11 Things to See and Do at Walt Disney World’s New Pandora Land

Even if you're not an Avatar fan, there's so much Disney magic.

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Need summer vacation ideas? How about traveling more than four light years away to the Alpha Centauri star system? Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park opened the doors to Pandora the World of Avatar on May 27 and even if you haven’t seen the James Cameron blockbuster, the new park expansion is full of wonder, groundbreaking technology, fun eats and tons of Disney magic.

Floating mountains grace the skyline while exotic plants fill the colorful landscape inside Pandora - The World of Avatar, which opens May 27, 2017 at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Pandora - The World of Avatar will bring a variety of new experiences to the park, including a family-friendly attraction called Na'vi River Journey and new food & beverage and merchandise locations. Disney's Animal Kingdom is one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kent Phillips, photographer)

Photo by: Courtesy of Walt Disney World

Courtesy of Walt Disney World

I was lucky enough to get a media sneak peek and talk to Disney Imagineers (fun title at Disney for engineers, designers, scientists and all-around creatives) about how this land was brought to life. Here are 11 things that caught my eye.

Avatar Flight of Passage, a 3-D thrilling adventure set to open on Pandora Ð The World of Avatar at DisneyÕs Animal Kingdom, offers guests the chance to connect with an avatar and soar on a banshee over Pandora. The journey begins in the queue, as guests get a peek inside a high-tech research lab to view an avatar still in its growth state inside an amnio tank. The room features charts and screens that show just how humans will "connect" with a fully developed avatar for their upcoming flight on a banshee. (Kent Phillips, photographer)

Photo by: Kent Phillips

Kent Phillips

1. Avatar Flight of Passage

Just like in the movie, you can connect with your own avatar and ride a mountain banshee. You’ll forget you’re in a theater with other guests as the new technology in this 3-D ride includes a 69-foot projection screen that’s 97-feet tall. It’s not like other virtual reality rides. You don’t share a car with guests. You’re on your own seat. And tiny details help bring the fictional world to life. Like riding a horse, you’ll feel your banshee breathing. You’ll smell the water, the forest and the caves you explore. And be prepared to get a little wet when you fly over the ocean. Maybe the best feature to this attraction is the flight time. The six-minute experience includes four minutes of flying, which is pretty long for a theme park ride.

The ride queue is entertaining and makes the wait interesting. You’ll tour science facilities and learn about the Na’vi species so even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll get it. And getting paired with a unique avatar that “matches your DNA” makes the ride special for each rider. Don’t worry. No actual DNA samples are taken. You move/dance around a screen that shows your match percentage. It’s fun for kids and adults.  

2. The Landscape

Nature photographers will have a field day exploring the lush and mystical Valley of Mo’ara. The Disney team did their research and brought an alien rainforest to life on Earth. There are so many colorful and strange plants to check out as well as waterfalls from the famous Avatar floating mountains. Plus moss walls that make an awesome backdrop for family photos.

“What we’re trying to do on Pandora is transport our guests to another planet,” says Zsolt Hormay, Vice President of Creative at Walt Disney Imagineering. “We had to find species that looked like Pandoran plants,” he says. The creative team traveled to Hawaii’s Oahu island to research rainforest plants as well as China’s Zhangjiajie National Forest Park to research the mountains that inspired Avatar’s floating Hallelujah Mountains.

The natural and artificial plants are blended seamlessly with incredible details in the moss, lichen and especially the large trees. “If you look at a tree bark that was sculpted, it doesn’t look like real tree bark,” says Hormay. “We introduced elements of lizard skin and reptile skin. When you first look at it, it looks like tree bark but if you look closer it looks like something different from Earth.”

3. The Night Blossom

The snack kiosk Pongu Pongu has fun new beers (one is green!) and a frozen margarita for adults but the best drink is the nonalcoholic Night Blossom. It features layers of apple and desert pear and is topped with futuristic passion fruit boba. It’s a little sweet then a lot sour then sweet again. And it’s incredibly refreshing on a hot, humid Orlando afternoon.

