In late May, Disney’s Animal Kingdom unveiled the largest, and probably the most anticipated, addition in the park’s history: Pandora—The World of Avatar.
For those who didn’t see Avatar, director James Cameron’s groundbreaking film, when it was released in 2009, Pandora is the fictional exoplanet of the Na’vi, a humanoid, blue-hued tribe that lives in harmony with the environment. Pandora is lush, mysterious, full of intriguing and vicious wildlife, and so beautiful it borders on a religious experience.
Recreating such a complex and highly nuanced film set as an immersive land was the ultimate challenge for Walt Disney Imagineering. The Imagineers collaborated with Cameron himself to make the world authentic, not only from a visual standpoint but also an emotional one. The idea was to connect guests to nature through engagement with Pandora’s glowing flora and creatures great and small. This was done with subtle tricks like an audio track of animal vocalizations and mating calls, along with illumination that simulates the light changes of an alien landscape.
That connection is at its apex in Avatar Flight of Passage, a virtual reality, 3-D ride through Pandora’s oceans and forests on the back of a winged banshee. This isn’t virtual reality as you know it. The sensation of flight—wind blowing through your hair as you soar above the floating mountains or plunge into the water next to a whale—feels so real it takes your breath away. It’s like nothing Disney has done before.
The second ride is a bit more sedate. Na’vi River Journey takes guests into a bioluminescent rainforest, where the Shaman of Songs leads forest creatures in a musical ceremony. The land beyond the rides is equally stimulating, especially at night when the sidewalks and plants glow with the otherworldly luminescence of Pandora.
The only downside is the popularity of the place. Without a Fast Pass (or, better yet, a VIP Guide), the wait for the rides can be three hours or more. Still, it’s worth going now, before the winter crowds settle in. Besides, even the best resorts have staycation packages through October1. The Four Seasons Resort Orlando, for instance, offers special rates to Florida residents, making Orlando’s only five-diamond property all the more attractive.
The hotel’s proximity and easy transportation to Animal Kingdom, as well as its in-house Disney desk, make it easy
to explore Pandora, but families are equally excited about Explorer Island, a five-acre attraction with a lazy river, water slides, dive-in movies, and entertainment for all ages. For the big kids, the spa offers new treatments with the EmerginC line of vitamin C–infused products. It’s a well-deserved rejuvenation after a day spent in the parks.
Another reason to visit this month? Four Seasons’ family restaurant, Ravello, has special prix-fixe three-course menus as part of the citywide Magical Dining Month. Though there are many tempting choices, take our advice and don’t skip the meatballs.
Best of all, the Disney fireworks are visible from most balconies, so there’s no need to battle crowds. Now that’s magic.