Re­cre­ation of post­war trop­i­cal planet is a tech­ni­cal master­piece at An­i­mal King­dom

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - TODD MARTENS

ORLANDO, FLA. — When James Cameron’s sci-fi epic “Avatar” opened eight years ago, the ex­pe­ri­ence of the film was the big­gest sell­ing point — Cameron hadn’t just cre­ated an­other world, he put the au­di­ence in it.

We didn’t just watch the Na’Vi fly across the screen on their winged ban­shees, we flew with them over the vis­tas of the trop­i­cal planet of Pandora.

On May 27, Disney hopes to am­plify that im­mer­sion with its most tech­ni­cally am­bi­tious land to date: Pandora — the World of Avatar, sit­u­ated in An­i­mal King­dom in the Orlando re­sort of Walt Disney World.

In­stead of re-cre­at­ing scenes from the film or sim­ply pop­u­lat­ing the park with char­ac­ters seen in the movie, Disney’s Pandora ex­pands on the uni­verse. Set about a gen­er­a­tion af­ter the con­flict in the film, this Pandora is a post­war planet on the road to re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, em­pha­siz­ing themes of con­ser­va­tion and ex­plo­ration.

The Los An­ge­les Times was part of a me­dia pre­view that toured the land and here’s just a bit of what we learned:

The film and the land feel like two sep­a­rate en­ti­ties. While vis­i­tors en­counter the blue-skinned Na’Vi and some of the for­est preda­tors seen on the big screen, “Avatar” isn’t re­quired view­ing to en­joy Pandora.

Guests en­ter Pandora via Al­pha Cen­tauri Ex­pe­di­tions, a sort of in­ter­ga­lac­tic travel agency; there they learn about the work of the Pandora Con­ser­va­tion Ini­tia­tive. The preser­va­tion theme loosely con­nects the fan­tasy land to An­i­mal King­dom, which em­pha­sizes en­vi­ron­men­tal restora­tion and the ef­forts to save en­dan­gered an­i­mals from ex­tinc­tion.

On Pandora, for in­stance, the winged, dragon like “Avatar” crea­tures called ban­shees are now near ex­tinc­tion — a key com­po­nent of the land’s thrill ride, Avatar Flight of Pas­sage.

Close to the en­trance of the park is a gi­ant, bul­bous plant with a fire-red top known as the “flaska re­cli­nate,” the last of its kind.

Joe Ro­hde, lead imag­i­neer on the project, stressed that even though the sci-fi world is far from “edu­tain­ment,” all of it works to give Pandora a sense of fragility, at­tempt­ing to draw par­al­lels be­tween this alien world and our own.

Disney had one pri­mary goal for the Na’Vi River Jour­ney: “Just plain beauty,” said Ro­hde.

The boat at­trac­tion floats calmly through a bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent for­est, cul­mi­nat­ing in a visit with the Shaman of Songs, a Na’Vi woman who ser­e­nades guests as they pass by.

It’s in­ti­mate, with boats seat­ing only about six to eight peo­ple at a time and two boats load­ing at once.

Float­ing jel­ly­fish crea­tures soar through the sky, wolflike preda­tors trot off in the dis­tance and other four-legged an­i­mals puff up their feath­ers as guests roll past. Above, glow­ing blue plant leaves re­veal the foot­prints of small an­i­mals as they run across the fronds.

But the star of this show is the Shaman of Songs. She is Disney’s most life­like au­dio an­i­ma­tronic cre­ated to date, with near-hu­man-like flu­id­ity in her move­ments. The first time you see her you don’t know where to fo­cus. On her singing? Her arm wav­ing? The wag­ging of her tail?

The two at­trac­tions in Pandora don’t come with typ­i­cal theme-park-like sig­nage. The en­try to the River Jour­ney queue is a wo­ven mon­u­ment to the Shaman of Songs, and Avatar Flight of Pas­sage greets guests with a sculp­ture of a ban­shee de­signed to look like an an­cient carv­ing.

Sight­ings of Pandora na­tives, the Na’Vi, are rel­a­tively rare. They can be spot­ted on the two at­trac­tions, but through­out the grounds of Pandora their pres­ence is treated as more of a special ex­pe­ri­ence.

Disney imag­i­neers ex­plained that it sim­ply wasn’t prac­ti­cal — or re­al­is­tic — to have the Na’Vi wan­der­ing the land or do­ing mee­tand-greets with guests.

Part of that is be­cause of their spe­cific look. The Na’Vi are tall — gen­er­ally tow­er­ing over hu­mans by 3 to 5 feet. They also have a very sleek bone struc­ture and wildly ac­tive tails; it’s not as sim­ple as paint­ing some­one blue, Ro­hde ex­plained.

Disney has long played up the bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent na­ture of Pandora, and in the film

we see the for­est floor re­act to each step of the Na’Vi. Pandora isn’t quite that re­spon­sive, but there are mul­ti­ple ways in which the land re­acts to guests.

At night, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of the land’s plants light up. But the ef­fect is not as sim­ple as, say, turn­ing on Christ­mas lights. The hope is that the glow­ing plants will feel nat­u­ral. To that end, ev­ery plant in the land was hand-sculpted, and Ro­hde de­manded that they be pho­to­re­al­is­tic.

Out­side of the con­trolled ex­pe­ri­ences, the bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent plants are mixed in with real plants that thrive in Cen­tral Florida. When the land opens later in May, the plan is for plants to re­act to Pandora wildlife. Guests will hear an­i­mals rus­tle be­side the path, and the lights will flicker as the un­seen an­i­mals push them aside.

