One of the great benefits about the intersection between having a summer birthday, being an only child, and belonging to a family that lives in Orlando is there’s always ample reason to come down and visit the brand new attractions that open every summer. And that’s how I got to experience Pandora this past weekend.
Where to begin. As about a million bloggers have already stated, the land is fantastic. It’s detailed, beautiful, and pretty much defines what a modern immersive environment should be. It’s flaws are relatively minor and easily overlooked. My only regret of visiting was that I didn’t have more time to more fully absorb it and experience it at night. I’m going to break the land down into its individual parts and address each. So let’s get started.
The Land Itself
Pandora continues the recent trend of lands that are attractions unto themselves. But unlike the Potter lands, or Radiator Springs, or even New Orleans Square, it doesn’t achieve this through a smattering of shops but through beautiful vista after vista and dozens of small, intimate settings and interactions. Like much of Animal Kingdom this might be disappointing to those in a rush, but also like much of Animal Kingdom, if you slow down and let yourself really experience the environment that’s where the true enjoyment lies. There’s guides positioned about to explain the native flora, there’s little (presumably interactive) alcoves, and just so much to see that it all can not possibly be taken in. One also notices the overwhelming abundance of water. It flows throughout much of the land – which is a really great change of pace from most theme park lands where water features are usually cut during development. It really does add a sense of life to a land that ironically might express the ideas of earth and nature more than any of the other lands in a park designed around the idea of nature. Also noticeable is the amount of hand-crafted weaving – really giving the sense of this being a ceremonial and special and/or sacred place. There are some minor issues with the forced perspective of the floating mountains. I really think fog machines as seen in some promotional videos would help a lot – I’m not sure if that was for the ads only, or if they weren’t working the day I visited. Either way the structures are impressive, though maybe a bit disappointing in that so much money was spent on structures that don’t have any other purpose than aesthetics. It’s hard to criticize that too though as the land would not have nearly the same impact without them.
I’ll also add here that while I didn’t get to experience the main restaurant, I did get to go to the snack location. The night blossom is tasty, but a bit overly sweet and forgettable (especially if you live in a place where slurpees and Boba are common). The lumpia however is a pretty unique and inexpensive treat.
Navi River Journey
This was the attraction I’ve probably been most excited for since the land was announced. It just seems like the perfect way to capture all the beauty of the movie. And it doesn’t disappoint on that account – it’s just about as beautiful as you could possibly expect. The bioluminescent forest is gorgeous and tranquil. The whole ride is as if the beginning portion of Pirates in Anaheim from the bayou and caverns were just plussed several hundred times over. The only flaw in the ride is that it doesn’t last much longer than that portion of Pirates. It’s an extremely short attraction, especially for a boat ride, and especially within such a high profile land and commanding such a long wait. Perhaps, once the land is less new and crowds balance out with the rest of the park the wait to ride ratio will improve, but for now it’s going to be a problem. There were audible groans of disappointment upon the realization that that’s all there was. But to the ride’s credit, they’re not the kind of groans of feeling cheated, but of thoroughly enjoying a brief experience and wishing for more. And to the designers’ defense, in a land costing near a reported billion dollars there has to be somewhere a line is drawn as an end.
I specifically want to give a shout out to some of the technology in this ride as well. The Navi animatronic is what everyone talks about, and deservedly so. It’s akin to the level of progress the Wicked Witch in The Great Movie ride was back when MGM opened. It’s near unbelievable. But what I’ve heard less about is the use of projection effects in the ride. Most of the action in the ride relies on projection, but extremely clever uses of it – creating what to me is the first use of projection that is actually believable. The techniques being used are essentially an expansion of the multi-layer projection used in the Finding Nemo attraction at Epcot mixed with Musion and projection mapping. The end result are projected scenes but with full dimensionality that is not captured in videos. I’m a pretty heavy critic of reliance on projections and screens, but I was pleasantly surprised by this and would love to see it used again and see continued development. It seems like the perfect compromise between making everything physical and everything projected.
River Journey is a spectacular ride, and graciously perfect for every single guest. It’s not a thrill ride, it’s a slow-moving visual feast, very much in the vein of classic Disney attractions: something the entire family can enjoy. Again really the only criticism of it can be its too-short length. If it was about twice a long it would probably be THE talk of the land and overshadow Flight of Passage. Which perhaps is why it is the way it is. I do think much of the issue is the setup for it, kind of in the same way that Florida’s version of Mermaid has a queue that prepares the rider for a much grander experience than is delivered. River Journey actually quite smartly keeps its queue much simpler – consisting of basically one large shaded area and a secluded loading zone.
