Pandora: World of Avatar D23 Expo Preview

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New information about the Avatar land “Pandora” coming to Walt Disney World were released at the 2015 D23 Expo. An area dedicated to Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom was showcased at the D23 Expo, with a booth that started with a pre-show video from Alpha Centauri Expeditions (the ‘tourism’ company that would take guests from Animal Kingdom to Pandora) and a full model of Pandora that changed from daytime to nighttime views of the land, along with some other small models. Imagineers were also onsite to answer guest questions.

There was a good amount of new detail about Pandora, as well as confirmation of rumors that had been circulating. Let’s take a look at what we now know about the next addition to Walt Disney World…

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Although the model that included show buildings and details of the land as it changed lighting schemes was the most impressive aspect of the Pandora booth, the most illuminating aspect was the pre-show video that presented the backstory for Avatar Land. There have been a lot of fan concerns that Avatar is a poor fit for Animal Kingdom, and this video gave insight into how the land would be shoehorned into the park. The basic premise is that guests are eco-tourists being shown to another planet to see its otherworldly natural beauty on a trip operated by Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE).

The video is narrated by Academy Award-winning Avatar producer Jon Landau, who is Marshall Lamm, the founder of ACE, in a two-minute presentation that also features guest testimonials (including one from Joe Rohde) praising the landscape for how magical it is and unlike anything they’ve visited on earth. Think of it as the fictional version of a Disney Vacation Club infomercial.

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It’s actually a pretty good sell, and if the Imagineers are able to do equally as good of a job with Alpha Centauri Expeditions’ presence in the land itself, I think many early critics of Avatar land will be accepting (or at least more accepting) of this land in Animal Kingdom. I think this ultimately turns on the quality of the execution, and hopefully a nuanced and subtle approach is taken rather than something over the top and so convoluted that it feels severely contrived. Examples of both approaches can be found in Animal Kingdom, so which ends up happening remains to be seen.

Equally important to the success of the shoehorning, I think, is that the booth is really deliberate in its focus on the name Pandora as opposed to Avatar Land for the new area of the park. This doesn’t come as a huge shock and it may not seem like there’s much in a name, but I wholeheartedly disagree.

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The name Pandora is indicative of a desire to have this area be its own mythical world–albeit one inspired by a popular film–whereas Avatar Land would be showing a desire to have guests step into the world of a “popular” intellectual property. (EDIT: the official name is Pandora: World of Avatar, and Joe Rohde himself stressed the same thing I do here–that World of Avatar is a subtitle, and Pandora is the key.) Animal Kingdom was always intended to have a mythical land, and while this is probably not the one most fans wanted (I’m looking at you, Beastly Kingdom), it is still one that looks pretty cool on paper (or, rather, in model). It also gives the Imagineers some creative latitude in stepping beyond the explicit storylines of Avatar to create some mythos of their own, as well as a way to frame the environment via ACE to make it fit within the context of Animal Kingdom. In other words, it can stand entirely on its own.

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By contrast, Avatar Land would forever be a land tied to an intellectual property specifically set forth in a series of films, and certain aspects of the stories told in said films not only have nothing to do with the conservationist message of Animal Kingdom, but are actually inapposite to said messages. Moreover, there are concerns about the longevity of the Avatar franchise, and this should effectively nullify those concerns. It makes the land more like “Splash Mountain” and less like “South of the South: The Log Flume.”

As for the model itself, I think this is what many Disney fans probably envisioned–or something close to it–based on previously released photos, but photos are no substitute for actually seeing the details in person. The whole look and changing dynamic from day to night are really, really impressive. The floating mountains are undoubtedly going to be the eye-candy here, and much of the visual success of the land hinges upon how well this effect is executed. With that said, the entire land appears to be lush and detailed, and at night I suspect a stroll through this bioluminescent forest of sorts will be an attraction unto itself.

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Again, though, this is entirely dependent upon execution. Imagineering has been a mixed bag in this department of late. Cars Land and Buena Vista Street are unqualified successes, as is the Streets of Paris (Ratatouille Land), but New Fantasyland is more of a mixed bag, and then you have things like Walt Disney Studios Park (save for Ratatouille) that look like they were designed by a horde of drunken chimpanzees in a couple of hours.

