At first, I thought Pandora was an unlikely fit for Walt Disney World Resort. James Cameron's Avatar is not a Disney movie, and it came out back in 2009 (likely before many Disney-loving children were even born). Though there are Avatar sequels in the works, it's not as much of a kid-beloved universe as Star Wars, Marvel, or Pixar. But after I was able to check out Pandora: The World of Avatar, which recently opened within Animal Kingdom, I realized that only Disney would be able to create the world of Pandora here on Earth—from the floating "Hallelujah" mountains, which hover 130 feet in the air, down to the ground, which is teeming with plantlife not seen on this planet.
Photo Credit: Kent Phillips/Disney
The good news for someone who hasn't re-watched the movie since its 2009 debut (ahem) is that you don't have to have seen Avatar to enjoy Pandora. In fact, the land is supposed to exist a generation after the last planned sequel, so a working knowledge of any of the characters from the film isn't necessary. (There are no Jake Sully cast members walking around, for example.) What I needed to know, I learned in the queueing areas: In the past, there were conflicts between the evil Resource Development Administration (aka, bad humans) and the Na'vi, the tall, blue, cat-like Pandoran natives. But the troubles are over, and together humans and Na'vi are trying to revive Pandora's natural ecosystem, especially restoring the habitat of the banshee, a majestic flying creature important to the Na'vi. Technology has advanced so that humans can be placed in avatars, which are lab-created bodies that look just like the Na'vi, for further cooperation.
That's good to know, but you don't even really need that backstory to experience the land's two attractions: The Na'vi River Journey and the Avatar Flight of Passage. I found the Na'vi River Journey is better suited to smaller children. It's an easygoing boat ride through the world's rainforest, which glows with bioluminescence in the dark. There's no plot, so the big draw comes at the end with the appearance of the Na'vi Shaman of Songs, Disney's most sophisticated animatronic character to date. The pleasure in that ride was purely visual, but I was truly thrilled by the Avatar Flight of Passage—it's an experience unlike any other. In reality, I was straddling a seat like a bicycle, wearing 3D glasses, and staring at a stories-tall screen, but I would've sworn I was transported onto the back of a banshee, feeling the wind in my hair as I flew across the lands of Pandora. From the description, I thought I knew what I was in for—something akin to either Star Tours or Soaring—but Avatar Flight of Passage feels so much faster than those attractions, and more immersive, too.
Photo Credit: David Roark/Disney
Now that I've gone on my own expedition and taken the 4.4-lightyear journey back to Earth, I have some tips for families heading out on their trips to Pandora: The World of Avatar.
1. Carve out some time to just explore the land. You may think that, with only two rides, it'll be easy to breeze through Pandora, but there's a lot to be seen just by walking around the paths. One Disney expert I spoke with suggested that you plan on spending 45 minutes there in addition to the time you'll spend waiting on line for the attractions. Look for interactive elements, like playable Na'vi drums and exotic plants that steam and squirt water at guests.
2. Pandora looks completely different in the daytime, when you can see all the details of the extra-terrestrial flora, and at night, when the bioluminescence of the land gives everything a blacklit glow. It's worth it to see it in both lights. Animal Kingdom is looking to beef up its other nighttime offerings, like adding the new Rivers of Light show (which was sadly rained out for my visit). If the kiddos can't stay up that late, though, you can get a good idea of the bioluminescence in the Na'vi River Journey.
3. Talk with the cast members. Everybody has a tale of how they ended up on Pandora—you can start by asking them if they were born on Pandora or Earth. The "Field Guides" walking around can give you even more background about the world's creatures, teach you some of the Na'vi language, and offer hints about what you may see, like how to tell the difference between a true Na'vi and a lab-created avatar. (Hint: Count the fingers.)
4. Be prepared to take a banshee home with you. The Windtraders gift shop offers a bunch of Na'vi items (ears and tails, personalized necklaces, even custom-made avatars), but most of the kids I saw were most excited for a visit to the Banshee Rookery, where they were paired with their own banshee that sits on their shoulders like a pirate's parrot.
5. If your kids were all into the unicorn-foods craze, you must pay a visit to the drink stand Pongu Pongu. (Translation: "Party Party.") There, they serve both adult and all-ages beverages that mirror the colors of Pandora—festive! If you're looking for something heartier, the fast-casual Satu'li Canteen lets more adventurous eaters mix-and-match grains, proteins, and sauces into a make-your-own bowl. And from the outside, the restaurant's bao buns may look like something more suited to the Asia section of the park, but inside you might find a surprising flavor—like cheeseburgers. Save room for dessert: Satu'li serves a blueberry cheesecake that definitely looks like something not of this world.
6. Staying off-property? Turn off the GPS. Navigation systems have been known to take drivers out of the perfectly-Disney-engineered flow of traffic and into backstage areas that guests aren't allowed to access. Just follow the signs.