From the moment Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened its doors on Earth Day 1998, it had incredible potential that only felt partially realized. Mired with a Beastly Kingdom that wasn’t to be and lacking in number of traditional Disney theme park attractions, Animal Kingdom’s attendance wasn’t up to par but worse guests had little reason to stay past dusk. Over the years, several attempts by the Walt Disney Company to mollify the situation have helped. The one with greatest stature and biggest impact since park opening came in 2006 when Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain brought the tale of the Yeti to Animal Kingdom’s lineup. The thrilling themed coaster attraction was an instant hit, serving up some of Disney’s best theming alongside a tight storyline and innovative ride experience. It boosted the attendance at Disney’s Animal Kingdom seemingly overnight and it showed that an expansion and perhaps more importantly one based on mythology, one of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s original central pillars could provide the park the spark it needed. The way forward for Disney’s Animal Kingdom was now illuminated but for numerous reasons it would still take another decade before the Walt Disney Company would truly turn Disney’s Animal Kingdom into a theme park worthy of your precious Disney nighttime vacation hours. Of course the latter statement includes a bit of speculation on our part something that we stay away from largely on Da Mouse but when you’ve seen and heard what we have at this year’s D23 Expo it’s easy to be nearly as confident as the Walt Disney Company is that they are on the cusp of turning Disney’s Animal Kingdom into a premier Disney theme park without the need for qualification. From NāHTāZū to where we stand today as the park is engulfed with construction walls, it’s the growing pains of Animal Kingdom’s history that have led us towards a park with a remarkably bright future, one that we can’t wait to share with you. Today our journey begins where it shall all culminate in 2017, in a new Disney theme park realm that brings another larger than life world to ours and will elevate Disney’s Animal Kingdom in ways we have yet to imagine. Our flights to Pandora – The World of Avatar are set and there is no doubt, Disney’s Animal Kingdom – we see you.
AVATAR from Worldwide Movie Phenomena to Theme Park Land
James Cameron’s “AVATAR” took the world by storm back in December 2009 with its incredible use of 3D imagery that brought to life Pandora, the distant earth-like planet with awe-inspiring sights provided by floating mountains, bioluminescent jungles and of course its native wildlife and inhabitants. In the theme park realm Universal Orlando was preparing to open The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, after securing the rights to use the popular franchise in their parks after the Walt Disney Company decided to pass on it. It was an unmitigated coup for Universal Orlando’s theme parks and one that continues to pay dividends to this day, in attendance, guest spending and even mindshare. In many ways The Wizarding World of Harry Potter just followed in the footsteps of the Walt Disney Company by creating a mini-land within its Islands of Adventure theme park but the genius was to tie every attraction in the land into one property and create an experience guests could really sink their wands into for hours on end. It was now time for Disney Parks to respond.
Two years after the incredibly successful opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure, Cars Land would make its debut in 2012 as part of an overhaul to Disney California Adventure, a theme park that much like Disney’s Animal Kingdom was far from a completed thought when it opened. Only for as bad as Animal Kingdom’s problems were, they paled in comparison to those of California Adventure. That’s where much of Disney’s focus and resources would turn to and it was the first response to Universal’s boy wonder with a lightning bolt scar. Cars Land showcased some of Walt Disney Imagineering’s finest work, with an immersive theme park land that didn’t just feel inspired by the Disney-Pixar movie “Cars” it felt somehow even more true than the films themselves. It had everything you could ever want and often more, from a world-class E-Ticket attraction in Radiator Springs Racers to an amazing neon light show that brought energy to Cars Land even as each day turned into night. The fortunes of Disney California Adventure were forever changed for the better and the growing pains for one Disney Park had been cured. Of course that still left Disney fans hoping the Walt Disney Company would respond in kind to Universal back at Walt Disney World.
Even before Cars Land had officially welcomed its first guests we knew of Disney’s next big plans for Walt Disney World and they centered around Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the mega-blockbuster film turned franchise series AVATAR. The Walt Disney Company announced its partnership with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and Fox Filmed Entertainment on September 20, 2011 but with construction not slated to begin until 2013 Disney fans knew it would be a while before the bioluminescent world of Pandora would bear any fruit. Even now with an opening in 2017 Pandora seems a distant place in most Disney fan’s minds but in many ways we’ve made our first excursion to the planet at the D23 Expo and the stories we have to tell are wondrously captivating. So get ready because Disney’s Animal Kingdom is set to become your destination for imaginative adventures that pique your mind about the future of our world, our existence and the harmony in which we share this universe with the life that surrounds us.