Pandora - The World of AVATAR will bring a variety of new experiences to Disney's Animal Kingdom, including a family-friendly attraction called Na'vi River Journey and new food & beverage and merchandise locations. The dramatic daytime beauty of the land transforms to glow by night when bioluminescent flora and intricate nighttime experiences add a dreamlike quality to Pandora. Disney's Animal Kingdom is one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Preston Mack, photographer)

Photo by: Courtesy of Walt Disney World

Courtesy of Walt Disney World

4. Pandora at Night

The bioluminescent rainforest comes alive after dark with beautiful details to explore. Pandoran plants turn neon pink, blue and purple. And the ground glows green. You’ll hear chirps, squeals and calls from creatures in the brush that definitely don’t live on Earth.

Photo by: Courtesy of Walt Disney World

Courtesy of Walt Disney World

5. The Flaska Reclinata

This giant Pandoran plant responds to touch by generating mist (and sometimes large amounts of water). Kids will love cooling off and interacting with the plant plus punking unaware passersby with a surprise.

6. True to Character

Disney’s Pandoran world takes place after the movie storyline. Humans and Na’vi are at peace and humans are helping protect the environment on Pandora. You’ll find several characters dressed in trail gear walking around the park. These Alpha Centauri Expedition tour guides have extensive knowledge of the world of Pandora. Ask them anything about the ecosystem, Na’vi language or culture.

Photo by: Courtesy of Walt Disney World

Courtesy of Walt Disney World

7. Na'vi River Journey

This boat ride is gentle and great for the little ones as there are no drops or scary scenes. You’ll venture through dazzling bioluminescent vignettes on the way to visit the Na’vi shaman. Prepare to be wowed by state-of-the-art animation technology. These are not the animatronics of your childhood.

8. Satu’li Canteen

The new restaurant was inspired by a Resources Development Administration base from the movie. But in the park’s story, the Alpha Centauri Expedition tour company has repurposed the space for showing off authentic Na’vi cuisine. And apparently the Na’vi are pretty healthy. The fast-casual restaurant lets you create your own veggie bowl with different grains, slaws and proteins such as the spicy, fried tofu. Top it off with a black bean vinaigrette or creamy herb dressing and it’s a filling and deliciously healthy meal. But save room for some sugar. The blueberry cheesecake pods are totally Instagrammable and yummy.

9. Drums

Don’t miss incredible drum performances by Pandoran mystics and shamans throughout the day. But if there’s not a performance going on, don’t be afraid to touch the drums. No, really. Let your kids tap all over them. These interactive drums play echoing sounds when you do. Get the whole family involved for your own concert.

10. New Wilderness Explorer Badges

If you don’t know about this Animal Kingdom program, take note. It’s a fun, educational way to score a freebie keepsake. And kids and adults alike are welcome to participate. Inspired by the movie Up, you can earn Wilderness Explorer badges just like Russell by learning about animals throughout the park. These stickers go in a keepsake 40-page-plus handbook that you get to keep. The park has two new botany and ecology badges to earn in Pandora. While you can also create your own avatar, have your face painted or make a Pandoran necklace, the Wilderness Explorer stickers are free, making it a great activity for families on a budget.

11. Conservation Efforts

A major theme on Pandora is environmental conservation and undoing the mining damage caused by the RDA in the movie. Conservation is also a big theme for Animal Kingdom as the Disney Conservation Fund has been a big part of the park’s DNA. This week Disney announced Pandora will have a new, interactive conservation program called Connect to Protect. Disney is pledging one million dollars to help at-risk animals around the world and guests will have the opportunity to help by unlocking contributions throughout the park.

There are 10 species you can help from monkeys in South America to tigers in Indonesia to elephants in Africa. “Just by visiting Pandora, you can make a difference for wildlife,” says Dr. Anne Savage Conservation Director for Disney Parks and Resorts at Animal Kingdom. “You open your My Disney Experience app and you’ll have the opportunity to do a conservation mission. If you complete the mission you’re going to earn $10 that will be applied to saving wildlife habitats around the world focusing on the reverse of declining species with the Disney Conservation Fund.”

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