hollow, not remotely plant-like. The Na’vi themselves are also nowhere to be found in the park itself, limited only to appearances in the two rides. (According to the backstory, they’ve left the valley in the hands of Alpha Centauri, but it feels odd to not see some hint of them while walking the trails.) The logistics of Disney World crowds demand clearly marked signs for attraction waiting times, and while the tourism conceit does mask this to some degree it’s nevertheless hard not to wonder why Disney’s own FastPass queueing system has signs on what is otherwise supposed to be an alien world.

Those are small quibbles. The truth is there is so much that Pandora: The World of Avatar gets right that it makes those discordant details stand out. It’s the uncanny valley problem, transposed into a theme park context: when you’re close enough to start feeling like you’re practically there, anything that reminds you that you’re not becomes a distraction.

The irony, of course, is that this is all arriving in an Avatar vacuum. When Disney first signed the deal with Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, the expectation was that two Avatar sequels would have already arrived in theaters by 2017. Instead, Pandora is opening when we’re still three years out from the first follow-up, without any real indication that audiences will flock to new Avatar films the way they did in 2009.

But that may end up being the secret to Pandora’s success. By focusing on the planet rather than on any particular characters or replicated storylines, Disney’s new park is able to sidestep many of the criticisms levied at the film. Instead, it takes the essence of what Cameron’s movie was always able to do — transporting audiences to a fantastic new world — and executes the same magic trick in the physical realm, creating a new chapter in the mythology while also giving visitors the chance to emotionally invest in the location itself. It’s literal world-building, and after touring Pandora I not only felt an affinity for the planet and its various inhabitants; I was eager to re-watch the film and see how it played now that I’d actually been to the world myself.

Perhaps, more than anything else, I just enjoyed entering a fully realized world, where I could slip away from the realities of our daily lives and marvel at exploring something new. That’s the true promise of immersive entertainment, particularly at this kind of scale, and with Pandora: The World of Avatar, Disney has taken an important step forward.

“I think people want to be immersed completely in something,” LaVine tells me. “There's so much information now, we're all on our phones all the time. The real world is blazing past us, it's so fast. And I think having a moment to go somewhere else and completely immerse yourself, and lose yourself in this other thing, has a real appeal to it.”

Update, May 28th, 12:50PM ET: Updated with additional information about Pandora tour guides.