Entering Pandora – The World of AVATAR at 1/4″ Scale
Our magnificent interstellar excursions to Pandora will be made possible by Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) that has taken an experience once reserved for only the bravest explorers and made it so that anyone in your family can enjoy this dreamy planet.
With base camp set up near the Floating Mountains of Pandora, guests will be right amongst some of the most incredible geology, flora and wildlife from the moment they arrive.
We were invited by Alpha Centauri Expeditions alongside Walt Disney Imagineering to preview their work that is well underway and should make traveling to Pandora an everyday reality. What would we see, could it live up to our wildest imagination? As we stepped into the first presentation wing of the exposition, it was time to find out.
Pandoran Stories are the Best Stories
After our first steps into the dimly lit space with an LED monitor providing for most of the illumination, our attention was quickly fixed on a man as exuberant as the world of Pandora he and his creative team alongside ACE are in the midst of bringing to us. He is a man of many titles because his passions for travel, exploration, art and design know few limits but today he is just a captivating friend, greeting us with the wonderful story from his latest endeavor, one we shall all soon retrace. The man’s name – Joe Rohde.
He shares an enthusiasm for the bioluminescent rainforest filled world he has just returned from that seeps into our spirit faster than a diving banshee. For a moment our gaze returns to the monitor as testimonials begin to play with adults and children alike sharing their amazing tales of what they have just witnessed. From soaring the skies on an Ikran, the proper name for a Mountain Banshee to enjoying a nature walk at night, it’s like nothing these trial guests had ever seen before. After the brief introductory video it was time for us to see the plans for our ultimate vacation destination this side of the universe for ourself. What we would see next was everything we were hoping for and more, our first glimpse that Pandora is as others say it is, perhaps even more.
Hallelujah! Disney’s Animal Kingdom Gets Floating Mountains
The scale of it all! The model of Pandora’s floating mountains, our campsite, it was almost too much to take in. Could this all be possible or were we in a dream? With our eyes now open as wide as a kid the very first time they set their eyes on an ice cream sundae, we began to explore the model of the prime location within Pandora the one we’ll be able to visit beginning in just a couple of years.
Imagine the largest rocks you’ve ever seen, now imagine them floating in the air, almost like Spaceship Earth back here on well, Earth.
Of course the first thing that stands out are the famous Floating Mountains, so we won’t make you wait for those details. It’s going to be absolutely incredible. Imagine the largest rocks you’ve ever seen, now imagine them floating in the air, almost like Spaceship Earth back here on well, Earth. Only these naturally occurring rocks float with the beauty of nature all around them as massive vines tangle between one mountain and the next. Towering waterfalls dive from the heavenly heights down through the rainforest canopy providing for streams and ponds where our travels shall surely take us. Even at 1/4″ scale the model speaks to the largess and beauty of this incredible great wonder of the universe but then you step a little closer and see the representations of humans walking into the world of Pandora and you really are taken aback just envisioning how gargantuan and breathtaking these sights will be in person.
From the moment you enter Pandora – The World of AVATAR through its Disney’s Animal Kingdom gateway (at the bridge entrance to the late Camp Minnie-Mickey), you will be greeted with a scale that is foreign to our world yet its sheer beauty shall remind us of our own home. The first memorable sight is a giant plant that looks to be the size of a school bus towering over the nearby adventurers with its shimmering green and purplish hues. Sprouting from the ground its shape reminds us of a giant shrimp but earthly comparisons can be a futile tool in a unique environment such as Pandora. Still our journey has just begun our senses are only just beginning to understand the overload of color, visual spectacle, sounds and emotional encounters that they shall have to brace for.
Further along the trails guests will come across the first signs of the indigenous population, as they see tribal arrangements adorning the area with rainforest trees providing a soft background to pops of bright color infused patterns perhaps symbolizing unity amongst the natives and their amazing world. The Na’vi are a humanoid species, they have known Pandora as their home for as long as records exist. Their skin is a smooth cyan and their average height is ten feet, far more than us puny by comparison humans could ever hope to muster. Their culture is deeply entrenched with spirituality that they flow onto their environment and each other. They’ve endured recent trials but are a blessed species that fully appreciates the riches of the world they are so fortunate to have surrounding them. We still have so much to learn about the Na’vi and from them but that’s just what we’ll do once our ACE expedition gets underway. As day turns to night we realize that the story of Pandora has only just begun to take hold. The world around us is quickly aglow.
