Thoughts on Pandora – Our Initial Review of Avatarland
I feel like I’m in the distinct minority as to James Cameron’s Avatar. I didn’t hate it, and I actually kind of enjoy watching it. Elyssa, on the other hand, thinks it’s terrible (mostly because she says that you never relate to any of the characters.) However, as for Disney’s take on the planet at the heart of Avatar, Pandora, I think Elyssa and I both agree that Disney knocked it out of the park. In other words, the Imagineers did Cameron’s concept justice.
The two major attractions in Pandora are Flight of Passage and the Na’vi River Journey. If you are walking into Pandora as you read this and are trying to decide if a 50 minute wait is worth it for Flight of Passage, the answer is yes. Go get in line and you can read the rest as you walk through the queue (you’ll probably want to pay attention to all the detail in the queue though.) For everyone else, below are some more in-depth thoughts.
At the outset, we’ll note that we’re aware of the reviews that focus on operational issues making it hard for people to ride the headliner attractions, etc. Among other things, there were issues with people being able to fit in the Flight of Passage ride vehicle were a concern. When we visited a few weeks after the official opening day, that particular operational issue seemed to have been smoothed out . And, from what we’ve heard, the day-to-day operations continue to improve.
As far as Flight of Passage goes, it’s already one of our favorite rides at Disney World. We rode it 5 times over a three-day weekend, and opted to wait about 50 minutes to get that last ride in. The various “Soarin’ on steriods” takes are actually a decent way to describe the experience. It’s a ride that makes you feel like you’re flying, but the ride vehicle and its restraints allow for some far more exhilarating moments than Soarin’ provides. I won’t spoil any of the ride itself (I’m sure you can find that if you want it), but I’ll say it’s definitely worth doing, and probably worth waiting for 70+ minutes if that’s the only way you’ll get to ride it.
Thankfully, if you are forced to endure a long wait, the queue for the ride moves you through a good variety of environments: the initial outdoor section gives you excellent views of Pandora; the indoor cave tells the history of the Na’vi in wall art; indoor bioluminescence abounds; there’s a laboratory that includes interesting experiments; and, of course, this guy hangs out in the queue:
Overall, Flight of Passage is a headliner attraction that everyone (who doesn’t mind a little bit of a thrill) should try. Frankly, I just don’t understand people who say they had no connection to the ride because they didn’t care much for Avatar going in. Even someone like Elyssa, who has no love lost for James Cameron’s film, thought the attraction was fantastic. (Quick note: I’d follow Disney advice and empty your pockets during the ride. I rode once with my wallet still in my shorts and feared the whole time it was going to fall.)
The Na’vi River Journey is the second attraction in Pandora, and, for better or worse, it is a relaxing BOATRIDE through a bioluminescent environment and it features a showcase of the most advanced animatronics that Disney has ever revealed. If you’re the type to nit-pick about the lack of a defined “story” for an attraction, here’s your chance. The ride is simply a pleasant journey through a cool forest that uses the whole gamut of theme park ride technologies to transport you to another word. As you might guess from that, I enjoyed it. I might not wait 60 minutes for it, but 20-30 is probably fair.
Here are a couple of pictures to give you a flavor for what you’ll see. On a moving boat in the dark, my camera was taxed to get a decent result. Consequently, these pictures might not do justice to how pretty the ride is:
There have been (garbage) articles that claim the pictures of Pandora do the land “too much justice.” Aside from how asinine that concept is, the idea that photographic wizards are somehow making this place look better in still capture form than it looks when you’re actually visiting is ridiculous. During both day and night (and, yes, it does really look quite different at night), the landscaping, plant life (both living and “imagineered”), and overall environment are fantastic. I would argue that these pictures don’t capture it enough:
At present, the newness of Pandora means it’s pretty much always crowded. These crowd levels can make it a little tougher to just “enjoy” your surroundings in the land. As time goes on, however, and crowds stabilize to “normal” levels, I can imagine night time strolls through Pandora are going to be a great way to end a day at Animal Kingdom. (I have a feeling that we’re going to end a lot of future nights at Disney World by having a drink at Nomad, strolling through Pandora, and then watching some Tree of Life Awakenings.)
