We are astride our banshees, the sky inky black but for a few twinkling stars. We can feel our banshees breathing, their lungs slowly expanding and contracting between our legs.
Daylight comes up abruptly, a Na’vi on a banshee motions to us, and we are off on a wild chase through Pandora. Our first maneuver is a dive straight down, and for a moment it looks and feels gloriously like we are on a very smooth roller coaster.
We are riding Avatar Flight of Passage, the centerpiece ride at Pandora: The World of Avatar, which opened last month at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The advance word was that it would be much like Soarin’, the flying theater attraction at Epcot. Indeed, both start with the same basic technology: vertical tiers of seats in front of a curved screen where breathtaking scenery appears in three dimensions.
On Soarin’, we feel like observers, hang gliding over mountains and monuments. On Flight of Passage, we are immersed in the action. The motorbike-like seats that stand in for banshees breathe beneath us, and while they stay in one place — they don’t move forward on a track — they swing and pivot and tilt so we feel we actually are diving off a cliff or swooping through the high canopy of trees. We lean into the turns, fight the crosswinds, feel the ocean spray on our faces and the wind rushing past us.
Flight of Passage is not the only “Avatar”-based addition to Animal Kingdom. Pandora is a whole new land with a boat ride through a bioluminescent forest, floating mountains, a forest of unearthly plants, a restaurant, drink stand and the Windtraders store, where guests can “bond” with a miniature banshee or buy an avatar that looks like them (sort of) — all inspired by the movie and its written but yet-to-be-filmed sequels.
Pandora is a moon in the Alpha Centauri solar system, 4.3 light-years from Earth. The movie was set in 2154 when, having depleted minerals on Earth, the Resources Development Administration is mining unobtanium on Pandora and battling the native Na’vi. The theme park’s World of Avatar is set 100 years later, after the wars and the mining have ended.
Like all of the World of Avatar, Flight of Passage was designed in great and creative detail by Disney Imagineers working with Lightstorm Entertainment, the James Cameron company that made the movie. It begins with a very long queue through waterfalls and wild flora, into painted caves, past an old Resources Development Administration lab that has been partly restored and a 10-foot-tall blue-skinned avatar that floats in a tank.
Guests go through two video pre-shows: one with a scientist who lines us up to be scanned and matched with an avatar and one with a scientist who is doing research on the endangered banshee and explains the sacred Na’vi ritual of riding what they call Ikran.
We each take a seat on the back of our “banshee,” scoot up, then wait for safety restraints to lock us in from behind as we don our 3D goggles. There’s a small video screen where the controls of an exercise bike might be, and while we watch our faces morph into those of our avatars, the wall in front of us slides up like a garage door (but utterly soundlessly) and Pandora is before us.
For a little more than four minutes, we are on a thrilling ride — flying past an enormous whale breaching, through the curl of a giant wave, over a thundering herd of large beasts, and into a glowing bioluminescent forest where we pause before soaring again. When the banshee perches briefly on a branch, I can hear it breathing heavily.
Jon Landau, producer of “Avatar,” worked closely with Disney in the creation of the land and its rides, watching that every detail was consistent with the story line that began with the 2009 movie and continues through four sequels scheduled for release in 2020 through 2025. He has ridden the banshees “a couple hundred times,” he says in an interview, from the very early stages to the completed ride, and turned in notes, as if this were a movie, proposing changes.
“We were a part of it from the very beginning,” Landau said, 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.”
If you’re wondering how a flight over an ocean is consistent with a movie that didn’t show an ocean, Cameron has been saying for years that “Avatar 2” will be about the ocean.
The second ride is a tame boat ride through a bioluminescent forest, where projections of animals creep along the river bank and jewel-toned flowers glow. It’s a passive ride, like It’s a Small World without the earbug song. The highlight is the audio animatronic Na’vi Shaman of Song, whose singing is accompanied by fluid, graceful motions that make it hard to believe it uses the same technology as the stiff, jerky creatures Disney introduced more than 50 years ago.
The World of Avatar is filled with plants from Pandora, woven amid the bromeliads, ferns, agave and other real-life plants. As is usual with Disney creations, each plant, each detail, has its own backstory. The puffball tree 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. The flaska reclinata is a tree that helps remove toxins from the air and provides food for animals.
There’s only one flaska reclinata left on Pandora, but it sends out spores to perpetuate the species. “It really represents a lot of our story of restoration,” said Matt Beiler, a Disney Imagineer and producer who was responsible for elements of the land, including the plants.
Some of the plants came straight from the movie, and some were developed for Animal Kingdom’s new land. “What I think we really focused on was to make it feel natural and real, like a real jungle,” Beiler 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.
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.
One of them was Rivers of Light, an after-dark show on the Discovery River that debuted in February. The show has lanterns and lasers, giant floating lotuses that sprout fountains, shamans and animal spirit forms, scenes projected onto water screens, all choreographed to an original musical score.
In the Magic Kingdom, “Happily Ever After” — a fireworks show with lights, lasers and projection mapping on Cinderella Castle — replaced “Wishes” in May. Show times vary with park hours, but it runs nightly, usually at 9 p.m.
At Hollywood Studios, the new “The Music of Pixar Live! A Symphony of Characters” is presented three times a night at Theater of the Stars through Aug. 27. A live orchestra plays music from Pixar Animation Studios films, with appearances by Disney-Pixar characters.
Typhoon Lagoon has a new whitewater raft ride, Miss Adventure Falls. The attraction tells the story of Captain Mary Oceaneer, a treasure hunter whose ship was marooned by a rogue storm.
The “Frozen” Summer Games, with ice-pail relays, a snowball toss and other competitions, have returned to Blizzard Beach through Aug. 13. Kristoff and Olaf are available for meet-and-greets.
Copper Creek Villas & Cabins, a Disney Vacation Club development at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, is scheduled to open July 17. The new lodgings were inspired by the mining and railroad history of the Pacific Northwest. They will include 184 vacation homes, including studios, villas with one to three bedrooms and two-bedroom waterfront cabins.
At Coronado Springs Resort, a new tower is being built that will add 500 rooms plus a rooftop dining experience.