Just Your Average Night in a Bioluminescent Rainforest
If you’ve never encountered a bioluminescent rainforest in your travels through the galaxies then you are in for a treat.
If you’ve never encountered a bioluminescent rainforest in your travels through the galaxies then you are in for a treat. Even back on Earth we have bioluminescence but nothing that approaches what you’ll see on Pandora which is a fully engulfing experience. The cascading waterfalls now shimmer with bluish light and as we step nearer we notice that our very footsteps are causing a chemical reaction with the bioluminescent moss on the surface of Pandora.
This bioluminescent walkway is a real treat for visitors on the ACE excursion as it occurs only along a few pathways where the conditions are just right. Far more prevalent though are the various exotic plants that light up the nights on Pandora in blue, green and purple hues. The warmth of the light beckons us to seek out more and soon it is time for us to board a small vessel provided by Alpha Centauri Expeditions and make our voyage deeper into the rivers of Pandora.
A River of Dreams on a Special Moon
As our cruise into Pandora’s bioluminescent world begins we shall realize quickly that Joe Rohde’s description of the voyage is spot on. He described it as a, “…very romantic, very lyrical journey into the bioluminescent forest which because of where it is on the planet is in a permanent state of bioluminescence.” This means that you can experience the bioluminescence of Pandora day or night and since this water-based excursion was designed to be accessible for the entire family almost everyone should be able to delight in this wondrous tour of the glowing flora and fauna. We’ve already shared our excitement over the beautiful plants that inhabit Pandora but it’s our river journey that will undoubtedly produce what may be our first encounters with the range of animals that call this area home.
On display beside the scale model of our Pandora excursion site were small bronze statues of the creatures we are sure to come across during our adventures. From a Direhorse to a Viperwolf we shall have the unbelievable opportunity to observe these unique and rare life forms. It will be something to behold. But for those seeking a higher dosage of thrilling adventure, their moment in the Pandora sky awaits atop a Mountain Banshee of their own. Beastly Kingdom finally has its dragons.
Soarin’ Banshees We Go with AVATAR Flight of Passage
Pandora has many creatures but none captures imaginations and hearts quite like the Banshees that soar overhead. Like the many graceful and powerful winged birds that grace the heavens back on Earth, Banshees command the skies. Thanks to the work of ACE and in cooperation with the Na’vi we shall learn to fly a banshee for ourselves and if we are fortunate enough, wise enough and one with our surroundings, complete our ritual rite of passage. What an honor.
After disembarking from our dreamlike rainforest river cruise, we pass through the Hallelujah Mountains and reach the home of the Banshees. The sight of a second series of towering mountains this time jettisoning up from the very soil of Pandora is actually a bit startling and unexpected. This vast mountain range reminds us of Ornament Valley on Route 66 back in The States and our intuition was pretty good as representatives at the presentation told us it was a good gauge for the scale of these mountains. Atop we see a special rock formation that lets us know the hallowed Tree of Souls must be near. It serves as a direct connection to Eywa, goddess of Pandora and the force behind what the Na’vi believe binds their world and all its living things together as one. As we step closer to the epicenter of the Flux Vortex, it’s not just your instruments that may feel the effects of their surroundings. Taking in the abundant natural beauty is nearly overwhelming for a first time visitor. Pandora – World of AVATAR is indeed a world and everywhere you look you will be fully immersed within your story as it’s written within this magical place.
The featured moment on Pandora for thrill-seekers will undoubtedly be soaring as an AVATAR on an Ikran. There is just nothing like it back on our home planet. The details for this AVATAR Flight of Passage are something ACE is keeping close to the vest as they are hoping to keep as much of the experience a surprise to guests for when they first attempt to mount their Banshee. Our curious minds did lead us to some very interesting research that might give you a sense for the upgraded and more intense flight experience that one can expect along with the scenic imagery and emotional journey atop a Pandoran “dragon.” Floating mountains, diving down from the heavens into the forest canopy below and perhaps even a glimpse of a close relative to our Banshee, Toruk meaning last shadow. What an incredible thrill that would be! After a worthy stretch of adventuring it will be time to head back to camp, set up on the former Resources Development Administration’s (RDA) mining base.
