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Visiting Pandora: a photo tour of Disney’s new Avatar land

A day and a night in James Cameron’s brain

This past weekend Disney officially opened up Pandora: The World of Avatar. We’ve already taken a look at the rides, the landscape, and even some of the odd foodstuffs that can be found throughout the park — but Pandora is an immersive environment, and sometimes the best way to get a sense of what it’s like to visit is to just look at the glorious sights it has to show you.

Below, The Verge’s own Bryan Bishop and James Bareham take you on a guided photo tour of what it’s like to spend a day (and night) in Pandora.

Click images to enlarge.


Welcome to Pandora

James and I arrived just after 8AM at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Orlando. The first thing we noticed when we crossed the bridge into Pandora itself was this sign — a map of the “Valley of Mo’ara” that serves as the setting for the new land. Nearby, a massive plant known as a Flaska Reclinata spewed water and steam whenever visitors would touch its purple insides. Following the path further brought us past a community drum circle... and then those astounding floating mountains. —Bryan Bishop


THE FLOATING MOUNTAINS

Though I was decidedly underwhelmed by the plot when I first watched Avatar, I remember being utterly overwhelmed by the world that James Cameron had realized. For me, one of the most impressive scenes in the entire film was when Jake’s avatar joins the Na’vi in the vertiginous climb up the “Hallelujah Mountains,” the floating rocks that came to define the insanely otherworldly natural landscape of Pandora.

So I had some trepidation about the potential for disappointment in seeing the “real” floating rocks in Pandora: The World of Avatar for the first time. I even joked with Bryan that their initial impact may be more akin to the famous Stonehenge scene in the movie This is Spinal Tap, when the “enormous” iconic stone arch lowered onto the stage was actually smaller than the diminutive dancers gamely jigging around it.

Crossing the bridge and entering the park, I remember thinking that though the floating mountains were certainly big and definitely kind of impressive, maybe they were actually a letdown because they didn’t actually float. But as the day wore on, I found myself gazing up at the looming boulders and watching the vines sway in the breeze. I wondered just how in the hell the Walt Disney Imagineering team had made such an enormous structure hang in the air like... well, just like floating rocks. —James Bareham


PANDORA PLANT LIFE

After we finished gawking at those mountains, the next thing that caught our attention was the plant life. That massive pod near the entrance was just the beginning, because Pandora teems with vivid plants of all shapes and sizes. Purples, pinks, and blues contrasted sharply with the green foliage, while large, Alien-esque egg-shaped plants — known, unfortunately, as “vein pods” — littered the landscape

Tour guides from Alpha Centauri Expeditions, the company that is ostensibly behind the trips to Pandora, were nearby to educate us about various types of plant life, and fill us in on what had happened in the 100 years since the events chronicled in James Cameron’s 2009 film. Unfortunately, those tour guides were only part of the press event. Hopefully Disney sees fit to add them to the public experience as well. After all, the best way to believe you’re visiting an alien world is to talk to the people that live there. —Bryan Bishop


AVATAR: FLIGHT OF PASSAGE

My last visit to Disney World was in 1997. Back then, I found Space Mountain and Epcot a little bit tired and sad, like the members of a once-great rock n roll band that knew their glory days were behind them. Riding Flight of Passage last week, on the other hand, was like watching U2 play their biggest, loudest, and most impressive gig ever — just for me. It was quite something.

I feel extremely fortunate to have ridden Flight of Passage four times — two of them back-to-back — all of them without having to spend much time waiting in line. (It’s a long line.) The ride is so intoxicating that by the fourth go I was both addicted and overwhelmed by the knowledge that no matter how many times I rode it, I would never recapture the insanely euphoric feeling I’d experienced “flying” over the staggeringly real world of Pandora that first time.

And for any of you who are thinking of filming your Flight of Passage to post on YouTube: don’t. Do yourself a favor and put your phone away. You’ll thank me afterward.

But before you embark on this epic — and admittedly rather short — adventure, you’ll take a leisurely stroll (or more likely a slow, step-by-step shuffle) along the meandering path that leads up to the Flight of Passage ride itself. The view from the queue is pretty impressive — which is a good thing because, in all likelihood, you’re going to be looking at it for quite some time.

Once you make your way past the rocks and fauna, you’ll eventually enter a cave system (complete with Na’vi paintings on the roughly hewn walls); a dark passageway (full of bioluminescent plant life); and on through huge, rusty doors that open into the “labs” belonging to the Pandora Conservation Initiative, current home of the Avatar program. The lab is basically the ultimate film set: lovingly art directed with rich detail, down to lab coats on chairs and mugs on desks. The avatar in the tank is the main attraction, but I also loved the little “aliens” blobbing about in smaller tanks. Shame you can’t buy one in the gift store.


