Pandora defies gravity and expectations at Animal Kingdom

A  virtual banshee soars above the floating mountains of Pandora. Disney photographers around the land were available to capture memories and add small bits of magic, like the Banshee pictured.

A virtual banshee soars above the floating mountains of Pandora. Disney photographers around the land were available to capture memories and add small bits of magic, like the Banshee pictured.

Katarina Harrison, Staff Reporter

Usually people climb over mountains, not walk under them, but not in the new themed land in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. In this new land based on the 2009 movie Avatar, guests will have a chance to walk under the floating mountains of the fictional planet Pandora, just the beginning of the immersive atmosphere that permeates the new land.

The area is smaller than many of Disney’s other themed lands, but no less majestic. Glancing in any direction provides a view of at least one example of architecture or culture unique to the planet, and unique fictional plants are scattered among real foliage, giving the illusion of truly stepping onto another planet. Small details and nods to the movie are sprinkled throughout the area as well, pulling fans of the film even further into the environment.

Those little details can also be a problem. For people who have never seen the movie, they can be confusing or jarring, breaking the illusion and lessening the impact of what is a truly unforgettable environment. Most of the area is easy to understand through the information and scenery of the surroundings, but there are bits and pieces that require at least a basic knowledge of the movie to make sense. Fans of Avatar may hop in line to get a photo next to the rusting war machine displayed outside of the Wind Traders gift shop, but for someone unaware of the movie, it would seem out of place in the mostly natural environment. Disney does try to minimize the confusion with plenty of signs, explanations and materials to explain the basics, but the amount of detail in the land makes it impossible for them to explain everything.

One area where Disney explains their ideas well is inside of the ride Flight of Passage, one of the land’s two feature attractions. Before guests are loaded onto the ride, they go through two special waiting rooms, one of which gives a thorough explanation of the information necessary to understand the ride. While it doesn’t explain the entire land, it gives the rider enough information for the ride to make sense, which is all it really needs to do. A few seconds into the ride, the guest will be so in awe that they’ll forget whether they understand the story. The ride itself is a simulator that takes guests soaring through the landscape of Pandora. Guests who were impressed with physical land will be even more impressed by the virtual features. Not only do the bright colors and breathtaking landscapes of Pandora make the rider truly appreciate the beauty of the fictional planet, but the next level simulator technology and unique seat restraints make it feel like you’re really a part of the ride.

Significantly less impressive is Pandora’s second signature ride, Na’vi River Journey. Although it is a beautiful ride that gives guests a chance to appreciate the planet in its nighttime beauty regardless of the time of day, the ride is rather short and has very few things to set it apart from similar rides. The glowing plants are nice, and are awe inspiring at first, but by the end of the ride, it all blurs together. Riding once is definitely recommended, if for nothing but the impressive animatronic at the end of the ride, but it will quickly lose its entertainment, especially for anyone who goes to Disney often.

For dining, Pandora has two restaurants, both of which take great pains to match the theme of the land. Although the options at Pongu Pongu, a small stand offering beverages and small snacks, are limited, they are also are unique. The other restaurant, Sauli Canteen, features Disney’s first opportunity to mobile order. Although this feature was not available during previews of the land, those who visit when it opens will be able to order on their phone and pick it up from a special line within the restaurant, skipping the usual  line. This feature could be especially useful for this restaurant, seeing as one of their options is to build your own bowl, which could slow the process of ordering and preparing food for those who do not order ahead.

The food itself is pricey like most disney foods, but it does help complete the immersion. Every dish has at least something about it to seem unique for alien and to set it apart. At Sauli Canteen, guests can order a unique take on a cheeseburger that combines the ingredients into a ‘pod’. The flavors are mostly the same as a normal cheeseburger, but the presentation reinforces the idea that Pandora is another planet. Even the side of vegetable chips that came with the order was accented by small, white, edible orbs. The signature food item at Pongu Pongu was sweet rather than savory, and combines pineapple and cream cheese in a small roll. Of the food options at Pandora, this was the most underwhelming. Although it tasted great, there was little to set it apart from food elsewhere in the park, and it was less themes than most of the other dishes.

Both restaurants feature a signature nonalcoholic drink, available in a souvenir cup for an extra charge. The drinks and cups are different in the two different restaurants, and the one at Pongu Pongu is far better on both accounts. The drink at Pongu Pongu is colorfully layered drink of frozen flavors that is unique both to look at and to taste. The flavors accent each other perfectly, and just looking at the drink is enough to make someone smile. In addition to the bright colors, the drink features small orbs similar to those served with the vegetable chips, but with a passion fruit flavor this time to make the drink both look and taste a bit more exotic. The souvenir cup is clear, with intricate designs etched into the plastic and comes with a small light up ‘pod’ that makes the drink glow. At night, while the rest of the world is lighting up, the drinker will feel right at home,and the clear cup displays the colors and layers while still being unique. The drink at Sauli canteen fails completely to live up to expectations, and pales in comparison to its Pongu Pongu counterpart. It claims to feature multiple flavors,but they are mixed in a way that makes it impossible to tell. The drink itself is a dull green, and tastes like several flavors of Gatorade were mixed and called a specialty drink. The cup served with it is no more impressive. A dull brown, its only unique feature is a small flute that can be detached from the cup and played. Unless someone you know is a fan of cheap plastic instruments, both the cup and the drink are a waste of money.

Just like most Disney areas, Pandora is chock full of souvenirs to take home. However, unlike most disney stores, the gift shops do not feature mickey mouse dolls or princess toys. The gift shops are full of Avatar themed merchandise rather than Disney themed merchandise, a refreshing break from seeing the same plush toys and themed lollipops throughout all areas of the park. There is a huge variety of souvenirs available, but only two really stand out: the shoulder banshee and the personalized Avatar.

The shoulder banshee is a toy based on the mythical creature on Pandora known as the banshee, and is able to perch on the shoulder of its owner. Connected to the Banshee is a black cord that wraps behind the wearer and connects to a small controller that allows the wearer to move the Banshee’s head, open its mouth, and ruffle its wings. The toy is expensive, but it is a lot of fun, and the experiences it creates are even more so. Before purchasing a shoulder Banshee, guests are taken into a small area to pick out a banshee and bond with it. Although the entire thing is really just a lesson on how to control the toy, the cast members spend so much time and effort making a big deal about it that I was actually upset when the toy I picked out was defective and the cast member said that my bond was unsuccessful. At the end of the instruction, a cast member leads the guest through a special vow to care for the banshee and the environment, and the guest proceeds to checkout to pay for the toy. For the rest of the day, the proud owner of the Banshee will receive envious and amazed looks from guests and special greetings from any cast member in Pandora. The toy costs $50, but is probably the best souvenir in the area.

The only other souvenir that stands out is the personalized avatar, which comes with an even higher price tag. For more than $70, guests can have their picture taken and their DNA mixed with that of a Na’vi, the native inhabitants of the land of Pandora. The result is a toy about the size of a barbie doll that looks like a Na’vi version of the owner. The hairstyle is up to the guest, along with a few other details that could not be extracted from the picture, and the guest winds up with a personalized action figure that can be dressed up and posed. This is a great idea, especially considering the premise of Avatars in the movie, but the price tag is really too high to justify for such a small toy unless it is something the guest is really passionate about.

Pandora in general is very well put together, and will provide a great experience for guests, especially those who know and love the movie it’s based on. As soon as the area is open, guests will be flocking in, and what they will find inside will be nothing like what they had expected. Pandora: Land of Avatar is a truly unique experience, and although it has it’s ups and downs, it truly captures the Disney spirit.