We spent a couple of days in Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in last week and were surprised by the construction progress on Pandora: World of Avatar as of July 2016. I hadn’t been paying attention to construction updates on Pandora, but as soon as we approached Animal Kingdom and saw the floating mountains looming over the park from the road, I was wide-eyed.
Our last update on Pandora was back at last year’s D23 Expo, when I saw models of the land for the first time, and was able to go through a walk-through exhibit/presentation on the land. At that time I reiterated my optimism for the land (for like the hundredth time) and here I want to once more express my excitement. Part of this is because there are a lot of naysayers about Pandora. The complaints are mostly holdovers from the original announcement 5 years ago (it’s been a long time!), which included the following:
- “Why didn’t Disney use one of its own movies?”
- “What does Avatar have to do with the animal kingdom?”
- “No one remembers Avatar. Why base an entire land on it?”
- “Something something…Blue Smurf Cat joke…WHY?!”
- “Why not do a Star Wars expansion?”
For obvious reasons, we can eliminate that last concern as now being moot. As for the others–except the the Smurf Cat one which is really just a guised attempt at being clever by making the same “joke” as everyone else–for me the model demonstrated that Pandora has the potential to be so much more than an “Avatar Land” if done well.
As was evident from the model, this is not going to be some in-your-face Avatar Brand Land that explicitly reminds you of film(s) about which you probably don’t care around every corner. Instead, the presentation minimized the connection to the Avatar movie and played up the ecotourism to the environments in that movie.
The model showed a land rich in details that would be Pandora: mythical land with floating mountains, waterfalls, and a lush bioluminescent forest. That certainly sounds pretty good when you take the Avatar name out of the mix, right?
In terms of how it ‘fits’ into Animal Kingdom, I think when you compare it to the original concept for the plot of land, fan darling Beastly Kingdom (above; concept art from The Making of Animal Kingdom book), it is a comparable ‘mythical’ land. While it probably includes fewer attractions, I’d go as far to say the concept Pandora has a greater wow-factor than Beastly Kingdom.
The point of this post is not for me to defend Avatar Land yet again so I can shout “I told you so!” once we can finally step into the land (although you can be sure I will do exactly that if I end up being right–I really don’t want to have to eat crow on this one). Rather, the point here is to highlight construction progress with photos I shot last week, as I haven’t seen many updates on it.
Although Pandora’s floating mountains tower over Animal Kingdom on the drive into the park, views of the land are minimal once you’re actually inside the park. The one exception to this is from the top of the lift hill on Expedition Everest. Nothing can hide from the Forbidden Mountain.
Over at the construction walls by Tiffins (right next to Pizzafari), you can see a bit…and hear even more. It will be one of the entrances to Pandora once open.
At the front of the park, just outside the turnstiles near the restrooms on the far side is the best in/near-park view of the construction. I stood here for about 5 minutes and caught glimpses of several construction workers actively working on the project.
When we got home, I decided to do some searches to see if I could find progress photos to see what I had missed in terms of progress. This tweet showed the best view, aerials taken from a helicopter in April:
Compare those to March aerial photos of Shanghai Disneyland:
You similarly see scaffolding, unpaved walkways, and construction equipment, and that park opened in June 2016, 3 months after those photos were taken. In fairness, Shanghai Disneyland does look farther along that Pandora in those photos, and it was purportedly an “all hands on deck” situation to get the Shanghai park ready in time for its trial operations in May. The point remains that Pandora construction has made considerable progress since last year.
So far, Disney has been quiet as to an opening date–or even season–indicating only that Pandora would open in 2017. (Note: what follows is purely speculation on my part, and should not be construed as rumor/news/etc. I have no sources on this.) Given construction progress, it seems like a forgone conclusion that it will hit its target year. It’s obviously impossible to gauge attraction progress inside the show buildings, but assuming it’s on par with the exteriors, I’d say we are looking at an opening date in the first half of the year. There have been whispers of an internal “Spring 2017” target date, and that definitely seems reasonable.
The exuberant optimist in me wonders whether we might see soft openings even earlier than that. I think December 2016 is a pipe dream–even if the land is finished by then, it likely wouldn’t be until the very end of the year, and soft opening during the busiest two weeks of the year seems like a recipe for disaster. However, the doldrums of January could be the perfect time for a test-run.
That still is probably overly-ambitious. Disney has released details about the various effects of the land itself, including bioluminescent flora and pavement that lights up as you walk on it. In other words, this isn’t going to be a simple matter of pouring concrete to finish the walkways, as was the case in Shanghai. The nighttime effects and details in Pandora are going to require a lot of late-stage work, so the current progress likely appears deceptively farther along than it actually is.
With all of that said, I think Spring 2017 remains a very safe bet for the opening of Pandora: World of Avatar. With Disney’s Hollywood Studios struggling and Animal Kingdom’s current nighttime entertainment failing to draw guests as projected (aside from Jungle Book: Alive with Magic, the park is a ghost town at night. Expect those 11 p.m. closings to disappear for the remainder of the year come September), there’s strong incentive to get Pandora open as quickly as possible to buoy attendance numbers. Having Pandora open in time for Spring Break season (potentially in low-key soft opening mode) would be a big win for Walt Disney World.
We’d be surprised if the grand opening of Pandora: World of Avatar and official re-launch of Animal Kingdom does not occur on Earth Day, April 22, 2017.
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Do you agree or disagree with my take on Pandora? Are you excited for it to open? Would you still rather have Beastly Kingdom? Share any questions or additional thoughts you have in the comments!