There’s even a set of plants that can be played like drums. They weren’t turned on for the me­dia pre­view, but when they’re op­er­a­tional the plan is for the light­ing of the land to re­spond to guests play­ing them. Through­out the day, “pro­fes­sional” plant drum­mers will also give per­for­mances for guests.

Even the afore­men­tioned flaska re­cli­nate is in­ter­ac­tive, re­leas­ing mists of wa­ter into the air.

Through­out Pandora, mul­ti­ple Disney cast mem­bers — em­ploy­ees, in park par­lance — act as ex­pa­tri­ates who are there to ed­u­cate tourists on Pandora plant life. Vis­i­tors should also ex­pect to en­counter some Pandora crea­tures in the wa­ter.

Though parts of Pandora were still be­ing worked on and were of­flim­its to the press, there looked to be aquatic crea­tures sit­u­ated in the river. And a sign warn­ing guests in the splash zone.

Pandora’s thrill ride is big — re­ally big. To reach it, guests must trek up a Disney-con­structed moun­tain. Con­sider it a light hike, but the queue path wraps around the “nat­u­ral” Pan­do­ran flora and fauna.

Once guests reach the top of the moun­tain, they en­ter caves that house gi­ant paint­ings de­pict­ing the ban­shees and colour­ful, an­cient look­ing mu­rals.

Slowly the queue tran­si­tions to what feels like an aban­doned mil­i­tary base, with hints of once-dan­ger­ous ex­per­i­ments con­ducted by hu­mans on Pandora, only to even­tu­ally open up into a full-fledged re­search cen­tre.

This is where guests be­come avatars — that is, they go through the process of en­ter­ing a Na’Vi body — to help the na­tives study and re­pop­u­late the en­dan­gered ban­shee species.

The trans­for­ma­tion is the story line of the at­trac­tion, com­ple­mented by the fa­mous Na’Vi host body tank from the film and co­pi­ous scifi de­tails. In one room each rider is as­signed a num­ber and told that they are be­ing scanned for the avatar process.

The ve­hi­cles are es­sen­tially sta­tion­ary bikes. Af­ter don­ning 3-D glasses, a screen on the ve­hi­cle be­gins to match the guest’s face with that of a Na’Vi. A back sup­port rises and pushes the seat for­ward. Once this process is com­plete, the ride be­gins. A screen ap­pears in front, and we are im­me­di­ately ca­reen­ing down a moun­tain on the back of a ban­shee.

Fans have long spec­u­lated that this ex­pe­ri­ence would be sim­i­lar to Disney’s pop­u­lar Soarin’ at­trac­tion, but Flight of Pas­sage is far more in­tense and im­mer­sive than Soarin’. The screen feels in­ti­mate — this is my ban­shee — and the at­trac­tion’s base vi­brates to mimic the move­ments of an an­i­mal. Riders soar among Pandora’s float­ing moun­tains and through wa­ter­falls, feel splashes of wa­ter and ro­bust gusts of wind.

At four and a half min­utes, it’s a rel­a­tively sub­stan­tial theme park ex­pe­ri­ence, and the pace is var­ied enough that those prone to mo­tion sick­ness should be able to han­dle it.

Then it’s down the moun­tain and into the base cam­p­like part of Pandora, where guests can hang at a tiki bar and drink green beer or head to the mess hall-like can­teen and or­der an alien-in­spired meal in­clud­ing breakfast, lunch and din­ner “pods” and a spot­ted blue cheese­cake.

Early on the tour of Pandora, Ro­hde cau­tioned that those who ven­ture into the land sim­ply to ride two at­trac­tions and bolt are mak­ing a mis­take. You’re “wast­ing your time,” Ro­hde said.

Among all of Disney’s themed lands in North Amer­ica, Pandora stands out for its em­pha­sis on in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence rather than a lin­ear story.

Nei­ther the Na’Vi River Jour­ney nor Avatar Flight of Pas­sage come with a straight-up plot, al­low­ing vis­i­tors to take in the sights and sounds and write their own story.

Al­though tied to the newer “Avatar” film, the Pandora rides re­call the Disney of old — the take-it-allin scenes of Pi­rates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Man­sion, where fans to this day still de­bate the ins-and-outs of the story.

Plus, the real-life na­ture of it should en­cour­age guests who fall for the land to linger. The float­ing moun­tains, for in­stance, are an im­pres­sive sight.

Guests can walk un­der them and view them from mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions. Each one is a nat­u­ral won­der, even if at its base it’s con­structed of steel.


The Na’Vi Shaman of Songs cel­e­brates with mu­sic in the Na’Vi River Jour­ney ride at Pandora — the World of Avatar at­trac­tion at Disney’s An­i­mal King­dom.


Joe Ro­hde, de­sign and pro­duc­tion leader for Pandora — the World of Avatar, ex­plains the mean­ing of the cave draw­ings of the Na’Vi at Disney’s An­i­mal King­dom theme park.


A wa­ter crea­ture floats in a pond at Pandora — the World of Avatar at Disney’s An­i­mal King­dom theme park.


Park guests will see a Na’Vi in a sci­ence lab while in the lineup for the Avatar Flight of Pas­sage ride at Pandora — the World of Avatar.


The bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent for­est comes to life as night falls on Pandora —The World of Avatar.


Sculpted Pandora flora is sur­rounded by ponds and gen­tle wa­ter­falls at Pandora — the World of Avatar.

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