Rohde has a keen eye for design, so let’s hope he was able to choose the absolute best team for this job. Based on the potential for Pandora at night, I suspect that if it is a home run in this department, that alone will be enough for this project to be viewed as a success.

Let’s take a look at that model…

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Above is a view of the floating mountains during daytime lighting. You can see a nighttime view further down…

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Although this wasn’t confirmed, the bridge in the lower left of the model is likely the bridge that formerly led to Camp Minnie-Mickey. It now leads to a giant prawn (???) creature-thing that marks the entrance area.

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Opposite this bridge is a large building. This might look like the Banshee show building, but it’s actually dining and merchandise (the cornerstones of any nutritious theme park diet). Per the backstory of Pandora, these were previously used by human travelers, but retrofitted to their current purposes. Okay, maybe this does fit the Animal Kingdom mold in at least one way. 😉

The two main attractions are in the back left and right of the model, but you can’t see the show buildings for either. On the right is the Banshee ride, and its show building is concealed by large cliffs. This attraction is described as the ‘Nextgen Soarin’, and I’ve heard (outside of the Expo) that the ride system is a far more advanced than Soarin’, with a wider range of movement, among other features. The queue for this attraction ascends into the mountains of Pandora before the main ride drops a Banshee off a cliff.

On the left is the boat ride. This was described by the Imagineers present as being like Pirates of the Caribbean, but I think they meant in that it was slow-moving rather than in terms of show scenes. I could be wrong on this, but my expectations are something along the lines of Living with the Land, but with bioluminescent plants and maybe some small creatures. If it’s like the first third of Journey to the Center of the Earth, this attraction will make my day.

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One recent development is the emphasis on the experience of walking through a bioluminescent jungle. What’s unclear to me is whether this will be a play area for kids, an actual walk-through exhibit a la something like Maharajah Jungle Trek, or simply the feeling a stroll along the walkways evokes. I suspect the latter, with it being touted as a way to give the impression of the land having a great number of attractions. We shall see.

That’s about all of import from the Pandora booth at the D23 Expo. I have indicated on a few occasions that I’m more optimistic about Avatar Land/Pandora than a lot of people, and that is even moreso the case after seeing the model in person and hearing about the backstory. Perhaps my (over?) optimism is coloring my opinion of the D23 Expo Pandora exhibit, but I am really excited to see this in person and expect it to be a far greater addition than New Fantasyland, both in substantive attractions and thematic design. I am cautiously optimistic that Imagineering will thread the needle delicately with the backstory as to how Pandora “fits” Animal Kingdom, and hope it’s done intelligently and with an economy of words, so to speak.

Ultimately, the jury is still out, and will be until we actually step foot in the land and experience the attractions. However, I think criticism is slowly dissipating with each new detail of Pandora that is released. It’s a shame these details weren’t released years ago when the land was first announced (I suspect the ink on the contract had just dried with the announcement, and that Imagineering had only been briefed on the deal shortly before it was made public), as the project has been ‘tainted’ a bit in the Disney fan community. We fans tend to have short memories, and if Pandora is pretty and substantively good, most people will forget the hatred they once had for Pandora and forgive the thematic incongruities it brings to Animal Kingdom.

For more news, follow our Live Updates from the 2015 D23 Expo post!

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Planning a Walt Disney World vacation for 2017 to see Pandora when it opens? Check out our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page, which offers quick-hit capsule reviews with pros & cons of every Walt Disney World hotel. For where to eat, try out our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page. If you want to save money on tickets or determine which type you should get, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at unconventional things you should take on your trip. Once you arrive at the parks, our Walt Disney World “Ride Guides”are great for determining what to do and when to do it. For overviews of all of these topics and so much more, the best place to start is our comprehensive Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide to make the most of your experience!

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YOUR THOUGHTS…

Are you excited for the potential Pandora at Walt Disney World, or are you still upset that it’s being added to Disney’s Animal Kingdom? What interests you most about this addition? Any concerns or worries about it? Share your thoughts in the comments!


19 Responses to “Pandora: World of Avatar D23 Expo Preview”
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