Florida Travel

World of ‘Avatar’ comes to life at Disney World and it doesn’t look like any garden you’ve seen

Pandora is lushly landscaped with a combination of real and fictional plants.
Pandora is lushly landscaped with a combination of real and fictional plants. mlambert@miamiherald.com

If you’re a theme park ride junkie who doesn’t pause to check out your surroundings as you hurry to the next thrill, make an exception for Pandora: The World of Avatar, where the landscaping is part of the story.

You’ll want to know about the puffball tree, which absorbs chlorine from the air and sodium through its roots and creates salt that animals get from the leaves. The bladder polyp, which looks like a pale blue tooth, stores water and glows in the dark. And especially the flaska reclinata, a tree that helps remove toxins from the air and provides food for animals. There’s only one flaska reclinata left on Pandora.

They are all part of a great fiction, made up in the service of a story that was told first in the movie “Avatar” and now in a new land, Pandora: The World of Avatar, which opened Saturday at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. They are not just scenery on the two rides — a breathtaking flight on the back of a banshee and a placid river cruise — but for that whole section of the park.

bladder polyps
Bladder polyps sprout around the base of a tree in Pandora: The World of Avatar. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

Woven amid the bromeliads, ferns, agave and other real-life plants are others like the flaska reclinata that were created by the makers of the movie and Disney’s Imagineers, who worked together to create a tropical rainforest setting that was true to the movie.

“We were a part of it from the very beginning,” Jon Landau, producer of “Avatar,” said in an interview, describing a scenario that sounded very much like J.K. Rowling’s close involvement with Universal as it created the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “We made sure that what they were doing here was consistent with the world of Pandora.”

Some of the plants came straight from the movie and some were developed by Disney in partnership with the movie’s makers, said Matt Beiler, a Disney Imagineer and producer who was responsible for elements of the land, including the plants. The movie company “is ensuring that we stay in line with the movie” and its upcoming sequels, he said.

“What I think we really focused on was to make it feel natural and real, like a real jungle,” he said. Consequently, visitors don’t see only a perfect specimen of a mature plant; they see the full life cycle of each plant.

The same attention to the details of realism applies to the audio — visitors hear the sounds of frogs, insects and other creatures, and at night, the cries of nocturnal animals.

Pandora is a moon in the Alpha-Centauri solar system. The movie is set in 2154 when, having depleted minerals on Earth, the Resources Development Administration is mining unobtanium on Pandora. The atmosphere is toxic with high concentrations of carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and other gases. Humans must wear masks.

The theme park land is set in the Mo’ara Valley 100 years later, after the wars and the mining have ended, leaving Pandora environmentally devastated. Under a pact between Na’vi and Alpha Centauri Expeditions, a limited number of earthling tourists are able to visit the valley. The Na’vi and human inhabitants are trying to restore Pandora, and the plants play an important role.

Pandora bioluminescent
Some of Pandora’s bioluminescent plants grow along the banks on the Na’vi River Journey. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

The plants and some of the animals are bioluminescent — they glow in the dark, giving Avatar land an entirely different look that’s not evident in daylight. That’s one reason why Animal Kingdom, which used to close earlier than the other Disney World parks, developed other features as nighttime attractions.

See Pandora during the day and take in the scrupulously detailed landscaping. But be sure to return after dark, when the bioluminescence seems to make the plants come to life.