(This isn’t to say the queue isn’t gorgeously detailed and complex in its own way – the sheer amount of weaving and complex detail in the structure is mind-boggling). But the scale of the structure necessary to accommodate the heavy crowds Disney gets these days still sets up a longer experience. As Tony Baxter has said, this is somewhat of a side effect of a ticketless system – there’s no clear way to set up expectations from the outset to differentiate a C ticket experience from an E ticket experience. This is compounded in lands where everything is constructed so lush and detailed, there’s not even a visual indication of what kind of experience you’re getting yourself into. But all this aside, as long as you know to expect a delightfully decadent after-dinner truffle rather than a table-sharing dessert or steak dinner you’re able to really savor the experience for what it is.
Flight of Passage
Flight of Passage is definitively the main attraction in Pandora. The entire land is basically shaped around and funnels you into it. It’s an epic attraction with an epic queue that matches the epic scale of the film. Theres a review on WDWmagic that describes the queue as if every good queue ever built was combined together into one, and that’s a fairly accurate statement. There’s beautiful vistas, twisting caves, dark forests, technical labs, industrial utilidors (nice bit of self-referencing there Disney), a gloriously intimate preshow and boarding process. It’s about the best way I can think of to waste a few hours of your life standing and walking at the speed of a snail with thousands of sweaty tired people. It’s pretty much perfect.
What about the ride itself? Well less than perfect, but still pretty damn good. The best way to describe it is indeed as Soarin’ 2.0. Except I mean that in the absolute best way possible. James Cameron’s influence is felt as you can see this is the screen being pushed to the technological limits. This is the first real use of HDR HFR cinema I know of outside of labs and Dolby-Cinema (and Dolby Cinema is just barely HDR compared to this). While I think the format is pretty lousy for movies, it is made for this kind of experience. Daylight looks like daylight, and that makes a huge difference in realism. The ride really is Soarin’ 2.0, or maybe 4.0 is a better descriptor, in every way you can think of. There are no sight line issues; you’re completely surrounded by screen and in it. Everything drops away to be just you and the content. The wind is strong and blows in response to the environment. There’s way more motion. And the transition between real life and screen life is so convincingly done, combined with the complete lack of sight line barriers, as to make the fact that you’re watching a screen largely disappear. I cannot stress how cooly (and yet how really simply ) one minute you’re staring at a wall awaiting to be “linked” to your avatar and the next minute you’re in it in that screen. HDR projection with perfect blacks and some super simple lighting techniques is what makes this possible and all the design choices made up to this point is what makes it so effective, particularly the forced compression. The ride system and way it integrates with the boarding area is ingenious – somewhat fusing the two together and also creatively avoiding the problem of actually needing to get people on a banshee while exactly delivering that experience. Anyway I could keep gushing about the ride system and technology but suffice it to say it’s definitely the best simulator ever built. It’s also a surprisingly gentle simulator. It provides a thrill, but won’t be too much for most guests.
My only real complaint would be the 3D glasses are pretty horrid. They don’t cover the full field of view and they don’t seem to stay on anyone’s face – though I will give them credit for making them look unique and not standard 3d glasses. It’s an unfortunately prominent flaw in an otherwise near flawless experience. Nevertheless, it doesn’t detract all that much – just draws attention to itself and takes guests out of an experience. But considering how captivating the experience is, how many gasps and shouts of awe I heard, I’d be surprised if even mosts guests notice.
Pandora is a wonderful addition to Animal Kingdom, and feels like such a perfect fit for the park. I know many people were skeptical about its thematic appropriateness, but I think those concerns will fall away when they experience it. The land is thoroughly rooted in nature and conservation at every turn and succeeds in keeping Animal Kingdom perhaps the most well thematically integrated park in the world, and I’d say it’s probably also now the best theme park in Orlando. The land really leaves you wanting more, I think in largely a positive way – the same feeling you get when watching a really good movie that you don’t ever really want to end. It has flaws, but they are nearly all minor ones that won’t even be noticed by most guests. Imagineering really hit this one out of the park and it leaves me extraordinarily excited for whats to come.