While visiting Pandora, we, of course, had to try the food. We tried Satu’li Canteen’s custom bowls, the Cheeseburger pods, and the Chocolate Cake dessert. Personally, I think the bowls are going to be a nice change-of-pace option for me going forward. The chicken was quite good and all the ingredients seemed a step up from standard quick service options. The cheeseburger pods were also tasty (Yes, they taste like McDonald’s cheeseburgers), even if I wish the pod-to-meat ratio didn’t so heavily favor the pod. Elyssa gave a thumbs up to the Chocolate Cake, with a surprisingly crunch cookie layer, but it’s tough to get her to give any chocolate item a thumbs down. Personally, I might pass on getting it again, but if you’re in the mood for a bitter chocolate something, you could do worse. (Elyssa’s note: it wasn’t bitter – it was just not milk chocolate)
As you would probably expect from something new at Disney World, people want to experience Pandora. That means, the usual advice applies: get there early, stay really late, and/or try to get Fastpass+ reservations for the primary attractions (NOTE: You can only get 1 of the Pandora attractions for your initial 3 selections. I’d try to get Flight of Passage because of its higher demand and wait times.) Josh over at easyWDW has outlined a number of strategies concerning timing, including arriving about an hour and fifteen minutes before the park open (on non-EMH days.) If you’re planning to visit, I suggest reviewing Josh’s posts in-depth.
Elyssa and I had a great bit of success taking advantage of the morning extra magic hour (7:00am opening on a Saturday when the park opens at 8:00am.) We arrived about 6:10am via our own car, which got us there before any of the resort buses. (I’d recommend driving yourself or getting an Uber instead of using a resort bus. Being ahead of that crowd can be a huge help.) That put us about 2 parties back at the tapstiles. They let us into the park about 6:40am, where they scanned our Magic Bands again to make sure that we were entitled to EMH access, and then held us at the Tree of Life until about 6:50am. At that point, they began walking us to Pandora and, for almost everyone, Flight of Passage. We briskly walked through the Flight of Passage queue and were part of what felt like the first group to ride for the day. We then headed over to Na’vi River Journey and, essentially, walked onto that. We then exited Pandora, and had time to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris twice before our 9:20 Tusker House ADR. It was a fantastic morning.
We also tried the evening extra magic hours, but had a little less success with them. It seemed like most people went to the earlier showing of Rivers of Light and then headed over to Pandora after that. This mean waits of 90+ minutes for Flight of Passage right when EMH started (though, the end of FP+ return could make that go quicker.) If we were willing to stick around until later in the night, we might be able to get a lower wait. We actually found, however, that riding around 9 (while people were occupied with Rivers of Light) actually worked out better for us, but, based on Josh’s wait time chart, that might have just been an anomaly in the standard wait pattern.
In summary, your best bet is probably to get there early and then also try to get a FP+ for Flights of Passage. Not shocking advice, I know, but, it bears repeating.
As far as the swatting of Potter goes, I’ve been to Diagon Alley, and I prefer Pandora. I think Len Testa best summed it up when he talked about how he prefers nature to a cityscape and Pandora is actually “better nature than actual nature” as far as immersion goes. Also, much like Elyssa has no connection to Avatar, I have no connection to Harry Potter. I’ve seen the movies a couple of times, never read the books, and, for better or worse, am kind of shrug emoji about all of it. Elyssa, on the other hand, is a huge Harry Potter fan, but still had a hard time deciding which immersive land she liked better. In the end, her connection to the word of Harry Potter wins out, but for something to have even been that close shows just how great Joe Rohde and his team did. (Elyssa note: no, but seriously, I frakking LOVE Harry Potter and walking into Diagon and Hogsmeade makes me cry, so this is a big deal.)
Regardless of which land you think is “better”, Diagon Alley, and now, Pandora, seem to be the pinnacle of this generation of theme park design and execution. Pandora is an immersive environment that rewards repeat visits with its intricate detail, quality food offerings, and enjoyable attractions. Until Star Wars Land opens with its new concept of “memory”(i.e., it knowing your history within the land), Pandora is pretty much the best of what theme parks have to offer.