From RDA Mining Base to ACE Restaurant and Lodging
After taking in the sights for several days and nights we are finally back at camp. And the question on everyone’s mind is what’s for dinner? Some things never change. Luckily for us Pandora’s bountifulness provides us with more than enough for sustenance. The old RDA base comes in handy too as the controversial non-governmental organization had created massive infrastructure for its mining operations as it sought to extract the valuable resource unobtanium. The RDA was forced to retreat from Pandora after it unsuccessfully waged war on the Na’vi who were protecting their home planet from man-made destruction. It was a troubling past that stands in stark contrast to the beautiful reality we shall enjoy on Pandora but even as we dine or as we see the nearby helipad with a faded RDA logo, the remnants of what happened here not long ago will be noticed by most everyone with a keen eye. But aside from the occasional reminder of the past, including parts of old RDA aircraft that may be strewn along the flora, the work by Alpha Centauri Expeditions to recast the relationship between humans and the world of Pandora is extraordinary and commendable. ACE has restored Pandora to what it always should be, a happy place for discovery.
Our time in Pandora will always seem too brief but it will at some point be time to return to Earth and our port at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But it won’t be long before we can continue to apply what we learned on our breathtaking voyage back here on Earth. For the scale model shows one last thing we had previously noted in our prior tours of the Animal Kingdom. There will soon be a second entry/exit port into Pandora – The World of AVATAR and this one leads directly to a festival of life with a certain lion cub as he learns his role in the world much like we will on our travels to Pandora. With our future now set thanks to Alpha Centuri Expeditions, we must ponder once again what this all means for the future of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Goes Day and Night
It’s been a long road for our favorite theme park at Walt Disney World. Yes we like underdogs, who doesn’t? But it’s more than that. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has always had the potential to be more than just a theme park by once again redefining what a theme park should be. EPCOT though never truly realized in Walt’s image is the closest we ever got to a Disney theme park that did more than just entertain its guests, it truly had the capacity to transform them. By bringing education about our world and providing a vision for the future EPCOT wasn’t just a passive experience, it was actively making us think about the world we live in, our futures and how we could shape those decisions for a better tomorrow. Animal Kingdom asks in many ways the same from us but with a larger scope by tying itself with something even more core to human life, nature. We all, despite our fast-paced lives feel a deep-rooted connection with the world around us, much of that world that even today we can’t truly explain. There is still so much to discover, to learn to appreciate and we get to decide together what that world, what our universe will look like in the millennia to come. Nothing excites us more, that is the heart of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
With Pandora – The World of AVATAR, and it’s sure to be amazing attractions and bioluminescent rainforest capping off an expanded roster of nighttime additions, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is poised to rise with the power of a phoenix. We often speak of the many beauties that lie within Disney’s Animal Kingdom but there is no question that much of it has gone unnoticed because it didn’t have the core attractions necessary to warrant being a full-day experience in the mind of most guests especially with the main attraction of the theme park, Kilimanjaro Safaris closing at Sunset. But soon that all changes! That ride will see Hyenas and Wild African Dogs join the Savannah as Disney magically extends the glow of sunset deep into the night at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The Tree of Life will become a mesmerizing sight at night with projection-mapping making fireflies the more literal pixie-dust of the park. Then of course there is the Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular opening next year and signaling that Animal Kingdom’s moment in the spotlight has once again arrived at Walt Disney World. Finally, excursions to Pandora take hold in 2017 and Disney’s Animal Kingdom will look like the park it was always meant to be and perhaps even top that. But to know the latter we’ll have to wait to experience it ourselves.
There are still many questions that lie ahead for Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Pandora – The World of AVATAR. Greatest among them is how will the response be to an AVATAR based land on a film that made its theatrical debut nearly a decade ago. Of course James Cameron and his team are hard at work on a slate of three more AVATAR films that will debut beginning in late 2017. Will those movies be a success and if so how will those movies directly tie-in with the land? Will the many factions of online naysayers to an AVATAR themed land at a Disney theme park be swayed by the final results? Will Pandora – The World of AVATAR be better than the kingdom being built for Harry Potter at Universal Orlando? These and many more questions remain but for now we are just excited because what we’ve seen changes the very dynamics of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. That is the power of Pandora and we hope you’ll continue alongside us as this journey unfolds. For now though we say, “Eywa ngahu,” goodbye Eywa be with you.