Theme park attractions don’t normally require real suspension of disbelief. You strap into a vehicle, get swung around a bit, and then you’re off and running to the next line. But when you’re dealing with an entire immersive world, like Disney’s new Pandora: The World of Avatar, that dynamic changes. There has to be a narrative behind the ride, an in-world reason for people to line up when they’ve ostensibly traveled to an alien world known for its lush, exotic landscapes.
Pandora’s flagship attraction, Flight of Passage, might as well be a case study in how to pull off that kind of challenge. It’s a 3D motion simulator ride that lets visitors link to a Na’vi avatar, straight from the core conceit of the film, and take an aerial tour on one of the planet’s wild Banshees. It’s a technological marvel, seamlessly creating the illusion of careening through valleys and soaring past floating mountains. But it’s also a remarkable exercise in storytelling, linking the film to the physical park in its own unique way, resulting in one of the most immersive ride experiences I’ve encountered.
“There were a number of things that people really wanted to do on Pandora, and one of them was flying on the back of a Banshee,” David Lester, show programmer at Walt Disney Imagineering, tells me on a busy press day. In the world of theme parks, Imagineers are the closest thing you can find to rock stars, and the company has doubled the number of Imagineer groups available to discuss Pandora in order to meet the demand. “Every decision about how to create this experience, what technology to use, was all designed with that in mind: How do we make it feel like every person engaging in this experience is truly there?”
With Flight of Passage, that starts with the premise of the park itself. It’s been 100 years since the events featured in the film Avatar, and people now visit Pandora to learn about its exotic plants and wildlife. Years of abuse from humans harmed its fragile ecosystems, however, and a group called the Pandora Conservation Initiative has begun to track the world’s various keystone species — specific animals or plants that support the ecosystem as a whole. One of those is the Banshee, known to live in Pandora’s floating mountains, and as a result PCI has begin using an updated version of the avatar mind-linking technology to monitor their progress.
The ride actually begins long before visitors get anywhere near flying. The entrance to the attraction is essentially a waterfall-laden hiking trail, providing a glorious view of the park’s massive floating mountains and the valley below. Once inside, guests find themselves inside a cave filled with old paintings from Na’vi history, before discovering the remains of an old abandoned building from RDA, the mining company from the film that caused so much havoc in the first place. But as the path winds on, it’s revealed that the bioluminescent jungle has already begun to creep in and devour the ruins, an incredibly detailed landscape that evokes the struggle for dominance between humanity and nature.
That’s really just the beginning, because the lines for Flight of Passage are expected to be long. The entire queue was designed to support around a six-hour wait time, if needed — a mind-numbing prospect – but it makes the importance of a line as an attraction unto itself even more important. I remember riding Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure in the 1990s, which turned the queue into a puzzle-decoding quest that featured appearances from movie characters and a set that visitors could physically move and interact with. Those elements are no longer active today, but at the time they actually left more of an impression on me than the ride itself because they told the backstory of the entire attraction. Flight of Passage takes that same basic approach, but amplifies it — particularly when the queue leads guests to the PCI research labs.
That’s when it feels like you’re almost literally stepping onto the set of Cameron’s original film. A multitude of small science experiments dominate a workstation in the center of the room, while nearby an amnio tank holds a fully-grown avatar, ready to be brought out of stasis. It’s impressive how much that visual grounds not just the ride, but the entire park. Cameron’s Na’vi were always computer-generated creations, but here they’re recreated perfectly; the avatar’s CG-smooth skin and subtle blue shading turned physical, and totally believable.
After snaking through the labs, a few video introductions lay out how audience members will be linked to their avatars, and then they’re led into the ride itself. Avatar technology has evolved to the point where the process can be performed with nothing more than a “link chair” — basically a bicycle-like apparatus with haptic feedback — and a pair of “flight goggles” that serve as 3D glasses.
The ride mechanics are similar to Soarin’, Disney’s hang-glider simulator. When it begins, audiences face a gigantic 3D screen, with the chairs pivoting and tilting to recreate the feeling of plummeting down the face of a cliff, or pulling left in a tight corkscrew around a floating mountain. Bursts of wind and sprays of mist enhance the sense of immersion, while visually it appears you’re inside Avatar itself. Audiences first met Pandora and the Na’vi in 3D CG environments, and returning to that kind of world in Flight of Passage feels totally organic.
Throughput is obviously a priority — there are eight link chairs per room, two rooms per floor, and several floors for each of the four screens used in the attraction. But the four-minute ride itself is so engrossing you never really have time, nor inclination, to realize you’re doing anything but flying by yourself.
“We're illusion designers,” Imagineering executive producer Amy Jupiter tells me. “The whole thing about individualized flight is that the technology is supposed to fall away. That's our job, to really help you know that you're flying on a Banshee. The first thing that says, ‘Oh, technology!’ will take you out of that.”
While the attraction excels at conveying the thrills and adventure of aerial flight, its most magical moments are ones of calm, quiet serenity. After a particularly adventurous turn, my Banshee came to a rest in a dark cave full of bioluminescence (unlike something like Star Tours, there’s only a single track in Flight of Passage). I could hear my Banshee’s belabored breathing as it calmed down, but I could also feel it. The link chairs actually simulate the sides of the Banshees, so you can physically feel their breathing in slight movements between your knees. There’s a comforting intimacy to it, similar to what you experience riding a horse, that bonds you to the “creature” and makes the illusion come alive in a totally unique way.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Flight of Passage isn’t the breathtaking visuals or its ability to simulate the illusion of flight. It’s how it fits into and actually improves the larger experience of the physical park itself. The attraction’s use of the avatar mind-projection premise and its 3D visuals are a direct link to James Cameron’s 2009 film; it’s as if you’re actually experiencing a scene from the movie itself. But because it’s wrapped in the larger conservation narrative of Pandora, it serves as glue that binds the film and theme park together.
I entered the new land marveling at its flying mountains; I rode Flight of Passage in awe of Pandora’s larger splendor. But I left the attraction with an entirely different context for the physical landscape that surrounded me. The terrain of the Valley of Mo’ara became just that — a smaller location within this much larger world I’d just seen — and that impact underscored just how powerful the illusion of immersion can be in a theme park environment.
Talking to the team at Imagineering, of course, that seems to have been the goal all along. “It all came from the very beginning. [Imagineering executive] Joe Rohde's and James Cameron's vision for what this experience would be,” Lester says. “It was challenging to balance all those pieces, but it was also our goal. That's what we do at Imagineering: try to do the impossible.”