THE LAB IS JUST A RESPITE; IT’S NOT THE END

Just when you think you’re finally about to enter the ride, you instead enter a cavernous hall with a life-sized Banshee and a pair of Na’vi stenciled on the wall. You will enter the long, dark, industrial passageways (that will most likely be filled with people) that you must navigate before you finally get to experience the ride.

Like so much of Pandora: World of Avatar, all of the richly detailed scenery that we passed by on our long walk(s) to the Flight of Passage chamber made us realize just how insane Star Wars land will be. Just look at that picture above and tell me you don’t see a Rebel bunker. —James Bareham


Exit through the gift shop

The entire premise of visiting Pandora is that guests are on a tourist expedition, which provides a convenient in-game rationale for doing silly tourist things — including buying tons of branded gear in gift shops. Pandora’s main merch option is a store called Windtraders, and as we exited Flight of Passage, the line led us straight to its doors.

The variety of merchandise was actually quite impressive. There were T-shirts and flip-flops, but there were also Na’vi tails, hair braid extensions, and miniature Banshee puppets that could sit on your shoulder. Guests looking to blow $100 could also purchase their own floating, twirling chunk of “unobtanium.” (Yes, I considered buying it. Don’t judge.) —Bryan Bishop



The Na’vi River Journey

I should start here by admitting I made a massive mistake: I went on the Na’vi River Journey after riding Flight of Passage.

In retrospect, there was no way that this slow, serene, river cruise was going to live up to my expectations of what a ride through the bioluminescent nighttime jungle of Pandora would be like. And it didn’t.

Bryan’s view of the ride is a lot, er... fairer than mine. He makes a very good point about this being more of a traditional Disney ride than the cutting-edge 3D simulator that is Flight of Passage. Nevertheless, I found the Na’vi River Journey to be extremely disappointing: it seems small and claustrophobic, more like a ride through a cave with some fluorescent scenery (which it kind of is) than an epic exploratory journey through a deep, dark alien rain forest (which it most definitely is not).

Had I taken this ride before riding the Flight of Passage, I’m sure that my reaction would have been very different. I also feel that I am being slightly disingenuous about the obvious care and detail that has been put into the River Journey — particularly the animatronic Shaman of Songs which is creepily real. And I must also accept that I am hardly the target demographic. But having said all that, I still feel that the Na’vi River Journey could, and should, have been so much more. —James Bareham

The hidden creatures frolicking on the leaves are a nice touch.


Blue food & neon drinks

After trying both rides, it was time to eat, so we headed over to the Satu'li Canteen. Like most of the structures on Pandora, it was built in the ruins of a building left over from RDA — the mining company that Giovanni Ribisi worked for in Avatar. Aside from the blueberry cheesecake, the menu was pretty straightforward: build-it-yourself bowls and bao buns stuffed with either vegetable curry or cheeseburger filling. (They tasted just like cheeseburgers.) While the food was by no means evocative of an alien world, the set decoration was impressive, giving everything the sense of being part of the world and narrative — including the cabinets in the room where dishes could be stacked.

Afterward, we headed to a drink stand nearby called Pongu Pongu (Na’vi for “party party,” we were told). That’s where we tried the Night Blossom, a sugary-sweet instant brain freeze beverage that was actually quite tasty. That’s also where we spotted a giant mech walker that looked like it was pulled straight from the movie. (James was annoyed we couldn’t climb inside — and rightfully so.) —Bryan Bishop


Don’t disturb the creatures

A smaller bridge nearby took us to a pond, where several small creatures floated. These weren’t animatronic animals; instead they just sat there by the waterline, looking sufficiently odd and Pandora-y. Judging from a sign nearby that warned of their reaction to arm movements, it seems like there will eventually be some sort of interactivity from these critters, but during our visit they were dormant. To get a glimpse of any other animal activity — or to see the Na’vi themselves, for that matter — guests will have to visit Flight of Passage or the Na’vi River Journey. —Bryan Bishop


PANDORA AFTER DARK

After revisiting both Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey a few more times, we headed back to our hotel room for a break. When we returned to the park a few hours later, the sun had set and the entire landscape was transformed.

In the film, Pandora becomes a glowing, bioluminescent landscape at night, and with the power of black lights and I don’t want to know how much glow paint, the physical park does the same thing. The transformation is awe-inspiring; words simply don’t cut it. Even our pictures have a tough time conveying what it’s like to be surrounded by this kind of exotic world on all sides.

If Pandora by day delivers the sense of being on a different planet, Pandora at night made us feel as if we were on a truly alien world. We hadn’t seen anything like it before, and it’s one of the things I’m most excited about experiencing again when I return. —Bryan Bishop

All photography by James Bareham and Bryan Bishop / The Verge

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